Lots of businesses consciously, happily and successfully outsource their reputation management to external PR agencies. That is not the subject of this post.

But a company’s words, easily written and effortlessly spoken, can become a major threat to its reputation.  Words can be dangerous because they constitute promises and create expectations. Unfulfilled expectations damage customers’ confidence in the business that created them in the first place and undermine its reputation.

With a few notable exceptions, businesses typically emphasise customer service among their top strategic priorities. Often, however, customer service is seen as a cost of failure, the price of getting it wrong in the first place.  When viewed in this light, customer service becomes an unnecessary cost to be minimised.

The drive to minimise cost gave birth to the global outsourcing industry.  The logic of outsourcing is irrefutable. Give those aspects of service delivery to a third party organisation that can do them better or cheaper than you can do yourself. On a good day, maybe they’ll deliver both better and cheaper.

But eventually, the economics get bumptious and then aggressive.  “I need it 10% cheaper than last year,” he demands.  The outsourcing provider eventually agrees and that’s when corners get cut, attention gets lost, care gets cast aside and quality falls away.

As anyone who travels by train in the UK will understand, outsourcing is the perfect alternative to accountability. “Your train is cancelled because of a fault with the track.  Nothing to do with me, I’m afraid. That part is done by a different company.”  Or ask BP about the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and the roles played by both Halliburton and Transocean.  Then ask yourself which brand was most damaged during and after the crisis.

Similarly, when I ordered a new cable broadband service recently, all was going swimmingly until the installation engineer came to do the work and found he’d have to carve a channel for the cable along the concrete drive. That would require power tools and more time than he had in mind so he tacked the cable, unprotected, to a railing.

He explained that he wasn’t an employee of the cable company. He worked for a sub-contractor and his instruction was to get in and out as quickly and cheaply as possible.  In short, I wasn’t his customer so he didn’t care.

It’s relatively straightforward to pass operational responsibility to a third party.  It’s more difficult to pass on the sense of respect and commitment that a business has to its customers, particularly if that partner is based in a low cost economy on a different continent.  It’s a risk handing over the promise you’ve made to your customers – you’re outsourcing your reputation.

There are three ways I can think of to mitigate the problem.

The first is to not outsource in the first place, but that may make you uncompetitive.

The second is to be so careful with your words that you never make a promise to your customers or set an expectation with them, but that could make you unattractive.

The third is to have the comms depts. from both parties work together in a truly collaborative relationship that enables your messaging to find its way seamlessly into the hearts and minds of your partners’ employees.  This is a route many have tried but where few have truly succeeded.