Most vendors are honest people who make a living from selling a product or providing a service. But occasionally, church leaders may encounter a salesperson or vendor whose word cannot be trusted.
Such was the case for hundreds of churches nationwide who agreed to install "cost-free" computer kiosks in their lobbies. Unwittingly, they signed contracts obligating them to pay thousands of dollars in lease fees for these kiosks, many of which didn't work at all. In April 2009, the Washington Post reported that Washington, D.C. sued five corporations involved in the alleged scam and asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate.
Scams like these illustrate the importance of doing your homework before entering a vendor relationship, especially a long-term one. You wouldn't sign a 30-year mortgage without knowing a little bit about the lender. Neither should you sign a vendor contract without asking some pertinent questions about the company's reputation and expertise.
Do Your Research
If you're going to be investing considerable time or money in a vendor, you'll want to do a thorough evaluation to ensure a mutually beneficial relationship. Start by asking colleagues at other churches for their recommendations about a specific product or service. If they "adore" (or despise) their new copy machine, for example, they'll be glad to share some information with you.
Here are some questions to get your investigation started.
- Is the vendor financially stable?
- How long has this person or company been in business?
- Will the company be in business 10 years from now?
- Is this vendor familiar with projects of the same complexity and scope?
- Has this vendor worked with churches of similar size and characteristics?
- What's this vendors' reputation for quality? Reputation
- Does this vendor have a strong customer base?
- What do customers say about their experience with the vendor?
- How many customers have left this vendor for a competitor?
- What's this vendor's rating and history of complaints with the Better Business Bureau?
- How available is customer service, when you have a question or problem?
- Is the vendor's customer service staff knowledgeable, helpful, and friendly?
Some of these questions you'll pose to the vendor; some you'll want to investigate on your own. Of course, the amount of time you spend on research will vary, depending on the size and complexity of the purchase.
It's easy to get excited about a company's offerings during a sales pitch. But there can be a gap between what sales materials promise and what a company can deliver. To get a better sense of what you're signing up for, it's important to talk with flesh-and-blood customers.
This means asking your vendor for a list of references, and then contacting at least two of them.
Most vendors will give you a list of customers who are likely to give the company a glowing recommendation, but they may be worth calling, nonetheless. Customers may be willing to provide honest opinions on the company's dependability, customer service, and their overall satisfaction with the vendor.
It's also good to find customers for "unofficial" references. You might be able to find other customers by looking on the vendor's website for examples of past work, or by talking with other churches in your region.
Checking references may alert you to a scam. For example, a vendor may direct you to a phony website or a satisfied "customer" who's actually an accomplice. If a vendor provides just an email address, request a telephone number, too.
Accept only references from companies with a verifiable mailing address and telephone number. Ideally, you'll speak with a receptionist before talking with the actual reference person. It's generally not a good idea to accept references from customers who call you.
Use a Cheat Sheet
To make the most of your reference checks, write up a list of questions you'd like to ask each of the customers you call. Be specific. Asking, "How's their customer service?" will generally yield less useful information than: "How many customer service calls have you placed?" and "How long did it typically take for them to fix a problem?"
Take Your Time
Some salespeople encourage you to sign an agreement quickly, often using a price break or some other incentive that expires if you don't act by a certain date.
Never feel pressured to buy from a salesman. If you're not satisfied that you know enough about the vendor to enter a written agreement, ask for time to think about the offer. Don't sign any sales contract until you have reviewed it, preferably with an attorney, and confirmed that it matches the verbal agreement.
If vendors truly want your business, they'll work with you to establish a solid, trustworthy relationship between themselves and your church.
Research Yields Results
Careful investigation can give you a great deal of insight into what might happen to your church if you were to enter an agreement with a vendor. By doing your due diligence up front, you can save your church the time, money, and heartache of getting duped by a scam.
Laura J. Brown is a writer and communications specialist with Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company.
This article is excerpted from the downloadable resource How to Hire a Vendor.