Can this Marriage Be Saved?


Ban-marriage You may recall the excellent guest post "Upward, Onward, Onsource!" by my good friend Deborah Kops, back in November last year.  Deborah is widely recognized as one of the outsourcing industry's foremost thoought-leaders, having led global transformation efforts at Deutsche Bank and Bank of America before helping to establish PwC's outsoucing division.  Today, Deborah is Chief Marketing Officer for WNS Global Services, a leading offshore BPO and KPO provider.  BPO today is all about governing your service provider relationship, and whether or not you view your vendor as your partner, the whole experience is certainly like a marital relationship (better hope my missus doesn't come here…).  Thanks Deborah for sharing this great article with us… over to you:

When I grew up, moms stayed at home and spent their free time between school runs poring over the latest offerings from Good Housekeeping and Women’s Day — recipes, childcare tips and hints to please (and keep) a husband. Before you think this discussion is completely tangential to the implementation of global services, read on.

Those of us baby boomers know that most mothers assiduously read the Ladies’ Home Journal column, “Can this Marriage Be Saved?” My mother was no exception; before I understood the carefully worded root causes of marital failure, my pre-teen sensibilities picked up on the fact that leaving a towel on the floor or coming home late without explanation were not all that good for a marriage.

Fast forward many years and perhaps there should be a similar advice column for outsourcing relationships. We ascribe so much hope for better performance, lower cost and new heights for business value, yet, we have not evolved a way to detect and track those subtle changes in behavior, which taken in aggregate, signal relationship distress. And, when ignored, they can dash the hopes and dreams of the business equivalent of marriage.

The signs and signals are so easy to see, yet … we generally ignore them until the damage is done, and it is much more difficult to put the relationship back on track. We tend to forget that outsourcing arrangements are comprised of a series of complex human transactions — customer to outsourcer, customer’s customer to outsourcer, customer to business line, individual staff to client staff — where the nuance around and tenor of any interaction are as or more important than meeting a service-level agreement.

At no time is a relationship more vulnerable than during transition, especially if there are many moving parts, and the deployment plan timeframe is overly aggressive. By the time, the relationship is on the skids, minor miscommunications, individual disagreements and missed deadlines have been magnified into battles royal.

Because it has been drummed into us that logic and motive drive business relationships, and because we have been sold on the ultimate importance of a logical, comprehensive governance framework as the key to outsourcing success, both parties tend to ignore those subtle behavioral signals that suggest that a relationship is going sideways. Tactics to effectively deal with the behavioral symptoms that indicate relationship distress are not addressed in any governance framework with which I am familiar. Perceptions — fraught with emotion — must be managed effectively in order to make governance work.

Having sat on both sides of the table, here are 10 behavioral signals that, singly or in aggregate, send out the outsourcing relationship equivalent of an SOS.

1. Preparation for executive governance meetings becomes all consuming. Scripting of reviews for executive sponsors becomes time consuming, carefully choreographed pas de deux. Wordsmithing for governance presentations and decks makes bilateral negotiation of nuclear non-proliferation treaties look like child’s play. The goal of each party? Get the point across, but not at the expense of personal or program credibility, hoping that the right orchestration will turn into a skillful game of public gotcha, placing the blame for program blips squarely and publicly on the other party.

And, after the decks are complete, each party spends inordinate time briefing executive sponsors and governance representatives before going into a battle of positioning and specially chosen words.

2. Consultants are brought in by one or each side to take a relationship health check. A new face under the guise of an independent look is analogous to one partner in a marriage going to his/her own counselor. Unless agreed to by both parties, the consultant is by definition partisan; his/her patient is only the one who pays the bill, not the partners in the marriage.

Dueling consultants make relationship repair even more complicated. They are not necessarily dealing with the same fact base; in most cases they are used to justify their customers’ perceptions, not facilitate a real alignment. Only a jointly appointed consultant can have a prayer of getting the relationship back on track.

3. Sudden changes in daily scheduled activities become obvious. This is no different a relationship distress signal than that of a marriage where one party suddenly starts to work late. If longstanding routines, especially those that reflect the rhythm of a tightly controlled transition, inexplicably change, leaving chaos behind, it’s the sign of a problem.

4. Routine discussions are held behind closed doors. At the start, outsourcing relationships bask in the glow of the post champagne period — that time when the sense of achievement coming from signing a contract after protracted sourcing and negotiation leads both parties to believe that all things are possible. Behaviors are relatively relaxed, office doors are kept open and key decisions are easily made around the coffee machine. But when unresolved frustration hardens into formal behavior, suddenly doors are closed and each meeting results in reams of copious notes.

5. Requests for data suddenly go through the roof. Like any good marriage, outsourcing relationships are built on trust. And when reams of data are demanded, requesting information that more than proves a point, it suggests a lack of transparency in the relationship that can only be fixed by reams of data.

6. Meetings are held in windowless conference rooms. A sure sign of distress comes from the choice of meeting venue. However, scheduling these rooms has the opposite effect of an invisibility cloak. Where previously meetings were held in the open, with everyone on the floor fully aware of attendees and generally in on the agenda, now windowless interior rooms become the meeting venues of choice, keeping the table pounding and pointing fingers out of sight from the rest of the teams.

7. Meetings, which were formerly attended only by principals, are now standing room only. The solution architect, or the account manager, is no longer left alone in a room with his customer counterpart. Account execs and customer sponsors now insist that any discussion, which affects the critical path, cutover or performance be witnessed by at least three team members on each side. As a result, productivity drops and blood pressure rises from meetings, which have now morphed into confrontations.

8. “Let me come back to you” becomes the stock response to any request, either casual or formal. Where previously decisions — both big and small — could be made over lunch or at the coffee bar, now any suggestion, regardless of cost or impact, is quickly dismissed with one curt sentence. Inability to commit because the ramifications may further exacerbate whatever is wrong quickly strains the relationship.

9. Joint partying ceases. In the lexicon of outsourcing transitions, partnerships mean partying together. Joint milestone celebrations, or team building happy hours are integral to fostering a good working relationship, especially when there is a substantial systems implementation component.

10. Referencing stops, or is tightly meted out. In the first blush of the outsourcing relationship, all parties bend over backward to be accommodating and support each other’s
business goals. However, when the relationship starts to experience stress, the global services equivalent of withholding affection happens, and references to potential customers are often stopped or starkly curtailed.

Naturally, there are variations on each of these behaviors; each relationship can spawn its own unique list of hurts and slights. But as in all situations, the little things matter. And the outsourcing relationship is, at its heart, comprised of a myriad of brief human interactions.

Do these distress signals mean that the relationship is doomed to failure? Not at all. Savvy customers and outsourcing providers are sensitive to subtle changes in routine and interaction, and move quickly to source and sort out the root causes that result in the outsourcing version of “acting out.” Outsourcing marriages can be saved.   



Posted in : Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), Finance and Accounting, IT Outsourcing / IT Services, kpo-analytics, Outsourcing Advisors, Outsourcing Heros, Sourcing Best Practises



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Phil

    Deborah’s article got me thinking…

    I believe that the key to a successful marriage / successful business relationship is via effective communication,

    Companies need to optimise relationships with all stakeholders, be they investors, shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers, banks, regulators, government – Outsourcing relationships are just one of the many relationships in the mix

    A successful marriage when looking at an outsourcing relationship would be when the vendor becomes an extension of the buyers own operations – a member of the family.

    Genpact are one provider that look to achieve this sort of relationship with their customers in what they call a “virtual captive” This encompasses gain sharing, goal aligning and results in reduced management effort via a robust governance structure that automates control of the sourcing initiative.

    This sense of partnering, marriage, intimacy etc leads me to agree with that we should ditch the word “out” from the outsourcing as it reinforces the vendor as the Outsider, Outlaw, Outcast (picking up on a point made by Ali Nasim’s earlier post)

    The ultimate business marriage would be the merger that forms subsidiaries (offspring) – this of course applies to counterparties without outsourcing relationships – but there are some interesting case studies in the outsourcing world eg Dilligenta

    Whilst M&A & outsourcing transactions both focus on the relationship between buyer and seller, what is also interesting is the many relationships taking place between silo leaders within the internal organisation. Competing brands for example within a business may mean Great Walls of China constructed. For example the events division of my company was an acquisition and took time before the silos between the events division and magazine division broke down and the two products starting working together instead of competing for the benefit of the customer.

    So before contemplating a (business) marriage, it would be prudent to check yourself first – go to the doctor (third party advisor), go to the gym (invest time in your operations) look in the mirror and ask yourself if you are ready to commit.


  2. Steve,

    Very good! Two points:

    Not sure going to a sourcing advisor is like going to a doctor – probably more like a shrink – with a strong prescription in the offing…

    On a more serious note, vendors need to step up and take a more proactive role in helping their clients set up more effective governance organizations. A well-governed outsourcing engagement leads to a healthier relationship – especially in BPO. Too many of the sourcing advisors today exit the equation once the transaction is completed – 90% of the time at the buyer’s request, and try to muster through the governance issue on their own. That’s why vendors need to step up and help…


  3. Hello Phil / Steve,

    I could clearly relate to Deborah’s article and Steve’s comments, having been involved from the service provider’s end in a “marriage” which could have worked out better.

    If you don’t mind me adding my two cents, I would like to share a few “Operational” experiences:
    a) A lot of the trouble begins with “Baselining”. In my experience, a majority of the clients, either did not have or would not provide the data to accurately baseline performance & thereby the Service Level Agreements. Since this activity usually takes place during the “Post Champagne period”, incorrect assumptions by service providers lead to incorrect expectations being set right at the beginning.
    b) Price cutting by Service providers to overcome competition is also a major issue. Low pricing adversely affects operational efficiency. E.g.. the ability to hire skilled manpower at good salaries, being able to maintain a staff buffer till the learning curve is overcome etc. Front line managers are thus pressurized to look for ways to increase margins even before the transition is complete resulting in conflicting interests and loss of focus at the service providers end.
    c) The concept of “One Team One Dream” usually remains limited on paper and does not help eliminate the “Us” & “Them” factor between both parties. Due to tight program deadlines, this aspect is conveniently swept aside. There has to be a conscious effort to integrate the teams as one, by way of joint work exercises as well as fun related activities to help them bond better as a single team.
    d) In some cases, Client Managers, Process Trainers are subtly opposed to the outsourcing initiative. This conflict of interests also adds to the failure of some marriages which otherwise might have succeeded. As Steve states in his last line….. Clients need to look in the mirror and ask themselves if they are ready to commit.



  4. I always enjoy a good outsourcing-marriage reference, and a good dose of Deborah.

    Many marriages require pre-marital counseling and the sourcing industry has always done a great job of providing that service.

    Marital counseling refers back to the discussion around bringing in external consultants.

    To a large extent the difficulty with the marriage analogy is that the parties in the marriage change much more drastically than in a traditional marriage. People’s interest change, habits evolve, or in my case I put on weight and developed several medical ailments. Companies replace governance executives, jettison businesses, acquire new companies and restructure. All these are much more disruptive than beginning to leave laundry on the floor.

    As such, the best partners will know how to politely recommend that their partner hit the gym, or finally throw away that intramural championship T-shirt from the 80’s.

    From an outsourcer perspective, a few recommendations are:
    1) When behaviors start to change ask more than one probing question. Too many times the question asked is “Is everything okay with our service?”; quite simply dismissed.
    2) Involve executives out of sequence. Often time an executive to executive call only happens at regularly scheduled intervals. Often times the Exec-to-Exec call can uncover items that might be straining the relationship that may or may not have anything to do with the service provider.
    3) Be proactive with innovative ideas. Often times presenting new solutions or new ways of delivery that could help both parties will uncover moods. If the client is feeling unappreciated, the new ideas could help reduce the feeling. If the client is very unsatisfied, they will let you know it then as well.

Continue Reading