When Your Outsourcer Outsources

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Most industry consultants and analysts have their own laundry lists of reasons to outsource. Invariably, these lists contain some variation of the following: 

  • making capital funds available;
  • reducing operating costs; 
  • reducing risk;
  • improving skills; 
  • improving organizational focus; 
  • freeing resources for other purposes; 
  • speeding re-engineering efforts; and
  • quickly bringing a capability under control. 

If you are considering or have made a decision to outsource your interactive voice response (IVR) system development and management due to points three and/or four, then learning your (potential) outsourcing provider also outsources some of its IVR work to other third parties could cause you to take pause and ask, “Just what is going on here?” 

Why do IVR outsourcing providers use other outsourcers, and is it an acceptable practice? The simple answer is that they do it for the same reasons as their customers: to provide missing skills and/or increase the number of people providing key skills. Outsourcing providers work within financial constraints just as every organization does. Having unlimited amounts of development staff not engaged in projects (known as a bench) is financially unsustainable. Dependent on multiple customer demands, overlapping project schedules, and specialized skill requirements, your outsourcer might use another party to take advantage of the outsourcing benefits of which it is well aware.

Consider voice talent used for prompts. This is a highly specialized skill with unique management challenges different from technical resource management. Add in the need for multiple languages, and the challenges mount. Many excellent companies exist that are solely dedicated to providing voice talent for telephony use; your outsourcing provider will likely work with a critical few that have demonstrated quality and value over time. Your provider’s buying power provides significant discounts, and its regular work with voice talent agencies reduces the cost of both parties’ efforts to provide this service.

Shared Responsibility

Core principles for your application development remain the same, outsourced or not: strict adherence to open standards; no proprietary integrated development environments that lock you to an application developer; and excellent requirements-gathering, prioritization, and project management. If you outsource application development, then your outsourcer must accept responsibility to deliver on time, with the agreed-on quality, at the agreed-on price. If the majority of work shifts to a second outsourcer, then the primary outsourcer certainly has an obligation to inform you, as well as to provide you with detailed information and references from that secondary outsourcer. 

To reiterate an earlier point, if you err in using a proprietary integrated development environment, then you have the choice of one that locks you into an application development shop or one that locks you into a platform due to a lack of agreed-on standards for certain functionality. Either reduces your flexibility, and both add costs should you change vendors.

Integration is a key element of successful IVR deployments, and all of the same points from application development apply to integration. Some outsourcing providers have significant in-house Web services resources because of the move away from proprietary application-to-application and thick middleware integration to Web services.

Application management, platform management, and hosting should remain solely with your outsourcer. If it outsources this, then just what are you buying? This type of outsourcing would be an out-and-out bad idea. Stay far away!

In addition, you should ensure that outsourcing your IVR management and development includes clear statements of work and concise, measurable components within a service-level agreement (SLA) that carries strong goals and associated penalties. Be prepared to commit to your own goals and penalties in the SLA, and know that if your outsourcing provider is not holding your organization accountable for your responsibilities then it cannot improve “your mess for less.”

Finally, remember this quote from Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of the Republic of Singapore: “If you deprive yourself of outsourcing and your competitors do not, you’re putting yourself out of business.”

Kevin Brown is an architect at EDS, an HP company, where he specializes in speech platform design. He has more than 15 years of experience in designing and delivering speech-enabled solutions. He can be reached at kevin.c.brown@hp.com.

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