Last Friday I had to go in to the office, which was a little weird, since I’ve been working from home since March–it’s a COVID safety measure to reduce the number of people in the building, and I am A-OK with it. This trip to the office was for a meeting with a printer rep and our production planner. I do packaging and project coordination for a vegan food brand, so a lot of my job is dealing with vendors and quotes and specs–and trying to think of everything that could go wrong before it has a chance to go wrong. (But sometimes things still go wrong and I have to figure out how to fix them.)
I’ve done a lot of this type of thing in previous positions. I’ve been a managing editor for print publishers, and I’ve planned seminars, conferences, and other events. Basically, all of these positions involve making and maintaining a bunch of spreadsheets, hounding people to meet deadlines, doing lots of copy prep and proofreading, writing effective emails, and problem-solving. And sometimes, like Friday’s meeting, I have to address a problem with a vendor and find a way forward that works for everyone. It’s never a fun thing, but I think this is something I’m surprisingly good at–surprisingly, because it involves human interaction. How does she do it?
Well, most importantly, in these meetings I shelve emotions and the idea of blame, so that helps. I do tend to not worry about putting effort into being friendly and likable. All my focus is on the problem and the larger business relationship–I know I can be seen as severe or intimidating, but at times like this, I let that work for me. At least it’s not angry or defensive. As the dissatisfied customer, I’ve already flagged a problem, so this exchange is all about analyzing what went wrong and how we can prevent it from happening again so I don’t have to move to a new vendor, and then we figure out our next steps.
Also helpful here is that I keep records of everything. As part of any project, I ask for things in writing, and in the event that a vendor wants to meet in person or talk on the phone, I take lots of notes or make sure one of us follows up with an email summary. This is just objectively handy for everyone, but I know I get anxious when speaking with people, so this helps me pay attention and keep track of what’s important. And you know how some people wrap up meetings with “Do you have any other questions?” My wrap-up question is “Is there anything else I need to know?” Because I know I do get anxious, and also I don’t know everything there is to know about everything, I throw this out there because they’re supposed to be the experts on whatever it is they’re selling me. They should know more about it than me, so what question did I not know to ask?
Over the years I have worked on a few aspects of my personal interaction with vendor reps. I can do the introduction piece fairly seamlessly now. I can do the handshake, quick eye contact and half smile, and I have my elevator speech down for my own intro. Since they’re the one trying to sell me something, that takes some of the pressure off–it’s their responsibility to be off-the-charts likable, not mine. And the fact that they usually hand me a business card helps so much–as I’ve said before, I’m awful with names.
Another thing I’ve worked on is adding niceties and a personable voice in emails. This was not always easy. Back when I was part of a three-person team organizing a decent-size vegan media conference (300-plus attendees, three days of classes and meals and special events), we were dealing with a very tight budget, so the bigger sponsorships made all the difference. We had signed a contract with a company for a $10,000 sponsorship and then they had a staffing shakeup. The new person in charge of their events wanted to completely renegotiate the contract and threatened to pull out. This was so much money for us, and of course we didn’t have an attorney to lean on, like “If you try to break this contract we’ll see you in court!” But we also didn’t want to let them take advantage of us. The email exchange we went through was the scariest of my life, and this is how it went: The three of us came up with our plan, what we felt comfortable doing and what we didn’t. I wrote the email in great detail, leaving absolutely nothing open for interpretation, and then one of my partners went through and added niceties, friendly little bits here and there. I hated that it was necessary, but it was. And I still don’t see any real reason for them, but I know people expect them, so I put them in my emails now. It doesn’t hurt me to do it, and if it helps someone in some way, fine.
One thing I’m still not great at is the extracurricular business occasion, like a meal. This is especially true if I’m not the main customer, like if I’m there in a support capacity. I’m not going to be friends with this person, and I don’t know what we’re supposed to discuss if it’s not the actual thing we’re working on together, so coming up with conversation is really hard. Also, I have so many food and germ issues that sitting down and eating with actual friends is challenging, let alone a stranger. No, I don’t want to order a bunch of things and share. That’s my nightmare. I end up doing a lot of toe-based stimming (self-soothing repetitive behavior, like tapping) so they can’t tell, and I drink a ridiculous amount of water to fill the time (which leads to discomfort because I really, really, really hate using public restrooms).
You know, it wasn’t until typing this all out that I realized how much of my behavior in these situations is crafted. I can’t even imagine if I had to be on the other side of this, if I had to be the salesperson. My initial thought is that I’d be fired immediately, but no, nobody would be foolish enough to hire me in the first place and that’s fine. There are other people out there who love that sort of thing. I guess we’re all good, okay, and useless at different things, and that’s how we get stuff done.