Information Vending: Finding the Right Vendors

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December 2001

Information Vending: Finding the Right Vendors

CIDMIconNewsletter Ralph J. Jones, IBM

The purpose of this paper is to systematically examine how to go about finding a company to which you can vend your publication writing needs. The paper is quite chronological in its presentation. That is, it starts with a clean slate: “I don’t know where a single documentation company is located, nor do I have any idea of how to find one.” And it ends with: “I now know everything I am likely to be able to find out about every company that appears to meet my needs.”

Although the remainder of this paper consists of steps I suggest you follow and an order in which they should be taken, I am always trying to answer one or more of these four questions:

  1. When is the right time to look for a company?
  2. How do I find a company?
  3.  How can I find out about a company?
  4. What characteristics are important?

Although this paper stands on its own, it is one of four that make up a panel on information vending. The subject of the panel is divided chronologically into finding vendors, planning a project, coordinating a project, and ensuring quality work by vendors.

When Should I Look?

It is possible to look for companies too early and it is possible to look for them too late. You may find the companies so far in advance of the work you would like them to do that the characteristics of the companies themselves change before you ever begin. Or, you may find a company so late that there is not enough time to take care of the necessary legalities before work must begin. So, when is the right time to start looking? It’s not an easy question to answer.

The horse (coming first) is the finding of companies and the cart (coming last) is the identification of the work to be done. There will not be enough time to find and evaluate the potential companies to do your work after you’ve decided what you want done. Rather, I think you want to identify the nature of the work that will probably need to be done and then locate the companies that appear to you to have the best qualifications to do that kind of work. The point is that you should have all the looking done before the first specific job comes along.

Perhaps the most obvious criterion for deciding when to start looking is the amount of work you think you’re going to have to vend. You may, for example, be a small software development firm that has a single product for which you need documentation. Or, you may be a very large firm that has made the strategic decision to vend books for many large, complex products each year. In the first case, depending upon where your company is located, you may be able to look over a few local firms and find more than enough documentation capabilities to suit your needs. In the second case, you may have to consider a much larger geographical area and number of firms.

The complexity of the work you wish to vend also has a direct bearing on how long it takes you to find the most appropriate documentation firms. That is, finding good companies capable of writing descriptions of how to assemble simple toys may be considerably less time-consuming than finding good companies capable of writing theory of operation documentation for large electronic systems. The different kinds of work you are going to ask vendors to do also has a bearing on how early you have to start looking. Each company may not have all of the skills you are interested in. For example, your documentation needs may be so varied and large that you have decided that a single writing vendor would be inappropriate. Or, you may want vendors to do the writing for you, but you are going to do the editing. Or, you may want various vendors to do the writing and the editing, but you are planning to use a specific vendor for all of your production needs. There are certainly quite a few other possible combinations. You should not only try to plan for the answers to these types of questions, but also be aware that, until you get out into the marketplace and start looking at various companies, it’s very difficult to predict the number and mix of documentation companies that best suit your needs.

Last, you must consider the time it is going to take to “make a company legal.” No, I don’t mean that literally. Rather, I mean that there may be a considerable number of items you have to consider even after you have found and thoroughly examined each company with which you want to do business. Here are a few of the kinds of things you still might need to answer:

  • Is appropriate insurance in place?
  • Are they capable of protecting your company’s assets?
  • Are there any legal encumbrances existing between your company and theirs?
  • Remember, things like this take time-sometimes what seems an inordinate amount of time.

Where Exactly Do I Look?

OK, you’ve thought about all the points in the previous section and it seems like now is a good time to start looking. But, the roadways are just not lined with documentation firms. However, there are places to go to find where potential companies might be located. Here are the major places to look:

  • Procurement: If your company is large enough, it may have a Procurement organization. If it does, there is a good chance that salespeople from documentation firms have already called on your company. That is to say, companies may have come to you before you even tried to go to them.
  • Personal referrals: Referrals are usually from a professional acquaintance, but may come from social acquaintances too. There’s nothing wrong with hearing that your next door neighbor’s college roommate is a technical writer for a company in the next state.
  • Phone books: You should never pass up an opportunity to look in the yellow pages of a phone book from some other city. There is no single place to look. Some of the headings I suggest you try are Computers, Technical Manual Preparation, Word Processing Services, and Writers.
  • Professional meetings: Both the meetings themselves as well as the proceedings of a professional meeting are good places to look for documentation companies.
  • Sales calls: After you are underway vending publications, salespeople for companies you have never heard of will find you.

The heading for this section asked the question “Where Exactly Do I Look?” The answer is “Everywhere.” There is no wrong place to look for good publications firms. You have to be innovative in taking advantage of all the potential resources.

How Do I Find Out About This Company?

I suggest four steps in examining a company. You may choose to do any number of these steps, but you probably want to do whichever ones seem to be appropriate for you in the order they are discussed in this section.

Dun and Bradstreet Reports
If you have access to a Dun and Bradstreet account, get a report for each company you know of. Be aware that all of the information in the report is supplied by the company and is not validated. Still, you can find out several things about a company with a D and B. You can find out how many employees the company has, how long it has been in business, how much of its activities are publications related, and other worthwhile facts.

An invaluable phone call
You may be able to eliminate a company from consideration by making a simple phone call. Those few minutes on the phone may save you from going to visit the company in person.

When you call, identify the company for which you work and your position. Ask to speak to one of the principals of the company or the manager in charge of publications services. Don’t be content to speak to whomever happens to pick up the phone.

Describe the kinds of work your company does and the kinds of documentation requirements you may have. Ask if they are “in that kind of business.” A positive response may not be all that informative since their appreciation of their capabilities may not coincide with yours. However, a company that appeared to be a potential candidate may have changed its strategic direction, been acquired by another company, or may even have gone out of business.

When a company representative says they are not interested, you’ve saved yourself some time and money.

Requests for information
If, after looking at the Dun and Bradstreet report and calling on the phone, you still believe a company is a good candidate, you might consider sending them a formal Request for Information (RFI). The contents of an RFI can vary considerably depending upon your needs. Some of the typical information you might ask for includes a schedule of hourly rates the company charges for each of the labor types they have, a copy of the professional resume of each of its employees, and a description of the management structure of the company.

Visits to prospective vendors
The most important method you have to assess the capabilities of a potential vendor is to visit its site. A corollary to “A picture is worth a thousand words” is that “Your trip to a vendor is worth a thousand sales calls by them to you.”

If possible it is better to have two people make the visit. Not only are four eyes far more effective than two, but sending two people allows one to be recording while the other is questioning. It certainly can be done with one person; it’s just more effective with two.

There are two major characteristics that make a visit to a prospective vendor a successful trip. The first is to be prepared. Know what information you’re looking for and know the order in which you’re going to try to get it. The second is to be consistent. That is, try to get the same information from each company. Having half the facts about one company and half the facts about another company makes it very difficult to weigh the relative metrics of one against the other.

What Questions Should I Ask?

You might think of dividing the information you plan to collect into three categories: corporate, demographic, and physical. Here are a few potential questions under each of these to help you get started generating your own agenda.

  • Corporate Information
    Exact name and address
    Other locations
    Whether they own or lease their building
    Other types of services offered
  • Demographic Information
    Number of writers and editors
    Hardware and software expertise
    Number of artists
  • Physical Plant
    Asset protection
    Number of square feet
    Quantity and types of equipment

Collecting information is less than half the battle. The hard part is collecting impressions. There is only one rule that is helpful: always know exactly to whom you are speaking and therefore what role he or she might play in any contractual relationship between your companies. All the rest of this area is subjective and depends upon your skills.

If at all possible, try to base your evaluations of each of the types of skills offered by the company on interviews with the respective people in the company. That is, record thoughts about their project management skills after talking to some of their people who manage projects. Or, make up your mind about their editing capabilities after talking to one or more of their people who actually do editing for them.

Often a corporate officer or a salesperson will want to insulate you from the rest of the company and will try to answer all your questions. Should you ask the company to develop some information for you, it is likely that neither the president of the company nor the salesperson will be directly involved in the project.

You should ask for samples of work that they have done. Have in your mind a prepared list of types of documentation that you think you might ask a vendor to develop and ask specifically for those types. For example, if you are primarily going to have installation and assembly information written, it does you only incidental good to learn that they appear to be able to write excellent parts catalogs and advertising brochures. It’s also a good idea to ask to be left alone with the sample for 15 minutes or so. It gives you a much better opportunity to peruse what they have given you, and you have a few minutes to make notes on the impressions you have so far.

References never hurt, but one has to be very wary of referral information. Asking someone you have never met if he or she found the company you are investigating easy to work with yields the most subjective of information. I find the most informative questions to ask are “How long have you worked with this company?” and “How many projects has this company done for you?” It seems to me that a long-standing relationship during which more than one contract was signed is a good reference. On the other hand, one contract three years ago with no follow-up may indicate unsatisfactory work.

When you have gathered all the data and interviewed all the people you can, there is an essential step to be taken after saying good-bye. As soon as possible after leaving their premises, stop and record you impressions. For most of us, impressions tend to fade, so this cannot be done too quickly. Do it in the lobby downstairs or in the rental car in their parking lot. But, don’t wait until that night in the hotel or the next day at work. A tape recording is preferable to a written record. It is likely that everything you can think to say will be of value to you later.

In Summary

Let me try to highlight all that I’ve said in a few “rules of thumb.”

  1. Choose companies before you have work to do.
  2. Leave no stone unturned when looking for companies.
  3. Know exactly what you want to find out about a company before looking.
  4. Interview nonmanagement as well as management personnel.
  5. Record your impressions immediately.

Ultimately, choosing companies to vend publications development to is a subjective business. You can only hope to be thorough, fair, and orderly in your search. Then you have to sit back with all the information you’ve gathered in front of you and say… “Well, it looks to me as if this one is the strongest in this area, but…”