Managing Vendor Project Managers
By: Mike Klinger - Anzu Global
08 March 2008
This article is about the treatment, support and retention of Vendor Project Managers (VPM) working for translation vendor services companies. These are suggestions to owners and upper management on the nurturing of the VPM.
This is not meant to be a substitution for streamlined production processes, proper translation tool utilization, experienced senior management guidance and competitive salary and benefits. Nor is it a suggestion to hold on to underperforming employees. Rather, this is about how to better treat your strong performers and maintain their loyalty. Owners and senior managers that do not support their strong performers or create a positive work environment will lose their top talent and have trouble attracting others of equal ability. Bad news travels fast.
Value of a Vendor Project Manager
The importance of the VPM cannot be overstated. This person is the face of your company to your partners, clients and internal staff and may impact anywhere from ten to one hundred people weekly. They play a crucial role in the success of your translation services company. They are often the daily point person to your top revenue producing clients. They may be the decision maker with your freelancers of Single Language Vendors—negotiating rates, scheduling, troubleshooting, blaming or praising your virtual or in-house resources on a daily basis.
For comparison, think of nurses in an emergency room or a receptionist in a small metropolitan law office. If this person is unhappy, disgruntled, overworked and undervalued, they become a poor ambassador to your organization.
A Vendor Project Manager often works long hours and receives relatively low wages (relative to the client side and project managers in the technology industry in general). These are conditions that are hard to change. The long hours relate to the global challenges and deadlines of a translation service. The high volume-low margin of the commoditized translation industry makes it difficult to justify high salaries for VPMs.
The problem lies in the treatment of these overworked, underpaid employees. Vendor upper management does not seem to consistently reward, value, train and support their vendor management team. The result is the rampant turnover of vendor project management; they do not stay with their employers long term. As a globalization staffing service, I am often contacted by disgruntled VPMs who have multiple complaints and desperately want to leave their vendor employer. The hidden company cost of turnover is new training, low production and loss of revenue. Client loyalty is minimal in the translation services industry, and if the experienced VPM leaves Vendor X, it is not unusual for Client Y to leave Vendor X a short time later.
Team Solutions: Esprit de Corps
In Disney’s The Jungle Book there is a scene where an older, pompous elephant, much to the chagrin of his younger son, reminisces about his time as military leader of the Maharaja’s Fifth Industry, the key to his outfit’s success. “It was Esprit de Corps …”
One way to keep your VPMs happy is to promote a strong team spirit. In the early days of International Communications (later purchased by Lionbridge) there was a very happy team of young, overworked and underpaid international project managers. They spontaneously organized coed soccer matches, and the patriotism of the French, Brazilians, Germans and Koreans contributed to the fervor of the games. Working on weekends, they often held well attended parties full of ethnic food, music from the different countries, drinking and dancing. Despite the low pay and long hours, the team was happy. Turnover was low; many project managers worked up to eight years in the organization because they liked working with their peers.
For many organizations, however, spontaneous soccer matches or weekend parties may not be an option. There are a multitude of effective low cost alternatives to team building. Spontaneously take the whole group to a movie on a Friday afternoon. Bring your overworked team to a local wine tasting, mid-week, after finishing a difficult project. Discover the interests of the team and incorporate them into your activities: go to a museum, arboretum, baseball game, miniature golf, sledding, or a hike. The list is endless. The key is valuing and investing in your VPM team.
Individual Feedback: Keep It Simple
A simple, often overlooked strategy—positive feedback.
VPM manager Judy delivers a large, complex translation project to your top account. She worked late nights, weekends and did an excellent job merging the disparate Translation Memories, working around Chinese New Year, changing French resources to improve quality issues. The client is quite happy with the result.
Here is a simple response as Judy’s manager: approach Judy and tell her, “Good job.” Then be specific about the actions you appreciated. Or write her a card, if this is more comfortable for you, praising her work. Additionally, you could email the entire team, and praise Judy for the work she did on this project, being specific about the skills you valued.
You could use positive feedback as a production management tool for your VPMs. Choose five measurable skills/results you want to develop in your team. Examples include on-time delivery, 40% profit margins, Customer satisfaction Quality translation Effective Translation Memory management. For Customer Satisfaction, for example, create a simple rating sheet to be delivered to the client on project completion. Or for TM management, create a checklist of ten steps per project to be filled out by the VPM upon project completion. Calculate the results of your measurable skills survey on a monthly basis and post the winner and their score. Have the winner explain to the team the steps he/she had taken. Take the winner out to dinner, or put their baby picture up in the hallway with stars, or announce their results in a team meeting.
Upper management should also be soliciting feedback from the VPM about project processes. Ask the VPM what processes are working and what is not working. Include a Quality Review form for each project and have the VPM complete this. Or keep it basic and use a virtual suggestion box and incorporate a suggestion a month. By implementing the VPM’s suggestions, you improve the project process and encourage and empower your employee to make future improvements.
Review and Training
If you want to support your VPM and improve their performance, create a review process which evaluates and reinforces the performance you look for (as described above). Do a quarterly review with the VPM and be specific about the areas of strengths and weaknesses. Write out action plans for the next quarter and track the results. This is an excellent way of evaluating, training and supporting the VPM.
Provide training to add value to your VPM and as a means of further leveraging an effective review process. For example, during the review, you determine the VPM needs better skills in managing Translation Memory. As a follow-up, have the company pay for a weekend seminar on Trados, or offer to pay partial tuition for PMI certification. If your VPM does a lot of work with Japanese vendors, pay for a Japanese language class, tutor or a Rosetta Stone Japanese course. In short, the investment you make in training for your VPM will be rewarded through improved quality, lower turnover and happier employees.
There are many ways to reward your employees. The rewards can be informal, formal or for specific accomplishments as a team or individually. A successful staffing firm in Waltham, MA had a wonderful way of rewarding their team for a specific accomplishment. If the whole company exceeded their annual revenue goals by 20%, they would fly all the employees to Bermuda for a weekend celebration. So throughout the year, clever posters were all around the office, revenue was tracked monthly and activity and excitement often picked up near the end to reach the goal. For almost ten years running, the company exceeded quota and flew to Bermuda.
This was a worthwhile endeavor for all. The company increased profits, employees morale was high, turnover was low and productivity was through the roof. Clients benefited also as they maintained effective, energetic long term relations with their vendor manager.
Not all companies or groups can afford to fly their team to Bermuda. But there are multiple lower cost options to reward your VPM team. Go white water rafting, take a trip in a hot air balloon, and allow your French VPM an extra week’s vacation to visit the family in Paris. Need more ideas, get 1001 Ways to Reward Employees by Bob Nelson.
Another wonderful way to support your VPM team members is to donate time or money to charities. Presently, at Anzu Global, we have sent medicines, well pumps and school supplies to a village in West Africa (http://www.anzuglobal.com/communityservice.html). Many globalization vendors make charitable donations—Idem Translations in CA and Lingoport in CO, to name two. Through charitable contributions, the VPM sees additional benefits to their work.
There is much to be said for donating time and volunteering as a team in the local community. At my former company, we organized group outings at a soup kitchen serving the homeless, providing career counseling to the underemployed and painting rooms in a low rent elderly housing community. These outings were wonderful: we gave back to the community, grew as a team and gained greater appreciation of our own work.
Ignore this article
Is any of this true? I am reminded of a dialogue between a believer and an agnostic. The believer concludes, “…I am doing good deeds, supporting charitable causes, honoring my family and live with humility. Even if I am wrong about my assumptions, it is not a bad way lead this one life.” Likewise, even if cultivating team spirit, rewarding your employees, providing training and volunteering do not impact your company profits, it is not a bad way to lead your one organization.