Customer Service Stories: Stop Subcontractors From Killing Your Customers

September 24, 2011
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One of the trickier parts of delivering an exceptional customer experience is when you cede control of the experience to subcontractors. Maintaining service standards with the company’s team is challenging enough; maintaining those same levels of service through a subcontractor can border on the impossible. The experience we had when vacationing on the island of Curacao last fall provides an stark lesson in how quickly a subcontractor can put an ugly mask on the face of a business.

Note: Names have been changed to protect the guilty

Let’s See Some Fish…

We scheduled an off property snorkel tour through our hotel which was subcontracted through a company called Curacao Underwater Outfitters. A twenty something Curacoan picked us up at the hotel with an elderly Dutch couple from another hotel already in tow. The vehicle was of the sort that makes one appreciate modern safety features like shoulder restraints, seat belts, and air bags. The first thing that came to my mind was that we were going snorkeling in a German troop truck from World War II. Judge for yourself.

Customer Service Stories: Snorkeling Guide Truck

Janz the tour guide was nice enough. He showed us a scenic overlook on the way to the snorkeling site. He did inform us that, depending on the parking, he might not be able to go in the water with us. The truck had been broken into a few weeks before, and he might have to stay with the gear if we could not park inside the private lot. Works for me, I thought. I don’t like leaving my stuff anyway.

Unfortunately, this discussion prompted Janz to begin talking about the break-in, an event which he had clearly not come to terms with. His “two hundred dollar sunglasses had been stolen,” he stated more than once. He seemed quite raw on the topic.

And Then, Let’s Cheat Death

The snorkeling was beautiful.

We were able to park in the private lot, so the guide was able to join us for the swim. Ironically, he seemed very responsible and safety conscious while we were in the water. If only he had maintained that outlook on land.

As we were leaving, Janz became very animated. “Did you see that car? Those were the guys that broke into my car. It was them!” We were at the top of a craggy mountain road when Janz floored the truck and began speeding down the mountain to give chase to the alleged thieves. Soon the mountain road gave way to asphalt, where we caught up with the perpetrators.

As he continued to rant over the loudspeaker — the only method of communication from the cab to the open-aired back of the truck — it was obvious what had happened:

Our guide had snapped.

Customer Service Stories: Curacao Mountain Road

So, here we were: our lovely day snorkeling had descended into adrenaline-fueled madness. We were following the alleged thieves at high speed, barely a foot from their bumper. My wife was freaked, the elderly Dutch couple was aghast, and my brain was spinning with alternatives for “what-to-do-if.”

Here we were in a foreign land, being bounced around this death trap from the Museum of the Wermacht and holding on white-knuckled to the edges of the seats so as not to not get thrown around — or worse, out of — the back of  the truck. All the while, our hero Janz was taking matters into his own incapable hands, driving one-handed while calling the police on his mobile phone (as if a tactical team was on standby to descend on the criminals in real time). At one point, I turned to my wife and said, “Just think, we paid extra to do this.”

In the end, we survived. The guide seemed to regain enough presence of mind to not chase the car off the main road, and we eventually made it back to the hotel.

Is It Time for The Tip?

Yes, it happened. When we got out of the truck; the guy actually did the pause, like he was expecting a tip!

Okay, here’s a tip: Don’t try to kill your clients. Thanks!

Later, once the adrenaline had subsided, I would think about what a negative impact this subcontractor had on our feelings towards the hotel. The property was gorgeous, and we had received nothing but great service at the hotel our entire stay. However, if we were to return to Curacoa, we would have to seriously evaluate whether we would revisit that hotel. Curacoa Underwater Outfitters is the hotel’s primary provider of offsite water-related adventures, and those types of trips are among the primary recreational activities on Curacao.

Like the hotel in Curacoa, every business that uses subcontractors is vulnerable. When we hire a sub who interacts directly with our customers, we have placed our brand, our business, and our reputation in that sub’s hands. Implementing systems for quality control like secret shoppers or post-experience surveys are crucial to maintaining a grip on how your subcontractors are representing your company.

In the end, none of these would necessarily have prevented our experience. Our guide seemed like a fairly decent fellow who snapped. However, a post experience survey might have alerted the Hyatt to this problem and helped prevent other issues going forward.

Do you use subcontractors? How do you maintain accountability with subs? And for fun: Have any crazy vacation stories?

34 thoughts on “Customer Service Stories: Stop Subcontractors From Killing Your Customers”

  1. As someone who worked in the outdoor coaching business for years I can assure you there are a lot of unprofessional cowboys out there.
    Just because someone has the skills to do a specific job (drive a 4×4 or go diving) doesn’t mean this person should be put in charge of looking after clients.
    A recent series of accident on climbing walls in Dubai has left me furious. The people who ran these walls should have known better, hired professionals and invested in safety.
    You were lucky you came out alive, what if he missed a turn? All this for a pair of sunglasses.

    When it comes to subcontractors, yes I use them. I have a simple approach.
    One they must be certified have a piece of paper somewhere which says they know what they are doing.
    Two I never leave them with clients until I have seen them operate under stress and seen how they perform.
    Three there is no excuse for endangering people’s lives. Period. Glasses, computers, cars, who cares.

    Crazy stories? Oh I have a few 🙂

    1. You make a great point John. Specific skills are only starting points; there are a lot of other facets that should be there before entrusting clients or customers to a sub. Obviously, this guy could drive a truck and scuba — but he couldn’t put his clients safety above his own personal anger.

      I don’t know the details of the climbing wall accidents you mention, but that is the kind of stuff that ruins companies (and people’s lives). We went zip lining awhile back, and there were some pretty intense heights and distances involved. There was no room for anything but the utmost professionalism and safety consciousness. One mistake could be fatal to the client and the company.

      I like your rule two, seeing the subs in the field before letting them interact with clients. I think even companies that aren’t dealing with safety issues could incorporate this technique too.

      Looking forward to hearing those stories one day. 🙂

    2. Ohmyword, Adam! I was completely freaked out reading the harrowing story of your being taken along on a high-speed pursuit! Thank God you made it out unscathed.

      In our early years, we had some difficult situations with subs who didn’t come through on deadlines, and then refused to answer our emails or phone calls when we were trying to reach them. These were brilliant programmers, by the way, who worked for large corporations and had references.

      On one nightmare project, we had to hire a programming team from outside the country because they’d do the project at less than 1/3 of what the American programmer was charging — and she’d already absconded with the hefty deposit we’d paid her. When she refused to answer our emails & phone calls as the deadline came and went, we had to move fast and find cheap labor. Now we had language barriers to deal with as well as deadline issues!

      The customer doesn’t care why you’re not coming through or what your personnel issues are — they just want their project done. And you have to deliver, period.

      We learned a lot about ourselves back then, and now we are extra-careful about the projects we take on. If we can’t do the work ourselves, we think twice. Maybe even three times.

      1. Michelle,

        In some ways, it can be worse when the sub doesn’t actually interact directly with the client. Not that the excuse “it’s the sub’s fault” matters anyway — but psychologically clients might have less animus towards us if they have dealt with the sub directly. I’m sure you had to just take it on the chin in every conversation with the client while trying to figure out how to get everything done on the back end. It’s a small help anyway — as you point out, the client just wants their project done — no excuses.

        One business philosophy that seems to be universal to almost everyone I know that uses subs is once bitten, twice shy. Obviously, you are. I am too. 🙂

        Thanks for the story Michelle! It is helpful to see the many ways subs can effect a business.

        1. Adam, the client wasn’t educated at all about programming, and was already a difficult client who’d been through a couple of web developers by the time he was referred to us. He required very special care. We couldn’t turn him loose on anyone, and risk them losing their patience. The difficult circumstances made for an even more awful situation when those deadlines weren’t met, and the programmer disappeared! We found out later she was famous for that with her private clients.

          Thankfully, the offshore team we found was incredibly talented and had our work ethic. They worked 24 hours a day in shifts to get our project done while we explained the situation to the client. He was almost out of money after the first two developers; it was a tough situation.

          I really think these issues are because a sub can go anywhere; they’re not invested in your business like you are. When you find one who’s amazing, keep them around! They’re gems!!

  2. Howie at Sky Pulse Media

    This is a very good post Adam. Because I like the ‘core competency’ viewpoint. Most businesses do not know what theirs is. Half the time it isn’t the product itself it is a service. The Hotel will say ‘We are in the hotel business and as this story proves we have a great comfy place to stay with excellent service’.

    I would respond ‘You are in the Vacation Business and you are in the Trust Business’ If you were just a hotel you would never ever give advice or referrals outside of the hotel services. But since you did….you are in the vacation business. And since you have foreigners who don’t know your country or locale like you do…they Trust you when you give them advice.

    Obviously the Trust part was broken and maybe never regained. I lost trust in Facebook about 2 yrs back when they went from a Comm Platform to a User Exploitation Platform. Even with their changes if they improve the user experience and go back to being a Comm Platform not sure I will ever trust them again.

    1. You really make a great point about core competencies Howie. This hotel is a bit isolated on the island, so a lot of the vacation is really centered around the hotel and the subs they use to provide experiences. We went there because they were in the vacation business first, and the hotel business second. If I just wanted a hotel, we have very nice ones here in Orlando. This hotel, to your point, very specifically markets and gives referrals about these off site activities. With that comes an implicit endorsement and the expectation of Trust.

      It was near the end of the trip so we never bothered to complain about the incident, so I don’t know how the hotel would have responded. But quite frankly, they shouldn’t have let us get away with not telling them. They really should be soliciting feedback about their subs regularly.

      BTW, I don’t think you’ll have to worry about Facebook going back. The FB you liked was the one that didn’t have much revenue. 🙂

  3. I’m glad you came out alive. 🙂

    It’s a good thing you broach this concern. It’s really sad to see how subcontractors can ruin your business’ reputation with just a snap of the hand – especially if you’ve fought tooth and nail to establish it. This is why it has always been important to ensure that quality controls are in place, not only in the main functions of the business, but in all other areas as well.

  4. Ive always loved this ISP provider’s service until they sent a subcontractor who tried to fix my internet connection at home. He seemed like he was in a hurry and I ddnt feel like he was doing his best to get it fixed. When I asked how come the ISP seem to be falling out of the loop with the intermittent internet connection that Ive been having for days, his answered was this: “Im not sure. I’m just a sub-contractor.”
    I was like, what? arent you supposed to know that anyway?

    I think businesses should have a firm and clear contract with their subcontractors. they are the ones who represent them and they should live up to the business’ core values no matter what.

    1. Hi Mel, That answer says a lot doesn’t it. You make a good point that a strong contractual basis is needed with subs. After that, accountability so that they can, as you say, “live up to the business’ core values.”

  5. You are always going to drop a catchy phrase I see and your Museum of the Wermacht was a good one to use. Please, just tell me that’s not you in the banana hammock…………..

    Yes, we do use subcontractors when we are aligning particular services within our risk management plan. Since we have vetted most and they are part of the process in lowering the customer’s total cost of risk, we usually have good results.

    Where we run into hiccups is when the insurance company hires a sub to do the audit at the end of the policy year. We’ve had some bad experiences with those and have actually had to call the insurance company and tell them to never send that person again or they will lose the account. Just because the insurance company is entitled to perform the year end audit doesn’t mean common courtesy has to go out the window.

    Now, if this guy would have put you in a school of sharks AND given you the car chase you might have had to pay him extra for all the adventure………..

    Good post my friend; look forward to catching up with you on Wednesday.

    1. Definitely not me… even my lack of style only goes so far. 🙂

      Sounds like you have a system to make sure your subs are delivering results on your behalf, and have seen the results when someone else hasn’t. Ironically, my most recent experience with a bad sub was insurance related. The company that one of our landlord’s had hired to maintain current insurance certs was dropping the ball repeatedly. It’s straightened out now, but they certainly could have used some better accountability along the way.

      You’re right, it’s all about the expectations — if the hotel had labeled it Extreme Snorkeling Adventures, I guess they could have charged a premium!

      Thanks so much Bill. I’ll speak with you Wed.

  6. Oh my God!

    This sound like a scenario of an action movie! And a bad one too!

    However, I must say that I envy you for the vacation in Curacao, even with “snapped” Janz. Anyhow, at least you have a great personal story for the illustration of your, again, excellent point.

    I have been in contact with a school that builds a sports center for it’s students. The job was given to a contractor and they used a couple of subs to get the job done. Long story short, in order to make the sport center work, the school’s heating system had to be dissembled and a new one for both buildings needed to be made. Although, the contractor got the money from the ministry to do so, and paid the sub, they are still not at the building site and the heating season starts on October the 15th.

    However, everybody blames the contractor. If the work is not done by the 15th, kids will miss out on school, parents will get the media, and guess who’ll be on TV as a irresponsible contractor?

    1. Ana, that’s a tough situation for the contractor, if the subs left them hanging out like that. Obviously, it’s also a bad situation for the school as well. Another cautionary tale about needing to manage subs.

      Thanks for sharing!

      1. To be honest, I’m most worried about the kids. Since, it’s a village school, they’ll be forced to travel to other villages around it (which is not easy there) or skip school altogether. Just imagine the little first-graders managing to go to a distant school during winter.

        But that’s a whole another topic.

  7. Oh! what a tremendous experienced you’ve encountered. Most of the Sub contractors i know deals only to what they can earn, they do not mind the quality and safeness of a job.

  8. Hotels are one of the worst IMO about passing off customer service issues as someone else’s problem: parking, run by someone else; Internet issues, that’s an outside provider, etc. Yet they package all these features and pimp them on their ‘amenities and services’ page, but take no responsibility for the service. They act like it’s beyond their control when they in fact control who gets the contract.

    Some brands get it right or keep it in house, and I’m totally with you that 1) there needs to be a follow up and 2) it needs to include feedback on the sub-providers. Any business needs to be careful who represents them and do some ‘secret shopping’ on their own b/c like you said, ultimately this reflected poorly on the hotel, not just the OMG crazy tour operator. FWIW.

    1. You’re so right. I’ve had a few “we contract that out, we can’t control it” on hotel Internet issues. I always try to be understanding — stuff happens — but when there is no accountability as you mention, it makes it difficult.

      I think you hit on a key point — the companies that don’t keep things in house need to have the checks and systems in place to control the quality the same as if it was in house. It requires different approaches, but for the most part, can be done.

      Great seeing you Davina!

  9. Wow, you ended up trapped in a high-speed wild goose chase with your tour guide…and he didn’t even retrieve his “$200 sunglasses”!
    To be fair though, who says this wasn’t a fluke incident, if he seemed otherwise an okay person? It’s not like he put you in serious danger by confronting apparent criminals in the end or anything like that, he just drove fast briefly.

    1. Hi Greg, it was probably a fluke. As I mentioned in the post, he seemed like a decent fellow who snapped. Perhaps, I didn’t give a good enough sense of the incident for you. He drove extremely fast for probably over five minutes inches from a bumper, on mountain roads, and swerving violently on occasions, all the while we got bounced around the back of the truck. If anything had gone even slightly wrong while it was happening, all four of us in the back would have been pretty well mangled. Hope that gives a better sense of the situation — as you can see, I’m not exactly Tom Clancy when it comes to writing action scenes. 🙂

  10. First I have to say, I loved Curacao! This story certainly brought back some memories, but thankfully none of which included a cheating death ride down a mountain!

    You bring up an excellent point here. In a business society where so much is outsourced, it’s no wonder that customer service is lacking in so many ways.

    1. Curacao was a beautiful island. Even at 60 mph. 🙂

      Your comment Adam made me think of the larger trend. You broach a good point — that this is a topic that will be gaining in importance over time.

  11. This post just reminds me that I need to go on vacation – in a civilized location. I don’t think I will be taking part in any attempts to capture fugitives when I speak with a travel agent.

  12. Hey Adam!

    I’ve seen you around Bill and Kaarina’s sites. When she mentioned your customer service stories I had to stop by. What a crazy vacation story! I’m glad you made it back safely!

    As a subcontractor myself, I thought I’d weigh in. I’m a virtual assistant specializing in transcription. Being that I have a specialized niche, many other VAs subcontract their transcription work to me. Therefore, I don’t deal with the end user–I work with the VA. I’ve had nothing but wonderful experiences and my clients (and their clients) are quite happy. However, we discussed guidelines and expectations up front so everyone was on the same page. I think it also helps that I’m a business owner–just like them–so I understand the importance of meeting a deadline and client expectations.

    My advice to those searching for a subcontractor would be to get a referral from someone else. Talk to others in your field and ask who they use or recommend. Put it out there to your industry on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Chances are, if you receive a glowing recommendation for a subcontractor from a person you know and trust, you’ll be happy with them, too!

    1. Hey Alicia!

      Great to see you here! Thanks for the excellent comment and for adding the perspective of a subcontractor. I think recommendations from others, particularly those that understand what you are looking for in a sub, is the key — you are so right.

      Very cool to hear about what you do — that is an interesting niche.

      Thanks again for stopping by!

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  15. the Hotel offers a service to put you in touch with a snorkel company. yes you can pre-book here because they’re busy (and probably don’t have the staff to answer phones) but the hotel in way takes responsibility for them, the quality of the trip or any liability. that’s like blaming the Conscierge for suggesting a restaurant who served you bad food. it’s a service not an official hotel offering.

    1. Most consumers will hold the hotel at least partially responsible. I would suggest that the analogy offered does not truly capture the dynamic. Consumers understand the difference between a simple restaurant recommendation and a hotel or cruise line giving its stamp of approval to a guide company or excursion. The whole point of the article is that these companies represent the hotel’s brand. They may be separate in a court case, but they are rarely separate in the court of customer emotion.

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