This originally appeared in the September/October, 2018 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.
As a mailer, you took the right steps to select a service provider for your documents. The request for proposals (RFP) process helped you select the vendor with the best services at the best prices. Careful contract negotiations locked in pricing and service levels.
As a service provider, you bring on customers that best match your capabilities. A contract is signed that provides value for the customer, while also providing a reasonable profit for the company. The next step is to complete the onboarding process.
Client and provider work together to transition work. Following a project plan with ample testing, documents are reviewed and approved. On schedule, the mail is moved into production.
Sounds simple, right? However, this is only the beginning of the relationship. Just like a relationship between two people, there must be trust between the two parties. Establishing trust isn’t a one-time event, but an ongoing activity with the customer and the service provider taking active roles.
In preparing this article, I reached out to customers who have experience with multiple service providers. Some clients have been with the same vendors for over a decade, while others have been forced to change providers. However, all agreed on the key aspects of establishing and maintaining trust.
Open and Honest Communications
The client needs to clearly express their goals and take steps to make sure the vendor understands those goals. When launching a new product or document type for customers, start with meetings that include the project team and the operations team. Make sure everyone involved has access to the same information.
Vendors will have to upgrade software and equipment regularly. Share the high-level project plans with customers, with emphasis on testing and “go-live” dates. Set up conference calls to address any concerns or potential issues.
Leaders from both sides need to make themselves available. Often senior management are involved with a selecting a vendor or completing a sale. Make sure senior leaders remain involved and are aware of progress or any potential roadblocks. Direct phone lines and cell phone numbers should be exchanged.
Schedule Face-to-Face Meetings
In most cases, the client and the service providers are located in different cities. The prevailing forms of contact will be phone calls, web conferences, and emails. But open and honest communication involves more.
The schedule needs to include face-to-face meetings with all principals in attendance. People are more comfortable when they have the opportunity to meet the person on the other end of the phone, or the face behind the name on the email.
Be sure to alternate the location of the meetings – some should take place at the client’s place of business, and other should take place at the vendor’s. This allows for everyone on both teams to be involved. Meetings at the vendor should include time to watch the client’s work being processed on the floor and introduce the operators who get the work done every day.
Recent years have seen more vendors holding client conferences. This technique allows multiple clients to share best practices – not just on dealing with the vendor, but on document management. Open sessions allow direct feedback to the vendor, creating an environment of transparency.
Discuss Mutual Challenges
Understanding issues that impact the relationship is especially important for companies that work in highly regulated industries – finance, insurance, and healthcare. Privacy matters, timeliness, and disaster recovery are just of few of the subjects that clients need to address. Similarly, vendors are required to meet tightening postal regulations on preparation and submission of mail and associated electronic documentation.
Compliance and risks need to be reviewed regularly. Remember that not every member of the team is a healthcare guru or postal expert. Both sides need to translate technical jargon into simple terms. When everyone understands the issues, they can work together to craft a mutually beneficial solution.
Address Issues Immediately
Mistakes will happen. The wrong files will be sent. Deadlines will be missed. Machine errors may not be caught.
Delaying bad news doesn’t improve the situation – it makes it worse. For many companies, there are governmental or contractual requirements to report any errors in a timely fashion. Companies can be faced with penalties, fines, and lost business.
There may be a tendency to withhold notification about an error until a solution has been found. Don’t take that path. Notify the client about the problem, let them know people are working on a solution, and provide a timeline for updates. This allows the client to take steps to notify their impacted customers about the problem quickly.
Sometimes the issue isn’t a specific event, but an ongoing trend. Print files continue to arrive late, or service levels decline. Bring the entire team together – client representatives, account managers, operators, and leaders – to review the situation and either resolve the issue or set new expectations.
Maintain Empathy and Understanding
Open and direct doesn’t mean rushed and rude. Recognize that there are human beings on both sides of the equation trying their best to do the right thing. Clients and vendors are professionals, with a common goal to resolve issues.
It’s important to keep anger and frustration in check. Raising the volume or using insults don’t help solve the problem. Keep the focus on the issue.
One of my clients put it best. “Be respectful at all times; kind but firm when talking about issues.” Respect and kindness are essential elements of every relationship – personal or business. Treat the other person as you want to be treated.
Vendors and clients must work together to achieve their common goals. Through clear consistent communication, both sides will better understand the challenges being faced. Holding in-person meetings strengthens bonds and improves connections. Both sides must overcome similar problems to win. When things go wrong, let everyone know.
Throughout it all, be kind, be respectful, and be professional. Create a long-term relationship with both parties achieving success.
Mark M. Fallon is President & CEO of The Berkshire Company, a consulting firm specializing in mail and document processing strategies. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his blogs at www.berkshire-company.com/the-berkshire-company-blog or www.markfallon.com/blog.