High on Iztaccihuatl, after a successful summit bid

Today I’m pleased to present another guest post by Sarah Simon.

This post marks another installment in Sarah’s series on lessons from the high country.

What the Mountain Teaches
Eyeing an aggressive objective that might be slightly out of reach, mountaineers are faced with a choice: do we hire a guide or go it alone?  This isn’t a decision made lightly. All of the rational factors to be made get muddled with emotional meddlers like pride, hubris, and daring blended with apprehension, worry, and fear.  Attempting to brush matters of the heart and the ego aside, climbers take several factors into consideration before deciding whether to hire a professional guide or attempt a climbing objective unassisted.

This past February, my climbing team faced this “hire some help or go solo” decision when attempting a few central Mexican volcanoes, including the famed Iztaccihuatl (17,159 ft / 5,230 m); the snowy white woman sleeping east of Mexico City.  Here are some of the factors we weighed, considerations we batted around, and decisions finally made.

Q. What technical challenges does this climb pose and does our team have the technical ability to achieve this safely without putting ourselves at risk?

A. Our climb requires minimal technical skills that all mountaineers should possess. Some easy 3rd class scrambling, crevasse-free glaciers, and snow slopes gentle enough to require crampons and only one ax.

Conclusion: Skill requirements don’t warrant a guide.

Q. Does everyone in the party have the required gear and the experience to use it effectively?  Do we bring our trusted old personal gear or rent and abuse someone else’s?  Furthermore, do we even want to haul all this crap from the States to our jump off point?

A. Gear required for this trip is moderate and can fit in one large per person duffel to be checked with the airline. Basic outdoor layers including light climbing bibs and mid-weight full-shank mountaineering boots, one alpine ax, light crampons, glacier goggles, and backpacks are all that is needed.

Conclusion: Gear requirements don’t warrant rental or a guide.

Time to Plan and Execute
A. How many days exist between now and our climb date? Do we have time to pull all these planning pieces together or do we just hire a guide on short notice?

Q. Among us we have two family men, two career people, one small business owner, and a so-called “dirtbag climber” working at least two jobs to make ends meet. (For the record, I have yet to meet a dirtbag climber who takes offense to this title.)  No one has time to explore thousands of hotels in Mexico City and beyond, obtain park climbing permits, or plan driving and climbing routes.

Conclusion: For our own sanity, we should hire a guide.

Cultural Considerations
Q. Who speaks the language here? What cultural faux pas do we need to avoid? Could some of our everyday dress or our behavior offend? What food is safe to eat? Do we tip? How much? Will our favorite trail foods be available?  Would the cartel target us for kidnapping?

A. Two of us speak elementary Spanish, while the other two speak Bosnian first, English second, and not a dribble of Spanish. The mountains we are targeting will take us out of the big city and into the hinterlands. One of the volcanoes we have our eyes on lies right on the border between “safe” and “cartel” according to the CIA.

Conclusion: Guide, please!

Knowledge of Terrain
Q. Who knows these mountains?  What conditions are the approach trails?  How steep is the snow and in what condition this season? Are we ready to navigate the roads out of Mexico City into the boondocks surrounding this gigantic metro area?

A. I have never climbed Iztaccihuatl or any of the other mountains on the itinerary, nor have anyone else on the team, and that’s sort of the whole point of this adventure – to climb a few peaks new to us all.  More to the point, none of us knows our way around the roads of this beast known as Ciudad de México.

Conclusion: Guide, please!

Q. Does Mexico City even have winter?  Will our mountains be accessible this time of year?  Will the roads be open?  What about extreme heat or wildfire?

A. Sure, there are wet and dry seasons to worry about, but some mountains pose seasonal challenges more extreme than this one, and as it stands, we’re visiting during a mostly warm, dry period – prime climbing season for these volcanoes.

Conclusion: Who needs a guide?

Q. A cash-centric cost-benefit analysis takes place before a climbing party makes the decision to hire a guide or forego the guide to head off alone, and this trip is no exception. We consider costs for ground transportation, including rental cars, hotel rates, and park fees, never mind the “special fees” also known as bribes that one tends to be ordered to pay in certain locations.

A. On the surface, a guide seems like an expensive luxury we can do without.  However, our guide nabs deep discounts on hotels, drives a van with plenty of room for gear, sparing us a rental, and even serves as our de facto translator and BS negotiator.  His value is worth his weight in golden pesos.

Conclusion: It’s false economization to forego a guide.  Hire!

What This Means for VoC / CX
In-house customer experience teams face a similar dilemma when deciding whether or not to hire a vendor or consultant and to what degree.  Here are some factors to consider when faced with the “DIY or hire” decision.

Q. Does your team have an evangelist?  A data analyst?  An insights story teller?  What about VoC program architects?  Survey methodologists, statisticians, sample designers, marketing communications experts or project managers?

A. If your team is well-stocked with all requisite skills for program success, go for it (in-house). Otherwise, augment your internal skill set with third-party talent, as needed.  Flexible a la cart options are typically offered by vendors, meaning you don’t need to buy the entire ranch to get the solution you need (unless you want to).

Q. What VoC / CX technology and tools does your team own?  Which do you want to buy and which do you want to rent?  Do the members of your team possess the skills to utilize these tools effectively?

A.  Tools of the VoC / CX trade vary but can include technology to facilitate database management, data analysis, survey design and deployment, web programming, and Mar Comm tools.  Make a careful assessment of costs to acquire technology before doing so and be sure to consider the total cost of ownership, including staff training and ongoing operation costs.  Bear in mind that often the purchase of a consultant’s time comes equipped with their expert use of various VoC
and CX tools.

Q. How is the bandwidth on your team?  How far out are your projects scheduled?  Is your team able to take on new projects or learn new skills?  Who on your team has time to roadmap and communicate your customer experience vision and execute the comprehensive VoC strategy to inform that plan?

A. If personnel resources are plentiful, then executing VoC and CX efforts in-house can be quick and efficient.  Be realistic, though, measuring goals against actual and forecasted bandwidth.  Good intentions don’t matter if staff hours are tight.  Don’t wait for bandwidth emergencies to engage a vendor.  A solid relationship with a consultant with an intimate knowledge of your program and your organization can be critical in times of need.

Cultural Considerations
Q.  Take an honest look at your organization’s culture.  Are you extremely confident navigating your corporate political environment?  How engaged with your customer experience initiatives are your colleagues across functions?  Would a consultant be well-received for their expertise or sniped at as an outsider?

A. Your team has a gut-level knowledge of your corporate culture that no vendor rep could ever match. You’ve also spent time and energy fostering internal relationships on a daily basis.  That being said, vendors typically function in a wide range of corporate cultures and can bring loads of experience applicable to navigating the political waters of your organization.  CX consultants can also help you bolster the reputation of your team and your program through the development of an internal communications plan. 

Terrain Knowledge
Q.  How many employees work for your organization?  Is your reach global, regional, domestic, or local?  Is yours a standalone, office of the Chief Customer Officer organization or bundled within another function like marketing, general business intelligence, or customer support?

A. I’ve asked clients to explain to me where their teams fall in the corporate family tree, and my jaw drops as they effortlessly draw a tangled family tree that’s Greek to me. On the client side, you inherently own a terrain expertise that no consultants will ever posses.  Far from needing a guide to navigate your internal terrain, you’ll find yourself in the role of guide helping a vendor to understand the internal workings of your organization.

Q. Is budget scarce or plentiful?  Are people in your organization feeling innovative or fearful?  Is everyone scurrying around busy, or is there some cross-functional bandwidth?  What about recent management changes?

A. Though it does your CX program no good to wait around forever, some corporate seasons will be more forgiving than others.  A consultant can help you identify which variables to assess, but taking a close look at the general mood of your company is best handled by an insider.

Q. What type of budget is available for Customer Experience efforts and which team will foot the bill?  What hurdles exist to obtaining your target budget?

A. After reviewing a vendor RFP, an in-house solution may appear cheaper on the surface, but carefully consider the total ownership costs of a DIY solution.  A certain number of “boots on the ground” are required to execute effective VoC and CX within your company, though building an in-house team entails fully-loaded staffing costs, tools, training, development, staff retention, and team management.  Vendors are never cheap, but they can help you leverage their staff and technology for a good value to your organization.  A vendor can also assist with an ROI model that helps justify your CX budget. 

Deciding whether to build your own CX program, fully outsource the project, or find a hybrid middle ground isn’t an easy decision. Be certain to put aside emotionally charged matters like pride and fear and cautiously weigh the practical pros and cons of skill, tools, time, culture, terrain, season, and budget. Careful cost-benefit analyses will guide you in deciding “build or buy?” when it comes to creating and augmenting your infrastructure.  Be flexible in exploring hybrid options and keep your VoC / CX climbing objective in sight to stay the course.

Sarah Simon is a career insights professional with 16 years of experience in the feedback industry. Specialties include VoC architecture, journey mapping, developing linkages to business performance, reduction of customer defection, results analysis and communication, with expert survey design skills.  She is the survivor of a botched early-generation “big data mining” operation and is happy to live to tell about it.