Monday, June 15, 2009

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

(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 intenets any more than necessary.)

First of all, welcome back. All of us in telecomm hope that you spent your holidays calling relatives (long distance), emailing lots of photos, and generally using up a lot of bandwidth. We appreciate it very much. You've allowed us to remain employed for a few more months, and for that we are eternally grateful - or at least a few more months grateful. And now, on to this month's much-anticipated topic ....

Vendors are People ... Usually

Every network provider has to put up with the necessary (and occasionally entertaining) scourge of vendor meetings. Vendors want to talk to you all of the time about nearly any topic and won't stop calling until you give them something - anything - to report as progress to their upper management. But it is important to remember that vendors are people too. Slightly more neurotic and desperate people with limited conversational capabilities in many cases, but still people.

Therefore, for anyone new to the business or anyone who just doesn't have a clue, this handy guide is provided to help you treat your vendors with the dignity that they deserve. Or at least to avoid making them angry enough to put hidden programs into your equipment that divert your holiday bonus to the "close relative of a Nigerian general in charge of oil revenues under the last dictator." After all, vendors have the same goal as you - to make money by providing the best possible service to your end customers. Really. Stop laughing. There's milk coming out of your nose, now stop it.

The following rules are in no particular order, unless you consider the random order that thoughts enter the brain to be a "particular" order.

Rule 1: Show some respect

The vendor that you are meeting with is typically a hard-working telecomm geek similar in genetic makeup to you, and is truly interested in showing off his latest gizmo and hearing your opinion about it. Don't treat him like an errand-boy, caterer, concierge, or circus freak. Behavior that we have observed that should be avoided includes:

* Interrupting the meeting for trivial other tasks - such as watering the plants or gladhanding a passing colleague that you see every day. The vendor took time from their day and maybe even paid for a hotel to see you. Give them your attention in return. Otherwise, they may just urinate in your plants when you aren't looking (only applies to router vendors).
* Making statements like, "It's OK. You can interrupt. They're only vendors." And you're only a jerk with a very small ... frontal lobe.
* Only scheduling meetings during lunch and then suggesting the most expensive restaurant around with the expectation that the vendor will pay (also known as "vendor vittles"). You think money grows on trees? No! It grows in the bank accounts of venture capitalists.
* Spending the entire meeting talking about your luncheon last week with some minor celebrity or industry figure rather than listening to the vendor. In the words of the piano man, "we were all impressed with your Halston dress and the people that you knew at Elaine's." He didn't mean it as a compliment.
* Flip through the entire presentation in the first 2 minutes, interrupt the vendor's presentation, and announce to all present that you've heard it all before and it's all crap. Here's an idea - actually listen to the idea before crushing it mercilessly, you pompous apparachnik.

Rule 2: They don't like you for your sense of style

One of the saddest days in the life of a network provider peon is the day that he leaves the comfort of the network provider home and attempts to live in the world of the vendors only to discover that his net worth in their eyes dropped about 139% they day he resigned. Sure, your vendor likes you. He may even share the same interests with you, and he may respect your capabilities and your knowledge of obscure movie trivia. But your relationship is a business one, not a personal one, and there is no guarantee that he's not just sucking up because your are a valuable source of revenue. We're not suggesting that you stop acting friendly, just that you not abuse the relationship.

In one of the more humbling examples of this error, the C-something-O of a major carrier left his position during the boom years to make his fortune with a small startup company. He firmly believed that he could introduce that small startup company to his contacts in the major vendor community, resulting in a near instantaneous merger with plenty of wealth to pass around (or perhaps keep for himself, one never knows). What he discovered upon joining the small startup was that the vendor community in general despised him and gleefully rejected his every appeal for an audience. Vendors who used to open their doors at the drop of his hat or whim of his fancy (and he had some fancy hats) suddenly had no time. And what was worse, others within the network provider community resented his leaving as well as his newfound compensation package, and orders for equipment dried up at the small startup company. The small startup company eventually died, but that may have just been a coincidence. There was a lot of that going around at the time.

The basic bottom line here is that some vendors can truly be friends with network providers. But if you're not following Rule 1, don't expect a gold watch from them when you retire.

Rule 3: Be on time

Your vendor has set up a meeting with you and you have agreed. Your vendor probably flew or drove a long way, endured a low-budget hotel, and has eaten poorly prepared beef-based products for the last day just to be in your presence. Try to be on time. Perhaps you could even let them in a bit early to set up their laptops and projectors. They appreciate the little things - there are so few given out these days.

Rule 4: Be honest

Perhaps the most important and least implemented rule of vendor relations. Vendors really do want to hear your honest opinions. Tell the truth. This goes two ways - don't overstate requirements and problems and don't understate your opinions of the products.

Rule 4a: Don't overstate

Hitting the first one first (just because it's the closest), some network providers have a tendency to put outrageous requirements in their official communications. And vendors, especially new vendors with little experience in customer requirements interpretation, typically do their best to meet those requirements. Those vendors are then summarily crushed when the actual purchase order goes to an incumbent vendor that didn't even come close to meeting the stated requirements. Did the network provider lie to the poor vendor? We'll never say that in any media that can be mass reproduced. Let's just say that the vendor didn't talk to enough people in the network provider's organization to truly understand what was needed to meet current networking goals. (Define networking however you feel it is appropriate.)

In one particularly egregious example from the mid-1990s, a major telecommunications company which changes its name more often than Cher changes costumes put out the call for a certain type of technology in their newest high-speed fiber optic equipment. Several busy little vendors scurried off to work on the problem, and at least one abandoned their current technology completely to be the first and best to come up with the newly required technology. The excited little vendors even got to place their equipment in the highly coveted network provider laboratory, where network provider gnomes poked and prodded at it occasionally for many months. The gnomes gave helpful feedback on the technology, and all seemed to be going well for the busy vendors until the actual purchase requirements came out. Lo and behold, the requirements did not include the new technology, but instead only included the technology offered by the incumbent vendor - who had not spent one single Canadian nickel on the new technology. Apparently the lab gnomes were overridden in the decision-making process by the actual deployment trolls, who were much larger and had real experience with a real network deployment and had no use for the gnomes' fantasies. As you may imagine, this little tale did not end well for the scrappy little vendors who followed the gnomes' advice, some of whom are no longer in the telecomm business. The incumbent vendor did very well, though, so at least someone was happy.

The moral of this story is tell the truth on requirements. Don't just go fishing for the coolest new thing because you read something about it in an obscure magazine. Perhaps your vendor has even thought of that new technology and rejected it for a valid reason. Ask them their opinion. They will be glad to give it back, with interest. Leading them on and then dropping them may be fun in the short term, but long term it reduces their confidence in you and your opinions.

Rule 4b: Don't understate

Just as important as not overstating is avoiding understating. So many very nice people who work in network provider organizations don't want to offend their vendors by pointing out the holes in their product lines. Really, that's all very nice and not terribly useful to the vendor. Vendors tend to come out of meetings with nice people thinking that they have exactly the right solution and that orders for a million units are on the horizon. They get very depressed when the orders don't appear, and depressed vendors are not a pretty sight (visualize lots of soggy power ties and empty martini glasses at airport lounges). Really, vendors want to hear the truth.

If your vendor is proposing a new widget that is brown and you require your equipment to be blue, tell them! If your vendor believes that your network should be based on semaphore and you think otherwise, tell them! Better that they hear it now, before they have completed development of that multi-million dollar brown semaphore system. We're not suggesting that you be rude, but even rude is preferable to Pollyanna.

Thank you for your attention

These rules aren't all that difficult, and they should be obvious - but they aren't. Print out a copy and paste it to your wall to remind yourself of the inherent humanity of the lowly vendor. Perhaps read "Death of a Salesman" again. Aloud. In front of your staff. Before long, you will have a healthy and happy vendor. And if they don't respond in kind, screw 'em.

Coming next .... How to Treat your Network Providers (A Guide for Vendors)

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