The Client-Vendor Partnership: It Takes Two to Tango
By: Katrina Nabavi (Dell) - Dell Computer Corporation
06 March 2015
While knee-deep in the daily demands of production and deadlines, it’s easy for both clients and vendors to overlook the key factors in a successful relationship: people and partnership.
Dell has one of the most centralized translation models in the industry, with a dedicated localization team, a complex TMS, and automated tools for everything from submitting invoices to tracking SLAs. However, we rely on our vendors to be so much more than just button-pushers. Shuffling files along the queue is fine much of the time, but we expect vendors to invest time learning the nuances and needs of our different business units, understand where the company is heading, and make sure they select the right team for the job.
What are clients looking for?
We estimate it takes nine months to get a new translation vendor fully up to speed on a complex corporate account; therefore it’s not in anyone’s interest to switch vendors yearly based on lowest-price bids or optimistic promises of two-hour turnarounds. We’ve focussed instead on building up a long-term partnership with both our vendors and, tellingly, the only two times in our team’s seven-year existence when we’ve switched vendors had nothing to do with the common bugbears of price, turnaround or quality — it boiled down to personalities. Virtually as soon as the ink dried on contracts, we could feel that the teams assigned to our account weren’t a good fit for us.
So, even if the translation work itself isn’t causing any headaches, what types of vendor behaviors are guaranteed to slowly undermine the ‘warm fuzzy’ feeling of a new partnership? Examples I’ve observed are:
- An obvious focus on making new sales within the company rather than pleasing current teams
- Expecting clients to adapt to their way of doing things rather than vice versa
- Sending across ‘interesting’ (read: disparaging) news or rumors about rivals
- And most importantly, the inability to simply own up to a mistake, suggest improvements, and move on
On a more positive note, our successful vendors have managed to do pretty much the opposite: set up a team that mirrors the way Dell works, with people in locations globally ensuring round-the-clock coverage, project managers in the same time zones as ours, senior leadership in the same time zones as ours, and so on. They’ve adapted their sales reporting to our unusual fiscal calendar (11 months ahead of the standard year, if you were wondering), responded to the occasional tactful suggestion that a team member is maybe not up to the account, or that the role could be best fulfilled from a different time zone, and ensured that there is constant dialogue.
What’s in it for the vendor?
This being a partnership, rather than a one-way relationship, we’ve also made commitments on our side. Vendors often feel pressured into agreeing to unreasonable client requests for fear of losing the account, but given our role as an intermediary between Dell stakeholders and the vendors, we’re happy to play the bad cop role and push back if someone approaches us expecting a vendor to translate 50,000 words by Friday, or give a discount on their one-page job because budget’s tight. The vendors can also raise issues with us that are making it hard to complete a certain team’s work on time or within budget, and we can resolve internally.
Both our vendors know that we split our spend evenly between them, so there’s no need for one to try and ‘poach’ work from the other. Pricing is confidential but everything else is transparent. Turnaround times, quality expectations, and escalation paths were agreed-to jointly between the three of us, and our vendors can see each other’s metrics. Production issues and recommendations are often cross-vendor discussions. One might have more experience in one area and be able to offer input; the other will be stronger in something else.
Localization ‘holiday camp’
Key to cementing our partnership are bi-annual partner summits, where everyone meets in person for several days of problem-solving and innovation, with some entertainment thrown in. At the first summit, we weren’t sure how the vendors were going to interact, and they didn’t know what to expect either, this being a new experience. But no one threw darts at each other (unless they teamed up and made a Dell dartboard after we left) and although the companies remain rivals professionally, their partnership on our account has strengthened after each summit, to the point where we recently asked them to brainstorm without us, and report back jointly on where we could innovate further still.
Bearing the brunt: the vendor PM
Looking at relationship-building on an individual level, interacting with clients can be daunting for a junior project manager. I know this, as I still remember being six weeks into my first graduate job at a vendor and having to take on a software localization account due to a colleague’s sudden illness. Various guidelines for dealing with ‘The Client’ were impressed upon me, and I was off, chairing incomprehensible (to me) calls about regression testing, platforms, and builds. I gradually learned the technicalities of the job, but I look back now, having seen business from the other side of the fence, and wish that first client had told me the following:
- Unless in a localization role, most clients are not remotely interested in translation as an elevated art form, more as a necessary evil in order to market products somewhere/fulfil legal requirements/understand what some irate person in France is suing them for. It’s good to understand what their background motivation is.
- Clients may have had hours of calls already by the time they get to your big moment: the translation weekly status call. Take audio cues as to whether they want to hear an exhaustive account of the last week’s work, or a 10-second overview and a nice chat about golf.
- Clients panic when they get radio silence from their vendor PM. Their PM is probably working all hours, finding a replacement for the translator who just flounced off in an argument over rates, coaxing the DTP team to fix that upside-down image before lunch, trying to get a deadline - any deadline - commitment from engineers. The client, blithely unaware of all this, will suspect his PM has suddenly disappeared on an exotic holiday, leaving his launch in the lurch, unless she shows regular signs of life.
Everyone (yes, even the tetchiest client or shyest PM) is human, and responds well to the more personal touch within a business relationship. Sales guys are great for taking the boss out for lunch (mine’s asked me to state he prefers sushi), translators and engineers all play an important part, but it’s the PMs who are the daily face of the engagement; and that relationship, more than bad sushi or a missed deadline, is what makes or breaks the partnership. Instead of hiding behind dry business e-mails, invest time meeting face-to-face to share a pint, learn what people’s hobbies are and where their spouse is from. Some of our vendor team has been on our account for so long and knows our company so well, we joke that they must have true Dell-blue blood in their veins*, and that’s invaluable.
(*Disclaimer: no vendors were actually harmed to test this hypothesis!).
After completing a degree in French and German, Katrina Nabavi worked for a UK-based localization vendor for six years, including a stint managing their Tokyo office. Katrina then joined Dell, where she has held various translation roles in the last decade, and had the opportunity to help centralize fragmented translation processes into a global operating model. She is currently the Engagement Lead for this central team.