I recently read a blog post that described four disastrous, train-wreck scenarios in video production and streaming. Not surprisingly, the blog post was by a company claiming expertise in these areas, claiming that such problems would not happen with an experienced vendor.
I had a different interpretation of the incidents. In essence, the fundamental issue with each of them was a lack of understanding of video production and related issues by the customer. In other words, these customers were uninformed. Again, not surprisingly, they got burnt one way or the other.
Many disappointing vendor/customer (or vendor/client) situations can be traced by to this single issue - the customer is not knowledgeable of the tasks to be performed. It may be overwork, poor management, “throw it over the fence” or whatever - but having a lack of knowledge of the situation to be managed and then somehow expecting satisfactory results - that will generally not happen.
However, a savvy customer can put in place problem-solving methods for vendor tasks that will go along way to minimizing or eliminating obvious problems with vendors. In other words, become a ”clued in” or “informed” customer. Here are a few tips on how to accomplish that status:
- Develop a basic understanding - do your homework
A satisfactory solution is highly problematic if you don’t understand the tasks to be done, and how these tasks should be done. Not that you want to be an expert (that’s the vendor’s job) but rather simply know the touchstones and common performance criteria. Often Google research and reading will get you there - on almost any topic.
- Be mindful of the business model
Every business has a business model - that is - the “sweet spot” of their business, the type of customer they want, and that are optimally set up to serve. Sure, they will take customers outside of this baseness model to pay the bills - but you aren’t going to get the best resources because it simply isn’t their strength. A typical example is people who go to a mega-law firm to get simple legal documents - the kind that any corner-store lawyer can prepare. So try to get an idea of the vendor’s business model and determine if you fit it - but don’t force it. Also consider if your business model matches up with theirs. For example, usually an entrepreneurial firm and F500 company are a mismatch due to different business styles.
- Have a process to evaluate - but don’t get cute
You want a evaluatory process to follow so you establish a level playing field - but remember - a little bit of knowledge is dangerous. For example, when I used to do a great deal of public relations work, public relations prospects used to ask simplistic questions that clearly arose from the pitches that public relations firms were laying on them. The giveaway was that they were using pseudo-criteria which really had little to do with the key aspects of a successful public relations effort. But the prospect thought they knew it all. So make sure that your process, and whatever it is based on - is valid. Conversely, I will sometimes ask a question where I know the answer (which was not the case in the example above) - just to cross-check the other person’s knowledge. If you were a fan of Peter Falk’s “Columbo” character - you saw this often.
- The talent on your side should match the importance of the effort
In other words, don’t assign junior staff to evaluate, choose and manage a vendor if the result would embarrass the CEO. However, it’s OK to have that kind of staffer make decisions on office supplies or other issues where mistakes are inexpensive, of little consequence and easily corrected. In a video context, don’t let the junior staffer select the director, but scheduling the location shots should be within their grasp.
- Develop a “pre-flight” (pre-production) checklist
Ever notice when you are on a commercial flight during boarding and you look out the window and see the pilot (or rather, the copilot) walking around the plane, examining certain areas? That’s the preflight - a standard safety procedure in aviation. The pilot is doing a visual inspection to check for a number of items and potential issues. This process assumes that you know what to look for, where to look, and how to recognize it. So develop your “preflight” checklist for vendor evaluations. Something you need to mindful of is that a favorite trick of some vendors is to divert your attention to irrelevant, superficial issues, and bypass some of the tough stuff they don’t want to be asked. For example - exactly who was staff on the shoots for that demo reel?
Call references, ask for the list of staff (by name) who performed the projects that are used as “success stories” - don’t stop at just what you are shown or told. This examines the integrity of the effort - will the same team be working for you? The particular firm that posted the blog referenced at the beginning of this article has had significant staff turnover in recent years - so the linkage between their video demo reel and current expertise is not clear. This disconnect is somewhat common, so you need to check for it.
- Perform due diligence - beyond the obvious
- Consider a “warm up” period
This is when you have a bit of time and do the solicitation of venders before the project has to be started (commitment). In other words, leave a period of time when everyone is under consideration - to see what happens. (But don’t overdo it.) Some will keep in touch, others you’ll never hear from. Give consideration to how you are treated before you are even a customer - tells you something. Then again, they may not want your business - so consider that as well. In retrospect, in the few cases where either I - or a client I was advising - proceeded even though getting that “we don’t want your business” signal, the results were less than optimal.
- Monitor performance - have milestones
This requires that you know the goal (end product) and the steps to get there. The key is on-course guidance, not waiting to the end to determine you missed the target.
- Protect yourself (contracts and performance metrics)
As much as possible use your own contract, or at a minimum, make sure you understand the vendor’s contract, and modify any unreasonable terms. I been asked to sign contracts that were deeply flawed, contained contradictions and even some outrageous terms. When I pointed this out, I got a shrug and the classic comment: “Others have signed it.” My response to that logic is that the decisions of others are not my decisions.