Ouch-sourcing

Ouch-sourcing“Andrew, it is not working” I shouted from my office.
“K”, came the reply from across the corridor, after 5 or 10 minutes followed by “Fixed it!”.
Andrew, our in-house SharePoint whizzkid, had built our intranet, knew everything about it, and liked a challenge. He loved finding out what was wrong and fixing it before I had time to tell any user that we were working on it. Sometimes he had to reboot a server, sometimes it was a piece of code behaving strangely, sometimes a local hitch, but he was 99,99% reliable to fix any issue within an hour. And he was not even an employee, but someone we hired long-term from a partner.

But then management decided to outsource all application development, service and support to one external company. Of course this would save the company lots of money. We could now use people depending on our needs, did not have to plan around holidays or be worried about illness. The service provider was supposed to be knowledgeable in all systems, including SharePoint, so that was convenient.

So we had to let go of Andrew and his colleagues. Andrew followed his long-time dream of moving to Australia and the last time I looked at his LinkedIn profile, he was still there.

But first we had to handover all info to the service provider.
We created a team site for all documentation, code, installation manuals and what not. Next to that we organized many Live Meetings to go over all details with the new support party. We recorded those and added them to the documentation site.

So, the good point of the situation was that we were finally forced to get all our documentation properly organized :-).

Unfortunately, there were also a couple of bad points…

  • First of all, there were lots of language and culture issues so it took quite a while before everyone understood each other properly. The fact that Dutch people are quite direct (if not downright blunt), and not very hierarchical, was not really helping the working situation with a partner from a more cautious culture where everything had to go through a manager.
  • Our service provider did not understand our environment due to the many customizations. They always wanted to change code to solve an issue, but since we no longer had anyone in our team who understood the implications, we were afraid to approve of that. In the end it meant that issues were not solved at all and we learned to live with them, anxiously waiting for the moment we could upgrade (which did not happen during my time at the company).
  • All issues had to be reported, reviewed, taken in, calculated, approved, planned, executed, tested, approved, implemented and communicated. And that was without any rework! OK, I also like some order in my household administration, but it was so much work and took so long. How I longed sometimes to shout “Andrew!” And sometimes I just did, for the sake of it :-).
  • And whenever we had finally created a good rapport with a team member,  he or she hopped to the next job with hardly any handover and we could start all over again, instructing someone into the intricacies of our system and hoping (in vain) that over time, issues would be solved.

We were not the only team with issues. So management organized regular top-to-top meetings to discuss the issues and iron out all wrinkles. Nobody dared to question openly if, given the general inefficiencies, there were still any savings compared to having an in-house crew.
When asked about the turnover of project members, the support provider answered with a longer version of: “Our people want to have a varied career and we want to provide them that”.  I read the statement at least 3 times, but I could not find any reference to the words “customer”, “service”, “commitment”, “continuity”, nor any synonyms.

Since then I have heard the same story from many others, so I really wonder if outsourcing is such a good idea. In theory it sounds good. With the opportunities of the digital workplace and all parties being used to remote working, we should be able to collaborate seamlessly and independent of location. Within our direct team we certainly could!
However, in practice it simply did not work well. Did we just resent the situation? Was it the cultural differences? I do not think so. I rather think it is because by outsourcing you introduce measurable formality, and take away things like responsibility, company loyalty, spontaneity and team feeling. And those last 4 things, which are not as easy to measure as “total cost of ownership”, “average resolution time” and “customer satisfaction score” may be more important than we think.

What do you think? I would really love to hear from someone who has a great working relationship with their outsourcing partner, or from someone who has reversed their decision to outsource. Please share your story and especially: share your lessons so we can all benefit!

Image courtesy of kjnnt at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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4 thoughts on “Ouch-sourcing

  1. Steve June 10, 2013 / 8:37 pm

    Hi Ellen,

    You hit the nail on the head when you said “but I could not find any reference to the words ‘customer’, ‘service’, ‘commitment’, ‘continuity’…” in reference to your support provider’s response about turnover. It is challenging to find such companies that provide top notch customer service excellence. Many will pay lip service to their dedication to customer service, or are earnest about being dedicated to customer service excellence, but their actions tell a different disappointing story such as you’ve experienced. Despite being an external provider, they should be endeavoring to be a trusted adviser, to be received as a virtual team member, to be a mentor and coach, etc.

    I sometimes find it hard to believe that such companies would not see their customers and customer service excellence as their reason for being but it’s all too common. The challenges that you face become even more protracted in big company scenarios where things like desktop services are outsourced which can result in an agonizing process to acquire desktop changes and, based on some of the charges I’ve seen, makes one wonder if their are really any cost savings. I can definitely understand the thinking in outsourcing certain IT related services where such IT activities are not an organization’s core competencies. But, in many cases the execution of the outsourcing plan is fraught with issues.

    There are, however, companies out there that provide excellent customer service and that always put the customer first. As an example, there’s a SharePoint company on Vancouver Island (in British Columbia, Canada) called itgroove (http://www.itgroove.net/) and they provide outstanding customer service. The customer is always, always first with itgroove and they focus on much more than just fixing issues. They aim to be partners, trusted advisers, etc. As an example, here are a couple of blogs posts that illustrate a dedicated focus on customer service:

    http://www.brainlitter.com/2012/05/02/7-signs-youll-eventually-hate-your-it-company-if-you-dont-already/
    http://www.brainlitter.com/2012/11/30/introducing-the-itgroove-support-orb/

    If you’re looking for other providers in your region and want to provide a great example, then you should refer your managers and colleagues to itgroove for them to see how a company should support its customers. I know this sounds like a shameless plug, but it isn’t. I think that if you want to establish some criteria to choose another service provider then you could glean some useful information from itgroove. I’ve been working in the same space for several years and have been following itgroove for some time and they’re one of the few that provide the dedication to customer service excellence that I would demand.

    Cheers,
    Steve

    • Ellen van Aken June 12, 2013 / 3:17 pm

      Thank you Steve! Good to know there are other service providers who do care about their customers.

  2. Sam Marshall (@sammarshall) December 12, 2013 / 1:02 pm

    Hi Ellen
    I’m afraid I share your experience. Outsourcing looks like a cost saving but the communication overhead on the remaining in-house team isn’t usually factored in to the business case, and often change request costs escalate because of lock-downs in the contracts.
    Intranets lend themselves well to commoditised support because the nature of their role is that they are the ad-hoc glue between other systems.

    In my old company we outsourced development, but like you the turnover was such that we had no continuity and seemed to be constantly re-explaining processes. The developers were in India so language and culture gaps meant we had to put much more into detailed specifications, forcing us into a very non-agile approach. It worked better when the supplier company seconded a manager to sit with us in the UK, but in the end most development came back in-house.

    • Ellen van Aken December 15, 2013 / 8:31 am

      Hi Sam, thank you for sharing your experiences! I think everyone has been blinded by the expected direct savings while the costs of extra time, mistakes, communication and employee frustration have been overlooked. Perhaps we needed this time to experiment with oursourcing and hopefully new outsourcing projects will take the costs of the added complexity into consideration. I have also heard of manufacturing companies starting to insource parts of their production again. Let us hope we end up with a more balanced approach…some things can be outsourced and some can’t.

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