Alternative work arrangements, or the “gig economy,” are growing as a form of employment – particularly millennials. The gig economy or independent contracting isn’t new. Hitmen, consultants, and even hitmen consultants have provided services for years. What’s new is how technology has made contract work so accessible to the average person. Entrepreneurship was the domain of the driven (or stubborn). Those able to navigate tax codes and bureaucracy. Now it’s available to anyone with a smartphone and a bank account. For a lot of brands, the responsibility of delivering customer experience now lies with third-parties. Is that a good thing?
If Uber converted its estimated two million independent contractor drivers into employees, they’d be one of the largest employers in the world. But they’re not going to do that anytime soon. Uber, like a lot of companies, relies contractors to provide a service to its consumers, accepting payment in return. Sometimes this exchange goes well and sometimes it doesn’t. When you outsource primary customer touchpoints to contractors, you accept an increased risk of inconsistency between the intended experience and the actual delivered experience.
Core elements of customer experience are empowerment and responsibility. Empowerment of an individual to make decisions related to how to deliver customer experience, and responsibility for the outcome of that empowerment. Usually, empowerment and responsibility don’t lie with the same person. Employees (or platforms) can be empowered to make real-time decisions to improve or fix things for customers. But the organization they belong to is ready to take responsibility for those outcomes.
Ritz Carlton employees are famously empowered to make immediate decisions to create memorable experiences for guests. In return, the Ritz Carlton organization accepts responsibility for result of that empowerment. This means accepting accountability if things go wrong or choosing to give credit back to the employee when things go well.
Organizations empower those responsible for delivering customer experience usually because there is a strong connection between the two parties. That connection can take the form of training, uniforms, set hours, co-workers, incentives, shared values, or career growth – anything that creates a bond. McDonald’s gives uniforms, the GAP gives employee discounts, and Ritz Carlton has training through the Ritz Carlton Leadership Centre. But with independent contractors, the elements creating connection get reduced or taken away completely. There’s also more room for error when the chain of delivery goes from brand to contractor to customer. An independent contractor is only empowered to the extent of what their contract will let them and to the strength of that bond.
Independent contractors don’t have the same type of connection. Their work, by definition is precarious, and can be terminated by them or their contractor with little or no notice depending on the jurisdiction. Their ability to build connection with their employers and their customers is more difficult, if they’re even motivated to do it at all. When employees are empowered, things are better for customers. Using a network of “small businesses” with variable backgrounds, experience, and motivations to deliver your customer experience is difficult. That empowerment is not always there, but there are ways to help encourage it.
Find ways to increase connections
Legislation across the globe will dictate what you can and can’t do for independent contractors. But it’s important to find ways to build meaningful interactions with those you’re trusting to deliver your customer experience. It could be financial, emotional, or something else – but it needs to reflect the level of effort you’re expecting them to put into the experience they deliver to your customers.
Don’t abandon standards and experience requirements
Outsourcing customer touchpoints means you can scale quickly and cost-effectively, but that needs to be balanced with maintaining a minimum standard. Reducing requirements, investment in training, and vetting can help fuel growth but it leads to a customers experience debt that will need to be repaid later.
Accept responsibility for your independent contractors
Internally, you may have a clear understanding that certain customer touchpoints are completely fulfilled by people or platforms that are completely separate to your brand and business – but the customer doesn’t. They don’t see Republic Airlines, they see Delta. They don’t see John Smith, they see an Amazon delivery guy. And when something goes wrong in the delivery of that experience anything but accepting responsibility erodes trust.
Independent contractors don’t mean you’re going to deliver a bad customer experience, but it increases the risk. The business and financial benefits using independent contractors to deliver customer experience come at a price that needs to be budgeted for.