Business Advice

Working with service providers: you catch more flies with honey

- June 9, 2022 4 MIN READ
Two men shaking hands

Choosing the right suppliers for your business can be a huge value-add, so it pays to choose your service providers wisely, writes Ben Lipschitz, CEO and cofounder at FoodByUs.

For small and mid-size businesses, it’s a no-brainer to surround yourself with a network of external service providers. Outsourcing functions such as legal, accounting and PR means you’re able to focus on the core skills that make your business shine.

It’s worth investing time in choosing your service providers carefully, and regularly reviewing the relationship. Great alignment is a gift that keeps on giving. When trust is built and respect mutually earned, a service provider is empowered not just to provide a skill and send a bill, but to add value.

The interface requires careful management and regular maintenance. You’re working closely but also quite separately, so any differences in alignment, ideology or work practices don’t take long to surface. A relationship that should lift you to a higher gear can quickly turn into a handbrake.

As FoodByUs has grown, we’ve consciously invested time into thoughtfully engaging a network of like-minded providers. We think of them as quasi-partners in our business, and experts in their field who can add real value to our operation.

Here are three things we consider when choosing a service provider to work with our business.

1. Alignment

For us, cultural alignment is the big one. That covers things like how they communicate, how structured they are, the speed at which they want to go. It’s whether they want to come in-person, or just do it remotely. All those go into the cultural mix.

Obviously you check the quality of their work but also, do they have a process in how they work? One service provider we settled on to do a job for us, it wasn’t just that their stuff looked great and they had good clients – they had a process. They really knew already the right way to work with us. And they were so clear about guiding us through that, that we felt safe and structured and that it was going to be well-handled.

Other ones we’ve dealt with come in and declare, “We’re the expert”, and try to bamboozle you with terminology and big ideas rather than showcasing their expertise . There’s constant talk about things that are going to improve, or “We will work with you in this way”, and all we get is a monthly report. Never mind strategy and process, it’s just “Here is how it’s going”. That’s a red flag for us.

ordering stock on a tablet device in warehouse

2. Respect

It’s important to accept that respect has to go both ways. You’re not their only client, and they have competing needs. As much as you might want them to do something urgently for you, if you’re using the power imbalance in the relationship to make unfair demands on their time, you’re probably going to get sub-standard output.

You can be demanding without being disrespectful of the fact that they have other clients to whom they’re also highly committed.

In any successful relationship, there has to be give and take. One company initially told us, “We can’t work with you, we’re too busy”. We respected this, it showed the level of dedication they had to their clients. Ultimately I had to plead our case, and we found a way to work together. What we devised was a compromise – a bit lighter touch for them, but still productive for us.

3. Trust

The best service providers don’t just provide a basic service, then leave. They want to invest their expertise in helping your business achieve its goals, and you need to trust them to bring that to the table. The fact you’re paying them may make you feel like you’re in a position of power, especially coupled with the fact that you know your own business better than anyone. But to bring in a skilled and experienced service provider and then say, “This is how I want you to do it”, seems counter-intuitive to me.

Our experience has been that when you brief a service provider very clearly on your business’ needs and goals, then listen to them, they’ll not only guide the strategy and achieve the outcome, but they’ll typically value-add by suggesting better ways to do things. Remember too, that they’re also dealing with other businesses facing the same challenges as you, so there’s a great chance they know more about how to solve your problem than you do.

By pulling rank you might still get the outcome you envisaged, but you lose out on the better outcome that’s possible when you trust them to do their job well.

In summary, it’s really about valuing the service provider’s skills, collaborating rather than dictating, respecting their boundaries and looking for opportunities to learn and grow together.

We’ve built FoodByUs from a tech startup into a dominant player in the Australian food service industry, and we certainly couldn’t have achieved that without great external two-way relationships. We’ve had to work at it, but it’s paying dividends.

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Scaling up? Here are 5 things you need to know about doing business with global suppliers

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