If you had a nickel, (OK, let's say $1 because it's 2013) for every unsolicited call or email you've received from a vendor asking for just 15 minutes of your time because that's all it'll take to convince you to invest just [INSERT THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS HERE] in return for [INSERT WILD CLAIM ON RETURN ON INVESTMENT HERE], you'd probably have quite a bit of padding in your retirement fund. And you might start getting calls telling you about this amazing bridge you might want to buy.
It's true, not every vendor is out to swindle you or your business out of it's hard-earned money. At least not on purpose. Most of the time business owners and gatekeepers end up purchasing a service with the best of intentions and discover that the vendor/service provider is more about collecting the monthly payment and not so much about the service part.
It takes a well-tuned BS detector, a good game face, and a bit of research to sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to selecting a good service vendor.
Much of my experience is relating to technology-related services, including website developers, SEO and internet advertising firms, practice/business marketing services, "reputation management" services, appointment-generating services, and social media and PR service vendors. I write this with these types of vendors in mind - although the principles can be applied to a variety of other products and services.
While there is no *one* or *right* way to vet vendors, here are some steps that can help you to feel more confident in vetting vendor services by putting you in the driver's seat of the research and sales process.
STEP 1: Breathe. And then do a little research on the product or service.
Do you need to vet a service you really don't know much about, and do you feel like a deer in headlights? You may know you need this service, or you may have been asked to research and price it out. Either way, you'll need to know enough about the service or product to ask good questions, and to be able to explain it to someone else in simple terms. Time is money so don't go bonkers trying to become an expert, but don't rely solely on the explanation provided to you by a vendor. However, it is perfectly OK to ask the vendor to email you information to help you prepare.
Check with your friends and contacts before starting from scratch. Do they have a vendor they've worked with and like? Ask for a referral. However, don't get caught up in hiring someone out of pity. If your friend or colleague says "oh, my nephew does that on the side, you should hire him-" just smile and back away slowly. Remember, you are looking for a professional service, and sometimes you really do get what you do (or don't) pay for. Keep your standards high.
Google and Wikipedia are your friends. So are your friends, professional contacts, and colleagues. If you know folks you trust who have expertise in that area, give them a call for a quick primer. Be wary of sites that are trying to sell you something at the same time they want to teach you about it. Create a list of questions you'd like the vendor to explain about their product or service. Knowledge is power, and a good service provider should want to present to an educated potential client. Going in with some sense of your expectations will help immediately identify vendors who can't explain their service. Got your list of questions? Great, let's move on.
STEP 2: Research the vendor, and check out a couple of competitors.
You've probably heard it's best to get three estimates. It's true, although no one will write you a ticket for researching two or four. First, are you looking to work with vendors or companies with a particular set of values, or who are women or minority-owned, for example? You can also search for them on the Better Business Bureau website.
Ask the rep to send you information about their product or service via email, fax or your preferred media. It should explain the service, return on investment (ROI), and features. It will probably contain a variety of bells and whistles that look pretty. Try to look past those and make sure the summary is actually telling you something. If the rep hesitates or tells you it's best to do it in person, what in the world are they trying to sell you, Ginsu Knives? Regardless, they should be able to send you a summary of their product or service.
Check out their competition as well. One way that is usually quite effective to find out who the competitors are is to actually do a Google (or other engine) search of the vendor and see who is taking out paid ads to compete with them. This may also help you to find your service provider - maybe the competition IS better.
Ask for a couple of customers you can call for a reference. In some cases, vendors may not be able to provide this because of confidentiality. However, for services like website development, tech-related services and the like, any vendor worth their salt should provide you with a list of clients who are willing to speak with you about their service or product. This doesn't mean you have to contact them just yet, but you can check them out and see if you'd like to have what they're having.
Ultimately you should have 2 or 3 competitive vendors lined up.
Are you ready? It's time for -
STEP 3: Meet, (if you want), on YOUR terms.
You don't ever have to let a sales rep in your house if you don't want them there. Reps should be willing to work around your schedule, and not tell YOU they have time next Thursday between 12 and 2. They should also show up on time. Your time is valuable. Many times reps will ask you for 15 minutes and they will often take longer (much longer) than that. Unless you are experienced in reducing sales reps to a puddle of jell-o in less than 5 minutes, a safe bet is to allow for an absolute max of 30 minutes, and less if possible. Remember, this meeting is for you - the extra time is for your questions, if you need it.
During the Meeting:
- When possible, schedule the meetings back to back or in the same day so you can compare them with a fresh mind.
- If you can, bring someone in with you that you trust who can help ask questions and take notes (and help you to detect BS).
- Keep to your timeline as much as possible. No need to use an egg timer, but make sure the reps know of your timeline and the need to keep to it. Make them sweat a bit.
- Don't hesitate to interrupt. Not the rude kind, but don't let so much time go by that you forget your questions or the moment passes into a new topic. The time you've reserved isn't to allow the rep to go through their carefully rehearsed pitch and PowerPoint presentation, but to help you to understand what the service or product is and what it means to your business. This will make the meeting about your company, not about a practice session for the rep.
- Never (EVER) self-depricate or suggest you don't know anything about the service or product. If you're still not feeling confident about your knowledge, tell the rep that you have to turn around and explain this to a group of folks who are not familiar with it, and ask them to suggest to you ways to explain it to others. Ask for something visual. This is a sneaky way to better understand things yourself.
- Let them know they're not the only one on your dance card. (Even if they are). It's helpful to casually mention that you have other vendors to consider, particularly when discussing finances or guarantees. My favorite trick when given a price for a service or product is to raise my eyebrow, flip a couple of pages backward in my notebook (which usually has doodles or something unrelated on it), make a note, repeat a question about the service or guarantee, and see what they do to adjust and accommodate.
- Move on. It's not you, it's them. If you realize mid-presentation this isn't what you thought it was, or for any reason you know it's not going to work out, at the earliest opportunity, stop the meeting. Don't waste your time, but keep the materials and let the rep know you'll call them with any questions.
- Ask for a new rep if needed. Sometimes it isn't the service or product, it's the person. If yours turns out to be a total jackwagon, you don't have to deal with them. You can ask for another.
- Give yourself time (but not too much) to consider and compare. Sometimes vendors will tell you that the offer is good for right at that moment. Unless you're buying those Ginsu knives and they're almost out, most of the time this is a bluff. You'll find if you give them a day or two to sweat, they might come back with an even better offer. Vendors typically want to make the sale so don't hesitate to ask for the price you were quoted a year ago.
After the meeting:
- Go through your notes while things are fresh in your mind. Compare and process with your colleagues. Even if you were the only one in the room, find someone to explain the results to. This will help make sure you are familiar with the service or product and can make a recommendation about it.
- Call or email the vendors with any questions that have come up. The rep should be available and should answer your questions clearly.
- Ask to speak with the service rep, if it is different from sales. Often these departments are separate and sometimes the sales group gets a little overzealous about service and promise the moon. It's helpful to ask the service questions to the service team. This should not be a problem from a company that provides good service. This is often where contract serves go wrong - the gap between what is promised and what is delivered.
- Ask to see a draft contract. Again, this is where gaps can be identified and potentially either addressed or avoided. The vendor can send a PDF with a "draft" watermark that can't be edited. Be very, very wary of any vendor that rushes you to sign a contract without giving you time to consider.
STEP 4: Decide.
You should hopefully have enough information from step 3 to feel confident making a recommendation for a decision. Try not to get stuck in the details, or it will take too long to compare products or services and recommend the best option and value.
If you're contracting for these services, make sure to have someone (preferably legal counsel) review the contract before signing and certainly before any money has changed hands.