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How to Confront a Content Vendor Performance Issue

No matter how much time you spent picking your content vendor or how much you like working with them, there are going to be times when you’re disappointed in them.

Former IMPACT VP of Marketing and host of The Inbound Success Podcast Kathleen Booth said it well when discussing her tips for choosing an agency partner:

“In my experience, even when you feel you’ve picked the perfect agency, problems still inevitably occur. I liken it to marriage. Just because you’ve found the ‘perfect’ guy and you’ve gotten married doesn’t mean there won’t be bumps in the road. And just like a healthy marriage, it takes two committed partners to work through those problems and build a strong and positive agency-client relationship.”

The same is true for your content vendor. You’re two different groups of people with good days, bad days, reasonable expectations, unreasonable expectations, and everything in between.

Even if your vendor is meeting typical standards of production quality, there are other issues that could arise:

  • Their understanding of your customers could be lacking, to the point where it’s hurting the quality of the content.
  • The content isn’t performing well in terms of audience growth and lead generation, signaling irrelevance to your audience.
  • They can be difficult to work with, either in terms of clashing personalities or, perhaps worse, apathy toward underperformance and lack of initiative to improve.

Hopefully, those times will be infrequent. But when they do come up, you should be prepared to tackle these challenges head-on.

Follow these seven steps to help an underperforming content vendor get your business and brand moving forward again.

1. Do your homework.

Before you confront your vendor, take a few minutes and gather all the facts.

It may seem like an obvious step, but intentionally assessing the situation will ensure that you’re coming from a “facts first” standpoint and not relying on your personal opinion.

This not only puts you in a position of strength, it puts both you and your vendor in the best position to find a solution to the problem. 

Here are a few examples of how you can put this into practice:

  • Instead of saying “we’re not making a big enough impact,” say “we haven’t seen 10% audience growth each month, which is what we agreed would be an indicator of good performance.”
  • Instead of saying “the content isn’t good enough,” say “the content isn’t addressing a real customer problem” or “this answer isn’t specific enough in answering the question at hand.”
  • Instead of saying “you’re not responsive,” say “we need to round up at least once a week to remain effective.”

Focusing on facts, while it doesn’t de-personalize the conversation entirely, shifts you away from talking about the people and instead focuses on the work.

While this doesn’t guarantee that you’ll fix the problem, it puts you in the strongest position to do so.

2. Don’t assign blame. Instead, solve a problem.

Assigning blame does no one any good. Focus instead on what your content vendor needs to do to both solve the problem and keep it from happening again in the future.

There’s a fine line between blame and accountability. According to organizational change expert Dr. Marilyn Paul, “Where there is blame, there is no learning. Where there is blame, open minds close, inquiry tends to cease, and the desire to understand the whole system diminishes.

So how do we understand the difference between blame and accountability? Leadership development expert Michael Timms has some ideas for how to distinguish between the two.

“To be accountable is to be held responsible for results for results, good or bad,” Timms says. “It means finding solutions to problems and applying lessons learned in order to improve future results.

He continues: “Blame is often assigned before all the facts are known and assumes that people, not the systems they operate in, are the problem.”

To use an analogy, try to find out where the train got off the tracks, rather than what the conductor was doing at the time of the trainwreck.

I find it helpful to frame is as a challenge. There’s a problem to be fixed, and both sides have responsibilities in fixing it. This is a more positive approach, and can foster drive, initiative, and creativity from both sides.

You can’t change the past. All you can do is fix things going forward.

3. Be clear and specific on what needs to change.

If you’re going to hold your content vendor accountable, then you need to be clear and specific as to what actions they should take to address the problem.

I’ll give an example from my own experience. As an inbound marketer at a small startup, my sales team regularly came to me saying “we need more leads,” even as we were generating a steady stream of leads month after month.

Vague statements like “we need more leads” don’t actually establish any expectations or a clear path forward. That’s why many organizations have a service-level agreement between marketing and sales.

These agreements establish clear and specific expectations on both sides. Marketing commits to delivering a certain number of leads, and salespeople commit to following up on those leads in a specific way.

The same applies to your vendor relationship. In fact, you may already have an SLA with them. At the very least, you should have a clear list of deliverables so everyone knows what’s expected.

Only when you have that clear list of expectations and deliverables can you start to put together a plan to improve.

Believe it or not, if you approach it the right way, setting expectations can be a collaborative and — dare I say it? — exciting activity. 

The fact that you have high expectations of your vendors should signal something positive to them: the fact that you believe they’re capable of taking your business to the next level.

If everyone walks away from the conversation knowing exactly what they need to do and what everyone is being held accountable to, it can be a positive experience that builds, rather than hurts, the relationship.

4. Remind them of the stakes.

Accountability requires consequences. For a vendor relationship, the consequences are pretty black and white:

If they don’t perform, they lose your business.

A content vendor should be hungry for more business. They should fight to keep you on board. It’s simply in their best interests, as continuing to work with a current customer is much less expensive than acquiring a new one.

You should never let yourself be taken for granted.

To be clear, there’s a balance here. You shouldn’t play this card too frequently.

Otherwise, you’ll become that client. And all of a sudden, your vendor will be wanting to get rid of you, not the other way around.

But there are times when some pressure is necessary to get them to take an issue seriously. When it’s appropriate, don’t be afraid to do that.

You can always find someone else to do what they do. The burden to perform is on them, not you.

5. Put together a followup plan.

After you’ve had the conversation around what needs to be fixed, don’t leave a single meeting open-ended. Make sure that there’s a plan to address the problem.

That plan may be “we need to figure out what to do about this.” Especially if this is the first time you’ve brought up a particular issue, that’s a perfectly acceptable response.

But they should have a time-bound process for figuring out what to do, do it, and keep you informed along the way. 

One easy step to take is to set up a follow up meeting to regroup and either reexamine the issue or deliver a progress report, depending on the scope of the problem. Whatever the right next steps are, don’t leave the meeting without clearly defining and agreeing to them.

They’ll bring clarity to what can often be a messy conversation. And they, once again, shift the focus to the future rather than the past.

6. Acknowledge when the issue has been resolved.

If your vendor has worked hard to resolve an issue that’s been important to you, then you should make sure to acknowledge that.

Think about it from their side. There’s nothing worse than thinking that there’s a continuing problem and trying to solve it and then finding out that three months ago they were satisfied with how you fixed it.

While nothing’s truly “solved” — as there’s always room to grow and improve — there is a difference between “continual improvement” and “crisis mode.” 

Once you’re out of the crisis, they’ll need to consider other ways to help you continually grow and expand, rather than fighting to keep your business.

It doesn’t take long. So just tell them and you can both move on.

7. If necessary, exit gracefully.

I feel like this last section is slightly out of place. The point of this article is to walk through the steps of addressing content vendor performance issues in the hopes that you’ll be able to fix them and continue the relationship.

But sometimes, that doesn’t happen.

I’ve been in that position. After all the work and all the fixes and all the meetings, sometimes the best decision is to move toward an exit.

Exits are never fun. But when they’re necessary, here are a few ways to make them easier:

  • Move quickly. Don’t drag out the process, as this only builds uncertainty which can lead to resentment. Once you’ve made your decision, go ahead and let them know so everyone can move on.
  • Be clear as to why you’re leaving. Any feedback you have to offer can help your vendor improve for future clients. Even if you don’t want to go into detail, make sure they have some idea as to why they lost your business. Plus, it’s the decent, human thing to do.
  • Focus on the performance, not the people. This isn’t personal, so there’s no reason to make it that way. Focus on the facts and why this relationship doesn’t work for you, rather than the individuals involved.

If you do it right, the exit can be a net positive experience, with everyone learning something new and moving on to new and exciting futures.

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