It’s difficult to imagine a business that doesn’t rely on a product or service provided by an external resource. Think of your local restaurant using a point of sale system, a brewery getting their beer labels from a print shop, or a college using third-party grading tools. These organizations all have a specific need that is fulfilled by a vendor.
But in some situations, the need might not be fully defined. Or, it might even be unknown entirely. In those cases where a little extra guidance is necessary, a vendor simply won’t cut it. Those situations require the aid of a partner who can help uncover and define the need and then build or provide a solution that fulfills it.
Both vendors and partners are critical to the success of every business. But knowing the differences between them and how to decide which one you need when is even more essential.
What is a vendor?
A vendor relationship is transactional. Vendors provide a well-defined product offering. An example of a vendor is a print shop that provides a local brewery with logoed apparel for an event. While this relationship may be ongoing with recurring orders, the relationship remains transactional. The brewery makes a request with specific parameters, and the print shop delivers on that exact request.
In the software world, if a client knows what problem they need to solve and what solution they need to solve it, all they need to do is select the right vendor and proceed with the project. Many times, these engagements manifest as staff augmentation. The vendor supplies a talent pipeline of people with specific skillsets to help the client’s internal teams meet a delivery deadline or increase their development velocity.
As long as the client knows exactly what they need, the software vendor route is the right direction to take. However, if they need guidance about what will actually solve their problem (or if they need to determine what their problem actually is), a partnership is much more appropriate.
What is a partner?
Whereas a vendor relationship is purely transactional, a partnership is extremely collaborative. A partner provides guidance when a problem isn’t quite defined or an idea isn’t fully baked. They’re able to tell the client what solution will best solve that problem. More importantly, they can steer the client away from solutions that won’t work or are inefficient. In general, a partnership is often much more beneficial than a transactional vendor relationship when it comes to custom software.
Partners provide an immense amount of business value to organizations — particularly those undergoing digital transformation. Enterprises undergoing this transformation have very specific needs, and it’s nearly impossible for a vendor to grasp the nuances of those needs. A partner, on the other hand, immerses themselves into the business and examines those nuances. They often have deep industry knowledge and experience and keep a watchful eye on trends.
Vendor vs. Partner = Buy vs. Build
To put all of this another way, a vendor vs. partner engagement in software development is really about a buy vs. build mindset. At MentorMate, our expertise is in custom software development. Of course, we follow modern microservice architectures when appropriate and regularly integrate with commercial off-the-shelf software to fit the specific needs of our clients. We partner with the client and work together to understand their problems and identify the best overall solutions. Then, we build products to solve those problems, integrate them into the client’s ecosystem, and continue to support them after the fact.
To put this into context, let’s look at an example of an actual client and their intention to have a platform built for their business.
Transitioning From a Vendor to a Partnership
The client in this example is in the wellness space. They sell their products and services to employers as part of their employees’ wellness benefits. They bought a white-labeled platform from a vendor and resold it to their customers.
The platform was a good fit for a while. But then the client recognized a need to add other modules to the wellness platform. They contacted their vendor with the request, but it got rejected. Such a module wasn’t on the vendor’s offering list or part of their roadmap. What was in the vendor’s best interest (to sell more of their products) didn’t overlap with our client’s needs. They went through the buy vs. build decision-making process and determined it was time to build something more custom for their needs. They were opening themselves up to a partnership that led them to MentorMate.
We provided them with a multi-phased relationship. We first conducted a design engagement to envision the experience their platform would provide. We worked through wireframes and tested the user experience, gathered feedback, made adjustments, and applied a user interface. Then, we applied our software architecture expertise to ensure the application to be built was feasible. Finally, we stepped in to provide our development services to actually build their new wellness platform. MentorMate worked with them over the course of many months, and our goal was to ensure that what we were building met our client’s and their users’ needs.
Our engagement with this client is a perfect example of a strong partnership. While a vendor takes orders, a partner provides guidance and focuses on solving the client’s problem.
What are your actual needs?
Discussions about vendors and partners boil down to one question: What is it that you need? It might sound straightforward and simple to answer but to recognize what sort of solution you need, you first have to understand your entire problem.
At their core, vendors are generally seen as order takers. While this framing paints a slightly negative picture, there’s nothing wrong with placing an order with a company that can deliver precisely what you need. The tricky part comes when you believe you need a vendor when you need a partner.
When we receive a request from a potential client, MentorMate’s client strategy team steps in to help the client recognize the exact problem they’re trying to solve. We lay the foundation for a future relationship of trust and understanding. Our engagements often begin in the early stages when the client is outlining a strategy and determining market fit. We then ensure we’re building the right thing through designing, architecting, developing, testing, and deploying it to the world. Once it’s live, we can even operate and maintain it on your behalf. Only a true partner can provide this type of help and guidance throughout the product lifecycle.
Whether you need a vendor to provide a pre-defined product or service or a partner to help figure out how to solve your problem, it’s essential to know who you should turn to in either case. Each option can work great for you, so long as understand which path you need to take.
Original post found here.
Authored by Aaron Whitney:
Aaron is MentorMate’s Director of Client Strategy. He leads a team of strategists who work with prospective clients to propose custom software solutions to their business problems. He and his team listen to clients in order to understand their vision, get a feel for their priorities, and identify their pain points. They then turn that information into a concise story that clearly demonstrates how MentorMate can help them achieve their goals.
Prior to his current role, Aaron spent time working in business architecture, enterprise architecture, project management, and sales. That experience, along with his recent time spent as a Solution Architect for MentorMate, gave him plenty of expertise in problem definition, solution strategy, and project delivery. Curious by nature, Aaron likes nothing more than learning something new, and in this job he’s constantly learning about new clients, industries, problems, and solutions.
Outside of work, most of Aaron’s time is spent reading books, playing with Legos, battling with NERF guns, and building snow forts with his two boys. In the rare instances that he gets time to himself, he hits the open road on a long bike ride or a solo road trip.