It is almost impossible for an IT organization to accommodate the speed of digital business on its own. An IT organization must choose the best service partners to help it win. The best IT organizations chose service partners that foster win-win outcomes for both parties.

Unfortunately, some organizations engage with service providers in ways that undermine the relationship, failing to achieve a winning outcome. Treating a service provider as a subordinate order taker will guarantee that you get sub-par service. Being overly friendly with the service provider can also work against you as personal relationships may blind you to weaknesses in the service. How can you avoid these pitfalls?

Find out what the provider is best at, and stay close to that.

All service providers are in business to generate a return on invested capital, just like you. When asking a service provider what they can do so many responds with, “anything you want.” This is a red flag. You need them to show you what they believe themselves to be better at than their competition. Ask them to explain why they are better, don’t just take their word for it, no matter how good that steak dinner is.

From the service provider perspective, customers can be distributed according to the complexity of the solution being offered by the service provider.

On the left side of the distribution will be a small number of customers who purchased the product or service, but have not realized the potential of the service. Perhaps the timing of the purchase was off or the wrong problem was solved. Service providers worry about these customers, as they may be unknown churn that can happen at any time. Be sure that you and the service provider are crystal clear about the problem you are trying to solve. Ask them to explain it back to you and your team. If they are unable to articulate it with the same passion and detail as you, they are not paying attention to you.

On the right side of the distribution is a small number of customers that have very complex solutions. These customers push the service provider to the edge of their capabilities. This can be good, especially if the partnership is strong and you want to work with the partner to develop something new or are willing to enter uncharted territory with them where you may see them overextend themselves. If your first activity with a service provider falls into this area be very cautious and set your expectations appropriately, since you may be underwhelmed. It is not uncommon to stumble here, especially if the solution is purchased in desperation. Choosing the wrong partner is far more damaging than the delay incurred by seeking out a partner better aligned with the problem and preferred outcome.

The ideal place to be is in the middle of the distribution. Find out what the service provider does better than anyone else. You may need to push through the sales talk and ask for customer references or talk with senior management at the service provider to be sure you are in the middle. Being in the middle creates a win-win situation as you will get the benefit of the product or service that they provide better than others and the service provider wins because you fit the profile of an ideal customer. As the relationship between you and the service provider evolves, revisit where you are in the distribution so you always know where you stand in the service provider’s eyes. If you look like a “good fit” customer you are likely to get good service.

How compatible is their culture with yours?

Despite all the posters and buzz words, culture is not something that can be created. Rather, organizational culture is the outcome of the daily actions and decisions made and allowed by management and employees. See if you can tease out how conflict is resolved between teams or employees. How do they talk about customers when the customers are not around? What are team meetings like? What does “winning” look like to them?

If their culture looks similar to yours it is a strong indicator that problems will find solutions quickly and that those difficult conversations are not too painful. Trust can be gained without significant effort, which will ultimately lead to positive outcomes.

If you find that the service provider’s culture differs significantly from your organizational culture, be wary. If the cultures conflict, you will find every victory hard-won. The relationship will be exhausting. Although both parties are meeting the letter of the agreement, they will silently be counting down the weeks and months until they can exit the relationship.

Feedback is a gift, in both directions.

When you are in business with a service provider who culturally aligns with you and for whom the work is a good fit, you are very likely to find success. To ensure that you do find success, you need to be able to have open and honest feedback with each other.

It is not in the DNA of most service providers to tell their customers how they can be better customers. Let’s go back to the bell curve above. If you as the customer can figure out how to look more like a customer in the middle of the distribution, you are more likely to get a positive outcome. In order to do that, you need to invite the service provider to share with you what things you can change so that you more easily fit into that middle section. Perhaps you can interact differently with the support teams or let the service provider have a greater say in the technology and design choices for the project at hand. It takes some courage to ask, “What can I do differently to be a better customer?”

I can tell you from experience that your service provider will love you for these types of questions and interactions – they are rare. When a service provider and customer bond well and agree through honest feedback to constantly improve the working relationship almost any problem can be solved.

Randy Franklin, Vice President, Chief Information Officer, Premier Inc.

This article is reproduced from GAVS’ enGAge magazine, August 2018 edition.