I'm a big fan of Joel Spolsky, but I take issue with his latest post advocating micromanagement of vendors. To my thinking much depends on the type of vendor relationship.
Joel argues that the hands-off style of management that works well with your own internal staff of very smart, dedicated people, doesn't work with outside vendors. He then recounts a horrible experience he had trusting a conference organizer to handle important details and having them fail miserably.
This leads him to conclude:
At the top of every company, there's at least one person who really cares and really wants the product and the customer experience to be great. That's you, and me, and Ryan. Below that person, there are layers of people, many of whom are equally dedicated and equally talented.
But at some point as you work your way through an organization, you find pockets of people who don't care that much. For them, it's a job. They just want to get through the day and don't find it upsetting that the video switching is slow and the Wi-Fi went down and the geeks couldn't get to their Twitters. If you're lucky, none of those people are employed by your company. But the minute you begin to rely on outside vendors, you expose yourself to their people, some of whom inevitably just won't care enough or know enough or have the right skills to deliver the awesome experience you're trying to deliver.
The thing is, Fog Creek Software is a vendor, as is RKG. He's a bit guilty of pooping on the folks he relies upon while forgetting that other folks rely on him and his company. We don't believe that we need to be micromanaged, and I'll bet Fog Creek doesn't think they do either.
But he's right, of course. We trust our people because we know them, but we're much more suspicious of the folks downstream of us who could end up making us look bad.
Like him, RKG has always operated under the philosophy: "Hire hard; manage easy; fire hard." We set a really high bar for hiring folks. There is so much to learn, and so much responsibility on our analysts' shoulders, we simply can't afford mediocre hires. Once they're up to speed, we have oversight -- trust, but verify -- but aren't overbearing. If we have to babysit we made a bad hire. We fire and move on. Because our hiring standards are high, we don't have to worry about this last step very often.
I've made the argument that similarly: if a company has to micromanage its paid search vendor it's time to find another vendor.
But how can we expect trust from our clients, when we don't generally trust the companies we hire?
Here are my thoughts:
- Trust takes time to build. The more someone says "trust me" the less I trust them. When using a vendor for the first time it absolutely makes sense to check their work and make sure they're handling the details that need to be handled.
- The likelihood of receiving top-notch vendor service varies proportionately with the likelihood that you'll use their services again if satisfied: The one-time conference organizer versus the CPA firm. If their business depends on repeat customers, they're more likely to take care of your needs.
- On a related note: likelihood of vendor excellence also varies proportionately with the importance of your account to their business. None of us are individually very important to our cable company, and it shows.
- Another key indicator is how well the vendor treats its own people. If the vendor treats its people badly the odds of having an apathetic account rep skyrockets.
Number 1 is the controlling entity. The first time you use a vendor you don't know what to expect. You have to check up on them to make sure everything works the way it must. If the relationship is a one time affair, micromanagement is the right way to go.
That said: the vendors you use all the time have to be worthy of trust. If you can't trust them why on earth would you use them again? If you can trust them why on earth would you waste your time/money looking over their shoulder? Just like bad employees, bad vendors don't need more supervision, they need to be fired.