Buy Lines: Put the polish on your customer satisfaction

Bob Dickson

The Office of Management and Budget initiative to manage more effectively by using business cases has put more emphasis on acquisition strategies that measure results. In a world with performance-based contracts, we still measure results in the usual areas of cost, quality, delivery and customer satisfaction. It's in customer satisfaction that companies and agencies should be developing new approaches.

Federal agencies tend to set the stage for measuring performance in their requests for proposals by identifying performance areas and often specific performance levels. These factors are then linked to service-level agreements, incentives and minimum levels of performance. Typically these criteria are set forth in a request for proposal, and contractors respond to them line by line.

But with performance-based acquisitions, agencies will say what they want and invite contractors to propose solutions. Since the government cannot anticipate the specific solutions, it will invite vendors to propose metrics and incentives that fit their specific solutions.

It's reasonable to expect that customer satisfaction will be a primary area of measurement, anticipated by the government and proposed by contractors.

Agencies that encourage companies not only to propose solutions, but also related metrics and incentives, are tapping the creative talents of industry. The challenge for industry is to deliver.

Several challenges surround customer satisfaction. First, the relationship between the activity and the service provider is changing. They must work as partners, and this requires open communications and clearly defined roles and responsibilities.

The objectives and results must be in line with an agency's mission, and measuring customer satisfaction must be a continuous process.

Cost, quality and schedule usually are linked to more objective criteria, but customer satisfaction is, by definition, subjective. To ensure effective delivery of services and to avoid undue risk, leading companies take a structured and methodical approach. For instance, if customer satisfaction surveys are part of the solution, they use professional techniques for making assumptions, framing questions and collecting data. A company may need outside experts to accomplish this.

Service-level agreements also tend to have both an objective and subjective side. Such agreements are often complicated, involving hundreds of areas of measurement. The challenge is to focus these agreements on the mission and elegantly measure results.

Agencies and companies should measure the human resources, cost and time commitments these agreement use.

Flexibility is a hallmark of performance-based acquisitions, and metrics and incentives must reflect that. Customer satisfaction is no different, and service providers must manage client expectations through ongoing, vigorous dialog. It's important that both parties understand definitions, assumptions and expectations.

Federal agencies that lead in performance-based approaches give contractors the chance to offer a solution comprised of both technical approach and related metrics.

They evaluate contractors in both areas, recognizing that a well-conceived metrics and incentive package reflects the contractor's understanding of the requirement. If the proposed measurements are directly linked to accomplishing the mission and reflect a true understanding of the requirement, those factors are recognized in the evaluation.

Well-designed metrics and incentives require a lot of hard work and creativity. But they offer an opportunity for government and industry to deliver enhanced results and to operate in a more businesslike manner.

Bob Dickson is vice president of Acquisition Solutions Inc., Chantilly, Va. His e-mail address is bdickson@acqsolinc.com.

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