Vendors, Subs and Other Bedfellows

Partnering with companies can be difficult, but it is very important.

Standing in line at the supply house, I heard the fellow in front of me talking to the employee working the counter.  

“I’m sorry, but that’s just not right. You can’t rip off people like that. Their prices are just out of control,” he said.   

The counterman asked, “Who are you talking about?”

“Hotrod and Yox.”  

Well. That was our company. And I recognized that the person doing the trash-talking was our supply house salesperson.  

This story happened more than 20 years ago, yet I still feel my blood pressure rise when I relive it. The knee jerk reaction would have been to punch that salesperson in the nose, make a big scene and vow never to use that supplier again.  

However, that might have been cutting off my nose to spite my face, or cutting off our primary supplier to humiliate that one ignorant fellow in a bad moment.  

The essential nature of business is relationships. That includes relationships with customers, team members, family members, subcontractors, vendors, manufacturers and suppliers. Business is community.  

Often, we expect our community partners to be as good as, or better than we are. I’ve come to accept, for the most part, that people are doing the best they can with the knowledge, training and understanding they have. Certainly, we had challenges at our company when we initially raised our prices. We had to dive deep into financial education and open book management to convince ourselves, and our team members, of the importance of charging a price that would cover all costs of doing business and allow us to be profitable.  

Over the years, I’ve been disappointed and let down by vendors, subcontractors, manufacturers and team members. It’s easy to throw your hands up and fire them, or sever the relationships, but to what end?  

As the saying goes, “When you point your finger, there are three fingers pointing back at you.” Whenever I come uncorked at someone, I end up doing something as bad or worse within days. Sigh.  

What if, instead, we committed to helping each other? What if we shook hands and said, “Hey, we all have business challenges and growing pains. Let’s get good together. Let’s meet to clarify expectations and responsibilities. We can create procedures as we go, to make sure we have a mutually successful relationship.”

Here are a few tips for getting the most from your partners:  

• When selecting a partner, use good recruiting and hiring procedures. Talk to their customers.  

• Meet in person if possible and over video chat if not. It’s always a good idea to look a partner in the eye as you size each other up. Trade shows are good for face-to-face meetings. You can meet at your shop, too.  

• Share your business plans, goals and mission. You don’t have to get into too much detail, but you want to communicate the big picture. Ask them to share theirs, too. 

• Communications should be in writing. Work with a contract and use email to correspond day to day. As my friend Al Levi says, “Know the way out before you go in.” So, agree to exit options. 

• Establish the flow of communication. Ever sign on with a vendor only to be handed off to someone you have never met? Determine who your contacts will be and what their responsibilities are. 

• Agree to a meeting schedule. I know, I know, another meeting!  But meetings eliminate phone tag and emergency texts. Meetings are your opportunity to communicate effectively.  Save questions that can wait for the meeting. 

• Clarify goals and timelines. Use your calendar to keep you on track.  Promise to tell the truth if you fall in a hole and miss a due date. Let’s get rid of the blame and the butt covering. Such a waste of time.  

• Establish some checks and balances. George Brazil once told me, “Don’t expect what you don’t inspect.” For example, suppose you choose to outsource your payroll. It may take one or two payroll cycles to get it right.  Ask your team to double check their checks. Encourage them to find the holes in the systems.   

• Write procedures as you go. Agree that we are all going to train team members on the procedures, and hold each other accountable. 

• “There’s an app for that!” I’m loving Trello. Trello is a free list-making and project management app. At ZOOM DRAIN we use it for our Master Projects List, and our Top Projects. So, for example, when implementing a new software program makes it to the Top Projects list, we create a Trello board. We invite our vendor to join us on the board, and collaborate on the Project. A cool thing about Trello (or Basecamp, Evernote, Wonderlist, Asana and a host of others) is that the lists are accessible from your phone, computer or tablet. On the board, we attach the agreement and any resources or files that we need to share. We list the flow of communication. We document who will do what by when. When we meet, we have the Trello board up, and we update it in real time. As items are completed, you can archive them, or save them to a Completed Projects board.   

• If you get off track, get back on. Even with people we know, love and trust, relationships can drift. If the project stalls, or if a “beef” develops, it’s time to meet and clear the air. Be willing to let go of being right and commit to moving the project forward. No need to trash talk or add to the drama. 

So, here’s what happened at the supply house. I left the counter line and went to the front offices. Then I asked to speak to the owner. In the privacy of his office, I recounted the incident.  

Then I asked him, “How many of your customers are behind in paying their supply house bills?”  

He said, “Over 700.”  

I suggested that he and his team may benefit from attending a Frank Blau seminar. (For those of you who are younger than me, Blau is an industry legend and the mentor who turned me on to the power of financial literacy.)

You see the supply house salesperson didn’t have the education I had. He had never done a breakeven analysis or put a budget together. A year before, I may have been that ignorant person criticizing a higher priced competitor.  

Start with the assumption that people are doing the best they can. You can help them get better. Of course, you could take your business elsewhere. However, are you coming to realize, as I am, that there are no perfect partners out there?  Including you and me.  

Ellen Rohr is president of the franchise company, ZOOM DRAIN, and offers “in the trenches” insights to contractors and family business owners. Reach her at 417-753-1111 or For free business tips, problem-solving webinars, money-making tools and lots of love, visit

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