Thoughts on Managing Your Social Vendor Relationships

Let’s face it – the vendors you rely on for social media & community platforms, services and advice have you outnumbered and surrounded. Between account reps, sales reps, relationship managers, executive success partners and the rest of the cast, most vendors have a veritable army of skilled professionals whose primary purpose is to maximize revenue derived from their relationship with you. I’m not saying that this is all bad (profitable vendors = sustainable vendors, after all) and that these relationships can’t be mutually beneficial. What I am saying is that the sides of the social vendor relationship game aren’t evenly matched. For social executives, it’s time to step up our game and more proactively manage these vendor relationships.

What’s at stake? Ultimately, the long term success of your social programs. Have you ever been through an Online Community platform migration? It sucks –  from a technical perspective, let alone a community management perspective. Ever had to buy an additional social listening package because your primary  did a bad job of  influencer identification? Ever had analysts completely contradict each other on best practices for rolling out a Reputation Management system in back to back briefings? Issues with vendors as isolated incidents are painful and expensive. Issues with some or all of your vendors simultaneously can  kill social programs.

The opportunities at hand are to gain the most value from your vendor relationships ideally by:

  • Gaining access to and influencing product roadmap
  • Guiding the vendor into partnership & integration discussions with other vendors that you use
  • Staying abreast of best practice and useful case studies from other customers of the vendor
  • Understanding if you and the vendor are on paralell or divergent paths long term

SWGD? (So Watcha Gonna Do?)
I offer the following tactics and suggestions in the spirit of SWGD :

1. Host an Annual Social Vendor Summit
Ask your vendors to come onsite for an annual Social Vendor Summit. I hosted one of these at Dell in January of this year, and had all of our community, social media, listening, social CRM, social marketing, analytics and touchpoint partners in for a day of shared briefings. The briefing format was dead-simple-  each vendor had 30 minuts to share 3 slides: 1) An overview of current state and feature usage, 2) Suggestions on how we could improve use and effectiveness of their offering and 3) Anything else they wanted to tell us. They sessions were a great way to get the internal team on the same page and also to spur brainstorming and collaboration amongst the vendor partners.

2. Conduct Quarterly Business Reviews
These reviews are likely common as an internal practice in your organization, so why not expect them of your vendors? Reviewing product roadmap updates, strategy updates, progress on key programs and any interesting new customer examples or case studies is a few hours well spent in the quarter. This is a much deeper and more exclusive dive than the Summit mentioned above, and is really intended to be a frank feedback sharing and strategy session. Are some of your vendors not willing to spend the time to do this? Great segway to my next suggestion…

3. Stay in Touch With Competitive Vendors
Competitive social vendors are likely calling you anyway – make the best of it! I was generally willing to take a call or briefing with a competitive vendor at Dell if I was sure about our internal position on the incumbent vendor (favorable or not) and I would always let the competitive vendor know if there was any chance of them winning the business prior to the briefing.

4. Understand & Influence Product Roadmap
Your social vendors with product roadmaps should be more than willing to share fairly long-term (at least 18 mos) roadmaps with you. They will be caveated to the Nth degree and be bookended by safe harbor statements… but they should be shareable. You should feel empowered to have a discussion about the planned features and you should generally feel like your priorities are taken into account. If not, this should be a huge red flag (and see previous point re: Competitors).

5. Build Your Peer Network
It is critical to have a network of peers in similar positions to compare notes with and to seek advice from. Analysts are great for general snapshots of the social landscape and directional advice, but being able to have a conversation with a peer sitting in *your* seat in another organization is invaluable. Your social vendors will likely have conferences and events that will offer great networking opportunities. Vendors can also make intros for you. There are also many great networking organizations like The Community Roundtable and SocialMedia.org. To put a fine point on it: build your network before you need it.

6. Get Personal
Along the lines of building a peer network, get to know the key players working for your vendors as well. Invest the time in building one to one relationships outside of the conference room. Personal relationships often make the difference  in getting a heads up on a feature change, getting a feature request into a release or getting a little extra help with a configuration.

The Net-net: a little extra effort put into elevating your relationships with your key social vendors to a *true* partnership will likely pay back valuable dividends in the form of better platforms, more effective social programs and higher return  on your social investments.

Do you agree that spending more time managing your social vendor relationships could create value? Do you have additional suggestions on why and how to manage these relationships? I’d love to hear your thoughts and any stories or suggestions you could share.

6 responses to “Thoughts on Managing Your Social Vendor Relationships

  1. Awesome article! I did a lecture at GDC Europe called “A Marriage of Convenience” that dealt with some of the points you raise here. You hit some different ones, as well. Very educational!

  2. Very insightful Bill. Thank you!

  3. Love the framework you suggest and I’ll bet vendors would appreciate it if more clients put the same rigor into their thoughts on relationship management. As a guy that’s been on the platform side as a vendor, it was much easier to work with clients that were proactive about learning where we were headed and actively participated in our roadmap.

    Also, thanks for the mention of TheCR. We’ve seen the value of building/nurturing your peer network before you need it over and over again with members.

    Good stuff!

  4. As always, excellent food for thought, Bill! These are very practical things that will help both the vendor and client.

  5. Vendor management is a skill that not everyone has. Nicely put. Maybe we’ll see you next year at The Big Social. ;)

  6. Great piece, Bill! I think good vendor management on the customer side actually helps the vendor by setting clear expectations, improving communication, and establishing a relationship where we challenge each other to continually improve. I even included a brief module on vendor management in our community management certification – because I think it’s a core responsibility of a community manager. Love the idea of a social vendor summit too.

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