While Hammock Inc. is known for providing a wide array of outsourced services related to media and community strategy, creation and management, we are also a “user” of a wide array of outsourced services to do our jobs and manage our business.
For example, in a typical year, we will work with around 150 freelance writers, photographers, illustrators, videographers and web developers. We also outsource a long list of administrative and technical support services ranging from managing payroll to keeping our color printers humming.
Being a customer of outsourced services has taught us a lot about being a provider of outsourced services. For the most part, these lessons have come from taking what works in one experience or relationship and applying it to the next similar challenge. I’ll admit, with much regret, that some of these lessons have come from our being “bad clients.”
Here are a few of the lessons we’ve learned from being a “customer of outsourced services” — lessons I hope make us better providers of the outsourced services we offer. In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing more about each one of these lessons and how we’ve applied it to our service to clients.
- Execution is more important than the idea: We’ve had the same provider of copier, office-printing and faxing solutions for nearly 20 years. I can’t tell you the brand name of our equipment — it has changed often in those two decades. But I can tell you the name of the person who’s there to fix things when they don’t work. And I can tell you how they are always looking for ways to provide us newer, faster, more dependable equipment — at a lower cost. The result: A 20-year relationship. The idea was “we need copiers and office printers.” The execution has far surpassed that idea.
- In a collaborative endeavor, we think “team,” not vendor or provider: I just called our office equipment provider a “provider.” Shame on me. We all do that. But over the past 20 years, that “provider” has come to understand a lot about our business — things we don’t even realize because we’re not analyzing how much we use equipment or how we could use other equipment that might save us money or time. We need a team-member to watch our back on those things. I may call them a “provider,” but in our case, our office equipment “provider” is a member of our team.
- On time, on budget. No surprises: How hard can this be? I once had a friend in magazine publishing who told me that every issue that makes it off the press is a miracle — so many different things from so many different sources have to come together at one place and time. For some reason, many vendors (who we no longer use) have demonstrated to us that time or budgets mean little to them. When their work has to fit into our tight processes designed to meet our clients’ needs, that attitude is a clear indication to us that they don’t understand — nor care — about being on our team.
- Charging by the hour leads to bad decisions: I don’t know when it struck me, but sometime during the past three decades, I realized that I did everything I could to avoid calling on the services of those providers who I knew were charging me by the hour. I also realized that such avoidance was probably penny-wise and pound-foolish. However, even that didn’t change my attitude. As a result, I’ve never wanted our clients to be thinking about the clock when they talk with us. True story: Two weeks ago, I was traveling and had a technical issue arise that was, how can I put this, adding stress to my trip. A call to the cell phone of an outsource provider we have contracted with led to a solution in less than three minutes. Because of the situation I was in, I can argue that the three minutes spent was more valuable that the monthly retainer we pay the vendor.
- Charge for where you bring value: About 10 years ago, we did something radical for companies in our industry. We stopped “marking up” the major outside expenses related to our work for clients. Most significantly, we decided to refuse charging for any commissions on the cost of printing and paper. That decision came directly from experiences related to service providers we used whose business models made them look more like “brokers” than “advisors.” If I know that a provider is going to be paid more by advising me to go with “X” than to go with “Y,” then I have to wonder which side of the table my advisor is sitting. I wanted that to be clear with our providers, and so we decided to make it clear to those to whom we provide services.
- Transparency and communication are key to long relationships: This lesson is directly related to the previous two. When the pricing of outsourced services are transparent and relationships are not tied to the clock, there can be a free exchange of communication that results in flexible, long-term relationships.
- Great work and average customer service makes for an average relationship: How many times have we learned this? I can’t tell you how amazed we are when questions go unanswered — basic, easy, non-complex questions — by people we’ve heard “do great work.” I just don’t get it. But our amazement at the lack of customer service we are confronted with is an inspiration (in a backward way) for us to try harder when it comes to our approach.
Bottom line: Some great lessons about service come from being served.