One of the stickiest situations in Vendor Relationship Management is when vendors clash over your problem. Each claims the issue is the other's responsibility (or at least not their responsibility) and neither of them will fix the problem.
While this situation can have IT managers reaching for a baseball bat, there are better (if less satisfying) ways to handle it than whaling on the vendors. There are things you can do to prevent the problem, and there are ways to deal with it more effectively than the Louisville Slugger approach.
Obviously the best way to deal with this situation is to avoid it in the first place. This means being proactive and effective in Vendor Relationship Management.
Your Vendor’s Reputation
One important way to head off finger-pointing trouble is by carefully selecting vendors based on their reputation. While there isn't necessarily an inverse relationship between bid price and level of service, all too often that’s the case. Since any manager want to get the most for the money, that means doing due diligence to find out how your potential vendor treats its customers.
The process starts well before you install the product, back in the vendor selection phase. When checking on prospective vendors, be sure to check out their reputation for service. This is one of the most important vendor characteristics and should always be considered when choosing vendors. a product or service.
The most reliable information is likely to come from other customers. Of course the vendor will (or should) provide you with a list of customer references and of course you should check those. However, those references are pre-screened by the vendor and may not give you the whole story. It there's a lot of money or a business-critical application involved, it pays to dig deeper. Ask on business related social media sites like LinkedIn. Also do a Google search to see what people have said about the company. Pay attention to the way the company treats its own staff, at sites like Glassdoor; if they lie to the people who work for them, how much can you trust the company to serve your needs?
When asking about a vendor it's important to listen carefully to what is said – and what is not said. Keep in mind, particularly when using recommendations, that people are often reluctant to criticize directly. You have to pay close attention to tone as well as words and then make your own decision.
Do You Have a Legal Baseball Bat?
Vendor reputation aside, it's important to thoroughly understand your service agreements and what they do and don't cover. Remember, all you're legally entitled to is what's in those agreements. If something isn't covered, you may not get satisfaction if things go wrong in that area. If it's a high-value or business critical contract, you need to nail down everything.
This is one area where a good consultant can earn his or her pay. An effective consultant is familiar with the industry practice in the area of expertise and should know what those terms really mean. The good consultant or lawyer can also spot “gotchas” in the agreements that you might miss.
One thing to particularly watch out for is gaps between vendors' definitions of what constitutes sub-standard service. If one vendor says you've got a problem on the line with 30 dB of noise and the other says there's no problem until the noise level reaches 50 dB, if the line tests out at 35 dB there is fertile room for finger-pointing. (This is what happened to me, and it's the main reason my Internet was out for two weeks.)
Looking for such gaps means going deeper into the documentation and service agreements than normal. However that's not necessarily a bad thing in itself. The more you understand about what your vendors are committed to, the better prepared you are for anything, whether or not it reaches the finger-pointing stage.
Close, But Not Too Close
Beyond selection and agreements, comes the basics of Vendor Relationship Management (VRM). That includes maintaining a close, but not too close, relationship with your mission-critical vendors. This serves several purposes, including easing day-to-day problems, knowing what's going on inside the vendor by providing a back channel around the customer service droids, and having a source of advice when the conventional customer service process stalls.
However it's not good strategy to get in bed with any vendor. A vendor who thinks they've got a lock on your business is likely to be less helpful than one who is occasionally reminded that you have alternate sources. The goal is to have a close-but-not-too comfortable relationship with your major vendors. You want to be close enough to your vendor that the vendor will go the extra mile for you, but not so close the vendor takes you for granted.
(How do you know when you're too close to the vendor? One way is when you're getting perks that don't help your business. Steak dinners and rounds of golf may be nice, but they're typically used to reward customers that the vendor thinks are a lock.)
Incidentally, don't assume that by having one neck to cut off in case of trouble you won't have these problems. Vendors like to promote the single-source idea as a cure for all kinds of troubles, but the truth is more complex. Vendors, especially big ones, often have problems getting different departments signing off on the same page. Just because you've only got one vendor involved doesn't guarantee no-finger-pointing. However it does tend to make the problem easier to resolve by escalation.
But What About My Problem?!
While prevention is nice, it doesn't always work. The time may come when you've got a problem and all the vendors involved are pointing fingers at each other. At this point your VRM and negotiating skills get a workout.
Realize that this is essentially a negotiating situation. The vendors have stated their initial positions – which is that you're out of luck. But that doesn't necessarily end the issue.
A related concern is how much a solution is worth to you. Obviously this is not going to make you feel warm and fuzzy about the vendors, but how much will to cost you to make changes? Frustration aside: There's a dollar value on this situation and you need to decide what it is.
Getting down to the nitty-gritty, the first step is to be proactive about problems. If you sit by the phone and wait for the vendors to call you to tell you about the problem, you're going to waste a lot of time and slow the whole process down. You should always try to get frequent updates from the vendors in the event of a problem, no matter what the cause. You don't have to be a total pest, but be firm about this.
The next step is to take copious notes on any vendor contact. You want to document everything anybody says to you. You may need that later and it can prevent misunderstandings.
When you hit vendor gridlock, the magic phrase is, “Let me speak to your supervisor.” In other words, you need to escalate the problem, and you may need to keep escalating it as far as it takes. First-line people, especially techs, have a limited authority to fix problems. The people further up the line usually have more authority.
Try to arrange a conference among the supervisors at all the involved vendors. Usually these people only know what their techs are telling them, and they may not have the full story. Having the supervisors talk to each other can get around this. Incidentally: Don't feel you have to be part of this conference. Having you on the call could well muck up the problem.
While this is going on, you need to be firm and push. Usually as you go up the chain the people involved have a broader view of the customer relationship, and that often makes them more amenable to pressure. Losing a volume of business, bad PR, or breaking a long-term relationship won't mean much to a first-level tech, but they'll be more significant to a manager.
It doesn't hurt to have researched alternatives so you can drop the information into your conversations. The fact that you know that X provides an equivalent service at a better price is often enough to unsettle a reluctant manager and make that vendor more willing to help solve your problem.
Finally, get it resolved one way or another. As it says in the I Ching, “perseverance furthers.” Make it clear that one way or another you're going to get the problem solved – even if it means dumping all the vendors involved.
For most IT managers this is not a fun process. It's wearing, and it goes against the grain. About the only people who really enjoy this process are lawyers, and they make lousy IT people. But sometimes it's necessary for an IT manager to do it. Try to keep a cool head, a grip on your temper – and the Louisville Slugger in the closet.