There’s little doubt that Business Process Outsourcing is here to stay; the lure of “easy” cost savings is just too powerful for companies to resist. But the truth of the matter is that implementing a successful outsourcing project is hard work and realizing those “easy” savings is by no means a foregone conclusion. While data on outsourcing failure is hard to come by, the Aberdeen Group has reported that 21% of outsourcing projects fail to meet stakeholder expectations, and Gartner puts the outsourcing failure rate as high as 30%. Although neither study defines what constitutes a “failure,” the bottom line is a large percent of projects end with unhappy clients.
When an outsourcing project fails, it’s easy to blame the vendor. But having experienced the situation from both sides of the table, I would suggest that more often than not, the purchasing company lays the groundwork for the poor performance. The onus is on the purchasing company to do an adequate due diligence and to manage the project. Can you really blame the vendor when they were put in the position to fail from the beginning? Ultimately, no one wins the “blame game,” you are better off doing the project right the first time around.
To avoid being one of the Gartner statistics, there are four considerations that need to be part of your outsourcing initiative, 1) set an outsourcing strategy, 2) choose the vendor that best fits that strategy, 3) own the transition, and 4) create the structure to manage the relationship.
Setting your outsourcing strategy is the all-important first step. To a certain degree, outsourcing strategies can be classified as either tactical or transformational. The tactical model is designed to take advantage of labor arbitrage and often employs what is referred to as a “lift and shift” approach. Work is lifted from your company and shifted to one in a lower cost area. Vendors of lift and shift models typically use existing processes and work in your existing systems, requiring little change on the part of your company. Essentially, the location of the worker changes, but the work itself does not.
On the other hand, a transformational model almost always involves a software implementation, which leverages optimized workflows. Under a transformational model, your company replaces existing processes and technology with the vendor’s processes and technology. As such, an IT project is embedded within the implementation. Clearly, implementing a transformational model is more involved than lift and shift, but it yields some notable advantages.
So, how do you decide which approach is best for your company? While there are no pat answers, I have found that companies often shy away from “yet another IT project” and end up following the tactical path, which is a mistake. My advice is to start assuming the transformation/software dependent solutions. Many of these solutions are very sophisticated, their processes and technologies successfully encapsulating industry best practices, and they have a large installed base so you can take comfort knowing that most of the bugs have been worked out. In addition, most solutions have a relatively streamlined and formalized client onboarding process, mitigating many concerns about implementing the solutions. In some cases, of course, there are no transformational options that fit your needs, forcing you to go the tactical route. This approach is workable, as each model has its benefits.
Figure 1 below breaks down the strengths and weaknesses of each.
Choosing the Right Vendor
The next step in implementing a successful outsourcing project is choosing the right vendor. If your company’s strategy employs the transformational approach, the process of choosing a vendor will be driven by the software solution, actually making selection easier. Comparison of tactical vendors is more difficult, because, for the most part, you will be comparing intangibles.
Regardless as to the approach, it is necessary to spend adequate time on due diligence checking all references, asking the hard questions, and arranging to visit reference sites in order to observe the process in action. Observing the process in person provides a better understanding of the processes, handoffs, potential issues related to team integration, and challenges communicating across distance. A vendor demonstration cannot compare to an onsite visit. A trip to one or two reference sites will prove to be money well spent.
Once vendor selection is complete, the planning stage begins in earnest. Generally, vendors will provide the overall implementation work plan. That said, since this is ultimately your project, you have the responsibility of owning it! Your company should remain integrally involved in the transition, which means dedicating the appropriate staff, assigning a sponsor, and holding senior leadership governance and gate reviews. It is also necessary to spend time developing a comprehensive risk mitigation plan. Your company needs contingency plans to address potential obstacles, including negative employee-client reaction to temporary performance dips, the PR response if contacted by the local press, transition plans for the local staff, and most importantly, plans to deal with unforeseen departures.
Regardless of severance packages or retention bonuses, once job eliminations are made public, employees begin searching for new opportunities. Needless to say, their departures don’t always align with your company’s staffing needs. Recently, I had the opportunity to experience this issue first hand, when my client on a six-month outsourcing project announced to me that we needed to go live in one week, three months early, because they no longer had the staff in the department to process the work. It goes without saying that the next few weeks were not exactly smooth.
Manage the Vendor
The last factor to consider for your outsourcing project is post-implementation vendor management. Unfortunately, this step tends to go overlooked until problems arise. Communication is one of the most vital elements in making an outsourcing relationship work. I recommend you plan to over communicate at the beginning of the project. The communication plan should include daily supervisor calls, monthly management reviews, and a quarterly sponsor meeting. Over time, if this proves cumbersome, you can dial it back. At the beginning, though, plan to over-communicate.
The daily calls should occur at the supervisor level, last no more than 10 minutes, and address yesterday’s challenges and today’s expected volume. I try to keep the daily calls informal to help forge a relationship between the team’s supervisor groups. Monthly management meetings should focus on the service level agreement (SLA) and performance metrics. It is critical to agree on what will be measured, how it will be measured, and what performance levels are acceptable before going live. In my experience, failure to exercise rigor in this step is where many outsourcing initiatives go wrong. Finally, the sponsor meeting should be a review of monthly trends and discussion of performance issues.
For these meetings, it is important that sponsors treat the two teams as unified and hold them jointly accountable. When issues inevitably arise and a “blame game” begins, sponsors need to be able to cut through the noise and force the teams to work together towards a solution. After all, one team cannot be successful if the other fails.
Outsourcing is not easy. But if you start with a sound strategy, leverage the right vendor, and are prepared to manage the project and relationship you can achieve significant savings. Let’s face it, those savings are hard to ignore.
Michael Santamaria is a director at ScottMadden. His consulting experience spans a number of areas including business process outsourcing, process redesign, organization design, operations improvement, and project management. Prior to joining ScottMadden, Michael ran operations for a business process outsourcer, consulted for Clarkston Potomac Group and Emerson Consulting, and held several positions with General Electric. Michael received an M.B.A. from Case Western Reserve University, Weatherhead School of Management and his undergraduate degree from Washington and Jefferson College. He is a certified GE Six Sigma Master Black Belt.