How to Select Service Providers for Customer Experience Implementations

Article ImageUBIQUITOUS CONNECTED DEVICES, SOCIAL NETWORKS, AND CLOUD SERVICES have empowered consumers, allowing them access to vast amounts of information and shared opinions. Consumers are emboldened by choice. They have developed an appetite for rich and rewarding interactions and rarely hesitate to seek alternatives when disappointed. This poses a major challenge to organizations that depend on these customers to buy their goods and services in order to survive.

More demanding customers are not limited to the business-to-consumer (B2C) realm. Manufacturing and consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies are seeing them in their global supply chains. Governments are looking for ways to better interact with their constituents. Universities want to engage with current and prospective students, faculty, and partner institutions. Nonprofits and charities need to improve transparency and engagement with their funders.

Spending millions of dollars on best-of-breed software is no guarantee that a project won't fail, if that software has not been properly matched to the specific business goals, organizational processes, and existing infrastructure of the customer. Since there is no such thing as a "customer experience solution," organizations are increasingly turning to outside service providers (such as digital agencies, systems integrators, and consultants). Customer experience projects are so complex that nearly all organizations must draw on third-party service providers to deliver or supplement skills.

While service providers come in many flavors, the types dealing with customer experience projects tend to fall into one of two categories. Digital/interactive agencies tend to have in-house talent that spans both technology and creative capabilities. The agencies differentiate themselves based on specialties.

Systems integrators specialize in building complete technological solutions, usually by pulling together hardware and software components from multiple vendors. They have evolved from pure technologists to now providing consulting, integration, and outsourcing services.

Firms from both camps are making efforts-through acquisitions, organic transformations, or partnerships-to become full-service providers. They aim to address a broader set of technologies, competencies, and geographies. These changes are aimed at better serving customers, but they ironically are also making it more difficult for organizations to identify and vet service providers for their specific projects. With thousands of agencies calling themselves digital or a variation thereof, organizations looking to engage with a service provider need to know what questions to ask and what to look for in order to come up with the right list of possible service provider candidates.

Unlike software vendors, service providers do not offer the same standard "product" to each client. In principle, each customer receives a distinct project team, with its own unique assembly of backgrounds and collective expertise, varying capabilities, and a tailored project structure and approach, etc.

Despite the fact that every service provider engagement is unique, there are traits that reference customers bring up consistently as being key in their most successful and valued implementations. 

These traits are as follows:

Collaboration-Implementations that are done using agile techniques (creating a blended team from the client and the service provider staff) are becoming more common.

Communication-They expect ongoing dialogue, and if the service provider's project manager is especially good at this, that goes a long way.

Consistency-Are the project team members going to be the same from start to finish? Is the team in Buenos Aires, Argentina, going to offer the same quality and service as the one in Boston?

Diplomacy-Service providers need to bridge separate business divisions, regions, and even other service providers that may be already part of the client's infrastructure. This requires tact, patience, and the ability to empathize and negotiate across different organizational and geographic boundaries.

Humility-Because customer experience is so complex and new, it is unlikely that one service provider can be a one-stop shop, offering all services the customer needs. Service providers need to be honest as to what they are truly good at and where they may have gaps.

Mastery-Service providers do need to demonstrate particular areas of mastery. This tends to come up around technologies and platforms, in which a service provider that has partnerships with multiple vendors needs to show they understand the quirks of each one and do not just have broad training in their fundamentals.

The current service provider landscape, as in any emerging discipline, is fragmented and difficult to navigate. However, for organizations that aim to meet and exceed customer expectations, the right service provider partner is essential to success.