Vendor Management and the Unattainable Goal


It starts as a spreadsheet full of tickets. The customer feels that they’re not being heard, and they work with their sales team  to produce a record of everything they have ever asked for. This record of course falls victim to the problems described here: 4/5ths of the responses are some kind of redirection that isn’t getting followed because the sales team isn’t working with product management.

And so the spreadsheet grows, and product evolves, and the two have no relationship with each other. Eventually, there’s a breaking point. Someone gets mad enough that a product manager is contacted to talk about the spreadsheet. The PM has got zero time for this. They skim through the sheet and see that many of the tickets are closed duplicate or cannot repro. They pick out a half dozen real issues, and tell the sales team which ones are already fixed or planned for fixing. There’s also some feature requests, some of which are invalid for various reasons, some old enough to go to school. I’ve seen at least five that could go to middle school for that matter. As a PM, if you’ve got a feature request that hasn’t gotten done in five to ten years, you’re probably not going to prioritize it now unless something has radically changed. It hasn’t been blocking success. 

Most PMs are challenged enough to handle keeping their bug tracker deduplicated and accurate: they’re not going to add managing a spreadsheet for every customer. It’s the field engineer’s job to do this (sales engineer, technical account manager, customer success manager, et al). Maybe they do, maybe they don’t and the customer does it instead. And then contract renewal time comes.

In my head canon, this is how the vendor manager came to be, in the misty prehistory of enterprise sales. Some accounts payable clerk saw the spreadsheet and quite reasonably asked, “then why are we paying full price for this renewal?” Their success led to the creation of a role, the person who plays defense and keeps the vendors off their game. I first encountered a vendor manager’s spreadsheet of tickets when selling to Sun Microsystems, but I’ve seen them at many other organizations large and small. The function is to drive down price by magnifying the appearance of dissatisfaction (real or otherwise). 

Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” The issue for a vendor’s product manager isn’t the spreadsheet or the vendor manager, it’s the unattainable goal. A poorly maintained spreadsheet with no conversations about the customer’s problems or the users’ use cases is just going to drive renewal profits down until the sales relationship withers and dies. One way or another, an unprofitable customer relationship ends with that customer using another vendor. Goofus the sales rep lets this happen and blames the product organization.

Gallant the sales rep does not let the vendor manager drive, but rather works with them to find actionable targets and a mutually satisfactory outcome. In terms of that spreadsheet, that means the following series of tasks:

  1. clean it up and get the bugs out of the way. Of course bugs need to be fixed. If they’ve been unusual, then they have an impact on the renewal price. Negotiate that as a one time event, rather than an assumption that vendor quality will always be bad.
  2. establish timing and a deadline. When is the next contract renewal or expansion event? If that’s three weeks away, you’re not likely to get anything done with feature changes. If it’s three months away, you can probably get them a change. If it’s three quarters away, sky’s the limit.
  3. drive meetings with the customer and product management to pull out three to five things the customer actually needs and ensure that there is a clear answer: “We will not do this in the foreseeable future”, “We agree with doing this but don’t know when”, “We will do this in the next release.”
  4. Engage leadership and find the quid pro quo. Neither side is really willing or able to contractually agree that features delivered will equal purchase order delivered; this is not professional services consulting. That said, it’s entirely realistic to see things like executives keynoting at each other’s conferences, partnership announcements, and marketing opportunities that wouldn’t have happened without a relationship based on set and met expectations.

Allowing unattainable goals to rule the relationship will not make anyone happy, ever.


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