Services Sustainability

Today I’m pleased to welcome John Martin of and Building SaaS.

Sustainability and social responsibility aren’t often associated with services purchasing, as most people tend to think of social responsibility in conjunction with the performance of manufacturing and resource extraction in lower-impact and more-sustainable ways. However, especially with the recent trend toward low-cost-country sourcing of services, the concept of “socially responsible outsourcing”, as one example, is taking root.

Companies buy services to utilize expertise they don’t have internally, to access a different talent pool (at an offshore location), to match their workforce to workload variability, or to take advantage of a supplier’s economies of scale or scope (though this is far less achievable or important for services than for most goods, as many outsourcing buyers have found out the hard way).

Most large companies use a large and growing group of external providers for a broad range of services, from thousands of temporary workers around the world to high-end consulting services. Services are inherently tied to the people that deliver them, and so the key sustainability concept for services is talent pool sustainability. To purchase services in a sustainable and responsible way, companies should adopt practices (and engage with suppliers who adopt practices) that don’t negatively impact the talent pool.

For example, a large employer in a cyclical business has been a significant employer in dozens of small towns for over 50 years. To ensure the development of a talent pool that can support their seasonal business long-term, they have several types of contingent workers such as long-term temps, temp-to-hire, day labor and seasonal part-time temps, each with different responsibility possibilities and education investments. Known as a preferred employer who invests in people long-term, they have worked with their staffing providers to ensure a sustainable talent pool for their highly seasonal business.

Engaging services responsibly is especially important for low-skill services and temporary workers, since they typically receive less training than employees, and hence are more easily left behind by shifts in technology or skill requirements. Responsible companies extend skill-development practices (via their suppliers or sometimes directly) into their contingent workforce. Wages, benefits, and training for temporary workers can often be directly controlled by buyers, and other “Labor Practices and Decent Work” guidelines of the Global Reporting Initiative can also be extended to services suppliers.

When working with services suppliers, some key metrics help demonstrate their commitment to a sustainable talent pool:

  • Staff Turnover: Turnover is the ultimate measure of good employment practices. The specific rate is highly industry-specific, however, so compare suppliers within the same service category.
  • Training Investment: Good training will result in higher productivity and lower turnover – both positive results for the buyer. While training investment is fairly easy to game, it’s still helpful to track it and the positive results that derive from it.
  • Pay Rate: Especially for lower-skill services, many buyers negotiate and track the actual pay rate to the individual worker, to ensure that the worker is getting not only correct pay, but sufficient pay. As a beneficial side-effect, this can also help ensure a sufficient quality level in the work force.

In short, work with suppliers who invest in their services delivery chain – their people.

Supplier development is also important, just as it is for goods. Some types of services that have more innovation are also sourced quite frequently (e.g., consulting engagements, legal services, marketing services), which allows finding and rewarding the innovators who deliver more value.

Part of working with responsible suppliers includes engaging them responsibly. Many services businesses are cash-flow businesses, required to pay their workers weekly, long before the terms of their invoice – so paying them on time can be even more important.

In short, sustainability in services revolves around sustaining and growing the talent pool, which requires responsibly engaging and working with services suppliers who engage in positive practices for their talent.