Monday, June 29, 2009

How to Treat Your Network Providers (A Guide for Vendors)

(Way back in 2004, I ambitiously started a blog called Telecommedy with the intention of writing on it every day. I stopped writing there in 2005. C'est la guerre. In the interest of posterity and hubris, I am slowly moving those posts over here so that all of this inanity can be concentrated in a single forum and not pollute the internets any more than necessary.)

Due to the overwhelming response of our last publication (How to Treat Your Vendors), we here at Telecommedy are proud to present a follow-up from the other side of the equation. You, Mr. Vendor, have obligations to your Network Provider as well. And we're not just talking free golf and lunches here, we're talking the basics. The kinds of things that should be obvious, but increasingly are not - at least based on the complaints that we hear from our Network Provider colleagues. So, sit back in your overstuffed chair, pull up a nice Chianti, and browse through our helpfully provided and somewhat random set of rules.

Rule #1: Don't Overwhelm

This is the first rule, because it is the most often broken rule. Don't show up at a meeting with more than two of you for every one of them. In fact, a one-to-one ratio is usually too high. Seriously consider how much value every person that you're bringing will add to the discussion. Do you really need the sales director, sales VP, and SVP of marketing and sales to all show up at the same meeting?

One Network Provider contact of ours has come up with a creative way of dealing with a certain rather large vendor that is well known in the industry for bringing crowds to every meeting. For every meeting with this particular vendor, they book the smallest conference room in the building - the one with about 5 chairs - and they invite three of their colleagues. If the vendor shows up with a crowd, most of them are forced to stand outside of the room and peek in through the door. One meeting where a VP of anything is forced to stand outside and make small talk with the administrative assistant for an hour, and you can guarantee that VP won't attend the next meeting.

Less is more. Especially if Les knows all that there is to know about your product.

Rule #2: Use your executives wisely

Meetings with vendors, except in rare cases, are not photo ops. They are business meetings that take time away from your customers' busy schedules. Don't just bring an executive to set up some future relationship unless that executive can answer questions on the spot. Save your executives for the meetings that matter - signing the contract, meeting with the Network Provider executive of the same level, fixing some major screwup perpetrated by lower level executives - things like that. Remember, if your executive screws up even inadvertently in front of a customer, there is no one higher up for the Network Provider to appeal to. No one to call the Network Provider with word that the lower level miscreant has been chastised and assigned to a Siberian mining camp. If an executive screws up, the Network Provider will likely see that as an indictment of the entire company, so use them sparingly.

Also, if you show up with an executive, the Network Provider might just expect that executive to make real decisions. If the CTO or VP of Engineering can't answer a technical question or give a solid schedule when asked, the entire company loses credibility. Think about that before putting your executive in front of the Network Provider.

In the most heinous example that we have been party to, a vendor showed up with a cast of thousands, including the head of development and the head of manufacturing as well as the head of US operations. The Network Provider countered with the C-something-O and a couple of really smart SVP types. The Network Provider had been having trouble with the vendor's widgets not doing what they were supposed to - something about losing customer data on occasion and without warning, a problem that customers typically do not put up with for very long until they switch to another Network Provider. The C-something-O asked for a cause of the problem and a date for a fix. The vendor cabal was unable to answer anything more than "We'll look into it." The C-something-O asked again, several times, with increasing volume. The answer never changed. The meeting ended with the C-something-O telling his lieutenants to pull all of the vendor's equipment from the network and look for an alternative, then storming out of the room never to re-enter. Meetings between lions and Christians in ancient Rome ended better.

Rule #3: Don't lie

Why, oh why do we have to state this. OK, they expect you to embellish a bit - maybe shave something off of the release date or pick the most optimal numbers. But the closer you get to the truth, the better the feedback from your Network Provider.

In one case that we were involved in, development on the widget that the vendor was proposing was scheduled to be discontinued in favor of a new, improved widget with shinier bells and sharper whistles. The official announcement was scheduled for the week after a meeting with a mammoth Network Provider, responsible for nearly all of the vendor's widget sales. At the meeting, the VP in charge decided not to inform the Network Provider about the change. One week later, the Network Provider called the VP, his SVP, and the CEO of the vendor company with a series of escalatingly profane missives expressing his opinion of the now public widget modification plan. The relationship never truly recovered, and those widgets are no longer deployed by the Network Provider.

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth shall set you free. Or something like that. We read it in a fortune cookie and have forgotten the details.

Rule #4: Be flexible

So you're only on slide 2 and they're already asking about slide 25. Go with the flow. If you can push off the questions until later, do it. If the Network Provider insists, answer the question. Do not be a slave to the Power Point slide.

Perhaps the person asking the question has to leave early or had one too many coffees this morning before the meeting. Or maybe he's just a jerk who has to be the smartest geek in the room. It doesn't matter. Being able to roll with the punches impresses the Network Providers and makes for a much better outcome in the end.

Rule #5: Learn the phrase "I don't know"

It brings a tear to our collective eye to think of the Vendor-Network Provider relationships that we have personally seen destroyed by failure to comply with this simple rule. If you don't know the answer, don't make something up. Say you don't know and move on. If you lose credibility in one area, you lose it in every area. So the Network Provider wants to know how much your widgets weigh when wet? If you don't know, say so. Don't worry about being seen as an idiot - most Network Provider types like to be smarter than their vendors occasionally. It strokes their egos and - even better - sets you up to come back to another meeting and present the results of your investigation. Win-win all around.

Of course, don't take this one too far. If you don't know anything at all about the product you're presenting, you will indeed look like an idiot and that follow-up meeting may get scheduled for sometime between winter in hell and the next time the Atlanta Braves win the World Series (hint: never).

Rule #6: Be concise, but thorough

Practice your presentation before the meeting. Is it taking just a bit too long? Shave it off now, before you get in front of your Network Provider. Spending ten minutes on your company background when talking to an operations gnome who couldn't care less and just wants to know if you'll solve his deployment problem? Not a recommended strategy, as gnomes get bored easily and develop long-term grudges.

I know it's your baby and you love talking about it, but leave something for the next meeting or for the detailed discussions that come at contract negotiations. A happy gnome is more likely to lead you to his pot of gold. Or something like that - whatever gnomes hide in their gnome holes.

Rule #7: Be consistent

One Network Provider representative that meets tens of new vendors every year is known to keep a separate notebook for each vendor. That way, during a meeting he can point out specific discrepancies from previous statements made by the vendor. It makes for an uncomfortable meeting. So try to be consistent.

Check what you said last time. Compare it to reality. If something has changed - and it usually has - point that out up front. Don't let the Network Provider discover it and bring it to your attention. That's a sure way to get smacked, publicly and soundly.

In the most amusing case that we have been involved with, a startup company visited a friendly Network Provider early in the concept stage and presented their plan for a $25 widget (most widets cost nearly $100, as I'm sure you are aware). Two years later, when the widgets were finally ready for production, the cost of the widget had proven to be a bit higher - on the order of $75 each. Still not a bad cost savings, but the Network Provider pulled out a copy of the original presentation and demanded an explanation of the discrepancy. The real reason was that the original presentation had been built from calculations off of the back of a cocktail napkin. I don't believe that was the excuse given, however. Instead, something was mumbled on the lines of additional features and rising cost of widget components or some such. Very uncomfortable and quite amusing for those not directly involved.

And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make

Seven simple rules to developing a happy and healthy relationship with your Network Provider. Truly, they will appreciate the effort that you put forth in complying to these requests.

And the occasional complimentary bottle of wine and golf outing won't hurt, either.

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