As project timelines and budgets shrink, outsourcing some research operations to lower cost providers becomes more and more attractive. I experienced this first hand a few years ago as I developed a relationship with Annik in India. What I learned from that experience is that creating a successful outsourcing relationship takes time, as there can be a significant learning curve on both sides.
Here are a few things to consider before you begin:
- Know What Is Required from You – In the U.S., we are used to flexibility in the workflow process and are familiar enough with project delays to manage around them. We often can begin the next phase of a project even if one part of the previous step is delayed. What I’ve experienced from offshore staff is very different: they typically require all of the input from the previous phase upfront. While they can turn output like graphs around quickly, it’s problematic if they won’t begin until every version of the tabs are run or every i is dotted in the questionnaire. Thus, it’s important to know what you need to supply for work to begin and to lay out milestones to keep the work on point. You should also consider asking for interim deliverables to ensure that the quality is up to your standards.
- Be Literal – I am notorious for giving vague instructions like “just make it pretty.” Well, that does not fly for most subcontractors, and those who are offshore are no exception. Perhaps because of cultural or communication differences, the level of specificity required to achieve the desired output can be challenging. In working on customized reports, for example, we could not say put a border around the charts unless we meant every single chart on every single page. Our counterparts did not take any liberties with our instructions even where borders did not fit or make sense. Thus, it’s important to work with your offshore partners to create a standard set of information required before starting any project. This can be a living document that can be updated as new requirements or challenges come to pass.
- Manage Risk – Every organization considering an outsourcing relationship with an offshore company needs to understand the risks inherent with sending sensitive data overseas. Having checks in place to avoid data loss is vital, but you should also consider preparing for “what if” scenarios, which include your partner having a data leak, closing their operations, or mismanaging a project’s deliverables. In addition, some U.S. clients have contracts stipulating that their data may not be transferred offshore. Thus, before sending any data, a review of client contracts is required.
- Avoid Pay-to-Play Scenarios – When evaluating potential outsourcing partners, it’s important to understand up front where your business will rank in terms of priority. Because you will probably begin slowly, you want to avoid a scenario where you are given the “B” or “C” team because you are not yet a large-scale client. Some firms will offer you the opportunity to have a dedicated team if you send a certain amount of work in a given year. Having a dedicated team is the ideal scenario because you will reap more rewards from your training efforts. However, many mid-size US research companies may not ever cross that volume threshold, making it important to know where your work will rank and how likely you are to experience delays when the higher ranking clients come knocking.
- Evaluate the Impact of the Time Difference – There are pros and cons to the time difference, and what you expect to be an advantage can sometimes cost you time and money. Going into the outsourcing process, we had hoped that the time difference would actually shrink our timelines, because our overseas counterparts could be working while we slept. Unfortunately, that didn’t always turn out to be the case as any question might halt their progress when we could not be reached. As we mentioned before, communication about deliverables, expectations and inputs is key to ensuring that the time advantage does not actually become a hindrance.
It cannot be stressed enough – outsourcing is not a quick solution to meet a short-term budget or timeline crunch. The upfront investment of time to train an offshore subcontractor is significant. Companies that naively send work over without setting clear expectations struggle with sub-par results that often require significant rework.
Alisha Hamilton is the owner of Harvest Insights, an Atlanta-based market research consultancy. She is a moderator, teacher, writer, and accomplished speaker.