Surviving vendor meetings as an engineer

A potential pitfall for your career, vendor meetings also represent an opportunity to gain an advantage in your design and sourcing.

You have your part designed and now you need someone to make it for you. In the previous article, I gave advice to rookies on how to find potential vendors. Up until now, you have probably made some phone calls or sent some emails to feel these organizations out. Now we need to meet with the best prospects. As a new engineer, it’s tough to understand the mechanics of these meetings and how to get the most out of them.

The truth is, the vendor discovery process can be quite simple. Phone calls and email are sometimes all that is actually needed to determine if a vendor is right for a job. But you will still be asked to spend time outside of the initial discovery process.

People immediately object to this statement. They will cite past horror stories. Times where they thought that the only way to resolve an issue was via in-person communication. Or times where they were developing something in conjunction with the vendor. These objections are a conflation of priorities. One case is meeting for the sake of introductions. The other case is when your expertise was actually needed on-site. Here we’re going to talk about the former and how you can optimize for the in-person meeting when you have to attend them as a young engineer.

The boss’s reasoning

Executives and managers love meetings. They will insist on having you travel out to meet a vendor to get a “feel” for their operation. As an engineer, this chafes my desire to get things done. They want you start to develop a “rapport” with the vendor, with no direct goals.

The need for a face-to-face meeting will also increase in proportion to the amount of money expected to be spent with a vendor. Depending on your employer’s attitudes toward travel costs, some coworkers and managers may accompany you. As a young engineer, this is a great way to learn from your senior co-workers.

The engineering opportunity

Seeing a manufacturer’s operation can be exciting and extremely educational. This is especially true for the newly minted engineer. You also get to meet people who actually understand you as an engineer, which is great. But this is an effect, not the cause of your meeting. You are there for the “business” piece of the vendor relationship. As such, you should focus on creating the relationship, like your boss says.

Another piece of this is understanding the vendor’s organization as in depth as possible. The decision makers at a company will vary, depending on the vendor type and the size of their business. Understanding the structure of this company will help you get things done in future interactions.

The particulars

So you’re in the meeting now. At this point, you have either been given a specification (spec) by others in your company, or you developed you own. The spec may be a few bullet points, or it may be pages long. Either way, you have to be prepared. This list is what vendors will use to verify they have completed the job (and paid) and it is the guiding document on whether they are qualified to produce your components in the first place.

As a rookie, you must understand what this document represents: it is the negotiating piece for your meeting. If the vendor cannot agree to everything on the document, you either need to compromise on your spec or walk from the meeting. And while these first meetings are far less about discussing the particulars of your design and far more about human interaction, you should spend your time assessing whether they will be able to deliver.

As an engineer, you will be anxious to get down to business. You want to evaluate your design. In fact, this task that you think is your highest priority and as the whole reason you are even there. In all likelihood, the crucial specification conversation will occur last. You must stay engaged until the discussion comes up.

The meeting protocol

While no two meetings are completely alike, it is beneficial for young engineers to understand the protocol of similar manufacturing meetings.

Several people will file into the conference room. Introductions will be made, and you will get a chance to witness the peculiar ritual of exchanging business cards. After everyone is seated, you will be treated to a presentation. This will be typically given by the most senior member of the (vendor) sales staff. This is the person that everyone you just met has been deferring to.

You will get to hear all about how long the business has been in existence, their biggest customers, and any awards or distinctions they have received. Any executives or managers that traveled with you will now give a quick rundown featuring the same sort of details about your own employer. Essentially, you get to listen to a lot of back and forth bragging. Then you may be given a tour of the facilities. And finally, the last thing to be addressed will be your design.

If you’re lucky, the meeting attendance will dwindle. Then you will get a chance to speak with the vendor’s engineers or production staff. Sometimes, this conversation doesn’t take long at all. As stated at the top of this article, it’s often possible to determine their capability remotely via email/websites. You will be wondering why it took two and a half hours to get to this point. It’s simply part of the process.

If you are traveling alone, it is much easier to brush off much of the “dog and pony show, ” but this is nearly impossible when traveling with an entourage of management.

After the meeting is “over”

Depending on the time of day, lunch or dinner will typically be provided. The vendor may want to take your team out to dinner.

Dinner is great, but throughout your interactions, you need to be evaluating the vendor from an engineering perspective. They are in the money-making business, not the friendship business. They want you to select them for the job. You may get along famously with the people you meet, but you cannot give them your business simply because they bought you a huge steak. New engineers who has not been wined and dined are more likely to look favorably on this than more seasoned engineers.

Always remember that you have a series of requirements. If the manufacturer can’t meet them, then you have a professional duty to move on.

Note: your company and industry may not allow gratuities, such as dinner being bought by a vendor. Take your cues from the senior engineering staff and check on policy if you are planning on traveling alone.

Stay professional, stay sharp

As always, be professional with these people. Always let them know of your decision even if you decided not to award them your business. They may not be well suited for the current job, but they may be perfect for the next one.