Ensuring Fit: Tips to Create High-Trust Relationships with Service Providers

At the Sport Law & Strategy Group (SLSG), one of our core values is professional integrity – acting fairly, ethically and with compassion. One way of ensuring that a high-trust relationship with clients is maintained is to ensure there is shared understanding of deliverables, costs, and timelines. But this is just the beginning. In addition, we at the SLSG are also concerned with how the project gets delivered and we keep the best interest of our clients at the heart of the conversation. As such, we’ve learned a few things over the past 26 years about how to manage high-trust relationships. We’ve noted with interest that we rarely have disagreements over billables and, in particular, our clients appreciate the care and attention that goes into securing a healthy relationship. One client recently remarked that we ‘ought to share our approach with others’ … so we listened. This blog is meant to serve as a primer for sport leaders who want to secure high-trust relationships with their contractors (including consultants, lawyers, accountants, and other service providers).

Tip 1: Get it in writing

One of the best methods of ensuring clarity and scope of work is to have a Letter of Agreement (LOA) that clearly outlines the terms and conditions of the scope of work. This contract helps to ensure there is a shared understanding of what was agreed to, and the associated budget and timelines specified. Furthermore, a LOA ought to also include a clause dealing with early termination, confidentiality, intellectual property, and how disputes will be managed and governing laws.

Tip 2: Learn from others

One of the best ways to know if the service provider will align with your values and to assess right fit is to ask other organizations who have worked with them in the past. Here are some great questions we encourage our clients to ask:

  • What did you enjoy the most (and the least) about working with this service provider?
  • Did they deliver a quality product, on time, and within the assigned budget? If not, can you share why?
  • Did your main point of contact on the project reflect the values of their organization?
  • Would you recommend that they work with me on this project (give a few details on your project)?
  • Did you get good value for money spent?

Tip 3: Ensure clarity on the use of your brand

A particularly important topic to cover nowadays is the use of social media and your comfort level with service providers promoting their involvement with your organization as they work with you on a project. While we have noticed an increase in service providers sharing through social media, we also know that not all clients are comfortable letting the world know they are working with an external group on sensitive topics like risk management, human resources, leadership development or good governance. As a matter of practice, we at the SLSG now ensure we have received permission (verbal, and sometimes in writing) from our clients before sharing our involvement with them. And by asking the question, we avoid what could have been a difficult conversation. Sample language you can use includes: “The SLSG commits to seek verbal permission from (client) before promoting the services we are providing to (client) on social media or on any promotional material that would include (client) name or logo. The SLSG grants permission to (client) to mention our name in any social media promotion if (client) feels that this will further inform and educate their followers and stakeholders.”

Tip 4: Include an ‘out clause’

If you need to part ways with the contractor, you want to ensure this has been agreed to in advance, to protect the interests of both parties. Considerations include the ownership of intellectual property (deliverables), payment for completed or partially completed work, and coordinating a smooth transition.  Sample language that you can include in your LOA includes the following: “This contract can be terminated by either party on a minimum of five (5) calendar days of notice to the other party. Either party shall have no obligation beyond such notice of termination other than in accordance with this Agreement for remuneration for services rendered up to the date of termination on a pro-rated basis.”

Tip 5: Protect your intellectual property

Time and again in the risk management workshops I have hosted in collaboration with the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES), the topic of intellectual property comes up and truth be told, sport organizations do a poor job of preserving and protecting their valuable assets (think of things like the LTAD models, Coaching Manuals, and other initiatives that they have spent months if not years creating). When engaging the services of an external contractor, it is critical to ensure you are clear up front on who owns which parts of the initiative you are paying them to produce. In addition, we recommend that you ask your service providers if there is a free or lower cost method of obtaining the work you are asking them to provide. For instance, any sport organization looking for risk management practices can obtain free, world-leading risk management advice by visiting the CCES website (www.cces.ca). Along with the SLSG, the CCES has been co-leading a decade-long risk management workshop, supported by Sport Canada. There are sample risk registries, a sample risk management policy, and an implementation plan that are available free of charge. While these documents don’t replace the solid advice you can get from a trained consultant, I strongly recommend making sure that the advice you are getting is not re-purposing work done by others, which is available at a more affordable rate. Sample language that would need to be modified by your sport organization in your LOA includes: Copyright and intellectual property rights in all written material (including electronic format) and other works produced in connection with this Agreement shall be owned by the (sport organization). It is understood that the templates and processes developed by the Sport Law & Strategy Group for the purposes of this contract are owned by the Sport Law & Strategy Group, who will have the right to use, reproduce or distribute these materials and works, or any part thereof, for any purpose it wishes.”

Tip 6: Look for hidden costs

All LOAs should include a paragraph that states the following: “(Sport organization) agrees to pay for any travel costs and disbursements agreed to in advance associated with this letter of agreement.” At the SLSG, we do not include any extra hidden costs like administrative fees (which is an outdated way of adding additional costs to tight budgets), as we believe that our daily or hourly rate is a fair and transparent way of being remunerated.

Tip 7: Be mindful of scope creep

Inevitably, some projects scale up beyond the initial draft outline – I call that scope creep – which can cause concern for all involved. Much of the work I do for instance is project based and specifies a total number of days based on the deliverables agreed to in advance. However, what happens when those deliverables change? I initiate a conversation with my contact and let them know that the original scope of work has shifted and to review what impact this might have on the LOA. Sometimes, the work has been reduced, in which case I simply reduce my fee. Other times, the scope of work increases, and we negotiate a fair price for the additional items. The key takeaway is to have the conversation before the invoice is sent, so that the client can approve any changes to the budget.

Tip 8: You get what you pay for

In all my years of providing strategic consulting services to sport organizations, I have rarely been told that my fees are too high. However, in an increasingly competitive marketplace, I always advise clients to consider not only the fees associated with the project, but the credibility, knowledge and reputation of the organization they are looking to partner with. Sometimes it’s worth paying a bit more because the fit for the project is more aligned with a skill set that a particular consultant brings.

Tip 9: Secure confidentiality

Too often people tell tales out of school which leave the organization vulnerable and exposed. Securing confidentiality in your LOAs is a good practice that helps to communicate your desire to keep the work you are collaborating on confidential. Sample language includes: “Confidentiality of all (client) business or information gained in the course of this Agreement shall be strictly maintained both during this Agreement and after it is terminated.” Being specific about this might include for instance letting your service provider know that you don’t want them sharing your involvement with them on social media.

Tip 10: Best before date

There are several reputable vendors that sport organizations can do business with and I recommend that organizations use multiple vendors to avoid the trap of becoming too complacent. For instance, it is not uncommon to change auditors every three to four years to ensure you have a fresh pair of eyes reviewing your financial practices. I often recommend that a client works with a different strategic planning consultant to support the renewal of their next plan. This can help to bring a different perspective and approach to the process.

The final message I’d offer to sport leaders when assessing fit is to get a sense of the service provider’s way of being. As my partner Steve Indig likes to say, ‘our vision is to help you achieve yours, and along the way, we’ll give you a hug when you need one.’ Beyond having the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed, a little compassion goes a long way when helping to support leaders who are working tirelessly to achieve their organization’s mission.

Drop me a line if you want to chat about any of the above at DBL@sportlaw.ca.

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