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The Ins and Outs of Vendor Partnerships: Three Steps to Forging a Strong Partnership

The EvoLLLution | The Ins and Outs of Vendor Partnerships: Three Steps to Forging a Strong Partnership
Choosing the right partner is critical for institutions that want to grow their offerings and reach.

Higher education institutions are increasingly partnering with outside vendors for services to support their online programs. Deciding what partner is best for you can be a time-consuming process, especially if you aren’t quite sure what in-house support you can rely on and what outside help you will need.

The following are the three important considerations when looking into any service partnership to support an online program.

1. Be sure you know what you need from a partner

Starting or expanding your online initiative consists of a lot of parts—technical, academic, and administrative. You may have some understanding of the gaps within your organization but does this reflect a true appreciation of your internal strengths and weaknesses?

Talk with every academic and administrative department within your organization to see if they are prepared to develop and teach online and support students and faculty who may all be working at a distance. This audience will need 24/7 technical support, access to student support services, a streamlined admissions process, and a marketing and enrollment management unit that is sophisticated and responsive. Can your marketing department adequately market to an online audience? Traditional institutions are often not prepared to effectively market to a national or even regional online audience.

Determine what services you need and to what extent. This will give you a baseline for narrowing down what you want from a vendor partnership. It will also help identify the key players in your own organization who need to be on board.

2. Pick a partner whose goals, vision, and culture match your own

Partnerships between for-profit online program management companies, marketing/enrollment management companies and nonprofit higher education institutions are prevalent these days. Not all of them will be a good fit for you. Have a clear understanding of who you are and pick a partner that understands your goals, mission and culture.

Will you get the kind of support you want and need from a smaller company rather than a larger one? Can the company customize to your needs or does it have a standard approach to course design and marketing with little flexibility? How does a company measure their effectiveness and report results to you? How often? Are they honest about the highly competitive environment of marketing and recruiting students to online programs and what that means for your particular program offering? It’s better to demand a realistic appraisal of your success beforehand than be disappointed by mediocre results later.

3. Define the nature of the partnership

The vendor partnerships that work well are based on mutual respect and support. They flourish when there is a clear understanding and agreement of what is expected on both sides of the partnership and what each brings to the table. Do not make the mistake of believing that once a contract is signed, your responsibility to ensure success ends—it is only beginning.

The initiative involves your brand, your institution, your responsibility, and ultimately, your success or failure. No matter how sophisticated a vendor is, you need to manage the relationship closely for maximum benefit. You need to contribute as much time to making it a success as your vendor. Think carefully about whom you partner with, your long term goals, and how much you are willing to work at it. Do you want a shorter-term relationship, building up an infrastructure until you can bring these services in-house, or a 10-year agreement? And if the partnership does not work, what is your exit strategy?


Finding the right partner and making it successful is about common sense. Understanding your needs and goals are essential to picking the right partner. Does your partner “speak” the same language that you do and use a vocabulary you understand? Actively engaging with prospective partners before and after an agreement is signed will keep your expectations and theirs on track. Since most vendor partnerships last years, maintain a realistic approach to meeting goals. Unless you are an institution with a national brand, enrollment (and therefore revenue) growth will come overnight. This is not an entirely bad thing as it also enables you to correct for any problems early on and preserve the high quality of your program. Pick a partner who doesn’t mind working with you a bit longer to get it right.  

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