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Navigating the 7 stages of the vendor relationship

Our business relationships—the partnerships that help our businesses grow—can be a lot like our personal ones. There’s no single way to navigate the nuanced, sometimes choppy waters of any relationship, but there are some common characteristics, pitfalls, and communication techniques to help stay in sync for the long haul, whether you’re several years into your journey together or just embarking on it.

Love at first sight

The deal
You’d been looking around for a new partner for a while and lots of people lined up for the job. By now you’ve lost count of the number of cleverly named startups who want to join forces for HR, billing, customer service or marketing automation. Still, no one quite fit the bill and frankly you got busy with your team, projects, and deadlines. Then, they came along: that breath of fresh air who totally gets you. Their email was pitch-perfect. The chemistry was palpable at your first meeting. Those initial flutters made you wonder how you ever managed so many of the back end necessities—shipping, returns, or payroll—without their help.

What to watch out for
You won’t do yourself any favors by jumping, in a panic, into bed with the first partner to whip out their swag and sign-up discounts. Be honest: You felt the connection, but does the product actually check all the boxes? Will it be able to grow with your business? How much wine did you have at that lunch?

How to manage it
Being single as a Pringle can be hard when your business is scaling and your customer base is growing, making your You need support, and it’s past time to add to your tech stack, so ask yourself—and any potential vendor:

  • What problems can they solve for you?
  • What are your must-haves for investing in a tech partner, and what are the deal-breakers? (For example, have you looked into their downtime?)
  • Will the partner get to know your business and help you try to solve your goals?

Ask targeted questions, early on, so that there are no surprises once you're in bed together.

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The honeymoon phase

The deal
The spark has been ignited, the contracts signed, and everyone’s feeling great about the partnership. Regardless of what comes up in this phase, everyone’s needs are met with minimal struggle. Your system integration was like, wow. You’ve entered into a symbiotic, enviably equitable relationship you both are certain will last forever.

What to watch out for
OK, you’re humming along. But short of feeling fine about the state of things, have you taken your eyes off what you’re collectively humming along toward? Are there more celebrations and high-fives than kick-off meetings for what comes next? Don’t forget that there’s still work to be done, and future outcomes to begin planning for.

How to manage it
The honeymoon phase is exactly when you should be thinking about the future, actually.

  • Set goals, such as a dollar amount of projected budget savings, or expected increase, as a percentage, in productivity.
  • Commit to reviewing and adjusting the goals at a regular interval—especially if both businesses are growing and scaling quickly.
  • Do both parties know what the next steps are?

Your first fight

The deal
What’s a genuine relationship without some conflict? Inevitably, a system goes down, a bug invites itself to the party, or someone important was left off a meeting invite. You feel like you deserve some special attention, but maybe the glitch comes at a bad time. You both dig your heels in and then, when the situation cools down, you wonder how to get back that loving feeling.

What to watch out for
Awkward silences between emails and missed phone calls.

How to manage it
Don’t panic; it’s not a matter of avoiding fights, but fighting constructively when problems arise. Any business relationship is going to involve some give and take.

  • Don’t let your partner ghost on you—and don’t do it to them, either.
  • Go back to your goals and needs. What does everyone need out of the partnership?
  • Identify where you veered off track and what next steps you can take to prevent the issue from happening again.

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The Talk: Is it serious or are we just having fun?

The deal
This can be an uncomfortable question to ask—even to yourself—but how do you know when it’s serious? Signing a massive contract is a big step, and maybe you’re feeling better about a month-to-month subscription, a trial, or a pilot period. No one wants to waste time if this isn’t going anywhere, or if your first fight was a red flag that expectations might be out of sync.

What to watch out for
Rescheduled or missed meetings are one sign that they’re not in it for the long haul. Does it feel now like they’re all about the chase, or actually invested in seeing things through? Have your interactions with the potential partner been consistent from person to person, or with their brand promise?

How to manage it
Know what you want based on your team and business’ strategic priorities, and don’t be afraid to ask for it. That could mean being honest with yourself, and the other party, if you’d rather not pursue the relationship further. For some partnerships, this is the end of the road. And hey, it’s OK. It happens.

Have your interactions with the potential partner been consistent from person to person, or with their brand promise?

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Meeting the parents

The deal
Meeting the CEO of a potential partner is a huge deal. It raises the stakes on what was a peer-to-peer relationship into new territory once you start giving your companies’ respective leadership visibility into your world.

What to watch out for
Partners who stick around this long are in it to win it, and are likely unfazed by elevating the relationship a level. In fact,

How to manage it
At this stage, you’ve got to be prepared. There’s no need to suck up, but it’s a good idea to find out whether they have preferences for flowers, wine or sports teams.

  • Set up a meeting with teams directly involved in the joint project, and let your little light shine: demonstrate your experience and expertise in your space, and leave time and space to answers questions.
  • The Q&A phase may take longer than you think, and it may be more difficult than you first imagined. There could be curveball questions or folks in the meeting who aren’t sure you pass muster. The best approach is to take note of all questions and ensure they’re answered completely, accurately, and expediently—even if it takes a day or two to hunt down the answer. This way, you demonstrate that you’re a trusted partner that takes the time (but not too much time) to do things right.
  • Curveball questions aside, do as much homework ahead of time as you can. This helps ensure that even at the highest levels, the goals and objectives of this union are clear and complimentary for both parties.

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Put a ring on it

The deal
If your meeting with the CEO went well (and, if you did your homework, why wouldn’t it?) you might want to put a ring on your potential partner to seal the deal.

What to watch out for

  • Go back to your must-have list from those early stages: Are they in the contract?
  • Read the fine print again.
  • Pay attention to changing attitudes or communication styles, or the wheeling back of promises after the handshake or signature.

How to manage it
Managing expectations is a constant in any relationship, so keep this high on your to-do list.

  • Stay on top of expiring sign-up offers, and make sure you’re aware of the cost of adding or modifying the terms of your service-level agreement or adding users or premium features. Better not to be surprised down the road.
  • Get engaged with all the resources your partner has to offer—sign up for their newsletter or blog, trainings or webinars, and follow their social handles so that you’ve created multiple pathways for connection and communication.

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It’s not you, it’s me (OK, maybe it’s a little bit you)

The deal
A few fights later (big ones, small ones), you might be wondering if the relationship still has legs. Sh!t happens, of course: events in the business, including but not limited to mergers, changes in leadership, changing strategies and priorities, or budget woes sometimes means you have to cut ties even if things are going well. But maybe it’s actually best that both parties go their separate ways for completely different reasons.

What to watch out for
There are a variety of things that might be going chronically wrong, These include:

  • Passive-aggressive gaslighting: Looking for reasons they’re to blame, for issues large and small, because it couldn’t possibly be you.
  • Or, the opposite: Forgiving repeated failures to meet deadlines and quality because breaking up isn’t possible (the contract!) or easy (because of the tangled web of operational dependencies).
  • Shutting down: Communication all but stops. And frankly, it feels like a chore.

How to manage it
Let’s face it, it’s over. So here’s how to pick up the pieces and move forward.

  • Do a retrospective: Were you properly managing expectations across the board? For example, were you respectful and communicative when deadlines or priorities changed?
  • Who picks up the project now? Who do you turn to when x, y, or z needs to get worked out? Setting priorities is always a good grounding activity post-break up: Some things may need to be removed from your team’s plate. What are they?
  • Even if you don’t want to win the partner back, what are the takeaways and learnings you can bring to your next partnership?

Whether you end up riding into the sunset together or decide to end your partnership (hopefully amicably), keeping the nuances of these stages in mind may head off headaches in the short and long term.