The Beatings Will Continue Until Service Improves

Franchisee Columnist Todd Michaud has spent the last 16 years trying to fight IT issues, with the last six years focused on franchisee IT issues. He is currently responsible for IT at Focus Brands (Cinnabon, Carvel, Schlotzsky’s and Moe’s Southwestern Grill).

It amazes me how many business leaders treat their IT business partners poorly. Delivering IT services is hard, no matter which company you work for. IT is complex, and it breaks (at the worst times). IT people are not perfect. Does anyone really think that all of the yelling and screaming is going to help? The same people who wouldn’t think about giving anything but an “Exceeds” on a performance review have no problem screaming at a service provider over and over again.

Then there are negotiations. “You need to sharpen your pencil, I’m not paying this much.” Good IT leaders will work hard to deliver services at the lowest possible cost. But they need to be careful not to negotiate such a low price that the vendor will never be able to meet their expectations for service. Believe it or not, getting the lowest price is not always the right goal. By the way, if anyone is looking for someone to help negotiate a cheap, crappy IT service I know plenty of people who would rock your world.

I have somewhat of a unique perspective on this situation, because I have only been on the customer side of the table for the last 7 years. Prior to that, I was on the provider side. Believe me when I say that I have been part of more than one customer smack-down. Sometimes it is absolutely deserved (a recent incident with a service provider prompted me to write this article); sometimes, however, it is just standard operating procedure. I am talking about those people who have unrealistic expectations and go off the deep end whenever the smallest thing happens. There is a time and place to express frustration or even anger. But done in perpetuity it not only loses its impact, it works against you. (I don’t know about you, but the last person who I want to talk to is the one who always yells at me.)

I think that one of the biggest problems is having unrealistic expectations of a service provider. The three biggest expectation barriers are the “Expert Driver Syndrome,” the “I Don’t Get It Syndrome” and the “Everything Costs $1 Syndrome.”

Let’s start with the “Expert Driver Syndrome. ”Something like 90 percent of all drivers believe that they are much better than the average driver (the same holds true for poker players). This is, of course, not possible. When it comes to IT services, I smile when I hear IT leaders say “If I had this in-house, we wouldn’t have these problems” or “If it were my team, it would absolutely be better/faster/cheaper than these knuckleheads.”

I hate to break it to these folks, but that is probably not the case. Let’s go back to my opening about IT being hard. The fact is that at some point, somebody (maybe even the same person making the comments) chose this particular service provider because that person believed the provider could supply a high level of service at a reasonable cost. Typically, this vendor was chosen after closely considering all of the competitors in the same space. So what makes some IT leaders feel that internal resources could do a better job?

I am realistic about my ability to attract and retain top IT talent when IT is not something that is core to a company (we sell food). I believe a service provider that is good enough to win my business will have attracted some of the top talent in that particular technical arena. Technical people tend to migrate to where their talents can be best utilized. My goal is to find the provider that best meets my price/value needs and to support that provider with a staff who is good at extracting as much value from that provider as possible. There are things that it makes sense to keep in-house. But IT is not a core competency of my organization, so my goal is to keep that in-house list pretty small.

I absolutely don’t buy the “If it were internal resources they would care more” rebuttal. Unless you really purchased the bottom-of-the-barrel service, your provider cares as much--if not more--about supplying the highest level of service. Losing a client may have a dramatic impact on the company’s future, and that is motivating to the team. I know. I’ve been there.

Let’s say that the “Expert Driver Syndrome” prevails, and the IT services are brought in-house. Of course, part of the justification for this change will be that “It will be better if we do it ourselves.” What happens if it isn’t any better? If the people providing the service worked for the IT leader instead of the service provider, would they still be treated the same way? Would the IT leader take that tone of voice or send those e-mails? I believe that most would not. So why is it any different? In both situations you are paying people to provide a service, so why in some situations are people treated differently? Is a purchase really that different from a hire? This problem is exacerbated in franchise organizations because most retail franchisees do not have the patience to work with IT. It should just work, and when it doesn’t many franchisees get upset. This situation refers to the “I Don’t Get It Syndrome.” To people who have this attitude, an explanation is nothing more than an excuse. I can’t blame them. Part of the reason that I have more patience with IT issues is because I am familiar with them. I know how they work. That is not the case for many franchisees.

To look at the opposite side of the coin as an example, I am pretty sure that I would be extremely upset if I owned a restaurant and someone told me the compressors on the freezer had died and it would take 3 days to get new ones installed. Because I have no experience with freezers, 3 days seems like an insufferable amount of time. I am pretty sure that I would get upset with the person telling me 3 days was the best they could do, because I do not understand what could possibly take so long. This example is no different than trying to explain why a DSL router has been down for 3 days.

The other extremely important factor to consider is that the impact of such a problem is much greater on the franchisee than it is on an IT person. I hate seeing a franchisee not being able to process sales. But the reality is that having a DSL router fail impacts them much more than it does me, and I am always respectful of that. Such respect is a critical trait that you need your most important providers to adopt, or you need to move on to another provider.

Finally, there is the “Everything Costs $1 Syndrome.” When asked how much they are paying for IT, most franchisees will respond with “Too much.” When things are running smoothly, franchisees believe they are overpaying for services. In my experience, this opinion is driven by a lack of experience with IT. If someone believes they are already overpaying for a service, they tend to be very upset when that service has an issue. “I paid you idiots $25,000 and you can’t even keep the damn thing running!” In such cases, any issue will be a big issue. As time goes on and IT becomes more integrated into franchise operations, my hope is that franchisees’ expectations about IT services (cost, reliability, etc.) will improve.

When you are an IT leader in a franchise organization, you have to be aware of the fact that your service providers are working with a group of people who may have one or more of these points of view. If something goes wrong, they are “getting it” from hundreds or even thousands of people. As an IT leader, it is important to express your frustration when issues occur. But it is also important to strike a balance so that your relationship with the vendor does not turn completely combative. When a relationship with a service provider becomes combative, it is time to either completely restructure the relationship (including the key people involved) or move on. The worst outcome is that you end up working with a vendor that doesn’t want the business but is contractually obligated to provide it.

It is a tough line to walk. You need to make sure that you fight for the company and its franchisees’ rights, but you have to make sure the relationship doesn’t devolve into something that doesn’t benefit anyone. You also cannot be a pushover and let the vendor’s performance continue to lag against expectations or, in some cases, contracts.

My suggestion is that if you tend to get fired up when dealing with your service provider, stop and think before you yell the next time something happens. Ask yourself: “Will this really help the situation or the overall relationship?” Make sure that when you do get upset with a provider, it is for a good reason. And when something does happen, make sure that the provider takes your problem seriously (because they know you will only get upset when it is an important issue). Take the time to work with the provider and make sure that you have purchased the services that meet your expectations (did your price needs drive the service below your expectations?). Schedule formal review sessions with the service provider, at least quarterly, to review their performance and discuss ways to improve service (outside the heat of an issue). Most importantly, treat the service provider with respect and dignity.

What do you think? Love it or hate it, I’d love to gain some additional perspectives. Leave a comment, or E-mail me at [email protected].