Your Brand, Their Service: Keep control of your customer experience delivered through service partners

I recently ordered HDTV service installation from my cable TV provider. At least, that’s what I thought I had ordered. As it turned out, my TV provider had sent my order to a regional service provider. The service provider in turn had sub-contracted my installation to still another company that serves my city. While my order had been placed with the brand owner, fulfillment had been left to a party two steps away. How would it go?

When my installation day arrived (I was told they’d show up sometime “in the afternoon”) no one ever came. Irritated, I called my provider to ask why the installer had been a “no show.” After 45 minutes on the phone, my provider explained they had “no control” over the installers. “No control,” I thought? I had spent $200 for a new HD receiver and the new service was going to add $10 a month to my bill. I had added $320 to my provider’s top-line over the subsequent 12 months and they had “no control?”

Simplification might be a mantra for our colleagues in product management, but the reality is that the trend in technology is still in the direction of complexity. Installation is becoming an even more critical component of the order fulfilment process. Why then, at this critical interaction point, do so many companies assume a “no control” position over this crucial piece of customer experience?

Building internal installation capabilities is rarely feasible for companies with extensive geographic coverage and rapid product lifecycles. Almost all such companies partner in order to perform some component of their service, whether it be installation or repair. But this doesn’t mean customer experience must suffer. Here are some common mistakes brand owners make:

1. Thinking installation and repair services don’t matter to end customers’ perception of brand equity. This seems like an obvious one, but it happens all too often. Customer experience in service channels gets forgotten when companies view installations as a Boolean – “Did the installation get completed?,” “Did the product get fixed?,” and not as a key interaction point that enforces (or detracts) from the overall brand.

2. Viewing service partners as a necessary evil. Partnering shouldn’t be treated as a “last choice” when building and acquiring service capabilities aren’t feasible. Partners are extensions of your value chain and should be treated as such.

3. Not considering the role of sub-contractors. In my example above, it ultimately turned out that the problem started when the installer went to the wrong address but had no mechanism while in still in the field to verify where I lived (believe or not, the upstream service provider has no policy for reimbursing calls so installers don’t use their personal cell phones in such circumstances). Companies make a crucial mistake when not understanding whose ultimately representing their brand in the field and how those processes get managed.

So what’ s a brand owner to do? Here’s an action plan to get started:

  • Communicate your customer experience expectations to your service providers and set benchmarks for them to achieve. Your service partners really have two customers – your end users where service is delivered and the brand owner who (usually) pays the bills. Brand owners have a choice of service partners and you should use this leverage. Work with services partners to improve experiences. If they refuse, choose new partners to represent your brand.
  • Understand how your service partners use sub-contractors. Ask questions about who is ultimately representing your brand. Do your partners use sub-contractors? How are they measured? Do they show up on time? Are they courteous and professional? Are they competent and trained?
  • Consider technology investments to ensure service quality. My installation’s problem started when the sub-contractor couldn’t verify my address. The result? I ended up getting a $200 credit from my TV provider for the missed installation. At that price, it wouldn’t take many missed installations to rationalize some technology improvements, maybe a handheld with GPS, to reduce errors.

Don’t make the mistake of claiming “no control” while service partners have your most precious resource, your customers, in their hands. Keep things in control and aligned around your brand.

More should be more: Leverage all your channels in lead generation

Choosing a marketing channel for your new product need not be an either-or, zero-sum game. While for some products you may need to choose one channel from which to exclusively generate and develop leads, more often than not this won’t be the case.

Let’s say you look at a new product line and target customer segment (and you should almost always think about both in combination), and determine that a specific type of partner, say, is best positioned because of vertical expertise or service offering, to help market your product. What should you do with your other partners, or your direct sales force, or your web site? Should they be discouraged from helping generate new business?

The answer is usually no. Brand owners should leverage – and trust, the wide networks of professional (and personal) contacts their sales and marketing channel members run with. Encourage them to help you market (= “create leads”) even when they are not the target channel. But how? Here are 4 steps to get you started:

1. Create and communicate objective, transparent criteria around your go-to-market strategy for products and/or customers. You spend a lot of thought and effort on your marketing strategy. Trust in your channels and communicate the why and how of your approach.

2. Develop a referral program for partners – both demand-side AND supply-side. Let partners know about your new products and services, even if they’re not the “preferred” channel for lead development. If you’ve established a pattern of doing the first point well, they should understand your approach. Create a financial reward, often in the form of a referral fee. If you have a formal partner program, consider adding some component of “bonus” for “non-core” referrals – perhaps as additional points for quarterly or annual partner performance reviews. And what about supply-chain partners? They win when you sell more in the form of increased purchases up-stream to them. Encourage them just as you would your demand-chain.

3. Have your direct channels help too. As you will with your partners, create financial incentives for your direct channels to develop leads as well. When out on the golf course or with prospects for dinner, who knows what your sales people might find! Create incentives for those responsible for your web and telemarketing channels as well.

4. As with the hot sauce, a little goes a long way. Just as in school, where extra credit should be doled out to compliment (not replace) core work, a little incentive is usually all that is needed to encourage better collaboration and all that is wanted so as not to focus marketing channels away from their core responsibilities.

Next time you’re facing a new product release, think about all your channels and how they can help develop new business. They’ll appreciate you thinking of them.