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…
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.
Posted on February 1, 2012, in Business, Learning and tagged Business, Business Services, Consultant, designer, Education and Training, Instructional design, instructional designer, learning, Management, project management. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.