6 lessons learned for engaging with vendors during a crisis

Expert Insight

6 lessons learned for engaging with vendors during a crisis

As COVID-19 continues to change the nature of higher education, CIOs tasked with rapidly transitioning campuses to remote environments are turning to their vendor relationships for additional support and contract adjustments.

In the past week, EAB has heard countless stories from our partner institutions about vendors quickly responding to institutions’ inquiries and temporarily adjusting contracts to accommodate COVID-19’s development.

This article focuses on strategies for engaging vendors during any crisis, but is particularly appropriate for IT leaders navigating new vendor arrangements during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is part of a series of posts that capture the early lessons learned and the longer-term questions all higher education leaders must consider as they navigate this disruption.

1. Research special accommodations and contract adjustments vendors are offering before renegotiation

From broadband companies to cloud vendors, software vendors are offering special deals and adjusting contract terms to accommodate temporary remote higher education. Before engaging with vendors in renegotiation, review the current vendor and competitors’ websites, press releases, and social media posts to uncover accommodations that may benefit the institution. If you plan to take advantage of COVID19-initiated deals or concessions, plan to revisit your temporary agreement when term ends to determine more sustainable service agreements, and where possible, try to detail at length the expected roles and responsibilities such as:

  1. Expectations for timeliness and responsiveness
  2. Main point of contact for the institution with the vendor
  3. Limits to expenses the institution is willing to pay
  4. Unexpected or one-off needs for additional vendor support

2. Review vendors’ business continuity plans for mission-critical systems

Review your vendors business continuity plans or solicit the reports during the RFP process to ensure there are appropriate safeguards against significant downtime, especially for your mission-critical systems that must continue to operate despite increased demand and usage.  Educause’s Higher Education Community Vendor Assessment Toolkit (HECVAT) is a toolkit for vendor security assessment and includes questions about business continuity planning (e.g., data back-up practices, etc).

Tools like this provide an industry-standard reference frame to validate your vendors’ business continuity plans. Continue to monitor vendors’ websites and blog posts to identify any COVID-19 modifications to their business continuity plans and determine appropriate mitigation steps if risks of system failure increase.

3. Empower your contract manager to oversee COVID-19 vendor management

A first component for managing the vendor relationship is to hire a contract manager (CM) to enforce the terms of the arrangement. As the main point of contact between an institution and a vendor, CMs are an essential component of a successful vendor contract. This role ensures that vendors fulfill contract criteria with minimal disruption to campus activity and works with vendors to improve processes and resolve complications.

While most institutions employ contract managers, the employees hired into these roles often lack the perspective or authority necessary to succeed. EAB recommends scoping the contract manager role to: ensure sufficient power to make decisions and settle conflicts, manage contract details and campus communications, finally focus on the management of the contract’s performance rather than financial concerns. 

If you do not have a dedicated contract manager on staff, consider cross-training an individual. Empowered contract managers dedicated to liaising with and optimizing vendor relationships can significantly ease the burden from CIO’s crowded shoulders during this unprecedented pandemic.

4. Craft contract terms that align with institutional mission

Whether you’re signing a new contract or adjusting an existing contract, ensure that the service agreement language aligns with your institution’s goals. A significant source of tension arises when institutions view a contract as the minimum work/service/licenses the vendor will provide.

By comparison, vendors typically understand contract criteria as the required amount and quality of work to be performed. This tension can lead to frustrations on both sides. By clearly connecting service provider goals with institutional desires in the contract, senior leaders can improve outsourced arrangement efficacy. 

Vest the Vendor in Institutional Success

Purpose: Institutions use gainsharing agreements to split cost savings with vendor, incentivizing long-term stewardship

Examples: Performance contracts or financial penalties based on KPIs

Guidance: Performance contracts are common in the private sector, and so vendors who work outside higher education likely have experience with them

Connect Vendor to the Community

Purpose: Institutions integrate the vendor staff into the campus community, showcasing their impact on institution’s mission and values

Examples: Listening sessions, vendor lead or recording professional development

Guidance: Vendors are hidden university partners. Use this crisis to demonstrate their importance to staff, faculty, and students through joint activity.

5. Focus contract on vendor software results instead of vendor operations

Vendor contracts often focus on operational details (e.g., number of licenses) rather than measurable results. While this focus on operations typically arises from a desire to ensure the software performs correctly, micromanaging the vendor logistics may be detrimental to the institution for three reasons. First, it prevents the institution from benefiting from any expertise and innovation the vendor may bring, especially during a crisis. Second, it places an unnecessary hurdle on vendor relationships trying to operate most efficiently and cost-effectively possible.

And finally, it opens the door for disputes about which party is responsible for certain operations, logistical, or licensing activities that are not clearly outlined within the contract. Instead, institutions should focus on crafting an agreement that articulates measurable results, such as software stability, safety, and effectiveness. Institutions should include metrics and KPIs in the contract that both enable them to monitor performance and, where possible, link a small portion of the contract value to achieving performance goals. Metrics to track software performance may include:

  1. Uptime
  2. Accessibility
  3. User Satisfaction
  4. Average Response Time

6. Keep communication channels open with vendors, staff, and students

While communication is essential to crafting a contract successfully, it becomes particularly crucial during the implementation and maintenance of a vendor’s platform. Poor communication between the vendor and IT leaders may lead to misunderstandings about performance or obstacles to improvement. At the same time, a lack of communication with campus customers may lead to dissatisfaction and frustration that ultimately stymies the arrangement.

At a minimum, institutions must ensure they communicate with the vendor regularly, through weekly crisis check-ins between contract manager and vendor as well as quarterly business reviews with vendor representatives and senior IT leadership. Finally, maintain active communication channels with your staff, students, and faculty on the suite of tools and support they can access, especially while working and learning remotely through a streamlined website and consistent email and social media communications. If there are any significant vendor adjustments over COVID-19’s life, consider holding an online stakeholder townhall to teach your customers how to utilize the changes and allow for customer feedback.

Use social media to disseminate vendor system’s successes and developments

To supplement website and email communications, IT leaders should seek opportunities to use social media to build campus support and share vendor value stories. Some examples include:

1. Retweet or share posts from the vendor’s social media platforms

2. Include online customer impact stories inside and outside the university

3. Encourage customers to voice concerns over private messages to the IT Department and/or the vendor through direct social media channels or through IT’s communication channels

4. Focus public announcements about vendor functions on improvements to campus life and speed of achievement rather than financial results or technical service levels achieved

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