Top 5 Tips for Working with Service Providers

Over the past five years Inkling has published hundreds of digital titles, but this wouldn’t have been possible without our partnership with Service Providers (SPs), or third-party suppliers. Like many companies and publishers, Inkling chose to work with Service Providers in order to streamline content production and increase efficiency.  As Inkblots sleep, offshore SPs spot-check design across different devices or fix errors, which frees up our team to focus on what they do best: design and content strategy, and building technologies, such as HabitatAxis, and Latitude. With the help of SPs, we reduced our average production time for an Inkling title from 10 weeks to 10 business days.

Whether you’re new to working with SPs or already working with hundreds of vendors to create and convert your content, these five tips will help maximize your partnership to create beautiful, high-quality digital content.

1. Set an Example

Before sending SPs new tasks, make sure you can perform that task in-house first. By doing it yourself first, you’ll have clear instructions and an accompanying example for your SPs. Even more, you’ll know exactly what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. For example, you might restructure one chapter yourself before having the vendor do the rest. Or, if you’ve scoped widgets or enhancements for your title, you could build a few in-house to make sure that what you envision for the content is, in fact, technically possible.

2. Establish Quality Metrics

Establish clear quality metrics with your SPs. That way, you’ll quickly know when to accept their deliveries or reject those that don’t meet your expectations. At Inkling, we set a threshold for the number of conversion errors in high-value, high-visibility areas like metadata, outline view, and enhancements, and we ensure that SPs’ deliverables fall within that range of acceptable error rates. Hold governance meetings on a regular basis to discuss trends in quality metrics and lapses or increases in quality levels.

Always back up your metrics with clear written documentation so that you hold both the SP and yourself to your own standards. Include examples, such as code snippets or screenshots from real content, as often as possible throughout your documentation.

3. Specialize SP Teams

There is often a lot of turnover at a Service Provider organization. To counteract the risk of knowledge gaps, encourage your SPs to establish distinct teams with specialized skill-sets. This will encourage deep knowledge of your content specifications, as well as ensure that all of your bases are covered during content production.

For example, an SP editorial team may get to know your editorial specifications in great detail and spot typos that your team missed. A distinct team might own functionality proofing to ensure your content is structured correctly and links function properly. If links aren’t working, you can then hone in on the team directly responsible for building and verifying links.

Inkling encourages SPs to establish specialized roles that mirror our own professional service specialties: content architecture/instructional design, enhancement, technical troubleshooting, front-end design, and of course project management and scheduling.

4. Train, Mentor, Audit

At Inkling, we approach rolling out processes to SPs in three stages: train, mentor, and audit.

First, we provide a training for the SP. Real content is used whenever possible based on our own experiences (see Tip #1). Trainings can take 5 minutes or 3 days! Allow ample time for questions and to walk through multiple examples together.

During the second step, mentorship, the SP does the process/task themselves, asking questions along the way, and receives detailed feedback from the trainer. The mentorship period may require working on a single file or an entire batch of projects over the course of several weeks. Build time into your content production schedule for questions and to avoid missing deadlines due to the inevitable learning curve that comes with learning a new skill or process. During the mentorship period, you are likely to discover gaps and redundancies in your initial training or process, so you should also schedule time for revising documentation accordingly.

Once the SP has demonstrated that they understand the training, take off the proverbial training wheels and audit the SP’s deliverables. Rather than closely proofing all delivered content, pick a subset of content to examine closely and provide detailed feedback. Use every ‘mistake’ as a teaching opportunity and inspiration to improve your documentation so that you quickly increase your confidence in SP quality levels and further scale back your audits.

5. Encourage open Communication

 Always encourage open communication with your SPs, from email correspondence to weekly phone check-ins to quarterly governance meetings. SPs generally don’t ask too many questions proactively, so in your Habitat comments and other requests, always encourage questions before they begin in order to avoid later rework and to reduce missed deadlines. Establish turnaround times or due dates for deliveries that allow time for questions and clarifications.

Finally, set clear escalation paths and points of contact for queries that may block the SP from delivering content and hitting deadlines. The SP should know who to contact at your organization if they get stuck or have questions at various points during content production.

The Bottom Line:

When it comes to digital content production, two heads are better than one. By partnering with service providers, you’ll increase your content production and refocus your team on the design or editorial work that they do best. But choosing to partner is just the first step, and it’s important to think strategically about your partnership in order to prevent it from going sour. From our experience, we think that these tips will help build a fruitful partnership and pave the way to high-quality digital content.

To learn more about how our publishing software, Inkling Habitat, can work with your service providers, request a demo from our sales team.