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When you're buying, focus on opening up lines of communication, not on attemping to appear objective.

We’ve all been there, sat around a table talking to a series of vendors about how they’ll deliver our new site, or campaign, or brand.  

By the end of the day, we’ll be confused, up to our eyeballs in jargon, unable to remember quite who said what.

So we’ll make decisions based on subconscious intangibles. Did they feel like 'one of us'? Were the fonts in their proposal big enough? What was the last thing someone said about them in Twitter?

Or perhaps you’ve been there as a vendor. Reading ambiguous briefs that expect precise, fixed-price bids. Leaving a series of voicemails as you struggle to find someone to clarify basic facts. Pitching to a roomful of people who plainly never read the original brief.

I’ve been there from all sides. As customer. As vendor. As consultant helping the customer evaluate their options.

The latter is especially interesting. The levels of miscommunication are amazing.

For example, I’ve seen a vendor offer a 10% discount off their price, yet the customer never heard the offer. Because the vendor used its own language.

Did that matter? If the vendor can’t talk the customer’s language, it doesn't augur well for the major ecommerce implementation we were talking about. A 10% cheaper failure is still a failure.

The underlying problem is that we don't set up procurements for communication. We set them up to be 'objective'. We pretend we’ll rigorously gather data about the vendors. Then we’ll apply objective criteria to decide between them. As if we were robots.

We also set them up to reduce work for ourselves. We aim to push out the brief then let the vendor do all the work. Don’t bother us with options, you make the choices for us. Don’t ask questions, or if you do, do it in carefully orchestrated emails.

All of which closes down communication.

So we get responses that miss the mark. Or worse, we get responses that look good, but are actually well wide of what we need.  

Vendors assimilate the language of the brief and bend their solution to appear to fit it. We only find the contortions when we get into implementation.

I like to reverse the emphasis when I run procurements. I accept that objectivity is tricky, there will always biases in our perceptions, cognitive weaknesses affecting the way we think.  So I don’t focus on it.

Instead, I focus on maximising communication. Then we’ll at least have real information to play with.

So here’s my advice on setting up procurements:

1. Build a clear communications plan

I think we need at least the following:

    • A conference call after the brief has been delivered. Give the vendor a couple of days to read the brief, then set up a call. Help them understand the brief. Explain the factors that are driving it.  Let them bounce initial thoughts off you.

    • A vendor-run workshop. Once they've had time to frame their response, let them run a small workshop with your team. They can use this to gather more data, to explain options, whatever – it’s their workshop. They get information. You get to see how they operate.

    • A final conference call just before they submit their proposal. Questions always come up as you get into the details of writing a proposal. Give them a chance to ask these final questions, and hence get their proposal exactly targeted on your needs.

2. Respect vendors’ commercial confidentiality

If they think you’ll share all their thinking with their competitors, they won’t talk about it. You won't learn what they’re capable of, and they’ll end up aiming their proposal into the dark.

Make it clear that all the above sessions are one-on-one between you and the vendor. You may need to share some information more widely (e.g. if they identify mistakes in the original brief), but you’ll respect vendors’ confidentiality as much as possible.

3. Invest time in communication

The communication plan helps you manage your time. Calls and workshops happen at scheduled times, so you can fit other work around them.  

But you still need to allocate time to the set pieces. Make sure your entire team is involved.

This time is an investment.  If you don't spend it now, you’ll spend it with interest during implementation.

4. Control ad hoc communications

If you’ve planned the scheduled communications appropriately, you won't need a lot of ad hoc calls and emails.  

You need to be available if urgent queries come up, but otherwise be polite but firm: you won't respond to ad hoc communications. That saves everyone time.

5. Plan your evaluation 

People often spend a lot of time framing briefs, with very little thought about how they’ve evaluate the responses. That brings all those biases and cognitive flaws into play.

Before you send out a brief, think about what sort of responses you expect to receive, and about how you’ll evaluate those responses.  

That requires more than a scoring scheme – you need to agree just how a vendor’s response might map onto any given score.  

Do this, and you have a real chance at being objective in your final selection.

Focus on running a controlled procurement that maximises the exchange of information, not on presenting an image of pseudo-objectivity. That way everyone wins: vendors focus on projects that truly fit their capabilities, and customers get solutions that truly fit their needs.

Graham Oakes

Published 20 May, 2014 by Graham Oakes

Graham Oakes helps people untangle complex technology, processes, relationships and governance. He is contributor to Econsultancy.

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