Select Service Providers With Listening in Mind


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Selecting a service provider should be more like a business merger or acquisition or even someone seeking a lifelong soul mate, instead of the arms-length, hard-nosed, knock-down drag-out situations we too often see (or are called in to change).

I once addressed a group of senior-level business processing outsourcing professionals and industry experts in Bangalore, India, in a conference hosted by my LimeBridge Global Alliance partner there, M.D. Ramaswami (who had set up and run Dell’s first “captive” center in India several years earlier). One of my two presentations was “Building Lasting Partnerships—an Outside-In Perspective.” I shared a Google search I’d done in 2003 on “lasting partnerships” and “building lasting partnerships,” where I got an astounding 431,000 and 210,000 hits, respectively. I entered the same terms recently, and it’s clear that things have gotten only more interesting: 702,000 hits for “lasting partnerships” and 569,000 for “building lasting partnerships.” (What does it mean that the latter term has grown much faster than the former? I guess that’s the stuff of another study!)

Some of these many hits reinforced what we’ve seen across client companies and where we’ve worked in customer Service or operations: Like mergers and acquisitions or marriage and civil unions, the client and potential service provider need to follow these four time-proven elements:

  • Open communications
  • Adaptability to suit
  • Surrounding processes
  • Customer obsession

There’s a common theme among all four of these interlocking elements, namely that we need to listen, or keep listening in mind, when selecting a service provider/partner.


What do we mean by listening?

In the customer service (CS) world (which also includes tech support, customer care and telemarketing, for our purposes), we have an incredibly rich gold vein to mine: all of the customer interactions we handle. Considering that, on average, each CS agent (by which, we also mean a representative or associate) speaks with customers and handles email and chats for 6,000 minutes—or 100 hours—per month, we’re constantly getting hit with loads of information. But preciously little of it becomes actionable data.

Moreover, using a third-party provider instead of one’s own agents usually means losing touch with customers, but this is a self-inflicted problem. Using a service provider does require greater attention (and travel), but your service provider should follow the same processes as captive agents.

We can make that conversion from information to data for captive or service provider CS agent operations, if we follow these straightforward steps, creating a listening loop:

  1. Create a simple “taxonomy” to categorize customer issues or reasons. In our experience, honed at but started much earlier at MCI, these should be answering “why?” questions and include no more than 30 “codes,” a scheme that remains constant even as product, services and fortunes shift.

  2. Share these streamlined codes. This should be in a weekly report that senior management reviews critically, especially when you’re able to assign accountable “owners” to each code.

  3. Build cases within each code to explore underlying reasons and solutions to eliminate “dumb” contacts. Deflect others to self-service or proactive measures.

  4. Stay in touch with the CS agents and the operations, regardless of whether they’re taking place at the service provider or in house, feeding back what you’re hearing and what you’re doing to improve the customer situation.

Some service providers might present alluring prices or customer logos or splendid facilities or novel systems, but selecting service providers with listening in mind means practicing and repeating over time these four lead verbs: create, share, build, stay (in touch). Just as when you find the right merger partner or life partner, when you select the right service partners, it’s to the benefit of the union, in this case, your entire ecosystem: customers, CS agents, the company and shareholders.

Bill Price

Bill Price is the President of Driva Solutions (a customer service and customer experience consultancy), an Advisor to Antuit, co-founded the LimeBridge Global Alliance, chairs the Global Operations Council, teaches at the University of Washington and Stanford MBA programs, and is the lead author of The Best Service is No Service and Your Customer Rules! Bill served as's first Global VP of Customer Service and held senior positions at MCI, ACP, and McKinsey. Bill graduated from Dartmouth (BA) and Stanford (MBA).


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