Small Business and Startup Tips: Managing Remote Vendors

The modern miracle that is the Internet provides us with tools that allow many of us to work anywhere, anytime. For instance, with the assist of a strong wifi signal and a headset, crowdSPRING’s crack customer service team can work their shifts from any random Starbucks or local cafe. And with SaaS project management software, such as Basecamp, chatrooms like Campfire, Help Desk tools like Zendesk, and video conferencing services like Google Hangouts, and internet based phone services like Skype and IfByPhone teams have the ability to work remotely, while fully engaging with their teams and companies.

That’s cool, you say, but what about working with vendors and contractors? Many of us have deep relationships with these talented people and companies and find it difficult to collaborate as closely as we would like to. They may be miles or even oceans away, yet we often need to be together to work productively and creatively with them. The bad news is, remote relationships with vendors can never be as productive or efficient as those with whom we can meet in person on a regular basis. But the good news is that the very same tools that many of us use to work with our own teams can be leveraged to wonderful effect when collaborating with service providers.

  • Call them! Skype is a great tool for making internet-based calls, especially if the person you are calling is based outside of your country. The rates to call most countries are pennies per minute, and if the other person has a Skype account, the call is completely free. Set up a weekly phone call, share files, links, and other resources using Skype’s built in chat tool, and even bring video into the mix when the other person is logged in!
  • Collaborate across the divide! Just a few short years ago, creating and collaborating on shared documents was a matter of creating one in Microsoft Word or another word processor, emailing it to your confederate, waiting for them to send their redline changes to the next person in the group, and twiddling your thumbs until it had made the rounds through the entire team and was back in your hands. Google Docs has changed all of that and working with vendors and contractors will never be the same (not to mention the myriad documents you need to share in-house). Creating a document, spreadsheet, or presentation is easy and sharing it with as many associates as you like couldn’t be simpler. Collaborators can edit together in real-time, aided by clever brightly-colored cursors so you can easily see who is doing what in the document. Versions are saved, making it simple to restore a prior edition if the changes made are not to your liking, and there are tools for formatting, exporting, and commenting which are particularly useful when leaving notes for the others.
  • Combine and conquer! Basecamp and other project management tools allow you and your vendor to work together on projects efficiently and effectively. Manage multiple projects easily; share files, pictures, and text; and set up To-Do lists that can be updated by any number of authorized collaborators on a project. You and your vendor can use the tool together in real-time or asynchronously, allowing users in vastly different time zones to work to successfully collaborate systematically and constructively.
  • Conference time! Google Hangouts has made it easy and affordable for small companies to host video calls for one-on-one meetings as well as conferences with larger groups. Did I say affordable? What I meant was FREE! Simply set up a new hangout room, send out the invites, and your vendor can be in a meeting with you and your team in real time, anytime. All they need is their own Google+ account, a simple browser plugin, a video camera (built-in or usb-powered), and a microphone or headset. The audio and video quality or phenomenal, the interface simple to use, and the available features are indispensable. Real-time text chat, remote muting, and full-on screensharing allow users to make presentations, share notes, and control for the inevitable crying baby in the next room.


Illustration: Video telephony in the year 2000, as imagined in 1910, Wikimedia Commons