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Turning Vendors into Business Partners

By: Liz Jackson , Association Management Group/Meetings Management Group
Source: Executive Update
Special Meetings Section Feature
Published: March 2003

Why bother with vendor relationships? This is the mindset of some association executives who feel that supplier compensation begins and ends with "pay to the order of." However, as Liz Jackson - vice president of Association Management Group - describes how building good relationships with your vendors can ensure that your association receives the best possible service, quality, pricing, value and satisfaction for your members.


Relationships between associations and vendors have become even more important due to the uncertain economy and industry downturn following the events of 2001. Competition among vendors is more aggressive than it was in the past, and suppliers have to work harder to get association business and even harder to keep it.

The success of your association's service is partly contingent upon the work of the vendor and reflects back on their services. In essence, your success is their success. Well-selected, reliable vendors with proven records of high performance certainly can help you succeed with your project, but you in turn must put effort into building a solid working relationship with your vendors, a relationship that should evolve beyond the simple services rendered and into a true business partnership. The ideal partnership for both parties is long-term - through good and poor economic trends - and is based on communication, trust, and information sharing.

Laying the Foundation
Much like any other relationship, vendor relationships are built upon trust, respect, and communication. At the onset of any new vendor relationship, both parties must clearly articulate themselves to arrive at a mutual understanding of wants, needs, and end results. From the start, association executives should give vendors all pertinent information that relates to the project. Allowing the vendor to understand your association and its goals - both internal and external - will provide insight into the specific project and possible future ones.

In the case of meetings, you need to allow your vendor to become familiar with all of the events your association has planned throughout the year and to have reasonable access to all association staff who will be involved in the project. Through communication with your staff, vendors can gain a clearer understanding not only of what your association does but how it does it. The "what" can be observed fairly easily; knowledge of the "how" is less apparent and can be obtained only through a vendor's integration with association staff.

While it is the vendor's responsibility to become familiar with your association's needs and goals, an association should reciprocate by understanding those of the vendor. Being familiar with the full range of your vendor's services also is beneficial. For example, a hotel representative who handles room and space bookings for your meeting may also be able to help you with your association's subsequent needs such as travel and entertainment. It pays to know what else your vendor has in his or her arsenal.

Being a Model Client
Just as you want a "model" vendor, vendors want model clients. Too often, association executives relegate their relationships with vendors to a "do-what-we-tell-you" model, which can exclude vendors from all communications save those where orders are given for the vendor to follow. Time and time again, vendors identify their most valuable clients as those who keep the lines of communication free and clear and provide them with timely information on decisions that will affect their services. In the best-case scenario, the vendor's representative is involved in all discussions about the association service that they are helping to produce. When the association management team feels it appropriate, vendors often can make a valuable contribution to the decision-making process when it involves their area of expertise.

Joining the ranks of the model clients on your vendor's VIP list is not as difficult as you might think. Simple steps can build the relationship with your vendor, making it easier to help your association make the conference a success.

One of the more obvious, but often not as common as vendors would like, is the act of returning a representative's phone calls and e-mails. Better yet, not only returning them, but returning them sooner rather than later. It is understandable that as an association executive or meeting planner, your schedule is already swamped, but it is very frustrating to a vendor if they can't get in touch with you for an answer or a "green light." Delaying replies to pressing inquiries from your vendor will hinder project planning and possibly have a negative effect on the meeting.

Another behavior that can put you on a vendor's "A list" is giving the vendor some latitude to exercise his or her own judgment and experience in providing your services. After all, you hired the vendor to do a specific task, something in which he or she excels. Letting go of your anxiety and allowing vendors to "do their thing" requires trust: something that for some is hard to attain. Without trust, though, you and your vendors both will be running in place rather than going forward.

Trusting Your Vendors
The selection of a vendor as a collaborator on or an advocate of your association's needs is essentially a contract of trust. Considering that you've researched references, looked at work samples, and met with them several times before committing to a contract, you can assume with some confidence that the vendors your association works with are professionals, and the success of a contract can be multiplied when your vendors are treated as trusted advisors who provide insight on a project based on their expertise. Trust a vendor's advice and judgment on what they know best, their business.

Open communication between your vendor's representative and your association staff will lead to a dialogue, which leads to the building of a relationship that enables you to consult with your representative as a knowledgeable advisor. Vendors can rely on their previous experiences to guide your association in making informed decisions that will strengthen your meeting or the value of whatever you purchase. The positive effects of treating vendors with respect for their knowledge and skill will show in the work that they do for you. Like anyone else, their motivation for excellence is increased when they feel they are treated with respect, as equals rather than subordinates.

Of course, as the old adage goes, trust and respect are earned. By the time you start actually working with your vendor, though, your trust in them and theirs in you should already be well established through your preliminary meetings and reviews of the vendor's previous work. The saying "a friend of a friend is a friend of mine" also holds true in this case: Vendors who have worked successfully with and earned the trust of association colleagues whom you respect are likely deserving of your trust as well. Smart executives look first to their colleagues for recommendations of successful vendors.

Marketing Your Meeting
The end goal of establishing a vendor relationship is the success of your current and future decisions. Marketing your meeting may seem unrelated to your vendor relationship, but promoting your project will encourage the success of your project, raise awareness of your association, and help fulfill your association's obligations to the vendor (particularly important with your hotel contracts).

Marketing your meeting will not only help to boost attendance at the event, but it will help build your association's most valuable asset, its brand. Any promotional materials surrounding the meeting should serve as branding messages for your association and should encourage a feeling of community among participants. Increasing your attendee numbers through marketing efforts also will assist in the fulfillment of your association's vendor obligations, such as the hotel contract.

This is another spin-off benefit for vendors. While marketing your association's event, you are also marketing the event's location and highlights. Vendors reap the benefits of your marketing efforts by being the secondary products promoted - hotel, location, show design, and special events, for example.

Supporting Your Vendors
When your association and a vendor truly "click," then your relationship should not end with the completion of the contract. If a vendor made your meeting or event a success, then maintain your ties to draw upon that person's experience and expertise in the future.

One way to support your vendor after a successful meeting or event is to tell your colleagues about it. Giving referrals is a great way to recognize the quality service provided by the vendor. Word of mouth referrals are often more beneficial to a vendor's new business strategy than any other method of promotion. Why? Because your experience with the vendor's services is more credible than any marketing materials the vendor may rely on.

Think of yourself as a spokesperson for the vendor's services. Because you can attest to the quality of service and work your vendors provide and have direct experience in working with them, you are qualified to speak on the vendor's behalf to their benefit.

Vendors often hold focus groups or advisory councils to evaluate their services and to better understand their customers' wants and needs. As a customer of their services, you can support your vendor by participating in these focus groups when asked. Your experience with a vendor's services will provide important input to the group, and your participation helps vendors improve their services and helps you maintain your contact with them. Such mechanisms as focus groups provide necessary information to suppliers interested in improving their services, particularly when those enlisted for feedback are frank and candid.

Giving Thanks and Recognition
Giving thanks and recognition should be an obvious component to any vendor relationship. Not only is it the professional and courteous thing to do, but it also shows your business partner that you appreciate the hard work that was put into making your meeting a success.

When appropriate a heartfelt thank-you letter, copied to the supplier's manager, is a meaningful gesture of appreciation. This not only lets your contact know you appreciate the work they've done for you, but it also shows their supervisors the good work that is being done by their staff.

One association recognized quality services by hosting a luncheon each year for its top vendors. Members from the association's meetings department prepared and served the food to the representatives. The luncheon served as a thank you to the vendors but is also a time for association staff and vendors to catch up on current association events and to build on their relationships.

Another way to reach out to your top vendors is to recognize personal events in the business partner's life. Send personalized notes or gifts to acknowledge new births, weddings, birthdays, or other momentous occasions. These expressions show that you value your representative as a person as well as a business partner.

An executive director recently asked the association's meeting planner why a baby present for one of their top suppliers appeared on an expense account. The response was loud and clear — the salesperson took special care of the association's account and had helped the organization time and time again. That person, the planner asserted, was like a member of their staff.

Why It's Worth the Bother
Building a vendor relationship may require some additional effort by you and your staff, but the potential benefits of the relationship far outweigh the extra time. When you have a great relationship with a vendor, they become an extension of your association's team, and this can result in new opportunities, savings, and benefits for your association and members.

As you work with vendors to plan your association's next conference or meeting, pay attention to not only the details of the event but to the details of the vendor relationship. Vendor collaboration and meeting planning will run that much more smoothly as a result.

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