3 Steps to Recovering from Poor Service Delivery by your Strategic Partner

By Allan Watton on

Problems can arise at any point within a major strategic partner service delivery relationship. Life with a strategic partner is very much like a marriage – after the first year or so, when the honeymoon period has become but a happy memory, the on-going relationship will at times be not quite as smooth sailing as you intended it to be at the outset.

It usually starts with little things like leaving your socks on the bedroom floor in the morning when rushing out to work or getting a little grumpy because it’s always you that has to take the bins out. Then, if you are fortunate enough, the children come along and that’s a whole new opportunity for relationship complexity.

You do your best with the kids, trying to keep them focused on the right behaviour, getting them to understand accountability and act on it, and so forth, but from an early age they’ll find that they can play their parents off one-another to get what they want – which in turn can cause a destructive trail of relationship mayhem.

If the foundations of a relationship aren’t strong enough it may not survive. But it’s not all doom and gloom because sometimes that is for the better, for all parties so they can move on to relationships that simply work better.

Anyone that has been married for many years will know that you need to ‘work at making it work’. When things look at their darkest there are almost always ways to address those fundamental issues which, in turn, help to bring things back on track – and it’s often far less costly and more beneficial to work things out, than to walk away.

Problems can arise at any point within a strategic partner service delivery relationship. As with the personal situation above, they often sneak up on you over time, building in the background without anyone noticing until the point where frustration boils over. Or it’s recognised that you’re now so far from the intended path that uncomfortable conversations and actions will be needed. Alternatively, problems can erupt from the most innocuous infraction or major incident that creates a seemingly insurmountable rift between you.

An adequately funded and resourced Intelligent Client Function (ICF) team, plugged into the mindset of the other side, trusted and known to them, can sometimes head such issues off at the pass, or help to resolve them more quickly and amicably. But, it has to be recognised that no matter how hard you try and what strategies you put in place to prevent them problems may well arise, and it’s how you handle them that will determine whether your relationship will stand the test of time.

There are many behaviours that contribute to successful and innovative service delivery when using a strategic partner, whether private or public sector. Here are three of the key ones that will help realign your relationship with ‘what good looks like’ or in some cases ‘what good but affordable looks like’ to you:

1. Identify ‘What Good Looks Like’ with your Strategic Partner

Recovery from a problematic relationship status requires some self-analysis too. It is important to identify what is working well, so you can repeat it, as well as what things went wrong – to ensure that lessons are learned and processes implemented to reduce the opportunity for the issue to happen again.

Have you identified and clearly communicated your view of ‘what good looks like’? Do your internal teams all agree and align to ‘what good (but affordable) looks like’? An effective way of imagining what good looks like is to ask yourself ‘What quantified benefits do you expect to achieve from the relationship?’ or ‘What will your organisation be able to do (or do better) as a result of the relationship or the implementation of solutions?’ And, it’s just as important to determine whether you have clearly quantified expected values and timescales to your strategic partner.

Some practical examples of this would include:

  • Example #1: You are an NHS Trust. Imagine what your new EPR system could do for you. You’d expect it to offer you ‘one view’ of the patient, including their visits, symptoms, current and likely future treatments, prescriptions and which doctor attended. You can also expect to see participation from other agencies such as social care, including consultations, treatments, when the patient received them and from whom. You would expect the new system to have the capacity to share appropriate visibility of each agency’s involvement with the patient and to ensure they receive the most holistic and efficient treatment possible. What is the financial, operational and patient safety impact of having this view? By how much and by when did you expect these benefits to be realised? Clarity and precise expectations are paramount.
  • Example #2: You are an insurance underwriter. Imagine what your new claims handling system should do. Will it give you ‘one view’ of the insured party – their policies, how long they have been with you, details of all claims, payouts and claim disputes? Will it also provide you with ‘predictions’ about what policies not to underwrite for them in the future and highlight lower-risk and more profitable cross-selling opportunities? Have you quantified how many specific cross-selling opportunities it would take to justify the cost of that aspect of the new system? How much faster did you want those opportunities to be highlighted to you, over and above your existing identification process? When do you expect the system to be providing those benefits? If you do not identify these functions and benefits your strategic partner may not appreciate the full extent of your expectations.

Did you clearly and concisely identify what good looks like for your strategic partner – putting together ‘use cases’ and actual scenarios? If not, then the lessons learned from this experience should be noted, reported on, analysed so the insights gathered can be shared and go towards better processes for this and future projects – to drive better behaviours and create environments that encourage them.

In many ways, the points above are obvious. However, the obvious often gets lost in the details of planning complex and mission-critical projects. The focus is often directed on key functionality rather than the business outcomes that functionality is designed to enable. Don’t get lost in the detail – focus on the behaviours, change and outcomes the relationship will enable.

But be careful to actually quantify the outcomes/objectives you want to achieve. It’s important to clearly communicate what you expect by asking yourself the questions for each objective in terms of (a) what improvement you want, (b) by how much and (c) by when. If you can’t quantify the objective in those terms then either (1) get help to do so or (2) understand that if it can’t be quantified in some form, it can’t be measured. If it can’t be measured, the expectation will lead to misunderstandings and frustrations through the course of the relationship.

Highly competent vendors will help you to focus on the quantification of your business outcomes, as this assists with keeping everyone on track. Less competent vendors are likely to blame you for ‘not specifying your requirements’ correctly or clearly enough.

2. Agile Pre-implementation Staged Scoping

If you know what business outcomes, objectives and behaviours you want and have quantified them (what, who, where, how, why, by how much and by when), then you can scope specific stages of your expectations and the outcome you expect from each particular stage. Essentially you can develop a schedule and correctly aligned KPIs/milestones that drive the right behaviours for what you expect to achieve and by when. This is important because it means you can:

  • Test your assumptions.

Rather than assuming your vendor has interpreted your expectations correctly, having clearly quantified objectives for each stage allows you to test progress against finite expectations. You will quickly know whether you are heading in the right direction. To not do so will risk key misunderstandings going unnoticed for far longer, escalating the issue unnecessarily.

  • Rely on your vendor’s ‘duty to warn’.

Remember that your vendor is the ‘expert’. You are paying for the right advice. Almost irrespective of the contractual wording, a vendor is under an implied legal duty to challenge your assumptions and to ‘warn you’ if any of your expectations are unrealistic or appear unquantified. This is also the case if a vendor is unsure how to measure its progress against your expectations. Note that the vendor’s duty to warn is both pre- and post-contractual. It cannot be reasonably argued that your requirements weren’t clear once the relationship goes off the rails. As the expert, most Courts would expect your vendor to know and to challenge you on any flaky assumptions before it starts work on your service delivery. If there was a failure by the vendor to warn you pre-contractually, then the vendor must remedy the situation at its own cost, rather than yours. Reliance on ‘duty to warn’ though is potentially compromised if you have not done what your vendor has asked you to do or if you have not supplied your vendor with a clear and accurate assessment of ‘what good looks like’ to you.

  • Achieve accelerated benefits.

Undertaking pre-implementation staged scoping in the right way helps your vendor provide you with the right ‘holistic’ advice. This ensures each stage of the relationship will help you to operate a process and method that drives the right behaviours between you both and moves towards fulfilling your business objectives. Done correctly, our experience shows that pre-implementation staged scoping will cut the time it takes to get the full benefit from your strategic relationships in half.

3. Contract Terms that Drive the Right Behaviours

Although it’s not mandatory, having contract terms that drive agile pre-implementation scoping in the right way will save both you and the vendor a whole host of pain throughout the life of the relationship. Bear in mind the following:

  • Behaviour adapts contractual expectations.

Recent case law states if you change your behaviour and, between you, start agile pre-implementation scoping for each stage, then that behaviour becomes the actual contract (good or bad) that both you and your vendor are accountable for.

  • Having it in writing, with use cases and operational diagrams, is better every time.

Relying on recent case law alone when issues in the relationship arise, is both expensive and time-consuming. Although these cases have shown the arguments over holding the vendor to account for its ‘expert responsibilities’ are likely to be successful, larger vendors will be pre-programmed to follow the letter of their perception (whether correct or otherwise) of the contract. By being clear in the first instance, this will help avoid the time and expense of relying on the case law. Smaller vendors are less likely to appreciate the impact of contract terms that are misaligned to the delivery process. They (and you) are only likely to discover the impact when something fundamental goes wrong and your expectations are missed. Then if a formal dispute escalates because the misalignment continues and you have already paid out significant sums to the vendor, it’s at that point where matters tend to get out of hand. Again, being clear at the outset helps to avoid this. Restructuring the contract terms as part of the project recovery process will save you and the vendor a huge amount of time, cost and misunderstanding in moving the on-going relationship forward. The restructured terms should allow scoping flexibility and changes in direction if you need to modify your business outcomes during the implementation.

So, to summarise, a problematic strategic partner relationship is often a challenge but more often than not it is one you can come back from and get yourselves to a ‘what good looks like’ service delivery model and beneficial outcomes. Learn from your experiences (both formally and informally) and move forward with a clarified sense of what you are looking to achieve from the relationship, greater analysis of a defined quantifiable step by step process to achieving desired outcomes, and build this into your written agreements.

Your own common sense tells you it’s best to do this from the outset, but it’s never too late to start, and therefore avoid an escalation that takes your relationship outside the realms of ‘problematic’ and into the ‘irrecoverable’ zone.

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