When Outsourcing Relationships Go Bad: Warning Signs of a Fraying Partnership

No one wants for a relationship to fail but sometimes you have to quit on one that isn’t working. How do you know when to say, “When?” Relationships …

No one wants for a relationship to fail but sometimes you have to quit on one that isn’t working. How do you know when to say, “When?”

Relationships are difficult. Band members have creative differences, teammates have ego problems and marriage partners have irreconcilable differences. Likewise, vendors and clients in business-to-business relationships experience all of the pains of band members, teammates and marriage partners. Maintaining a positive relationship is challenging when everything goes well but adding in technological differences, language barriers and time zone disparities has the effect of widening the gap between client and vendor.

But, everyone knows those problems exist and takes steps to mitigate them. Awareness of the potential problem areas is a good start but relationships deteriorate on a subtler level. Relationship failure occurs in much the same way as the boiled frog story. The story is that a frog dropped into boiling water will sense the heat and immediately jump out. However, if you place that frog into cool water and slowly heat the container, the frog will boil and never know until it’s too late.

It would be a better business environment if relationships would fail at the initial introductions rather than waiting until both parties have invested resources. If only we could sense the boiling water at the beginning instead of having the water slowly heat up around us. The reality is that most relationships, personal or business, fail over time and in small amounts. Like the frog, we boil one degree at a time.

The question is, “How do you recognize when your vendor/client relationship has failed?” The answers and experiences might surprise you. There are warning signs that you should pay attention to that point to problems. You have to be brave and be ready to cut your losses before it’s too late to leap from the boiling pot.

Testing the Waters

First time offshore outsourcers smile when they hear the pricing from vendors. And why shouldn’t they when quoted prices are as low as one-twentieth the price of local labor. It’s high-fiving and glass-clinking all around the conference table. The pricing, the promise of short delivery times, the open discussion and the friendly atmosphere coalesce into what can only be described as the business equivalent of “finding your soul mate.”

Everyone walks away happy from those first few “honeymoon” meetings. The calls go without any problem. Your offshore partners on the other end have an uncanny grasp of the English language. And, they understand the urgency and depth of the project ahead.

Taking the Plunge

You and your staff decide unanimously to engage the offshore partner for your project. You set milestones for progress and agree on delivery dates. Your partner keeps you informed, attends meetings conveniently scheduled during your standard working hours, keeps communications open and delivers your milestones as promised. Everyone is happy and you celebrate your win.

Turning up the Heat

The first sign that something’s going wrong in your newfound relationship is when your offshore partner begins to make excuses for non-delivery. Kevin Chandler of C3K Enterprises said that, “Everything went fine until our three week promised delivery stretched into nine months with no usable progress. We found a local resource for the work and enjoy an ongoing and successful relationship with the company.”

Once a commitment had been made between Chandler and his offshore partner, the partner came back to him with, “It’s going to take longer and cost more.” This is a common ‘bait-and-switch’ routine with some offshore companies. This one came highly recommended to Chandler.

Chandler didn’t give up on offshore outsourcing. He tried a total of five different companies in various countries for his projects. All but one was a total fail for him. For the others, he’s decided to use local US-based resources. He said that he might try offshore outsourcing again but with caution.

Jumping Out of the Pot

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Unfortunately, the lure of low cost labor is just too irresistible for some. This lure might not be palatable after several failed attempts. As Paul Midler writes in his book, Poorly Made in China: An Insider’s Account of the Tactics Behind China’s Production Game, the frequently heard phrases, “You heard me wrong” and “Price go up” wipe any cost benefits of going offshore.

Often what happens with offshore partnering is that you end up spending more time mitigating problems than you do producing results. Chandler said that he spent a lot of time on the phone at all hours of the day and night managing projects. One company “flat out lied about their capability,” he said.

You have to know when it’s time to cut ties with your offshore partner. Non-delivery, a breakdown of communications, rescheduling calls to times that are very inconvenient for you, prices that mysteriously rise in double or triple digits and inexplicable or repetitive production delays are all good reasons to sever your relationship. US-based companies want to create good working relationships with their foreign partners and most are willing to deal with a significant amount of delays, misunderstandings and price fluctuation but, at some point, the cost savings aren’t worth the headaches.

Keeping the Waters Cool

All such relationships aren’t bad nor do they have to fall into complete disrepair. When you find that something is going wrong, you have some options to revive the relationship and maintain your margins and your sanity.

What’s needed in such cases is honesty on the part of both partners. A candid phone conversation or a visit to your partner’s location will often resolve problems. One vendor suggests that you maintain close contact with your partner to keep the project and the relationship moving in the right direction. If you find your partnership failing because of missed deadlines or cost overruns, you need to discuss a detailed plan of action with your partner’s management team. You might have to revise milestones and expectations but you should put in the effort to create a productive and ongoing relationship with your partner. But, don’t be afraid to call it quits on a partnership that just isn’t working.

There are many companies, legitimate ones, with which to work on your projects. By selecting the right offshore partner, you can still save money, enjoy decent profit margins, meet your deadlines and not get boiled in the process.

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