Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: How to Choose and Manage Great Tech Partners

Is it time to have that confrontational meeting with a poor vendor?

When a vendor delivers subpar service, you should work with them to try to resolve the problem. But if that doesn't help, you may need to up the ante. Here's a look at how to handle 'The Big Meeting'.

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Image: IPGGutenbergUKLtd, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Anyone who's ever been in management has been there. A vendor misses deliverable dates, or causes a critical system error because of an incorrect software installation, or fails to resolve production issues in reasonable time, or changes a policy or a payment plan that makes you wish you had never signed up.

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When is it time to call a meeting to confront the vendor -- and what do you say?

Step one: Meeting trigger points begin to form

First, let's talk about meeting trigger points and steps you can take along the way to possibly preclude holding an adversarial meeting.

Like old cars, relationships with vendors don't usually fail at once. Instead, they fail slowly.

Common signals of a "slow fail" include the wonderful vendor account rep who did everything for you -- but who has now decided to leave the vendor and is replaced by someone who lacks the same levels of care, diligence, and expertise. Or maybe there's change in how the vendor delivers a service or a new software release that just doesn't mesh well with your internal procedures.

You'll likely notice these changes immediately, but that doesn't mean you should start scheduling an adversarial meeting. Rather, you should give the vendor a chance to prove that the new situation is going to work -- and sometimes it will. The bottom line: You have to give a situation enough time to see if it can work out.

SEE: Report: The 10 biggest tech vendors in the world, by revenue (TechRepublic)

Step two: It's time to begin conversations with the vendor

You've given the new situation time and you determine that it isn't working. It's time to start talks with the vendor. What's the approach?

If the issue is service, you should first speak with the vendor service and/or account reps directly. See if you can address the issue together and then give the situation a bit more time to resolve itself. If issues of non- or sub-performance continue, you and/or your staff should carefully document these occurrences.

If the vendor rep(s) still can't turn an unsatisfactory situation around, it's time to take the conversation with the vendor to the next level -- their immediate superior. Sometimes real inroads into progress can be made this point, although you might have to cope with a rep who harbors animosity toward you because you were forced to contact their supervisor.

In my experience, unfortunately, I have sometimes found that even contacting the immediate organizational superior of a vendor rep isn't enough -- because that individual exhibits the same behavior patterns and attitudes as their employee. Again, you should give the situation some time (one month is reasonable) and consistently document cases where needs were not met.

By the time you are in your third round of conversations with the vendor -- that is, you have (1) spoken with the rep and (2) spoken with the rep's immediate supervisor -- you are ready to speak with someone in the vendor organization who is at least at the director or vice president or possibly even at the CEO level.

Some managers do not like to take this three-tiered, person-by-person escalation approach because they feel it takes too much time. But by taking this approach, you're letting your vendor know that you're trying to work through the situation in good faith and you're not keeping them in the dark. All of this work lays a solid foundation for The Big Meeting, if you still need to have it.

SEE: Advanced Business Skills Bundle (ZDNet Academy)

Step three: You need to call The Big Meeting

It is time for a big (and likely adversarial) meeting with the vendor when all else has failed -- including vendor performance and satisfactory resolution of the calls you have initiated and escalated through the vendor organization.

The major caveat for managers making decisions to call The Big Meeting is that you have to be prepared to leave your vendor. In other words, The Big Meeting is no time to bluff.

You should let the vendor know in advance what the meeting purpose and agenda are, so the vendor can also be fully prepared. Also be sure to schedule this meeting on your own turf. This can give you an important psychological edge because it helps to be in familiar surroundings.

Take charge of your meeting and set an objective and businesslike tone. Your goals should be to review evidence of poor performance, not to point fingers or get into battles of high emotion. To support this approach, you should have documentation of all your failed service calls and issues that you can go through with the vendor.

It is at this meeting that the two of you will likely decide whether there is any reason to go forward and to make amends or whether it's time to go your own ways.

SEE: Ethics policy: Vendor relationships (Tech Pro Research)

Meeting follow-up

At the end of the meeting, both you and your vendor should understand (and should have agreed) on a course of action.

In my experience, I have known many cases where relationships got turned around. In other incidences, all parties recognized that it was time to unwind the relationship. Whatever direction you and your vendor take, maintaining civility and a professional atmosphere really helps. It enables you both to define an objective set of actions that gets everyone into the positions where they ultimately want to end up.

Life after a vendor termination

It's a small world. Chances are that you will run into your ex-vendor at a trade show, a conference, or some other industry event. If you conducted your meeting objectively and in a businesslike manner with an aim to make parting easy for everyone, both of you will know that although the relationship didn't work out the way that you hoped it would, at least it concluded respectfully.

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