In the last year, I’ve relearned a valuable lesson in vendor research, short-listing, evaluation, selection and management, and it’s been a very painful, expensive, and embarrassing lesson for someone who should have known better. Yes, there’s no fool like an old fool, especially when we let our good intentions and personal relationships get in the way of VERY aggressive and methodical due diligence.
But this old fool will not be taken in again to this extent because the most important lesson relearned from this sorry experience is: at the very first sign that a vendor doesn’t cherish your business, so long before they’ve failed to deliver as promised, it’s time to end the deal. But let me take you back to the beginning of my sad little tale to demonstrate how the best laid plans of even an experienced project and vendor manager can lead her down the garden path of unmet expectations, failed delivery, vendor “divorce,” and starting over.
In mid-2013, we decided that our wonderful home, designed by us with an architect in 1997, built very well in 1998 and Q1 1999, now needed a thorough refresh and some enhancements. Aging infrastructure, our changing (lifestyle) requirements, new technologies and innovation of which we wanted to avail ourselves, and just the wear and tear of happy usage added up to our need for a fairly complete refresh. We had a pretty good idea what needed to be done, but we certainly needed both design and execution help to move with confidence and a workable level of impact on our “day jobs,” from the 1997/98 version of “Casa de Ranas” to a 2016 version of same. After all, an experienced consultant like me should value using outside experts when venturing into territory outside her areas of expertise.
After some research and reflection, we decided that we’d prefer to work with a design firm which would take full responsibility for the various projects, including the selection and management of all subcontractors, and a firm which had the in-house capability to source and select the kinds of fabrics, furniture, flooring etc. which fit our taste. It turns out that most of the higher end homes in our part of Florida are done in a faux Mediterranean style with myriad shades of beige as the prevailing interior design color, a design preference for gigantic furniture better suited to giants than to Ron and me, and a minimalist approach to the décor (except for really stupid things like having twenty decorative pillows on the master bed which have to be removed and rearranged daily). But our home is more cracker/Florida vernacular (which is well suited to the climate) with lots of bright colors, modestly-scaled eclectic furniture, tons of art work and object d’art (nothing minimalist about Bloom & Wallace), and nary a beige in sight. So we really needed a design firm that got it! So far, so good.
What should have happened next, as I’ve advised every corporate client I’ve ever had, was for us to educate ourselves pretty thoroughly about the interior design firms in our area that might have the capabilities of interest to us and then to narrow that list with a heavy dose of due diligence (designed of course for the type of vendor with whom we were planning to partner). But that’s the opposite of what we did, to our great regret. And before you fall off your chair laughing at our foibles, how many of you have (foolishly?) stuck with or plan to stick with your incumbent vendor when moving from on-premise HR technology to true SaaS without reviewing carefully your other options?
Instead, we homed in very quickly on a leadership team with whom we had a longstanding relationship, who claimed that they could meet our needs and be a good fit for our home, style, scope of work, and budget. Yes, they had had a few customer satisfaction and other business hiccups in the past, but their showroom and design studios (their user experience?) were gorgeous. Yes, we neglected to do full-scale reference checking, but these folks had been in business for years, were a major player, had tons of brand recognition and awards (don’t get me started on the zillion awards claimed by every HR tech vendor) and of course this wouldn’t be possible unless they delivered as promised most of the time. Do you see a pattern here?
Well, the rest (as they say) is history. The project began with good intentions all around and a lot of hard front-end discovery and design work, for which we paid on a time and materials basis. We liked the designer, and she was knowledgeable and capable. At first, we had her attention, but as the project progressed, 0ther projects with greater dollar value, prestige, brand-building potential increasingly captured her attention. Responsiveness slowed. But we were still in the design phase, when it’s often difficult to quantify how well things are going even though your “tummy tells you” that all is not well. But the bigger problems emerged — as they always do if you even get that far on a project headed for disaster — when it was time for this firm to execute.
I won’t bore you with all the details, but we saw it all — crummy quality, ridiculously long elapsed times, mismanaged subcontractors, and more. A custom piece estimated at six months max (think “custom” extension) was delivered after fifteen months and wasn’t what we expected. Re-upholstering was a comedy of errors, with fabrics ordered, delivered wrong, ordered again, delivered wrong, ordered again, etc. and then a good bit of poor quality results attributed to having their contractor speaking only Spanish when the design team didn’t. And did I mention that they lost Ron’s favorite reading chair, finally fessed up to that loss, then found it torn apart for re-upholstery long after we had put a hold on that task. Of course there were some excellent subcontractors, but a few questions quickly revealed that they were performing well in spite of the communications and scheduling failures of the prime. Ouch! And the worst part of all of this was my own sense of guilt, of feeling totally stupid, for getting us into this mess in the first place. Boy, can I understand why HR tech customers, having made too quick a decision to stay with their incumbent, are loath to admit that they’ve made a mistake.
By mid-2015, I’d gone from guilt over my own stupidity to anger at this vendor, and we stopped all work with them. But they still had work-in-process to which we were hostage, so I had to use every diplomatic KSAOC to work our way out of this without losing the value of that work-in-process. And even as I was nursing them along, we had to start over, researching other providers, creating a short list, conducting serious due diligence, selecting a new interior design firm, and bringing the new firm up-to-speed. That last point meant spending a lot of money to re-cover ground with the new firm that we had already covered with the familiar firm. And we also had to spend money to fix some of the shoddy work done by the “fired” vendor. Then there’s all the time we lost, first because the original vendor performed so SLOWLY, and then because it takes time to onboard a new vendor.
The new, much more carefully selected vendor is doing a great job, there’s visible progress at “Casa de Ranas,” and we should be pretty much finished with master bedroom and bath, entry, wine “cellar,” the living room part of our great room (our house’s center is one very large room, without walls, whose kitchen, living room, dining room areas are designated by the cabinetry and counters which wrap around the kitchen) by the end of the year (to include some architectural work with lighting and a new gallery-style hanging system for a growing collecting of artwork). Next up will be the kitchen part of the great room, for which the design work is nearing completion, key materials are being reviewed, and kitchen contractors are being vetted. Needless to say, the “fired” vendor is none too pleased, but they are behaving rationally.
Our remodeling project vendor management mistakes have cost us about a year and a half and a good bit of moola, but there are no significant downstream implications since Ron and I have managed to stay married despite the stress of having no living room and of my guilt and frustration. Not so lucky are those who make the same kind of mistakes when selecting HR technology vendors. Breaking up is much harder and more expensive, the downstream implications can include career death, and there are very real impacts on your organization whose ripple effects can be felt for years. So please do re-learn from my mistakes without having to make any more of your own.