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Game. Set. Who’s Your Partner?

As an avid tennis player, I often think about strategy. I grew up a singles player, always thinking about where my shots would land to achieve the most success. In singles, it’s all up to you. There’s no partner to rely on or to blame for a missed opportunity. If you lose a point or an entire match, it’s all on you – no excuses. In recent years, I’ve been playing more doubles and I’ve noted the change in my strategy. I now always have a partner that I need to work with to win.  It’s no longer a solo effort, but one in which I have to work with my partner closely for success. If we don’t work together, we lose the match.

The parallel to doubles tennis and business strategy is simple. When we chose our vendors, they are our partners: an extension of ourselves. We are electing them to help us succeed, not to hinder our performance. We need to support our vendors as much as they support us and treat them just as we would treat any internal team member. If we don’t talk to our vendors, they can’t anticipate our next move and may miss the ball. Well-versed players let their partner know if they’re going for the ball or letting the partner take it using constant communication. They have your back every step of the way.  In project teams, as in tennis and with vendors, if communication fails, your team fails.

I often see Sponsor companies taking on the same mentality I used during my youth as a singles player. It was me against them. Sponsors seem to hire their vendors yet almost immediately treat them more as opponents rather than partners. Why do we hire vendors yet have such poor expectations of them?  In order to achieve success within a project or program, we have to start learning to do things better together. Teams that work collaboratively achieve so much more.

Treating a vendor as an enemy and not part of your team can signal the death knell for much of the potential success you otherwise would have had as a result of working together. Working with someone or a team outside your group can be difficult, I know. You worry they might drop the ball, they may let something important fall by the wayside, or maybe their deliverables won’t be up to your standards. This sense of distrust will do nothing for your business relationship however and will hinder your progress.

So what can you do to ensure successful and fruitful collaboration?

Trust. Though nearly impossible to completely let it go, you hire your vendors to manage critical pieces of your projects.  So let them! Remember, you hired them because they were the best vendor for the job.  With that, trust them to perform the job.  Inherently there will be opportunities for the vendor to improve.  They work with many clients and may not always be able to predict exactly what you need even if you think they know.  Tell them what you need and provide enough instruction for them to succeed. Expect the best, and expect to make corrections along the way.

Communicate with your vendors constantly. Discuss expectations upfront.  Define roles and responsibilities well and refine to manage various stages of the project.  Assume that your needs will change as will the needs of your vendor.  Discussing these needs throughout the collaboration is mandatory to manage the health of the project and its team.  If you don’t talk, someone is going to miss the ball.

Move with your partner, not against them. Have their back.  We all know that vendors are in the business of customer service and to be successful, they deserve to be pulled into the conversation, to help to make decisions, and to make use of the expertise that you hired them for.  Keep them engaged by communicating often, even if it’s regarding something which you perceive is small.  Create a partner relationship that results in success.  Be each other’s back up and don’t let each other fail.  Be open about your needs and what you expect from your vendor. If something isn’t working, address it and don’t stay silent.   Support your partner and they will support in return.

If you keep these strategies in mind, your Sponsor/Vendor relationship will be that much smoother with your odds of success significantly greater—and isn’t that your goal? No partnership was ever successful without trust, communication, and maintaining a spirit of collaboration. Treat your vendors as part of your team and reap the rewards together when your partnership meets with success.