The case for clear and known service descriptions

  • Reading time:11 mins read

No one would buy anything if it was not clear what it was. You owe it to your customers – and your team – that your corporate services be expressed well to your customers. Here is why, and how you can improve yours.

Clear and effectively written service descriptions are essential for any procured service. Work is invested upfront to shape the proper expression of service output and expectations, as the basis for pricing and negotiation. If anything is unclear or confusing, time is invested to define services better. If anything is disputed, investment goes into problem-solving and negotiation. For anything important, the wording gets tested for different risks and scenarios until it is robust and resilient enough for both parties to engage in a trustful sourcing partnership. What happens afterward is also important, as I have written on vendor management, but excellence in service sourcing begins with well-written expectations.

Why would services embedded in corporations be any different? A corporate function’s financing may be secured through annual planning and corporate governance but customers are still owed well-expressed, logical, expressions about what the services are and should be. What is Financial Planning and Performance? What is Operational Procurement? Internal service descriptions can be less formal than those with external partners, but they still have their place.

A few things are typically in place. To account for money flowing between legal entities and countries, invoices reference contracts, which have brief service descriptions. Cost charges within organizations have more or less descriptive labels as they are made in the controlling part of the financial system or ERP. Functions in organizations have a representation on the corporate Intranet, positioning it and helping customers know whom to contact for common cases. What I mean by service definitions is something more.

A corporate service definition should be NEAT:

  • N – kNown 
    Service definitions need to be shared effectively with customers, not only held locally or with management. Transparency is non-negotiable. A commitment not published (or not clear hence not understood) has no meaning to customers.

  • EEffective
    The service defining text needs to meet the purpose of clarifying what it entails, coherently, in context with other services, what to expect when using the service, in broad terms how it works, what the output is, and of course why the service exists in the first place.

  • A – Ambitious
    Organizational capabilities should stretch and develop, so a healthy level of ambition fits into service definitions. The text should express how services should work and what outcome they should have. If the leap from the current to the wanted state is high, it can be broken down into “what we do now” and “what we will do from 2025”, for transparency and trustworthiness.

  • T – True
    The service expression must also be true. False claims of what is done or achieved spread disappointment. Knowingly or unknowingly, they also spread fear of critically discussing services and their quality, which is not helpful. Falsity and exaggeration both make it harder to address the “elephant in the room” or other things that are not meeting expectations.

It is hard to find just the right NEAT expression of corporate services for many reasons. Perhaps service quality is different because of certain particularities, or people, in a team. Perhaps service needs vary much from week to week, making it hard to express at a meta-level what the services are. It is easy to resign from writing them in the first place, or from revisiting them when that is necessary, simply because no one is asking for them.

I think it is a mistake to neglect to have proper service definitions and to fail to effectively share them because then the risks of customer disappointment and confusion in the team are unnecessarily high. It also makes it very hard for each team member to feel happy about their achievements, since they are never really on point. I think it is worth the effort to express services and deal with the difficulties and the following problem-solving and negotiation. All the times I have done it, with my clients, it has left both customers and teams more content.

A typical complaint of mandated and expensive corporate services is that they are expensive. It is known roughly what the services should be but they either fail to be met or cost much more than what would be expected; the monthly charge appears to cover a “black box” of activity, which is not understood or appreciated. To be clear, corporate customers are no experts on how to run an effective and professional Finance, HR, IT, or Procurement function – nor should they be – but I think we owe our customers to explain. There are some parts of corporate functions that customers are reluctant to pay for, such as governance, architecture, and compliance; they expect them to exist but do not want to pay for them, and certainly not much. Since we are the experts, it is our job to put it in context and explain.  

On one point, our customers are usually right. We do need to merit what we cost. It is on us to balance our mid- and long-term cost levels to what the organization needs. We may do so by looking beyond the one specific customer that perhaps is most vocal about our cost, but we have no right to impose needs beyond what is genuinely needed by the organization, just because we have high ambitions for our function as such. Sure, things change over time and we cannot increase or decrease the size and character of our teams at a whim, or to immediately obtain the technology support that we would need, but I think it is our job to future-fit ourselves, just as any other part of an organization has to meet their customers’ demands without mismatch.

How can you go about this, without opening Pandora’s box or causing unnecessary disruption? I offer a few ways of thinking about it and an hour of my time.

  • Start alone or with one of your colleagues. Draw out what you do today and what should be the appreciated value from a customer point of view. Put appropriate ambition into each part, staying true to what is realistic. Test your draft version with one or two customers. Take feedback and iterate, including more people. Check the full context including looking at explicit and implicit expectations and commitments that may be found in policies, intranet material, and even other corporate functions’ service expressions.

  • Make it a full-team exercise ONLY if you genuinely wish to commit to the significant process of collaboration on it. Do not risk starting a process that fails to complete. I have experienced it many times, also as a team member, and it leaves teams more frustrated than content when such important work is started but not finished.

  • Commit to set priorities. Not all eventualities need to be covered in service descriptions, and not all customer expectations are possible or even desirable. The process of expressing your services will force prioritization, and it is wise to take that opportunity. Express as well what is not part of your service.

  • Use the right level of granularity. The level of detail in your descriptions must avoid ambiguity of what is meant and prevent imaginative interpretation, but they should not be complicated either. Once services are clear, the rest of their detail is the business of you and your team alone.

If you like, we can talk about this on video. I am curious to see your service definition and to offer you my perspective on how you could lift it. I would like it if you prioritized this and gave focus to your team and help to your customers. I can share tips on how to approach it. You can book one or two 45-minute free advisory sessions using this form, or email me if you wish to book a full hour.

The service and consulting markets are evolving, offering new options. Your buy-or-make choices now have hybrid versions. At times you can benefit from just the one person who guides you effectively through change work, someone on your side who helps you get things done. Someone not constrained by the need to sell services, who listens to you and cares for your situation and people. Someone trained and networked who can help you scale things up in your team, or who can be your sounding board if you need to source change services from a larger consultancy. 

Feel free to contact me if you think about this. I would like to help you to more clarity and focus.

About the Author

Highly strategic and well-versed across business functions, I act as a trusted advisor and leverage experiences gained in consulting (McKinsey, Accenture) and industry (Zurich Insurance, UBS) to solve problems and build capabilities. I am fascinated about, and work towards, well-functioning systems with clear rules of engagement and respectful and interest-based collaboration and negotiation. My work includes business plans and business cases, outsourcing transactions, procurement category strategies, risk and financial frameworks and policies, and service transformation. Lately, following clients’ needs, my work has centered on achieving savings in procurement and lowering run rate cost.
 
My “power” is to quickly gauge and express the essence of a situation and needs, and then stay adaptive through implementation, never giving up on either work or teams. I interact with care and have a track record of achieving change. I energize people and care about organizational performance and team health. Being independent fits my curiosity and desire to learn. I am fluent in Swedish, English, Italian, German and French. Read more about consulting areas, and check out my work.
Try me for free in one or two 45-minute advisory sessions.