Integration Can Be A Four Letter Word

A recent glimpse of the dark underbelly of integration failures prompted me to share this story about business process outsourcing (BPO) relationships. I’ll address this topic over multiple articles, but for this month I want to focus on what I see as some of the major challenges of BPO integration.

First, let’s define what I mean by “BPO integration.” For BPO providers this is simply the collection of interfaces needed to achieve their clients’ intended outcomes. But hold on there, if you think I’m referring merely to whether a BPO provider gets your organization’s customer data by FTP or tape, that’s just part of the concern. I maintain there’s a lot more wrapped up in BPO integration that providers need to recognize, understand and deliver.

Now, let’s take a look at the problem. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I see many of today’s integration issues spawned by the realities and challenges listed below:

Shifting Landscape: The expectations from, and requirements for, BPO providers have evolved rapidly in last few years. Those variables include the number and complexity of business functions, the level of integration (both to the provider’s clients and internally to the provider), and timing requirements to name just a few.

Ready, Fire, Aim!: BPO providers tend to leverage an existing infrastructure to provide services, but too often that infrastructure isn’t suited to the new realities of the afore-mentioned shifting landscape. For example, ad-hoc data integration using custom programming might work for fewer clients or less business complexity but likely won’t scale well in terms of costs or service when these dynamics increase. Additionally, many providers will integrate using approaches they already understand in scenarios that are instead better served by different methods.

You Wanna See What?: Too many BPO providers have costly mechanisms, limited scope or in some case no ability to instrument their integration and processing frameworks end-to-end. Whether it’s data quality, process effectiveness, information security or audit and regulatory compliance, providers will be pushed to improve in these areas more rapidly.

As a simple example, I know a business owner who tried to acquire some new computing equipment. The owner worked with a technology supplier to open a preferred business line of credit and configure a computing environment with some additional peripherals, then charged it to his new line of credit. He then paid his credit line promptly as stipulated in his “no interest” agreement.

Sounds simple enough, right? Unfortunately, it seems the additional peripherals were sourced from a different line of business internal to the supplier, somehow the business owner’s payment wasn’t applied correctly, and he got a call from the supplier’s collections department.

In short, the business owner had to spend over four hours resolving the issue, working with the supplier’s “preferred” business contact center and their collections department. Both of these entities were outsourced to different BPO providers, and the business owner learned that neither entity was able to share data or process status with the other. The owner even contacted his dedicated account representative at the technology supplier for help, leading to the account rep becoming similarly befuddled by two departments who seemed to be able to share only the same space-time continuum.

Unfortunately, the business owner is me, and quite frankly I’d have had much more fun if someone had substituted playground sand for my contact lens saline solution instead having to solve this particular BPO integration problem. The best part, after all of this, was that I received three separate surveys (one each from the technology supplier, contact center and collections department) asking about my experience with them.

Does anyone else see the irony here?

I’ve no idea whether my experience was the result of one or more of the challenges I listed previously, or if indeed it was caused by other factors too insidious to fathom. Assuming these challenges had at least some influence, what should BPO providers and their clients understand about their mutual relationship in order to mitigate them?