By Sarah Nicastro, Creator, Future of Field Service
When I talk with organizations about leveraging independent contractors in service operations, the number one concern that surfaces is the lack of control such a model gives that company, with specific fears surfacing related to inefficiency and customer experience. But what if focusing on control is actually a part of the problem? Perhaps if the focus shifted to partnership and empowerment, control would be a non-issue.
This point surfaced in my recent podcast conversation with Simone Silva, Sr. Director of Consumer Services and Matt Ganus, Director of Home Services, both at Whirlpool. Whirlpool is a well-known brand and has been selling appliances for more than 100 years, but even with that history and brand equity (along with its sub-brands like Maytag, KitchenAid, Jenn-Air and Amana), competitive differentiation is still critical in the appliance market. A few years ago, the company began to focus more deliberately on how service can help create that differentiation.
Appliances are some of the few consumer goods that, when they break, require in-home service. That makes the importance of the service experience unique. If your refrigerator is on the fritz, you have a technician in your kitchen while you worry about losing a few hundred dollars’ worth of groceries. Appliances are a long-term investment, and Whirlpool recognizes that service plays a big role in fostering brand loyalty.
“When you go to market with a portfolio of products that carry that credibility of high quality service, of friendly service that will be available in any place where you need it, at the time that you needed, I think this gives peace of mind to consumers that is definitely part of the consideration set of whether or not they should be making an investment,” Simone said.
But here’s what surprised me in our initial conversation – despite their focus on increasing brand differentiation through service, Whirlpool opted for an outsourced approach. The company’s field service model relies exclusively on authorized independent service contractors.
What Simone and Matt quickly pointed out is that using independent contractors does not need to mean a hands-off approach. We spent our time discussing exactly how the company has executed a strategy for service differentiation, relying on only independent providers, that’s working well. While I urge you to go and listen to the full conversation, here are some of the key points they shared.
5 Best Practices for Working Well with Independent Service Providers
First, I will point back to the mindset of partnership rather than control. “Yes, there’s some fear. I think that fear keeps us on our toes and keeps us honest to what we intended to achieve with our model. It's not about taking control over their businesses; it's never been. It's all about the customer experience and together we succeed,” Simone explains.
Second, Whirlpool acknowledges the expertise of each independent provider and focuses on the mutually beneficial opportunity. The contractors in their network get to remain independent, while tapping into a reliable stream of service revenue; Whirlpool can benefit from the trust these service providers have built regionally, without having to maintain a vast network of technicians.
The authorized Whirlpool contractors are successful regional businesses that already know their markets well and often have a positive reputation in the community. Being able to plug into this customer trust rather than needing to re-create it provides Whirlpool a lot of flexibility and scalability. Matt says they really view these contractors as entrepreneurs, and that they are forming a partnership. “I think if we do it right, we've learned that these efficiencies not only help serve our mutual consumers, but they also can deliver higher profit margins to the bottom line. And together it becomes a very viable partnership.”
Third, the company focuses on building trust with each independent service provider. That means honestly and transparently recognizing the successes of the contractors and holding each other accountable when things go wrong. “[W]hen we signed the first exclusivity agreement, there was a lot of fear. That was a new thing. And a lot of companies were like, why would I put all my eggs in the same basket? How can I be dependent?” Simone said. “But I think time has shown them that we were true to that initial value proposition of the elevated experience, the highest quality levels. And by consequence they would grow their operation in a healthy and profitable way. I think the fear being there doesn't bother me. I think it is that constant reminder that we need to deliver on that value proposition and never deviate from it.”
Fourth, Whirlpool invests in the success of their independent providers in a variety of ways. The company relies on careful vetting, provides plentiful training, and has in place regional management to ensure good working relationships with each partner.
Whirlpool also focuses on accountability. Regional managers work closely with the contractors to ensure consistent service delivery and customer experience and to help them apply best practices. There are training programs not just for technical repairs, but also for soft skills that can help technicians navigate the sometimes-complex emotional landscape of home appliance repair and add that positive personal touch that often sets service apart.
Finally, Whirlpool takes care to recognize performance of its independent service providers and reward work well done. If issues arise, the company works closely with the contractors to diagnose and fix the problem. “When things don't go right, it's not about pointing the finger, it's about let's go to the data and understand what we can operationally change or adjust to put us back into a winning position,” Matt says.