Of Silk and Services

As I listened to my wife, a custom wedding dress designer, talk a hysterical bride off the cliff this past weekend, I realized the conversation sounded eerily familiar. My wife was certain that the completed dress in front of them was exactly what had been ordered and she had emails, sketches and photos to prove it. The bride knew exactly what dress she had ordered, and this wasn’t it. She also had a set of texts, emails, and photos to support her expectation.

Sound familiar? This was nothing more than a failure to document a services solution. How can a “bride” to an outsourcing engagement avoid the same disaster?

Expectation Gaps

Outsourcing customers, like brides, are often nervous and excited about their engagement. They gradually become comfortable through hours of discussion with the solution designers. This exchange is almost always verbal, supplemented with the service provider’s charts and marketing language. Eventually, the customer becomes comfortable with the solution they are ordering, and each party thinks their understanding is mutual. Exhale, smile, shake hands. It is time for the lawyers to “paper it,” and we can jet off to Hawaii for the honeymoon, right?

Inevitably, right before signing the agreement, or, worse yet, after signing, the parties experience that awkward silent moment when they both realize that there is a million dollar gap in expectations. How can this be avoided? How can you document services like a champ?

Four Keys to Documenting Services like a Champ

Reduce Services to Contract Documents Early in the Process.

In-person discussions and bright graphic slides can be an efficient way to reach mutual understanding and trust. The problem arises when this process is disconnected from the ultimate contract documents. These fluid discussions should be seen as just the first step in the service documentation process. Unless these discussions are consolidated and crafted into a single source of truth early on, features and components will be discussed but never make it into the agreement. Or, conflicts arise when some aspects of the solution differ from what is described elsewhere in the agreement. This leads to conflicts that are often dropped in the lap of individuals who were never part of the initial discussion.

Plan Time for Consolidating and Contractualizing the Services. 

The only way to document the services early is to budget time and prepare your team for working through and documenting the services. This starts at the initial procurement planning stage—before the RFP goes out or the sole-sourced partner is engaged. The parties often leave too little time to collectively consolidate and work through the service details. Include not only the business team and subject matter experts, but also the procurement and/or legal staff who will be responsible for drafting and eventually managing against the contract. For great advice on how to contract efficiently using “straight-through processing” read this article written by a colleague.

Ask the Hard Questions Early.

Imagine that the prospective outsourcing customer hears the service provider say that the service desk is only operating during business hours, even though she knows that the contract clearly requires 24x7x365 coverage. It can be tempting to rely on the contractual language and avoid bringing up this discrepancy, lest the service provider use this as an opportunity to increase the price. This is an extreme example, and gaps are often more subtle. In almost every case, transparency and clarity up front result in a healthier relationship and decrease the chance of heartbreak for both parties later on.

Separate the “What” from the “How.”

In drafting services it is important to distinguish between the customer’s requirements (“what” services must be performed) and the service provider’s solution (“how” the services will be performed). For example, the customer requires a world-class service desk tool, but trusts the service provider to select the best tool and operate it according to their best practices. This what-how distinction also guides the drafting process, and allows for the approaches suggested in the first two bullets above. Typically, we recommend that the customer draft their service requirements, then let the service provider create the first draft of the solution description in response to those requirements. This latter piece, the solution, is the location where the pertinent information from PowerPoint slides and conversations should be distilled down into contractual language. Both parties should walk through this service description and make any necessary adjustments to ensure clarity and completeness.

Happy Customer, Happy Life

The real benefit of documenting services properly is not just that it creates a great end product. Rather, the greatest value is found in the conversations that necessarily occur through this distillation process.

Of course, brides need their dream dress, and businesses need solutions that address their business requirements. It is almost never a question of whether the dress or the solution gets fixed. It is a question of “Who pays?” and “How much?”. Follow the keys above and think early and strategically about the process for drafting the services to ensure a healthy and happy relationship for years to come.