Are We Outsourcing the Wrong Things?

If you want a culture of true customer care, make sure your corporate vision is crystal clear

By George Tillmann

A customer is the most important visitor on our premises…  We are not doing him a favour by serving him, he is doing us a favour by giving us an opportunity to do so. ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Most employees will agree with Gandhi that customers are a very important if not the most important external component for a company.  Yet, unless the company is in the business of selling large aircraft, cruise ships or skyscrapers, most CEOs and senior executives will rarely get to meet them.

Which leads me to ask: Have you really thought about what drives an associate, an agent or an employee to really dedicate themselves to caring for the customer? I have and here’s what it means.

The culture issue

The reality is that for most businesses the corporate face-to-the-market is left to clerks, first level supervisors and support staff.  Senior executives must rely on junior management and staff to establish and cultivate the needed good relationships with customers.  Culture is an important component for ensuring that junior staff treat customers the way senior staff desire.

While incentive programs come and go, corporate culture is a persistent attitude that takes considerable time and effort to create and sometimes even greater time and effort to change.  This is the reason so many senior executives take every opportunity to reinforce the corporate culture they wish staff to embrace.

The relationship between the customer and the vendor probably goes back to the first Neanderthal selling the first cave painting to the first collector.  However, the perspicacity of yesteryear has given way to the scientific study of today.  Customers relationship management, customer intimacy, customer touch, are all concepts, or in some cases full blown programs, to capture the loyalty of customers, driving them to come back, buy more, and tell their friends.  Millions of dollars have poured into these programs.  There are even companies that specialize in enhancing customer loyalty, measuring customer satisfaction and managing the customer relationship.  Yet, where the rubber meets the consumer road, what do some companies do?  They turn their primary customer touch point over to outsiders.

Contrary to popular belief, for most businesses, cost cutting is an important tactical, but not a strategic objective.

Real care for the customer

Customer service, one of few places where staff interact one-on-one with customers, is given to people who do not work for you, who do not know your culture, have probably never heard of your core values and owe their allegiance and loyalty to someone else.  The employees of the outsource company might be friendly, dedicated staff but, unless they are uber empathetic, they do not care about the success of your company as much as you do.  Yet, these are the people who know your customers better than you do.

As was mentioned in an earlier column, a core competency is a company’s reason for being.  It is what it does that competitors can not duplicate, that customers want, and are willing to pay for.  The last few decades have taught companies not to outsource their core competencies.  Some of those that broke the rule found that their once outsourcing partners are now their competitors.   Sharing core competencies is akin to storing the chastity belt key at the local pub; the process works but the results might be disappointing.

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Businesses are starting to understand this.  Now, the often quoted reason to outsource is so the company can focus on what is most important and leave the Three-M’s (the mundane, menial, and minutiae) of running an enterprise to someone else.  So how did customers wind up in this category?

The criterion used to manage a business’s most critical resource – people – is mixed up.  To date, companies tend to outsource the outsourceable; work that can be easily moved and performed in a cheaper elsewhere.  Heading the list is the call center, the cathedral of customer service.  While one might be able to construct a sound argument for outsourcing HR, finance, or IT, unless employees are socially inept and incapable to treating customers well, it is difficult to comprehend outsourcing a company’s primary customer touch point.  The care and protection afforded core competencies is similar to the care and protection needed for customers.  They should to be treated as the valuable resource they are.

Any business considering outsourcing or offshoring needs to create an outsourcing vision that focuses on more than just cutting costs.  How does outsourcing a particular function fit in with corporate goals?  How does outsourcing affect corporate strategy?  What are the risks (financial, competitive, structural, operational, etc.) associated with outsourcing?  What is the worst case scenario?  What are the corporate sacred cows – the areas that are not to be touched even with compelling cost arguments?

If outsourcing is to be a sustainable and profitable business tool, then it needs to have a strategic purpose.  Contrary to popular belief, for most businesses, cost cutting is an important tactical, but not a strategic objective.  However, treating customers as the important resource they are is very much strategic.

George Tillmann is a former CIO, management consultant, and the author of The Business-Oriented CIO (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). He can be reached at [email protected].