Vendor vs. Solutions Provider

Blue Disco Ball

With outsourcing becoming a necessity, it is more important than ever to understand the role of a vendor versus the role of a solutions provider. When is it a good idea to reach out to a vendor, and when are you better off retaining a solutions provider to help you achieve your objectives? Wait. Every vendor says they’re a solutions provider. OK. Let’s say that’s true. (Which it isn’t, BTW.) Are you set up to leverage that resource?

For a solid overview of the issue, have a quick look at The Middle Management Error Vendors Love Most. It is a personal story about a famous director’s request for a blue disco ball. It will make you smile, or cringe… or both.

The short version is that on my first job on a film set, the director asked for a 60″ blue disco ball. An assistant producer ordered one from a vendor. It arrived on time and on budget. For reasons that I shall go into, it was never used.

Told this way, the “Blue Disco Ball” story doesn’t sound like much of a case study. But I can assure you, there are lessons to be learned.

The Vision

In the director’s mind, he saw blue dots dancing on the set. His solution? A 60″ blue disco ball hung out of frame. That would do the trick!

    Lesson 1: If you’re not a professional in a specific field (in this case lighting and real-time effects), do not assume your solution is best (or even good). Share your goals with people schooled in the art and let them help you understand your options.

The Meeting

The scene was scheduled to be shot in two days. In a production meeting with his department heads, the director asked for a 60″ blue disco ball.

    Lesson 2: If you are in charge, people will simply do what you tell them to do. It’s their job. This is great under most circumstances, but if your outcomes are not aligned with this incentive structure, the results will be suboptimal.

Three key department heads were missing from this meeting: props, art, and lighting. The three of them were each holding production meetings of their own in different locations. So key people who could have offered high-level solutions were completely out of the loop.

    Lesson 3: If you have the wrong people in the meeting, you are having the wrong meeting.

The Vendors

The vendors all came back with similar pricing (including a significant rush charge). The pricing (while inside of the total production budget) was clearly out of line with the value of the purchase. No one said anything except, “When do you need it?”

    Lesson 4: Vendors say yes. That’s how they get paid. That’s how they keep clients. Vendors do not push back (except with rush charges or outlandish price quotes). From a vendor’s point of view, you (the client) never seem to have the money to do it right, but you always seem to have the money to do it over. And when you need it in a hurry, money seems to magically appear. Vendors love orders for Blue Disco Balls!

The Alternative Ending

In the real Blue Disco Ball story, the director threw a temper tantrum about an hour before the prop was scheduled to arrive. The property master (a solutions provider) just happened by in the middle of this tantrum and asked what the fuss was all about.

After listening for a moment, the property master asked the most important question anyone could ask, “What are you trying to accomplish?” The director said he wanted little dots of blue light dancing on the floor. Without missing a beat, the property master picked up the phone and told one of the stagehands to bring up a disco ball. It was there in under five minutes. He told the gaffer put a dark blue gel over the light they were shining on the disco ball and “for free” there were blue dancing dots of light all over the set. The problem was solved by a seasoned pro who knew how to listen, ask the right questions, and get the job done.

    Lesson 5: Hire the best and let them work. Solutions providers may be vendors, but they don’t think of themselves that way. Solutions providers will always ask questions that you did not think of. They will offer suggestions that will often expand your thinking. They will always find a way to get your mission accomplished. And the best of them will point you in the right direction if they do not feel they are right for your engagement. A solutions provider’s goal is to earn your trust by solving your problem.

    Lesson 6: If you treat a solutions provider like a vendor, the solutions provider will act like a vendor. Always. No one wants to be “dead” right.

    Lesson 7: If you treat a vendor like a solutions provider, the vendor will do their best to help you – but not if your procurement department has requested a bid on specific line items and the vendor is in a bidding war for your business as specified. Then, you’re going to get what you ask for – not what you need.

The Blue Disco Ball Story Lives On

There are literally hundreds of lessons to be learned from the Blue Disco Ball story. I encourage you to read it. If you have some similar experiences you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you.


My “Blue Disco Ball” Story

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Author’s note: This is not a sponsored post. I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I am not, nor is my company, receiving compensation for it.

About Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is the Professor of Advanced Media in Residence at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and CEO of The Palmer Group, a consulting practice that helps Fortune 500 companies with technology, media and marketing. Named LinkedIn’s “Top Voice in Technology,” he covers tech and business for Good Day New York, is a regular commentator on CNN and writes a popular daily business blog. He's a bestselling author, and the creator of the popular, free online course, Generative AI for Execs. Follow @shellypalmer or visit



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