How can you hand off pieces of your program to third-party vendors without losing sleep over whether or not they'll deliver?
Third-party vendors. Can't live with 'em; can't live without 'em. Great ones are a godsend. The rest are a necessary evil at best, and a money pit of wasted time, resources, and energy at worst. Recently, I had the displeasure of working with the latter, a firm EXHIBITOR contracted for a pair of one-off projects. The company's pitch was appealing and positioned its services as a turnkey solution that would enable us to take the bulk of the work off our plates and sidestep the need to utilize internal resources. But the reality couldn't have been further from the facade the firm had constructed.
Before we knew it, the vendor's technical shortcomings had become our problems to troubleshoot. Deliverables that were supposed to be completed within 24 to 48 hours took weeks, a slew of the firm's self-imposed deadlines were missed, and one promise after another went unfulfilled. The company we had hired to make our lives easier had actually made them worse, leaving an ocean of unnecessary stress and anxiety in its wake. In the end, my team and I completed the project on our own by teaching ourselves a few new skills (and watching a lot of how-to videos on YouTube). Ultimately, it took us one weekend to do what it had taken the aforementioned firm more than a month to accomplish.
As exhibit managers, you interface with a barrage of third-party vendors, including exhibit houses, promotional-product vendors, shipping companies, contractors, labor crews, etc. And while a reliable partner can be worth its weight in gold, a less than reputable one can wreak havoc on your program and leave you wondering if there's more truth than you realized in the old adage, "If you want something done right, do it yourself." But try as you might, not even the most experienced exhibit manager can go it alone, at least not completely. Still, how can you hand off any pieces of your program to third-party vendors without losing sleep over whether or not they'll deliver?
Hindsight is 20/20, and what I learned from our fiasco is that the first step is finding a firm you can trust. Never take a prospective partner's word for granted without first doing your homework. Read reviews. Check references. Consult the Better Business Bureau. Ask the tough questions. And, perhaps most importantly, be crystal clear about your expectations. But selecting a vendor is like hiring a new employee. Just as no résumé or job interview can completely assure you of an individual's ability to succeed, no request for information (RFI) or request for proposal (RFP) will ever be proof positive of guaranteed perfection. As such, picking a partner is only half the battle. The rest is ongoing evaluation.
Assuming that you've agreed upon deadlines and deliverables, evaluating third-party vendors should be easy and objective. Did they deliver on time and on budget? If yes, then you're one step closer to a mutually beneficial partnership – one that will, eventually, allow you to stop losing sleep and instead trust that you're working with competent, capable, and principled professionals. If no, you can either recommunicate your needs and put that vendor on notice before redeploying the firm for take two. Or you can cut your losses, sever ties, and start searching for a new partner.
Truth be told, a match made in heaven is a rare find. But if your needs aren't met, promises aren't kept, or deadlines aren't adhered to, you're not getting what you paid for – and you may find yourself putting more into the relationship than you're getting out of it. If that's the case, I encourage you to rip off the Band-Aid rather than put the partnership on life support indefinitely. Because when all is said and done, your vendors are supposed to work for you, not the other way around.