Have you ever been burned by a service provider who promised great service but didn't deliver? You’re not alone. Especially in the IT world, where virtually every company has a story about a consulting engagement gone wrong.
So what makes an IT service provider great? Are there specific things that the best service providers do to delight their clients? Are there things that you, as a client, can demand? Or is great service something you only know when you see it?
We came upon the answer when we conducted a reference check with a company we’ll call “Midco”—a midsize, US-based distributor of consumer products that had hired a consultant firm to handle its SAP implementation.
The project turned out to be so successful that when Midco filled out our reference check questionnaire, they gave the consultant some of the most effusive praise we’ve ever seen.
To find out what was driving all that excitement, we sat down with Midco’s chief financial officer (CFO), whom we’ll call “Bob,” a former consultant and veteran of several major software implementations.
Bob was happy to talk about what made this consultant so remarkable, and over the course of our conversation, he kept coming back to the same five things.
Setting the Tone at the Top
Right from the start, Bob said, the consultant firm’s senior management was deeply involved in the project. They worked hard to understand Midco’s business, and establish the scope and objectives of the project so they could put together the right team.
When one of the consultants proved to be a poor fit, senior management replaced him immediately without charging Midco for the replacement’s ramp-up time. At one point, the firm’s owner even stepped into the project manager role to keep the implementation on track.
According to Bob, that level of commitment at the top sets the tone for the rest of the organization. And it sets this consultant apart from those whose senior managers rarely, if ever, dive into the details of a project.
Understanding the Client. Really.
Another thing that set Midco’s consultants apart was their commitment to fully understanding Midco’s business. Many consultants, Bob said, push a set of “best practices” in the hopes that the client will conform. But Midco’s consultant didn’t do that.
Instead, they worked closely with Midco’s project team to figure out which business processes were a good fit for Midco, and which would need to be customized. When it became clear that Midco would need specific custom functionality, the consultant tracked down a developer who could deliver it and brought him onto the project team at no charge to Midco.
In the end, having a consultant that understood the business helped Midco cushion the “culture shock” that Bob says often accompanies an SAP implementation.
Becoming Part of the Team
Something we heard over and over from Bob was that the consultant’s team became a part of the Midco team. They worked closely with Midco employees, getting to know their core strengths, holding joint team-building exercises, and sharing in the successes and setbacks that are part of any large IT project.
By creating the sense that both companies were in it together, the consultant turned Midco’s team into engaged advocates for the new system—paving the way for the kind widespread user adoption that is the mark of a successful implementation.
Delivering on Commitments
Enterprise software implementations are notorious for cost overruns, major delays, and other horror stories. We’ve all heard about a one-year project that’s now in year five. So imagine how refreshing it was to hear that Midco’s implementation was completed on time and on budget, without any compromises, in under a year!
Midco’s consultant really stands out here for the simple fact of having done what they said they were going to do when they said they were going to do it.
According to Bob, even though Midco hasn’t done any major business with the consultant since the SAP implementation went live, the two companies maintain a close relationship. The consultant’s managing director visits Midco roughly once a month just to make sure that the system is running smoothly and still meeting all of Midco’s needs. When problems crop up, the consultant fixes them immediately. In other words, Midco’s consultant has created the kind of long term partnership between consultant and client that you hear about often, but rarely see.
Great Service is about Culture
Boil Midco’s experience down to its essence and you’ll realize that the consultant provided a truly excellent service by understanding their client, committing to the project, keeping promises, and following up. In other words it’s not about methodology or technological know-how—it’s about a genuine commitment to excellence.
What Midco’s consultant has done is develop the culture of excellence that nearly every consulting firm pays lip service to, but few actually achieve. Consultant Web sites are awash with promises to “understand your business” and become a “partner” for your company. So why do so many client stories paint a different picture?
It’s Everyone’s Fault
Creating a culture of excellence is hard. Consultants need to show the same level of commitment and dedication that Midco’s consultant showed. They need to show it all the time. And it needs to be rooted in principles that the whole organization actually believes in.
But the sad truth is that if clients don’t demand better service from consultants, consultants aren’t going to deliver it. There’s a lot of money to be made by firms who go after clients with low expectations, and each new implementation horror story sets those expectations lower still. It takes a special kind of firm, like the one Midco hired, to set high standards without being asked.
But until Midco’s consultant is the rule rather than the exception, you can’t count on great service from your consultant unless you demand it.