Outside suppliers can be a curse or a godsend to firms: depending on how you hire and manage them.
Over the years, professional services firms have learned the value of having strong in-house administrative roles. This includes a marketer or even a marketing department. Such professionals can go a long way toward assisting a firm with focus, consistency and accountability in terms of the implementation of their marketing strategy. But internal resources can only do so much. For various reasons it may be at times necessary (or at least advantageous) for a firm to hire outside help.
Professional services marketers today are expected to be experts in a broad range of areas including but not limited to: practice and client team management, client service, CRM programs, RFPs, branding and corporate image, internal and external communications including PR, advertising, newsletters and marketing collateral production, marketing plans, client event management, website development and maintenance, social media, the list goes on. Depending on the workload and available marketers, there may not be sufficient resources for all items to be handled by internal marketing resources. Some areas may be more efficiently handled through outsourcing.
Markets may be multi-capable but they still remain generally within their core competency. So when a firm requires an ad campaign to be created, it’s likely this design work would go to an outside agency. The same goes for photography, some event management, production of products with the firm name on it, catering needs for a client function, etc. These are usually areas of expertise that are required from time to time by a firm. It makes little sense to pay for a full-time internal resource to manage these functions when you can hire the expertise externally as needed.
There are some areas that might be too complex for a busy internal marketer to handle in addition to their regular duties. Examples of such work includes things like scoping a new website project and managing the RFP; or selecting, implementing and training on a new CRM system. There are also some special projects that are so rare, internal markets may not have sufficient experience to be able to oversee them in a firm: strategic planning is one such example.
Occasionally, outside assistance must be brought in as a strategic move. Partners may not believe that internal resources truly know the best answer to a marketing question. Consultants are frequently used to serve as the outside expert to convince a firm to move in a direction that the marketer would have suggested in the first place. But the goal is to get agreement to move forward; so if an outside party is needed to get there, so be it. And depending on the issue, an outside provider might legitimately be more experienced in and knowledgeable and objective about the issue than anyone within the firm.
The outside supplier selection process depends on several factors, including time available for the process itself. On occasion firms have an urgent need for a service and will engage the first supplier they believe is credible. But if time is available, suppliers should be asked to pitch for work. This can include a written submission (and potentially an in-person meeting) where the supplier provides information on skills and capabilities, experience, examples of their work, and references. Suppliers can also be asked to quote on defined projects (such as taking headshots of all lawyers in a firm).
In comparing suppliers, you want to analyze price, quality, and how they are to work with. In my experience, importance of these factors is in the reverse order to how I have just listed them.
I recently dealt with an outside supplier that went against my instructions and went directly to the lawyers to try to sell their version of an idea. This type of behaviour can cause enormous cost in time, money and energy in trying to fix the situation. You want to work with outside suppliers that listen to and follow instructions.
You also want suppliers who are responsive and able to stick to deadlines and cost estimates (or advise you when those might be exceeded).
Your supplier must also be professional and able to interact as need be with members of your firm (and your clients if necessary) without causing embarrassment. So caterers must be respectful and presentable at all times, for example.
Quality of work and price are also very important considerations; but it is usually the inability to meet the needs detailed above that lead to termination of an outside supplier.
Once you have secured the ongoing services of an outside supplier, respect and nurture the relationship. Give as much advance notice as possible on jobs. Pay promptly. Treat the individuals with respect. Thank them for their services – paying them on time is good, but a thank you creates mutually respect and appreciation, which leads to greater loyalty. You never know when you might have to ask them to do something on a rush basis. And wherever possible, refer them other work to further cement your relationship with them.
With time and experience, good outside suppliers they will come to know the firm so well (and you will come to know them so well) that they act like on-demand temporary employees of your firm. Having a roster of such individuals that you can absolutely rely on when and as needed is an important component of a well-run business, and a sane business manager!