I’m pleased to provide these practical tips for wellness vendor management, one of the most demanding roles of employee wellness managers. Some of these — six tips for implementation and oversight, eight for selection and contracting — may be more relevant to larger corporations, but many are applicable to a spectrum of organizations and a variety of non-wellness vendors. They can help make a manager’s job easier, while eliciting higher levels of performance from vendors.
This list isn’t exhaustive. It’s a mash-up of tactics I learned — in 20+ years of contracting with vendors for wellness portals, tobacco cessation, team challenges, positive psychology, EAPs, condition management, food service, biometric screenings, flu shots, self-care, employee recognition systems, and more — that I now find are elusive to many managers who can benefit from them.
Implementation and Oversight
- Use a Vendor Scorecard — This may be the most important thing you’re not doing with your vendors. Put a performance management process in place, not unlike those many companies use for employees. Collaborate with your vendor to have them set goals for account management, customer service, new product development, communications, consultation, reporting, attention to detail, etc. These should relate to your program goals. Provide the vendor with a written report at least once a year, grading them on how they’ve done with each goal. They’ll appreciate the clarity about expectations, validation of what they’ve done well, and feedback regarding how they can improve. Check in with them regularly throughout the year, orally and in writing. They shouldn’t be broadsided when you deliver their annual evaluation.
- Conduct a Culture Orientation — As part of the implementation process, plan a “culture orientation” in which someone on your team presents (usually via webinar) an overview of your company’s culture for your vendor’s service reps. Include a quick history of your company, its values, and a description of your company’s product/service, in addition to the levels of service and quality your company’s employees expect.
- Host a Vendor Orientation — Have your vendor’s account executive provide an orientation, live or via webinar, for your wellness champions and other key stakeholders. This should minimally include a demo of web- or app-based products.
- Fact-Check Reports — Scrutinize your vendor’s numbers closely. One relatively easy quality assurance procedure: When the vendor team visits your office for the annual utilization review and strategy planning session, you should have the previous year’s reports with you. When they show how the current year’s data compares to the previous year’s data, compare what they now say is the previous year’s data to what they actually reported the previous year. In my experience, these are inconsistent more than 50% of the time, and you should find out why. (Or spare everyone the awkward moment: Ask your vendor to provide utilization reports in advance, so you have sufficient time to assess reporting quality — as well as results — that you can discuss at the meeting.)
- Be a Data Detective — If your vendor says, for example, that your company’s 10,000 employees took enough steps in the past year to circle the earth 300 times (WOW!!), your boss and your boss’s boss may get giddy, but they need you to be smarter. To circle the earth 300 times in a year, 10,000 employees would average only about 4,100 steps per day. A mean average of 4,100 steps per day is a data point you can work with. “Circling the earth 300 times in a year” is a throwaway factoid designed to appeal to your emotions. (Another example: Your vendor tells you that participants lost a total of 20,000 pounds that year. One check on this unlikely outcome: Ask if they’re calculating net weight change — total weight gained relative to total weight lost — or just adding up how much employees have lost. That is, if I lost 5 lbs in each of February, June, and September, it’s wrong to say I lost a total of 15 lbs that year if I gained 3 lbs in each of the other 9 months. But many vendors will do just that.) This isn’t sophisticated statistics, it’s just — as Al Lewis is fond of saying — basic math. Still, if numbers make your head explode, enlist one of your company’s data wonks to help.
- Expect a Consultative Relationship —You want a vendor that 1) knows more than you do; 2) leverages their experience to help solve your problems; 3) provides resources (like communication specialists, project managers, etc.) to help fill gaps on your team; 4) stays ahead of industry trends; and 5) maintains a current, active roadmap to accommodate the changing needs of your employees. Vendors should be one step ahead of you, rather than you pulling them along.
Selection and Contracting
- Meet the Right People — At finalist meetings, require vendors to bring the right people. This should include the account executive or account manager who’ll be your primary contact. Ask them questions directly to confirm they’re prepared to manage the account the way you expect, including advocating for your company’s needs at all levels of their organization. And it never hurts to get a sense of how you’ll mesh.
- Terms of Service and Privacy — Read the Terms of Service and Privacy Policies that the vendor’s participants must agree to. Ideally, get your company’s legal counsel involved with this. This is especially important for very large or diversified vendors, who might plan to do gosh-knows-what with your employees’ data to slyly market other products to them. Always be a vigilant steward of your participants’ data and confidentiality.
- Start-Up Fees — Negotiate hard to get start-up fees waived. (Remember: The salesperson is always hungry for your business. You’re in the driver’s seat.) The only good reason I can see to pay start-up fees is when implementation starts before a contract is signed (which it often does). True story: I once had a vendor try to slip a $50,000 start-up fee into a contract. I said, “We’re not going to pay that. Take it out.” They said, “Okay.” I guess they felt it didn’t hurt to try.
- Don’t Enable Deceptive Practices — The contract should not include a vendor stipulation that “this contract supersedes all previous communication.” Why agree to that? Require your vendors to keep their word on everything they’ve said in their sales proposals, presentations, and Statement of Work. (I also encourage them to honor what they’ve said on their website and other public communications). If necessary, working with your legal or purchasing teams, make all previous documents appendices to the contract.
- Demand Real Performance Guarantees — You can accept a vendor’s performance guarantees, but propose some of your own — using metrics that don’t depend on the vendor to measure. And make them count. For example, a vendor’s ability to do their part to launch your program on time — without big mistakes, website overloads, long on-hold periods for your employees, etc. — should be worth a lot more than 1% or 2% of the first year’s total fees. 5%-10% isn’t unreasonable; after all, you only get one chance to launch a program. As much as possible, base performance guarantees on results. For example, speed-to-answer helpline calls — a common performance indicator — is an important metric, but helpline effectiveness and user satisfactionare what really counts.
- Get Out of Vendor-Jail Free — Make sure your contract has an out-clause, so you can terminate the agreement without cause (after giving an agreed-upon amount of notice).
- Do Site Visits — During your selection process, visit the offices of your finalist(s), if possible. You can learn a lot by the vibe, the attention to detail, the hospitality, the privacy practices, etc. Never let your vendor pay for your site visit. Doing so is a bad practice and probably violates your employer’s conflict-of-interest policy.
- Wellness Reality Check — During your site visit, ask your prospective vendor’s employees about their company’s wellness program for their own employees. If they’re not prepared to describe a genuine, knock-your-socks-off program, the vendor doesn’t believe in employee wellness and/or has no idea how to do it.
Do Your Part
Some wellness managers think that after signing a contract and checking off a few implementation tasks, their work is done and the rest is up to the vendor. No. Be a leader. You need to rally enthusiasm at all levels of your company; execute an astonishing, ongoing communication strategy; listen to the changing needs of participants and non-participants; remain personally engaged in the program; oversee and coordinate resources; and nurture a collaborative relationship with your vendor as you manage their performance.
Drive your vendors without bullying them. If they’re good, they’ll recognize that your demands for the very highest quality only make them better. If they don’t want you involved, it’s time to use that “out clause” in your contract.
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