If IT and business process outsourcing has taught us anything in these years of complex project management and service-level agreements, it's that you cannot guarantee that the message communicated to or from your team will be the message that is actually received.
Simple miscommunication can destroy everything. Tridip Saha, general manager and UK head of outsourcer MindTree, assents to the fact that if you want to be a great outsourcer of IT or anything else, you need to pay considerable, intensive attention to the larger picture.
It is not good enough to focus on the smaller pieces of the puzzle - such as the delivery of the IT itself - if you want to keep your customers happy, ensure appropriate service levels, and make margin as well.
"It starts with the briefing, and this is really what I do for a living," says Saha. "When I am with the CIO, we discuss how to make a partnership work so it benefits both parties."
Step one is to talk about why the contract is important to the customer, and also why it is important to the outsourcer. This means going beyond detailing outcomes or what the customer hopes to achieve to look at how the customer has come to this point and where they hope to go long term.
Similarly, the parties should discuss the provider's strategy and motivation and how the proposed partnership fits into that - an area that many may intuitively regard as less important.
However, as Saha points out, this is not so. How the provider's team sees and understands their role, and where this specific deal fits as a part of that, will crucially affect the performance of the provider, and therefore, long-term customer satisfaction.
For the absolute best outsourcing arrangement, all steps and pieces in the overall puzzle must be considered every time - not skipped because of assumptions about the arrangement that may turn out to be badly wrong.
A successful outsourcing project must dovetail with strategy for two, three or five years, say, across the business, or it will remain simply tactical and the full benefits will be enjoyed only by chance. Buy-in and engagement has to be achieved at every level, too.
"Often the CIO will be very supportive -- but a lot of people at the operating level will be very sceptical," Saha (pictured, right) warns. "In many cases, it might look trivial - they might say ‘I'm simply trying to reduce the costs in my business', for example - but not doing it leads to the wrong behaviours."
Being a great outsourcer is as much about understanding human and organisational psychology as it is about service levels, accurate-to-the-last-desired-outcome contracts, or technology itself, he says.
"We need to know how we will achieve these things we want, how we will make the customer more competitive, and it takes both sides. From our side, we should be very clear about why we should give the business resources to the customer, and why they are important as a customer to us," Saha says.
"Are we doing something that will make a big material difference, and to whom?"
He says one good tip is to always identify a person from your team whose job will be not just to make the outsourcing programme successful, but to make the partner (the other party) successful. Then you have someone who is accountable, who has a stake in ensuring this specific, particular success. "We say this to all the CIOs," he adds.
The personal touch
Saha suggests building a successful team by developing an almost "tribal" level of engagement with contribution from both sides, where everyone identifies with the project and its success.
This can be done not just by ensuring everyone is on the same page with the programme itself, but by developing and utilising joint project logos or symbols that link people to a common cause. You need the intellectual and emotional infrastructure for success, not just the physical infrastructure.
"We talk about business goals such as cost savings and so on, but for the teams working on the ground none of that is as directly relevant," explains Saha. "So what exactly does it mean for them?"
Do more face-to-face, and by phone -- and less by email.
When it comes to the contract itself, however, a certain adaptability and flexibility must be built in from the beginning. The agreement should not fall into the trap of becoming too detailed. If it is, the inevitable changes in focus and features that crop up in virtually every IT project may not be able to be accommodated - to the detriment of the customer, and ultimately also to the provider. It is far too easy for someone to say, ‘but that wasn't what we agreed'.
A lot is typically said about SLAs and what a piece of software should have or a project should achieve in IT terms, but not enough perhaps about how to get all the players to be stakeholders and work effectively to guarantee success. Of course, there are many other considerations too, Saha says.
Richard Eglon, marketing director of third-party support services provider Comms-care, has some particular points about working with a range of partners on a project. One key thing, he notes, is to ensure that the customer has a single point of contact when anything goes wrong.
No business user wants to have to waste time figuring out which company he or she needs to contact for a particular fault, or which person within that company is the right one to fix the problem.
Every customer wants to make one phone call or send one email and have an issue in hand - so this too should be considered if you don't wish your outsourcing arrangement to blow up in your face.
"We are finding that an increasing number of resellers are coming to us because we provide a four-hour service, for example, rather than a four-hour response. This is where you can make more margin and differentiate," Eglon (pictured, right) says.
It might seem like semantics, but customers have become aware of the hidden disadvantages of the so-called four-hour response -- that is, you may well get the technician out there within four hours, but it might take much longer than that to get the problem sorted out, as a different staffer may be required for all or part of the solution, for example.
Then of course, if you promise a four-hour service, you had better understand what that means to the customer, and you have to actually deliver it.
"How you become a great outsourcer has as much to do with understanding their (the customer's and provider's) culture as a business," ends Eglon.
We all know that dealing with the complexity of outsourcing arrangements can become depressing - but, clearly, there are ways to manage it that should ensure such potentially lucrative deals do not simply pile stress upon complication until, like a pressure cooker, they explode.
Not getting the right message
Found online, labelled as genuine corporate communications notices. We hope they're not.
• "As of tomorrow, employees will only be able to access the building using individual security cards. Employees will receive their cards in two weeks."
• "What I need is a list of specific unknown problems we will encounter."
• "How long is this Beta guy going to keep testing our stuff?"
• "Email is not to be used to pass on information or data. It should be used only for company business."
Food for miscommunication -- or at least, for thought.
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