Four Strategies for Communicating with Outsourcers
How to make sure you and your oursourcing provider are in sync.
Cultural differences complicate outsourcing communications. Everything you say to an outsourcer is processed in the context of his or her culture. Consequently, you and the outsourcer may interpret the exact same message quite differently. We'll briefly explain the problems this cultural communication gap creates for outsourcing software development and suggest four strategies that will help prevent these problems from occurring.
A varied cultural background is often the culprit of any disconnect you might experience with an outsourced developer. When the implementation does not satisfy the desired requirements, it's usually due to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. When these types of communication problems occur, outsourcing simply does not work. It is imperative that you understand that so that you can combat this problem.
Neither miscommunications nor misunderstandings should even have the chance to fester. If they do, there’s a great chance that your outsourcing project will fail. Poor communication spells disaster because it more often than not leads to missed deadlines and the need to have your own developers rework what you hired your outsourcer to do for you. Eventually, the costs of the required rework outweigh the expected cost savings of outsourcing.
We offer four strategies to help you overcome poor communication with your outsourcing project partner.
Strategy #1: Recognize Cultural Differences
Realize that not everyone you communicate with shares your assumptions. What’s obvious to you is not necessarily obvious to your outsourcing service provider. If you grew up in the United States, your assumptions were shaped by American culture, and this may skew your understanding of the way people think outside U.S. borders.
As an American, you likely assume that laws are generally obeyed. Believe it or not, that’s generally not true in most of the world, where laws are guidelines that are not necessarily followed. Such a great difference in thinking is the seed of a communication problem. Let’s translate it into a working relationship with an outsourcer. You think that if you write a contract, everybody’s going to adhere to it. For many people, a contract is just a suggestion.
A great example is intellectual property (IP) protection, which is of great concern to Americans who outsource to Russia and India. In recent years, Russia has acquired basic legal protection of IP. However, the primary problem is enforcement. Even more troublesome is India, where IP laws don’t even exist. Using a rare and extreme case, a U.S. technology company recently fell victim to IP theft in India. Beyond the lack of IP protection to enforce agreements made with their outsourcer, the company described the Indian legal system as “sluggish” as they attempt to take corrective actions against the outsourcer.
Strategy # 2: Choose the Right Words
When you explain your requirements to an outsourcer, word choice is important. For many outsourcers, English is still a foreign language—even in India, where both outsourcing and the use of the English language are prevalent. No matter how commonplace English has become, your outsourcer might have a basic understanding of each word you utter, but it is quite possible that they are not completely clear on the true meaning of the message you’re trying to convey. This is exactly why you must speak in a direct manner using short sentences made of basic, simple words.
In the United States, most children are brought up to avoid hurting anybody’s feelings, using subtlety and white lies as needed to be nice. In other countries, being honest and straightforward is a higher priority. If you don’t tell the gentleman you are conversing with that he has bad breath, he will never know. The same idea can be applied to conveying your requirements and expectations to an outsourcer.
You might be talking and talking, very politely trying to tell the outsourcer what you expect without seeming too direct or demanding. Each of your demands is prefaced by something like, "It would be nice if…" or "Maybe you could also…” The outsourcer agrees. You assume everything is fine, but the outsourcer does not implement your requirements as you expected. Why? You were beating around the bush with niceties instead of being straightforward, and the outsourcer, who is used to very straightforward communications, interpreted your requirements as suggestions.
Here are a couple of tips for you. When working with a Russian outsourcer, refrain from saying, “This could be better.” While an American would interpret such a statement to mean that you could, should, and will improve the delivered product, a Russian interprets it to mean that the delivered product is good enough and his/her work is done. Instead, you should say to a Russian, “This is absolutely broken. Fix it.” The same goes for India. If you say to an Indian outsourcer, “This generally works, but…” he/she won’t work on it. However, if you tell that outsourcer, “It’s broken, fix it,” he/she will work on it. To get the results you expect, tell it exactly as it is—be direct.
Strategy #3: Confirm Your Requirements
There are a few steps you should take to confirm that the outsourcer thoroughly understands your requirements.
- Step 1: Document Your Requirements
After you convey your message verbally, follow up in writing. Commit your requirements to paper for the outsourcer. Many people understand written languages better than spoken languages, probably because there is more time to process the message. The reader has opportunity to reread the language at his/her own pace and even look up words in a dictionary.
- Step 2: Insist Your Outsourcer Re-document Your Requirements
Leave nothing to chance. Require that outsourcers write the requirements in their own words. If outsourcers cannot relay to you what you explained to them, then they didn’t understand you. You must get this feedback to verify that they actually “get it.” Don’t settle for a response such as “Yes, I understand.” Your outsourcer must reiterate your verbal and written communications to close the loop.
- Step 3: Request an Outsourcer-Created Prototype
After the requirements are written, the outsourcer should create a prototype for you. This is a safety net that ensures that they absolutely, positively understand your wants and needs. Pictures are powerful vehicles for communication—even more effective than the written word. Request that the outsourcer sketch what you want your final product to look like or build a quick, simple program that reflects how the final product will look. That way, everybody working on it can see and thoroughly understand how the final product looks and acts. Be forewarned: if you don’t request a prototype, the outsourcer will produce and deliver whatever they think you want, which may not be what you really want.
Strategy #4: Set Deadlines
Another important cultural difference relates to schedules and deadlines. To Americans, a deadline is a set completion date. You estimate an appropriate amount of time to complete a project, select a specific date, and then deliver a completed product on that date. In many other cultures, a deadline is a suggestion that maybe something will be finished by the indicated date.
To ensure that your product is delivered on time, it is imperative to add a penalty clause to your contract. Make it crystal clear that you will not pay if your product is not delivered by the specified date. An alternative approach is to enforce late fees if your outsourcer doesn't deliver on time. A simple rule of thumb: without consequence, there is no delivery.
Communication with an outsourcer is not just about talking. It’s not even just about talking and listening. When it comes to outsourcing, you must understand the outsourcer's cultural background. If this isn't feasible, at least be aware that a different way of thinking exists—even if you don’t know exactly what that difference is. Follow the strategies and steps discussed in this article to improve the likelihood that your outsourced product exactly meets the requirements you specified and is delivered in a timely manner.
Adam Kolawa is the co-founder and CEO of Parasoft Corp. He is also the co-author of "Automated Defect Prevention: Best Practices in Software Management" (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2007).