Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
     —The Golden Rule

While the vast majority of vendors and consultants in our business are reliable, honest, and easy to do business with, many of us have, at one time or another, experienced a less satisfactory relationship with a technology, services, or content provider. When that happens, we might discuss our concerns with the vendor, or if the problem is too egregious, we may move on to a new provider, saying to ourselves that we would never behave like that.

But sometimes, we do. Deliberate or unintentional, we occasionally treat vendors and consultants in ways we would not like them to treat us. In years of working with vendors – and being a consultant – I have identified five ways clients can abuse the relationship, to our detriment:

  1. No intention to follow through. Imagine you are a vendor and you’ve just received an RFP from a potential client, so you begin the time-consuming process of responding. You submit your proposal and wait. And wait. And wait. Finally, you contact the client and find out that they were just “fishing,” to see what the market is like, or trying to get some prices to determine what the project might actually cost. You might learn that the people who issued the RFP did not have management’s commitment to fund the project, or, in some cases, weren’t even authorized to distribute the RFP in the first place.

  1. Something for nothing. Most vendors and consultants are quite willing to provide some intellectual capital and advice in anticipation of a possible engagement. They take this risk, knowing they will not win every deal. But imagine finding out that they designed the RFP process primarily to elicit free consulting or a software trial. Imagine looking at proposals from leading providers simply to collect ideas for an internal effort. When vendors are continuously on the “giving” end of the potential relationship, or when the “customer” postpones a possible project commitment to allow “just one more opportunity to try your software,” or “one more meeting with your top instructional designer,” they know something’s not right.

  1. Vendor already chosen. When you have already chosen a vendor (or are not planning to change vendors) but still solicit proposals “just to be sure” or to “see what’s out there,” you run the risk of alienating vendors and consultants who may be useful down the road. No vendor wants to continually submit proposals when there is no chance of selection. While it’s a good idea to occasionally test the waters, clients that habitually do this will find that the best vendors will not bother to participate in the future. This drains the pool of qualified providers that you may need should the preferred vendor become “unpreferred” in the future.

  1. Add-ons. Once the vendor is on board, some clients add more work to the project with an expectation that the vendor will provide additional services at no additional charge. Think of a home addition you might build. The blueprints are done, the contract is signed, and the work begins. Then you add an electrical outlet here, and some additional molding there. Contractors may oblige with a request or two; after all, they want you to be satisfied. But if the add-ons continue there could be conflict or, at the very least, a renegotiation of price and/or delivery times. Vendors and consultants in our business are similar; they strive for client satisfaction, but there is a point where additional add-ons deserve additional financial consideration. Clients who do not recognize this risk a very poor overall relationship, something no one wants.

  1. Failure of customers or clients to do their part. You should outline the responsibilities of all parties to a project in a statement of work and a contract. Once agreed upon, it is incumbent on all to live up to these terms. If, as a client, you are to provide a project manager or liaison, you should do so. If you agree to participate in meetings, you should show up. If the project plan specifies a turnaround time for content review, you should keep to the schedule. When entering a relationship, clients should be committed to their responsibilities and not just focused on those of the vendor. This is one of the leading causes of project cost and time overruns.

Why should we be cognizant of these five abuses? Because not only is each a bad business and ethical practice, but each has serious consequences for project results and the quality of the overall professional interaction. Success with vendors and consultants relies on mutual trust and reciprocity, and nothing will kill a project faster than to abuse the relationship.

I began this column with the Golden Rule, which every client should take to heart when dealing with vendors. If not, here’s another proverb vendors might be thinking as they walk out the door, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”