in Vendor Management
By Laszlo Varga
This article is supported by Akorbi
What are the key value-added activities clients typically get from language service providers (LSPs)?
The first thought that may come to your mind is delivery. Delivery of solutions, content, pages, and, most often, words — written, spoken, delivered by sign language. LSPs do all this via managing a wide range of external talent: their language vendors. The unsung heroes of the Akorbi’s vendor management teams recruit, qualify, test, vet, onboard, train, and manage thousands of external talent at dazzling speed and complexity.
Renato Beninatto and Tucker Johnson, in their book The General Theory of the Translation Company, claim that there are three functions that drive value generation: sales, project management (PM), and vendor management (VM).
While the first two are very visible and tangible to clients, vendor management usually takes the back seat in success. It is no less important, though, to understand how it works, what the main considerations of success are, and which practices work for the best.
Why is there vendor management at all?
One can easily imagine a small LSP where there is no separate vendor management function — likely project managers perform this role. Ultimately, it is the PM who is responsible for all key aspects of a project — budget, time, and resources.
Mature providers have a dedicated team of vendor managers, who take over much of the PM responsibilities. Just look at the team at Akorbi, also featured in this magazine for their work preserving the endangered Hawaiian language.
Akorbi’s vendor management team is a trusted partner of production, providing guidance and recommendations when needed, monitoring costs, capacities and throughputs, and of course, making sure the right vendors are available for the client-critical projects.
A VM team that is spread around the globe such as at Akorbi (with members in the United States, Europe, India, and Latin America) enables not only timely recruitment, but also a culturally aligned, empathetic, and sensitive approach to vendors as individuals. Akorbi’s high appreciation of their vendors is shown best by the fact that they are referred to as partners. To further capitalize on this proximity, some of Akorbi’s vendor managers are highly involved in learning and participating in cultural etiquette practices. This has greatly enhanced recruitment efficiency and rate of fulfillment for assignments with specific preferences such as gender.
A well-structured team for success
Language talents fall into one or more of many categories, depending on what services they offer. At Akorbi, the main categories are translation or interpretation, and the vendor management team is structured to meet the different needs of these services.
Akorbi’s interpreters are recruited and managed by a dedicated team, and a second team takes care of language talents for translation work. These two teams don’t act in silos though: They continuously share experience and best practices, especially because other than highly specialized talents, many language vendors offer both translation and interpretation services.
Specialization in vendor management goes a long way at Akorbi: All American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters are recruited by a deaf vendor manager. This guarantees each ASL interpreter is not only skilled linguistically, but also models professional ethics and truly understands deaf culture. Akorbi’s ASL division is led by an RID certified interpreter with more than ten years of field experience. Having a dedicated ASL accommodations consultant helps ensure ADA compliance on the clients’ side.
The success of the specialized VM team has been instrumental in establishing Akorbi within the ASL community as a trusted partner of clients and the deaf individuals they serve over the past two years. The very high level of expertise and the unique first-hand experience within the VM team enables Akorbi to be trusted educators and thought leaders to their clients when it comes to accessibility services for deaf consumers. Besides ASL interpretation, Akorbi’s accessibility services include different services such as deaf-blind/tactile and certified deaf interpreters (CDIs).
Compliance is important in vendor management
ISO certifications are fairly common at LSPs. These are used to standardize processes, enable management by exceptions, and — importantly — place constraints on procedures as well as resources. Language service buyers often appreciate ISO certifications, as they may be indicative of mature operations, as well as predictable and repeatable quality.
Akorbi holds several highly audited certifications, including ISO 27001, ISO 9001, ISO 13485, ISO 17100, HUB, and M/WBE. In addition, compliance with other strict regulations such as HIPAA in the US is also maintained when dealing with protected health information. This entails an important duty for Akorbi’s vendor management. All vendors dealing with heavily regulated content are taken through annual training about the related security measures. To highlight the importance of this regulation, Akorbi established a dedicated team to ensure continuous HIPAA compliance.
Customer centricity in vendor management: beyond compliance
While HIPAA is for the US only, Akorbi’s operations are flexible to adapt to regulatory compliance in various locales and verticals, and the vendor management team is up to the task. This is proven by the example when Akorbi’s Japanese ecommerce client needed a team of linguists. The task sounds simple at first — recruitment is one of the core functions of VM. However, in this case, the VM team faced the challenge of meeting strict local market regulations. By carefully studying the relevant compliance materials and rapidly adjusting the recruitment process, the VM team came up with the special recruitment solution that fully satisfied both client needs and relevant regulations, minimizing risks and maximizing chance for the program’s success.
Good vendors are nurtured
Starting an engagement with an external vendor is the critical phase of cooperation. It is possible to select the best-looking candidates based on profile, experience, test results, and interviews — and every VM team strives to do this. But the best-looking vendor candidates still require the initial knowledge transfer, guidance, and nurturing by the LSP.
Good vendors don’t grow on trees. Good vendors are nurtured.
It’s vendor management’s job to help newly recruited talent start off on the right foot. Akorbi’s vendor onboarding program includes extensive training for every newly recruited freelancer or single-language vendor. The self-paced learning modules are developed by the Akorbi vendor management and language quality teams and delivered online through a dedicated LMS. This solid upfront training builds consistency, sets the correct expectations, and prepares new vendors for success.
Akorbi’s vendor onboarding training includes all necessary and immediately useful pieces of knowledge. Solid training upfront on content, tools, workflows, best practices, company processes including communication channels, and payment is key to build consistency of deliverables. Supply-chain newcomers get acquainted not to Akorbi’s company specific knowledge, but also end-client relevant information — language assets, TMS tools, query management practices, escalation paths.
It is equally important to maintain the knowledge and expertise of existing vendors. The training platform used by Akorbi enables the tracking of completed trainings and completion times by individual vendors, and indicators are used if new trainings are made available or retraining is needed for periodic certifications. In addition, knowledge gaps may be identified through vendor performance reviews. In such situations, customized training content is delivered to tackle the necessary improvement points.
Manage the relationship and vendor
Akorbi puts strong emphasis on managing the relationship with their vendors from onboarding onwards. Vendors that feel valued as experts and people are more likely to bring their best to the deliverables than those who are neglected and objectified. Managing vendors in localization is often mostly about managing relationships, not only when it comes to vendors with the highest engagement, but also backups and newcomers.
The vendor management team at Akorbi is ready to support their vendors over email, instant messaging applications and even over phone whenever necessary in the day-to-day work. The more strategic aspects of relationship management include regular feedback loops and data-based review meetings.
As a strategic part of Akorbi’s vendor relations management, vendors with the highest levels of engagement are invited to regular review meetings. As a best practice, these calls are essentially mini-QBRs with a personal touch — they cover topics from performance to forecasts, from personal and professional development to business planning.
When it comes to identifying the most engaged vendors, Akorbi uses its sophisticated vendor dashboards. Developed and maintained in PowerBI, these dashboards use all static and dynamic operational data to create important insights for vendor managers. The real-time view of key performance indicators (KPIs) on quality, cost, and performance of vendors enable not only more robust day-to-day decision making in vendor allocation, but also presents an accurate picture of the current state of the vendor pool at any given time. This supports a VM’s ability to identify gaps in capabilities and capacities so that a proper vendor recruitment and onboarding plan can be created and executed.
Efficiencies in VM operations
Delivering results in global localization vendor management is never easy. But doing it efficiently is a distinct challenge. Strike the wrong balance, and overly efficient operations become ineffective, alienating vendors and risking quality and timeliness of delivering to clients. The vendor management team at Akorbi continuously recalibrates their ways of working, aiming at the right balance.
On a task level, their request and task tracking tool (JIRA) has been instrumental in bringing structure, standardization, and transparency to the vendor management team. Although JIRA has been used at many Akorbi teams for a long time, the VM team opted for it about two years ago, and the benefits are felt in everyday operations and in VM team capacity management alike.
As all requests to vendor management are created in JIRA, there is a clear path of accountability, and no task is left unattended. The standardized request forms minimize the need for extraneous communication, task prioritization became much easier with the clear request pipeline and kanban views, and the high level of transparency enables management by exception on team lead level.
Data-based VM operations
The VM operation data inherently generated in JIRA is used for strategic planning both for translation and interpretation talent needs. When this data indicates a new trend in demand for linguists in a specific subject area or locale, Akorbi’s VM team proactively approaches production and account management representatives to initiate and align on strategic recruitments.
This proactivity is especially important for ad-hoc demand that is inherent to interpretations, where great agility is needed. To ensure that Akorbi’s pool of interpreters is prepared for future work, the VM team performs biweekly deep dives into the demand data. In the rare event that an interpretation request has been fulfilled by alternative methods (for example, via VRI instead of onsite), the VM team initiates recruitment on its own behalf so that any similar future requests get best-in-class support from a vendor perspective.
There is an even more proactive best practice element to Akorbi’s future-proof interpretation vendor management. The dedicated VMs monitor and research data about the external factors of interpretation demand each week. Key insights about distress in certain social, demographic, and national communities may indicate waves of migration or immigration, and the VM team utilizes multiple channels of information to infer these events.
These pieces of information are then collated with socio-economic datasets and prognoses, and in case cross-state or cross-border migration is expected, the VM team prepares to serve the demand of future interpretation needs. While predictions are never 100% accurate, this approach allowed Akorbi to be prepared for the Afghan immigration waves to the US stemming from the final withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in 2021.
It’s that level of preparation, as well as the many other qualities detailed earlier, that make Akorbi an industry leader in vendor management. The task requires a fine touch, but thanks to Akorbi’s approach, all stakeholders can count on a smooth experience from beginning to end.
Laszlo Varga has more than 10 years of localization industry experience, with a strong focus on supply chain. His expertise ranges from service delivery and solution development through process and change management to strategy and innovation.