6 steps to engage and manage a vendor who isn’t meeting your standards

How are you getting along with your vendors? If you're having problems with one, engage and try to channel some of the friction with these six actions.

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During the sales process, every vendor sounds great. They have case studies, they have great-looking material, they talk like experts and everything is good. But nothing is as simple as it looks in the beginning.

There are always additional challenges. The true test of a service provider, or any vendor, is how they respond to those changes and challenges. Do they put you, the customer, first or do they get slow and unresponsive? If you have a vendor who isn’t meeting your needs, but you’re locked into a contract that makes it cost-prohibitive to leave, these steps will help you reduce some of the friction in the relationship, while providing a better outcome for your company.

Make sure the current vendor feels your pain

You might be tempted to dismiss a recommendation that a vendor “feel your pain” as psychobabble. Yet it is critically important. Like a medical doctor with poor bedside manner, a vendor can be distant and too clinically objective. But your IT challenges are unique and could be life-or-death business matters. A bad vendor can also be guilty of malpractice, failing to recognize symptoms and take appropriate actions.

Signs that your relationship with a vendor or service provider is not going well are usually evident. Your remote hands requests have been repeatedly botched; the data center has had multiple outages within a short period of time; network connectivity is unreliable and falling short of expectations. If you see these or other telltale signs and/or have the gut feeling that your vendor’s team lacks appropriate empathy, try reeling them back with six specific demands.

1. Weekly meetings to review projects and improvements

If the vendor hands you a prescription and asks you to make an appointment to reconnect in six weeks, you know you have a problem. Take control and schedule the reviews yourself. The vendor works for you, remember? (Even if they are a global IT giant.) And expect things to improve. Dysfunctional IT should not be the normal state of affairs. If the vendor responds with better service, the weekly meetings could be paired down to monthly.

2. Reports on outage and performance trends

The adage bears repeating: If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. Assuming you’re tracking the right metrics on outages and performance, study the trends and go over them with a fine-tooth comb while the vendor is within earshot, either in your office or on the phone.

3. Root cause analysis (RCA) when incidents happen

Ideally, you have worked this into your service level agreement (SLA). Regardless of how your legal team words it, convey the message that you need a RCA, including a plan of action within “x” number of hours after an event, to eliminate any possibility of a repeated event. Ask the vendor to justify their course of action. Be wary of them simply going through the motions of telling you what you want to hear.

4. Hourly communications during an outage

Even if the update is “we have no update,” regular engagement is paramount. And it should be live. A text or email is insufficient. Voice communication conveys more information and is less likely to be misunderstood. When you’re experiencing an outage, require them to setup a phone bridge and join at the top of each hour.

5. Review of all configurations after each outage

Configuration errors are a common source of outages, especially when technicians are engaged in appliance-by-appliance setups. This point may be revealed in the RCA. But post-outage, your service (enterprise WAN, private cloud, etc.) could revert to default. Have your vendor confirm the correct settings.

6. Escalation to leadership team, when necessary

Digital infrastructure is business critical. When impacted, for instance by a SEV 1 event, an enterprise may go on red-alert. As an enterprise CIO, CTO or IT director, you must level with your CEO and be prepared to incur his or her wrath. This is precisely the kind of pain you want your vendor to feel. At some point, to avoid having to write lengthy responses, answer the same questions over and again, and feel the heat of their own leadership, your vendor will want to make sure everything they do for you is beyond reproach.

Additional considerations

These steps are corrective by nature, but don’t neglect others that are by definition more proactive. You will want network and infrastructure providers, for instance, to do a failover test on each site before turning it on for production to make sure that it is set up for high availability (HA). Also, the appropriate vendors should conduct annual disaster recovery (DR) tests to make sure that failover continues to work properly. Even if you must pay extra for these services, it is well worth it to know that you are covered in an emergency.

What’s common to these efforts is active engagement. In health care, they call it being your own best advocate. As an enterprise customer, if you think your IT vendor needs to realign with your own interests, ask for weekly meetings, reports on outage and performance trends, and real problem-solving with action plans. During an outage, demand top-of-the hour updates and configuration reviews after the event. And don’t hesitate to escalate with the vendor’s leadership team. Your job – and company’s success – may depend upon it.

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