Keeping a Firm Grip on Vendor Activity and Performance By Steve Nurney Companies often use outside experts to provide certain services to their expatriates – expatriate tax preparation and equalization, cross-cultural and language training, household shipments, home sale and property management, school selection and curriculum evaluation, home finding, and settling-in. Outsourcing of expatriate administration is also an option, whereby the outsourcer selects, uses, and manages other vendors. While human resources is the mainstay for ensuring that vendors offer quality resources and assistance to expatriates, the assignees should also share some responsibility – not only to verify the helpfulness of these resources but also to avoid wasting the employer's money. To help shape the direction the company will take with vendors, as well as the final agreement for services, consider the following questions before contacting potential service providers: Is cost a consideration? Does the company have a limited budget for vendor services? How much involvement do local management and HR want in vendor activity? Does the company want one global provider or a number of local/regional providers? What service(s) does the company need provided to their expatriates (e.g., house hunting, community tours, tax preparation assistance, language training)? Getting expatriate feedback on what they need through a questionnaire or focus group can be advantageous to avoid providing unnecessary assistance. What extra service(s) does the company want to provide their expatriates if the cost is acceptable (e.g., assistance with school enrollment, setting up assignment-location housing and utilities, re-entry training, financial services)? How dependent/independent are assignees? What level of service does the company want to give assignees? Red carpet? Hands off? Somewhere in between? On this point, experience with company culture on other HR activity can provide clues to finding the appropriate balance. What are the assignee demographics and what are their most likely priority concerns? Once again, obtaining expatriate input can avoid wasting time and money on the wrong items. Do Your Homework to Find the Right Match To identify service providers that have the requisite knowledge and expertise, good reference sources include other multinational employers, colleagues (particularly in the specific assignment locations to which employees are sent), conferences, and trade publications. Once a number of vendor candidates are identified, it is important for HR to interview them and establish answers to the following questions: Who are their local network providers? Are they multilingual and multicultural? What role will the local third party play? At what additional cost? Do they have special needs capabilities? What is their service approach? What reporting and communications capabilities do they offer? Are they flexible in their service offerings? When obtaining a proposal for the services, be sure it includes explicit costs and the services covered by the costs. The proposal should also detail references, performance criteria and measurements, and the duration of the contract/engagement. (See callout, "Key Points to Remember.") Key Points to Remember When establishing a relationship with a vendor, be sure to include as many safeguards and provisions as you need. And remember: Coordination and timing is critical, particularly during implementation. Communication channels should be open and direct. A dispute resolution process should be in place. A supplier replacement strategy should also be in place in case something goes wrong. The company should make sure that it will, in fact, use the services for which it is paying (e.g., only 50 hours of language training are necessary, but the vendor agreement requires payment for 75 hours). The expatriate should be informed, in writing, of the services and assistance that the vendor will provide. A good vendor manager maintains communications with the vendor and with the employee, and constantly measures performance against the contract/engagement. Sign on the Dotted Line Once the bids come in, companies usually follow internal purchasing procedures to select the vendor (which is, sometimes, the lowest bidder). When the vendor has been awarded the contract, the parties typically draw up a service agreement that defines roles and responsibilities and establishes performance measurement standards and tools (e.g., preferred communication methods, response times, survey documents, financial data). Although establishing a baseline for these metrics can be challenging, it is an essential step. It Takes Two… From the perspective of HR and the expatriate, to get the most from vendor services prior to, during, and after the assignment, both parties should share responsibility for getting the most from the offered resources. While HR has decision-making authority with regards to specific services, its efforts are meaningless without commitment by the expatriate and eligible family members to take advantage of what is available. Open communication between the two on this topic will not only assist the current expatriate, but future assignees, as well.