Firms must actively engage external vendors and third-party partners to deliver a unified customer experience (CX). Why? Because partners across the supply chain influence the quality of customer interactions. Sometimes these partners are the face of your company on the front lines in the form of agents, dealerships, value-added-resellers (VARS), distributors, and outsourced call center reps or technicians. Alternatively, they might act behind-the-scenes in the case of suppliers, outsourced credit or risk services, or billing and invoicing vendors. These 3rd parties are a critical component of what Forrester calls the customer experience ecosystem:  the complex, interdependent set of relationships and interactions between customers, employees, and partners that determine the quality of every customer experience.

Failing to engage partners not only degrades customer experiences, it costs companies money. Here are a few examples:

  • Supply chain issues that plagued Google around its Nexus devices through this past holiday season left countless customers empty handed, undermining sales numbers. It also resulted in the UK managing director at Google to issue a personal apology to British customers and offer a refund for shipping to those who were able to purchase a device.
  • When a premium chemical manufacturer noticed an uptick in complaints about pricing, it discovered that distributors were targeting the wrong kinds of prospects: firms which would be better served by off-the-shelf, commodity chemicals.  This misguided selling approach not only wasted internal support resources at the manufacturer, it risked creating a headwind of negative perception among target prospects.

While many firms assume they have no influence or control over these partners, they are mistaken. In fact, there are a number of levers a company can pull when they view these partners as an extension of their own employees – and an extension of the brand. Here are seven ways companies can create alignment with 3rd parties to deliver a unified experiencethat falls into three broad categories: Hiring, Socialization, and Rewards.

Hiring Aligns Expectations

Firms that view external vendors and partners as extensions of the brand stress cultural alignment around the customer in their solicitation, selection, and contracting processes. To do this: 

1. Emphasize customer experience objectives in solicitation materials.  Include descriptions of the target CX in materials used to promote partner programs or to solicit outsourced business process partners (e.g. “Request for Proposals”). USAA asks vendors as diverse as outsourced call centers and technology service providers to demonstrate how their solutions enhance key customer “moments of truth” like when a soldier deploys.

2. Embed customer-focused criteria in the selection process. Ensure that vendor selection criteria include characteristics important for delivering the company’s intended experience. U.S. Cellular includes an open-ended question in external vendor RFPs about how their firms cultivate culture. The company uses these answers to find vendors that have natural “fit” with U.S. Cellular’s approach.

3. Establish performance requirements in contracts. Revisit contracts to make sure that they include CX performance standards, not just operational targets like call handling time or financial targets like sales volume. One software company rewrote the contracts with its outsourced call centers to include targets for customer feedback quality. It also equipped the vendor agents with up-front training, provided posters with customer values and quotes, and created an experience room that allowed service reps a space to take a break and relax.

Socialization Enables Action

Once partners come on board, companies need to reinforce the right day-to-day attitudes and desired behavioral norms. To do this, firms should:

4. Extend voice of the customer (VoC) status into partner communications.Use existing communications vehicles to let partners know how customers rate their current performance. This requires extending VoC program insights to partners, and tailoring those insights to partner needs. A large equipment manufacturer regularly surveys customers and provides full reports to dealers with analysis and recommendations. Regional customer loyalty champions help dealers develop plans to close gaps and monitor progress on resulting VoC-based projects.

5. Train partners on customer experience tools. Companies need to help equip partners with the skills required to design better customer experiences. Do this by extending existing training on the methodologies that the firm uses internally to engage employees, such as interpreting VoC data, conducting observational interviews, and creating customer journey ecosystem maps. One retail food company included retail franchisees in a customer journey and ecosystem mapping training session to expose them to these powerful tools for understanding the customer perspective.

Rewards Focus Activities On Customer Outcomes

Formal and informal incentives provide companies with a powerful mechanism to focus partners on what’s important to customers. Seasoned CX leaders reward partners on their customer-centric behavior when they:

6. Tie compensation & promotion tiers to customer feedback.  One car manufacturer ties dealer performance on customer perception metrics to its margin structure — higher performing dealers get deeper discounts on products which means they earn higher margins.

7. Entice attention through recognition and awards programs.Firms like, NetApp, and Avaya recognize customer-centric partners at events and through marketing campaigns. This kind of recognition provides exposure to potentially thousands of new customer prospects for the partner, as well as credibility that advertising can’t buy.

I'll be speaking about how companies transform by connecting customer experience to their business architecture at Forrester's Customer Experience Forum West, October 9-10 in Los Angeles. I hope to see you there. Or, if you can’t make it to LA, join my colleagues in London, November 19-20 to learn about boosting your customer experience to the next level.