By Jim Annis
Ah, Valentine's Day is in the air. Romance, proposals, new flirtations and sometimes ... the inevitable big breakup. Well, nothing lasts forever, so that's why it's good to have some guidance on how to manage situations when they go south. Aside from a longtime personal love, breaking up with a long-term business vendor is often of the most painful and uncomfortable breakups you can experience. There are many "types" of vendor relationships: love at first sight, those you trust enough to "marry," and the ones you divorce; and then there are the ones who are "married" to your business family so you would feel horribly guilty about letting them go. So why is breaking up so hard to do?
The "how do we work with each other?" phase is over, things are easy ... maybe too easy. Perhaps you have been lax about keeping track of your vendor performance and accountability. Remember, any long-term relationship takes work. Comfortable is OK, but there is a slippery slope that occurs when complacency takes the guise of comfort. Each year my wife makes me meatloaf with ketchup and mashed potatoes for Valentine's Day. She has done this for each year together for 35 years. It is her way of saying "I love you," and I simply adore it and her for the effort. How has your vendor pool said "I love you" lately? Do they provide great operational performance? Do they anticipate your needs? Do they listen to your concerns? Do they approach your relationship as a true partnership? If they have not, it might be time to look for someone new with stars in their eyes and common values.
Just like any new relationship, you might be feeling a combination of being hopeful, nervous, scared and vulnerable. Remember, as the customer you are in control. Set expectations and ensure that they are in your contractual, formal documents. Watch for the "ick factor" (you know, that feeling that you have when you meet with someone for the first time who has selfish intentions). Look instead for the "X-factor" where the vendor's main goal is to provide you with true value.
If being too close was a weakness contributing to the unhealthy nature of your last vendor, then choose avoiding getting close with the next one. There is no better sucker for a sales person than another sales person. Remain neutral and then keep your eyes open for signs of trouble from the start. If you think this objectivity is not in your nature, then you may consider hiring an intermediary to manage the relationship and perform annual vendor reviews. Vendors who know they are underperforming may sense a breakup coming and may send chocolates so you feel bad. They may also ask you to go out to dinner. These are all signs that you are repeating the same toxic relationships and need to learn from your past errors in judgment.
How do you know when it is time to break up? The annual vendor review process can be a lifesaver. It's the perfect time to change it up. Perhaps your current vendor does not initiate service reviews and then you should be scheduling them proactively.
Bottom line: People do business with people they like AND trust. Your vendors should have that winning combination in order to have the privilege of retaining your business. Give yourself permission to pull the trigger on any vendor relationship that is not helping achieve your overall goals.
Jim Annis is president/CEO of The Applied Companies, which provide HR solutions for today’s workplace. Celeste Johnson, Applied's COO, contributed to this article.