The ‘V’ Word


I hate the ‘V’ word.

As a consultant/contractor, the ‘V’ word has become one of those little “triggers” that puts me into a wary state. When someone utters the ‘V’ word — especially if they’re using it to describe me — all sorts of silent alarm bells go off in my mind. This happens especially when the person uses the ‘V’ word when we’re discussing or negotiating the terms or scope of my services.

The ‘V’ word started out as an innocent term describing a standard element in the anatomy of commercial relationships.

‘V’ is for “vendor,” and that’s good enough for me… well…  it is, but only sometimes.

Initially, “vendor” was an all-purpose, generic term, as in,  “Let’s examine the typical supply chain between vendors and their customers,”  or “We at MegaRetailMart are inviting all of our vendors to participate in an environmental sustainability conference, to see how we can crush local economies under a reduced carbon footprint.”

Somewhere along the line,  though, as business relationships evolved into ever-more-complex arrangements, there emerged a distinction in common business parlance  between “suppliers” (or even, “service providers“) versus mere “vendors.”

The term “vendor” become the preferred term to describe the exchange of a standardized product or service within the context of an arm’s length commercial relationship. The person from whom we buy (or “source”) our computer workstations might be called a “computer hardware vendor,”  but the lawyer we hired to do that deal was not called a “legal vendor.”

This isn’t because lawyers are sensitive human beings (they aren’t) who might require validation from us, their consumers (oops, excuse me, we’d prefer they call us their “customers”  …no, wait, how about “clients?”  ah yes, we like that better…)… no… it’s because the term “vendor” signifies someone who is “vending” something (think “vending machine”) and that doesn’t really describe what’s being done by our lawyer. What’s being done by our lawyer is a professional service that is highly customized and multi-faceted… and it often requires that they, our lawyer/advocate/advisor, engage us in a whole lot of collaboration and communication  as a part of their service.

On Beyond Semantics

When hiring someone to do something for us, there’s a whole spectrum of potential words for us to choose from. I think the spectrum looks something like this:

Vendor — Supplier — Provider — Advisor — Partner

With the example of a lawyer, we can see them landing somewhere near the right-end “advisor” zone of the spectrum, or beyond… especially if we’re in one of those organizations that uses the term “partnering”  a lot.

Okay, so we don’t need to hurt the feelings of any “legal professionals” nor the high-paying sensibilities of us “clients.”

Who else do we need to protect from the dreaded ‘V’ word?  Doctors. Clergy. Architects. Engineers. Accountants. Consultants.  Wait… consultants?   Well, apparently, it depends on what kinds of consultants we’re hiring.

Take me and what I do…  am I a “learning consultant” or a “training vendor?”   Depends who you ask… and anyway, what’s the difference?

In my field, the term “training vendor” is sometimes an apt description of what some people do, namely, the delivery of a standardized “off-the-shelf” learning curriculum. One training vendor is as good as the next.  We don’t like our training vendor? Let’s just swap ’em out with an equivalent vendor.  Vendi, vidi, vichi.

However, in the case of learning (or “talent development”) consulting, where we’re analyzing, designing and delivering something highly customized, the term “training vendor” becomes a (mostly) unintentional pejorative, signifying commoditization of something that is really not a commodity.

I know, they probably didn’t mean to insult anyone… and no insult taken… “vendor” is, in the dictionary at least, a generic term.

Even still, those alarm bells are ringing…

Why?

Well, once that semantic line gets crossed, other lines typically follow: It’s a sad irony that, when a professional services provider gets treated as a “vendor” by their clients, the clients do things that they’d never consider doing to a true commodity supplier.  Here’s a classic video that illustrates this point beautifully:

Anyone who has ever done independant contract work as a designer (web design, graphic design, architectural design. etc.) has lived through that. Design consultants, who enjoy none of the clout of lawyers, get treated as “vendors” (really, more poorly than true “vendors”) all the time.

Some of the worst behavior on this front, unfortunately, may come from people who have been “vendorized” consultants themselves.  They continue the cycle of insult/injury by denigrating the value of what the other party has to offer… a lose-lose negotiaton tactic. Ultimately, they will receive less value for their money spent than they could otherwise get.

Yup, what goes around comes around… and I feel very fortunate to have clients that treat me like a partner…  even if I’m just another one of their “vendors.”  For them, I’ll dispense a few extra cans of fizzy learning goodness.

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on February 1, 2012, in Business, Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. It is important to note that some relationships do have an elevated status beyond “vendor” because of an elevated status between the service provider and the recipient of services. For example (let me defend my profession for a moment – this is a unique opportunity to legitimately defend attorneys), attorneys have an elevated duty to clients that goes well beyond that of the average vendor-vendee relationship. Our fiduciary duty to clients and the ability to protect our client communication elevates our relationship with our clients well beyond that of consultants and their clients. I will allow for doctors, accountants, psychologists etc. to fight their own battles. Not to worry though, Dan. More and more, “professionals” are seen as “vendors” by our “clients.”

    • Heh, I knew I could lure you into this by taking a dig at lawyers. Even as I typed the word “advocate” in the post above I smiled to myself, knowing that I was glossing over a major element of a lawyer’s service — their fiduciary duty to clients — and thereby enraging my cousin, New York Giants fan who was also a lawyer… wait.. what?

      Yes, it’s true… and I think the “elevated status” you’re referring to is exactly on point. One way to screen out the term “vendor” might be the following question: Do we expect this person to act on our behalf in ways that requires them to carefully consider what would be in our best interests? If the answer is yes, then they’re probably not just “vending” us something.

      Thanks for this and many other insights, Cuz.

      • I would parse the analysis even further. There are those who we would like and expect to act on out behalf in our best interests and there are others who can actually be taken to task for not doing so. A professional that has a fiduciary responsibility has an elevated action requirement. A professional who is required act in a manner that is in accordance with a reasonable profession in his/her field (e.g.- doctors) also has an elevated duty of sorts. The nature of the confidentiality accorded to a relationship, by law, also speaks to an elevated nature of a relationship.

        While we would like a stockbrocker/money manager/mortgage broker, real estate agent, etc. to act in our best interest, the reality is that the past couple of years have shown us that many don’t, and the legal requirement for them to do so is not that clear, and the requirement that they act in our best interests isn’t always absolute.

      • Similar to what you’re describing: One of my clients, an architecture and interior design firm, described how they differentiate from competitors by saying, “We don’t build grand edifices to ourselves.” What they mean by that is that they espouse a professional ethic of giving client only what they need, i.e., that they handle their client’s legal cases–er, I mean, projects in a manner that does NOT serve mainly to enhance their profile as a firm. The opposite behavior would be using a cool new untested expensive material that will get them (as a firm) published in a trade magazine but not really benefit the client in any tangible or intangible way. I thought that was something that could be applied to my line of work, too… if I want to not be called a “vendor,” then I shouldn’t “vend” stuff my client doesn’t need.

        Also, I think you’re right to point to events in recent years which have tested the integrity of the “client-professional” relationship. Perhaps the rise of the term “vendor” is symptomatic of the erosion of trust in business. There. I used the “T” word.

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