Service Providers Allow Institutions to Focus on the CoreJeff Fanter | Vice President for Enrollment, Communications and Marketing Management, Ivy Tech Community College
1. What are some warning signs that would suggest an institution should look to a vendor for a service?
As is the case in many places of higher education, funding is a challenge. When we looked at our opportunities we had to ask ourselves, “Where could we maybe maximize partnerships, possibly reshape the funding model a little bit, get more efficient [and] streamline our operations?” That’s when we looked at different options.
This wasn’t a loan; this opportunity that we spoke of last time really focused on enrollment and developing a better enrollment model, but we’ve often looked at this, for example, with bookstores and other things.
The way we looked at and analyzed it here in this institution, we said to ourselves, “What’s our core mission?” Our core mission: what happens in the classroom and how we deliver education within the classroom. Not that all these other things don’t matter, but there are probably people out there that can do some of these things better than we can.
When considering a vendor, you have to ask yourselves, “Are there people who specialize in certain things, maybe better than we can deliver?” like we did with the bookstore or like we did in the case of a success/help center. …
We also have to look at some things as we’re starting to grade very low when it comes to customer service with our students. Why is that? Well, we asked ourselves the question. It was accessibility: they couldn’t get answers to questions. How can we change that? There’s people out there and tools that can do it better than us, not because our people don’t try hard enough, but because of the volume that we had and the experience the student was having. There’s signs for any institution or company where you can find where there’s gaps in the way you deliver your product, your customer service, whatever it might be. In this case, that’s the sign we saw. We saw we weren’t delivering the customer service the way that our students expected it and there were better ways to do it. We found partners out there who specialize in doing it better than we do because they have the resources to do it and the resources, quite frankly, are more cost effective than for us to try to bring that all in-house.
2. Why can it be beneficial for an institution to work with a vendor on delivering a periphery service?
Going into that point of our core mission; our core mission is what happens in the classroom and there are so many resources that are put into the delivery of the education in the classroom, and rightfully so. That’s where it should be. That’s what our students come here for. Knowing that and knowing that you may be strapped with respect to resources, … you start to look at the other areas. We may only have so many resources to do a lot of the research in how best practices are that might be out there. Well, guess what; there are companies that do it, frankly, who do it better than we do because they have the resources to do it. They invested large amounts of dollars from their company to perfect a product or a service because they needed to, to be able to go to market with it, to get others to be engaged and use their service.
Why not use their time, their research and their development that they did — they’ve done it well and they’ve invested resources, frankly, that we just don’t have or never will have — and use them, capitalize on that.
We look for those opportunities all the time. …
3. On the flip side, what are the negatives of outsourcing a service to a vendor?
This is where I’ve always preached. You need to be upfront and address these things right up front. You have to realize that your team, staff, whatever it may be, there’s going to be some reservations because there’s going to be this fear of, “Is this replacing me? Is this being done because someone does it better than me and my future here isn’t stable?”
You have to know that’s going to be a question right off the bat. How you deal with that can either, frankly, be a negative or if dealt with right — as we think we’ve done here — it can turn into a positive. And you can reshape it to say, “What we’re doing is providing more resources to help you do your job because we know you only have so many resources day-to-day to deliver what we’re expecting you to deliver. We’re going to give you more resources now.” That’s clearly one.
Two, it’s this ownership entitlement that this information, these students, these customers, whatever term you want to use, “They’re mine, they’re ours. Why are we going to let some third-party vendor who doesn’t come to work every day deal with our customer and our student? … Why are we going to let a group of people that, frankly, none of us will ever see — because they’re offsite somewhere — be our interface with our customer? They don’t know our students, they don’t know our customer. We do.”
You need to make sure you address that because, again, it’s a valid point and you have to have a plan and a strategy to be able to address that because, certainly, that turns into a negative.
And then, the last thing I’d say is that [what] you really have to be careful with, in my opinion, when dealing with a vendor is that you really lock down what your agreement is with them because you can’t move into what appears to be a great product on paper. You go into contract with them, you get a great product and then all these things come up that suddenly drive up the price of what they said they were going to deliver to you because they’re add-on features … and you need to be meticulous and very thorough in the way you have discussions with the vendor. …
The caution I would give to people: you find a partner. They’re a vendor, don’t get me wrong, but they’re a partner and they’re married to wanting to achieve the same goals you do because you can quickly flip things on a partner or a vendor to say, “We’re in this together. You’re not performing to what we need to do. It shouldn’t cost me another x dollars to get to where we want. You said that you are going to help us get to that point.”
That could be a huge negative if you go into a relationship with a vendor and it’s not viewed as a partnership. And, along those lines with a partner, they have to have a clear expectation or understanding of the kind of volume you’re talking about and that they can handle you. If you’re a big operation like we are at Ivy Tech Community College, you better have a partner that can handle the volume we’re talking about because if not … it’s going to be a partnership set up for failure.
4. Is there anything you’d like to add about the value of working with a service provider in a partnership to help an institution strengthen its periphery services?
Some of the keys people really need to pay attention to is that it is a partnership and what you’re trying to find is someone that, frankly, is joining your team. Not as much as providing you a service, but joining your team because they can provide this service better than you can; you’ve improved your team and you’ve made your team stronger.
Next would be to make sure you know any time you bring in a third party, whatever it may be, there will always be questions about the why. Know there’s going to be questions about the why and be aggressive and address those up front with people so your team doesn’t lose faith in you as a leader or that you may know you have a lot facing them as part of the team. I think that’s where we’ve been extremely successful.
The last thing is to really step back for a minute and ask yourself, “What’s our core mission? What are we focused on doing the most?” The things that are on the periphery of that, but are key to actually completing that core mission — are there people out there that are doing it better than us? Ask yourself those questions and then look to see if there are people you can partner with that, in the end, you strengthen your team.
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- A service partner does not replace existing employees, but rather provides them the opportunity to focus on the more critical elements of their jobs.
- Institutions should be mindful of looking for a strategic partner rather than simply a vendor.
- Before entering into a service partnership, institutions should have a clear idea of their core mission and periphery services.