Vendor Care is Often Overlooked in Service Businesses (And It’s a Shame)

by Richard Laermer

Time for a frank discussion that doesn’t happen enough: There are a few instances when you need to say goodbye to a client, no matter how much you like or admire them. We all love working with great leaders and companies—especially when coupled with wads of funding—but money and a winning value proposition isn’t everything. In rare cases where certain lines and boundaries are crossed, you must have the self-respect (and respect for your team) to pack it in and move on.

Often, but not always, you see the warning signs relatively early on that you might be up against one of these cases—chronic late payment, “scope creep”, constant nagging—but it usually has to do with abusive treatment. I believe in the good care and feeding of vendors … since I’ve been one for 30 years. Everyone says the provider must be oh so terrific to clients. And sure, that’s true! But this is a real relationship, not a one-way street (or conversation). Conditions between these two fragile units need to be free of BS and everyone must remain respectful. Does it take work on both sides? Of course.

Usually, client companies don’t realize how someone’s patently awful behavior affects a vendor team’s well being. When incessant nastiness occurs, you can tell that it’s going to be impossible to return to “the good place”. The work that must be done is to take a step back and remember never to let daily pressures escalate, boiling over into eruptions that scorch the earth permanently. A serious contemplative beat must be taken on both sides, sometimes multiple times a week—or in stressful times of heavy interaction, daily.

Sometimes companies wisen up—but it’s usually too late. It’s kind of a sad fact of business life. A well-meaning (often quick-moving, albeit naive) client makes a new hire who is not the right fit for its culture, and this individual begins immediately interfacing with a long-term vendor where there’s already a solid relationship in place, replete with well-oiled protocols and processes that have been working swimmingly for some time. The new hire, however—determined to make an impression, prove value, reinvent the wheel, etc.—pushes their way into this equation, fiercely changing key aspects of the flow that were never broken.

I’m trying to say, without being coy, that a new person may ostensibly start criticizing every aspect of the vendor’s work and undo months or years of positive outcomes and smooth sailing. No matter what, it’s never good enough. It may well be a justification of that person’s presence on Company X’s payroll.

It is suddenly a showdown—and it’s obvious who will win. After all, the squeaky wheel is the one closest to the C-Suite, and that isn’t the vendor squeaking. (Unless you happen to be embedded in their offices. In which case—yikes!) So, who’s the one whispering in the check writer’s ear? Who’s the person finding things to pick apart vividly, and who is doing so in the most vocal way plausible?

Things can fall apart quickly once you’ve reached this juncture.

Believe it or not, this is a difficult time to run a service biz, even with—and especially because of—our current economic good fortune. We have unforeseen problems: Our people get bruised a little easier. Employees in this era of prosperity simply will not cotton to bad behavior from clients. Everyone’s back is a little up!

Meanwhile, there’s a sense of impending, well, not necessarily doom, but nobody trusts that the riches will continue. While at the same time clients are more demanding—no kidding; they are paying more.

The fine treatment of one’s service providers is paramount in any economic climate but is even more crucial in these Days of Good. When you imagine nothing bad could possibly happen, it’s particularly shocking when the shit starts flying. It becomes simple to envision a better way: get rid of the people who are mistreating you!

It’s during those moments that tough decisions are made (and stuck with), even ones that are sudden and emotional. But it’s cool to burn a bridge every now and then. You move forward and get on with it. After all, vendors must remember: Stick up for yourself and your team. It wasn’t you who initially burned this bridge, in the first place. You simply had the guts to make an important call and leave with your dignity—and your team’s faith in your judgment—intact.

The adage “We accept the love we feel we deserve” has possibly never been truer than it is when considering the vendor/client dynamic. Vendors: stand up for your right to be valued, appreciated, respected and never abused; it is another best practice to advance your organization’s brand, bottom line and corporate reputation within your industry.

Remember, folks, you need to know when to walk away—and when to run. One day, on that quiet afternoon, when there’s only one thing missing (it’s those 37 passive-aggressive voicemails from Company X), you’ll look back fondly. You will think “I can’t imagine working with those folks for one single day”. And you’ll reflect on joy and gratitude you feel when you think about Company Z, the one you didn’t have space for before you cut the cancer out.

  • Your staff must be grateful to you because not all agencies—or employers—share your point of view.

    I was the ham in the sandwich–the AE abused by a petty client who paid almost nothing–and the agency owner would not resign the account. On the other hand, I worked for an agency in which the client demanded that a colleague be removed from working on one of many divisions we represented. The president resigned that division and the man—a superb editor, writer and beloved team member–continued to work at the agency until he retired. The staff would walk the plank for that president.

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