Marrying into the family: why new vendor partners must fit in

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Signing a contract with a technology vendor is a lot like saying, “I do.” You’re entering into a partnership for the long haul, for better or worse. (Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.) The marriage metaphor holds true in a number of ways:

  • It’s a mutual commitment.
  • Trust is key.
  • You learn to pick your battles.
  • And, you don’t just marry the person, you marry the family.

When you sign that contract, you’re inviting someone to enter into your technology ecosphere of systems. How well the new vendor and their technology blends in to become ‘part of the whole’ will make a huge difference in your extended technology family’s level of happiness and success. Your technology vendors don’t have to be best buddies, but they do have to get along, both professionally and technically.

You can do a lot to bridge systems, but it’s good to know before you ‘wed’ whether the vendor and their system have a history of getting along well with others. Do they have a track record of successful integrations with a variety of other platforms, including your key platforms? Do their client references describe a happy marriage or a strained relationship?

Signs of a good partner

During a courtship, a potential partner is usually on their best behavior. How do you find out what they’ll really be like once you put a ring on it?

  • Are they and their company open and transparent in their dealings with you and others?
  • Are they dependable? Do they keep their word?
  • Do they act like they care?
  • Are they responsive?

Lack of responsiveness is a huge red flag. If they’re not responsive while you’re dating, imagine what they’ll be like when you’re married!

It also pays to remember that you’re not marrying just the salesperson—you know, the charming one who’s become one of your best office buds. You’re partnering with the implementation team and the support team, too. The behavior, good or bad, of any one of them speaks volumes about the family in which they were raised—that is, it reflects their corporate culture.

Reference checks

You know you’re going to hear good things from a vendor’s own reference—naturally, they’re not going to suggest you talk to anyone with a serious gripe. When you call the references provided by the vendor, ask questions like:

  • Did they stick to the project schedule?
  • Did they stay on budget?
  • What worked and what didn’t?
  • What did you like most and least about working with them?
  • How did they work with other vendors, for example, with integrations?
  • All things considered, would you do it again? If so, what would you do differently?

When asking questions, consider the role of the reference. For example, to get the skinny on integrations, you might have to talk to someone in the IT department, not the vendor’s reference in the membership department. Don’t talk only to the person who signed the check or contract; they might not have the intimate details you seek.

Best buddies are going to say he’s a great guy, but what would the ex-girlfriend say? Vendors provide references they can count on. If you want the full picture, you’re going to have to find some informal references.

That’s why it pays to talk to other association contacts and to your existing technology partners. What type of experiences have they had working with the prospective vendor? How do they get along with that vendor? Would they bring the vendor home to mom? You can find out what you need to know by asking association peers on open forums (for example, ASAE’s Collaborate) as well as tapping into your professional network.

Communication: the foundation of a good relationship

If you want to ensure that everyone (and every system) plays together nicely, I recommend hosting a technology vendor summit at least once a year. Use this opportunity to share your organization’s goals and challenges with your technology partners. This meeting can help introduce ‘the newest member of the family’ and articulate and reinforce everyone’s expectations, roles, and responsibilities.

Even the best marriages need help sometimes. If you need counseling—or even some group therapy—tapping a consultant could be just what the doctor ordered. An unbiased outsider could provide the input you need to save your marriage and live happily ever after. Just be sure to seek help before it’s too late, before the relationship’s gone sour.