The most repeated word in any presentation from a customer service outsourcing vendor is “partnership“. The word that appears the most in an RFP in which a company asks vendors for collaboration proposals on customer service is “partnership“. It seems to be a perfect matching. What some offer more vigorously is what the others most strongly require.
However, experience tells us that it is one of the most difficult things to effectively achieve in the relationship between the two types of “partners” in many markets. Why?
Let us build on the basis that a service provider’s goal is to achieve cost-effective, long-time operations/relationships. Therefore a Customer’s goal could be to provide its users with the quality of service that they have defined at the lowest possible cost. So far, everything seems to be right. The problem comes when one side does not understand the other’s need, or suspects that the other wants to achieve his goals at the expense of his. Thus, one believes that the Supplier wants to achieve the profitability that he pursues at the expense of the quality of service delivered, or the other thinks that the Customer wants to get the service he demands at a cost below the profitability threshold.
The necessary consequence is the start of a mutually destructive spiral that frequently ruins the relationship between partners, the Customer’s business and the profitability of the Supplier.
Rarely the Supplier actually feel himself part of the Customer’s business. And one of the most widespread demands among Customes is that they receive little added value from their Suppliers beyond the strict service contracted. Customers hope they will help them solve their business problems and sometimes Vendors become mere “executors”. Customers expect to be helped to redefine and improve their processes, and Suppliers expect just to be told what to do. This makes Customers feel little helped and Suppliers disengaged from any decision-making process.
I generally believe that this, when it happens, is the Customer’s fault (and I have been a customer for many years :-)). I think it is always the Customer who has to bring the Supplier to himself and involve him in his business because it is the Customer who defines his own attention strategy and brand positioning. And it is the Customer again most of the time who defines the service, from its more general characteristics to the smallest details. And here I think there is the mistake that hinders the alignment between the two partners.
The service definition must be done jointly between Customer and Supplier. And the evolution of it, the contingencies, the momentary or permanent changes… also. The relationship should not be confined to operational business discussions and margin returns. That’s the mistake. Not because they are not necessary (they do) but because there has to be co-responsibility also in the definition of which service delivery kpi’s have to be prioritized and pursued. It’s the only way to reach a compromise beyond the commercial exchange.
The provider must be allowed to participate in the “internal” meetings of the client in which issues, changes, needs, … of the service are discussed weekly or monthly. For me that’s an important signal. Although sometimes for some people it may seem like a waste of time, we have to let the provider understand our business and strategy, know and feel our problems, and help us solve them. If the only thing we do is simply tell them what they have to do, we lose involvement, co-responsibility…, and neurons, condemning the relationship to a fairly poor and unexciting trade.
Of course, the issue of information confidentiality has to be properly managed and there are mechanisms to do so. Why are there often consultants who know more sensitive issues than many employees and we don’t find it weird? What is the difference between consultants and our customer care providers? What cannot be justified is that confidentiality frequently is used as a mere excuse to keep in the dark suppliers who will be the ones having to execute the final processes we give them many times in record time and without sufficient business justification.
In my opinion often, the customer pays for much more than he receives, but the blame should be not in the supplier’s but in the buyer’s side.