The <i>Three Stooges</i> Vendor Accountability Program

Franchisee Columnist Todd Michaud has spent the last 16 years trying to fight IT issues, with the last six years focused on franchisee IT issues. He is currently responsible for IT at Focus Brands (Cinnabon, Carvel, Schlotzsky’s and Moe’s Southwestern Grill).

I am sick and tired of my vendors using the "other guys" excuse as the reason they miss their deliverables. I currently have a project involving three different vendors that is going to miss its second deadline extension. Each of the vendors is basically crossing its arms and pointing at the other two. The next person to tell me, "Hey, we did everything right; you need to talk to those other guys" is not going to like the conversation that follows.

Like many franchise IT shops, we rely heavily on a stable of vendors that provide services for different components of our retail technology landscape. Franchisees contract directly with these providers for services (for example: POS, broadband, credit card processing, etc.). In some cases, we also outsource core IT functions as part of a right-sizing strategy, basically expanding our staff through third-party consultants to meet specific project demands. This approach allows us to maintain a small internal IT staff that manages a large number of third-party resources.

One of the toughest things for an IT person to adjust to when moving into this type of environment is the lack of direct control over IT outcomes. The IT team is not directly supporting the store systems. Its primary responsibility is to manage vendors that are accountable for delivering services to the franchisees. While this arrangement allows us to be highly scalable, it creates significant opportunity for finger-pointing and blame-shifting.

Here's how frustrated franchisees' conversations typically sound:

"Hello, this is your POS company. How can I help you today?"
"My credit cards aren't processing."
"The POS is fine; contact your credit card company."

"Hello, this is your credit card company. How can I help you today?"
"My credit cards aren't processing."
"Everything is fine on our side; contact your network company."

"Hello, this is your network company. How can I help you today?"
"My credit cards aren't processing."
"Your network is fine; contact your POS company."

"Hello, this is your franchisor IT team. How can I help you today?"
"My credit cards aren't processing and after spending the entire day on the phone, I've learned that apparently it's no one's fault. Your vendors suck! YOU SUCK!"

The same thing can easily happen with projects. Deadlines are missed, and the "Accomplishments" section of the status report starts to show things like, "Held a meeting with all parties to discuss a format for the interface." Wait a minute, "discuss?" How about "decide on?"

And operational scorecards start having items like, "Waiting for this other company to do something. Once that is complete, we can do our thing." Really? How about something like, "We are proactively reaching out to our primary contact at the other company to get a status of when we can expect this other thing to be done so we are ready to do our thing ASAP. Per the last update on Thursday, we expect a resolution by Tuesday." It is easy to fall into this trap. Once you do, it is hard to get out. From my experience, here are a few tips for keeping people honest and pulling their fair share of the project's weight.

  • Remove "soft" words from the vendor's vocabulary. Replace them with "hard" words. Shame them publically in meetings if they don't take subtle hints. For example:
    • "We should…" becomes "We will…"
    • "We might…" becomes "We are…"
    • "We think…" becomes "We know…"
    • "We are waiting on them…" becomes "The latest update from them is…"
    • "We hope…" becomes "Get the *%#*$%& out of my office!"
  • Don't let the details slide. I have fallen victim to being lulled into a sense of security by things looking OK on the surface when they in fact have problems lurking underneath.
  • Keep an eye out for the "Game of Chicken." If several vendors are behind and they all know it, each may hope that the other cries "Uncle" first, leaving them off the hook. Sniff out the slackers by making sure you have status updates from each organization in addition to an overall update.
  • For support issues, implement an umbrella organization to manage the back-and-forth between vendors. Although this type of organization often demands an additional cost, the time and hassle you'll save are significant.

I don't think there is any way to completely remove this issue from a multi-vendor environment. It comes with the territory. But managing all the individual pieces at a much tighter level can make a big difference in the performance of the project or the effectiveness of the support team.

Another good tool is to execute "Lesson's Learned" after the project's completion. Specifically, draw out examples of these types of problems. Discuss with the team how you can better work through such issues in the future. Make sure all your vendors understand your expectations about improvements.

Another idea is to have a section of your Operations Performance Reviews (assuming you do them) focus on "Finger Pointing" incidents. Do a mock-up walkthrough of the problem that happened and determine what could have been done differently to avoid a similar run-around in the future.

What do you think? Love it or hate it, I'd love to gain some additional perspectives. Leave a comment, or E-mail me at [email protected].