Disrupting HR: start thinking of HR Customer Service


After many years of discussion and implementation of the HR Transformation framework developed by Dave Ulrich, very few organizations have been really “able” to undertake one of the key challenges posed by that concept: evolving into a true service organization.

Many organizations declare to have successfully implemented the model. The key is of course how is success measured. Very often the issue is that HR transformation has been solely pursued with a cost-saving goal, and thus success has been eventually measured by the dollars the HR organization has saved. But at what cost? Way too often the result is a service organization that is distant (not only physically) from the needs of the employees. Managers have effectively to undertake too many HR tasks designed by HR for HR, not really having in mind the different approach a line manager would have. HR Business Partners that maintain the HR generalist mindset, not having evolved in terms of competencies through the transformation, and that continue to pursue HR tasks instead of being actor of the business support.

Failing to recognize customer needs

customer_service_joke

But why does this happen? I believe the real issue is that HR has failed to bring the idea of “HR Customers” to the logical conclusion, and really structure itself as a Customer Centric organization. It is very easy to spot this inconsistency, with few examples (unfortunately way to common around the world).

Laura is an employee at Acme Corporation. Her life is going to change a lot in 9 months, as she just discovered to be pregnant for the first time. She has never really bothered to get informed about what this means in terms of work, so she starts looking for some information.

  • First thing she does is looking at her Employee Handbook. There is a section around Leave, with a chapter dedicated to Maternity and Parental leave. But the section is 6 years old, and refers to some roles that are not existing anymore.
  • She decides then to have a look at the HR Intranet. She clicks on the Leave system she normally uses to record her absences, but there is no option to ask for a Maternity Leave.
  • She then looks in the Knowledge Base section. it’s not easy to spot on something specific in that multitude of documents, so she runs a search. The word “Maternity Leave” returns 60 documents, basically there is one policy per country…
  • Luckily she finds a page titled “What to do when you’re pregnant“. But her hopes to get a fast answer disappears in the first lines of the page: Depending on the contract terms you have been hired on or your company of origin, select the most appropriate Policy. Which Contract Terms? True… she was hired originally in a company that was later acquired by Acme… but the titles of the various documents do not help out…
  • She then resorts to call in the HR Help Desk. But the call menu at the beginning is not at all clear. Is this a Payroll question, or a Other Hr Services one? She tries the Payroll one, but although the HR agent on the other side of the phone was very helpful, he did not have full access to her profile to establish which policy would apply, so a case was opened, and she would get an answer in 48 hours.
  • During the day, at the coffee machine, she tells the great news to two of her best friends and colleagues. One of them, already with children, tells her to go immediately and talk with her boss, as apparently the policy states that that is the first step to do.
  • Laura then goes to meet her manager, and tells him the great news. After a couple of minutes of felicitation… he however says that he cannot process that information, as HR would need to be informed first. There’s for sure a form online to fill-in in this case. As Laure explains she had not found it, the manager quickly drops a note to the HR Business Partner requesting help.
  • In the afternoon Laura receives an email from the HR department. Quickly looking through it she notices that the original email from her manager had circulated to at least 5 different person in the course of the day. And an attachment: The official Maternity Policy! She quickly opens the document and… she discovers it’s 43 pages long. Probably too long also for her afternoon commute…

Many will recognize if not all, some of the elements that are common to many companies in the way that HR Services are delivered. Often similar stories appear when we engage with employees or managers trying to describe their experience, together with a sense of frustration and solitude ind ealing with these elements. HR is very often aware of the issue, but not always to this extent. And when facing the truth, their reaction is to fix the process, trying to figure out how to maybe have a better intranet, or update the Employee Handbook more often.

This failure impacts on the business bottom line

However there are two key learnings that often HR misses from similar stories:

  1. Employees and Managers think in terms of real problems they are facing when they need to contact HR. Whereas HR has the tendency to think in terms of functions and processes when delivering services. This unfortunately means that HR is normally not capable to match the needs and wants of their customers, which is to deliver one consistent solution to the problem.
  2. The above issue means that Employees and Managers dedicate time in trying to find answers, read useless documents, try to find shortcuts in the HR organization, resulting in losses of productivity and eventually real money. And creating external inefficiencies while pursuing your own internal business case, is probably not the best way to contribute to the Business.

Some organizations have tried to elaborate on this problem, and have tried to answer by articulating their services around the so-called Employee life-cycle. Despite being an innovation, it is however not enough. Also the Employee Life Cycle is de facto an HR concept, often not linked to HR.

Embedding the Customer Experience concept in HR.

To help out, we need to embed into HR a concept that is rather common in the rest of the business world, that of Customer Experience. I recently came around a very comprehensive definition of Customer Experience as being everything your brand does for your customers, everything your business processes do to them and how it makes them feel. 

And this applies thoroughly also to HR. Therefore we can come to a conclusion that:

Your HR Customer Experience is:

Everything your HR Organization does for your HR Customers
– Everything your HR processes do to them
= How this makes them feel.

This definition has therefore 3 parts:

  1. What you deliver to your customers.
  2. What you oblige your customers to do (in terms of filling in forms, completing transactions, calling in contact center etc.)
  3. What your customer feels of the total of these interactions.

The relationship between point 1 and 2 is effectively linked to the way they relate to each other in producing an experience. And this is all linked to the perceived value of what you are doing. Taking an example from the airline industry, today many people are embracing online check-in because they appreciate the fact that it is faster. However, not all airlines have been equally successful in implementing this, and recent developments at Ryanair show that there is only so much you can do in pushing your customers down a bad experience route. Which is why it is always a bad idea to design and develop self-service applications without having clearly in mind what the customer want or need.

Thinking in terms of Customer Experience is not easy. First of all because this is created by a sum of different interactions. A positive experience can be immediately balanced off by a moderately negative one. Which is why consistency  is key in the development of customer centric approach. What is really key in this is clearly identifying all the moments when employees or managers enter in contact with HR. These Customer Touch-points may be of different kind, covering system as well as personal interactions.

Is the experience you deliver across all these touch points is consistently positive for your customers?

This is the question you should be posing yourself. Carefully designing your interactions around the key customer needs is vital. So for example, if Laura had access to a portal where content was organized at what was relevant for her (in this case her Maternity), perception of quality would have been higher. Same as if the “Maternity Policy” would have been shorter. Or you seriously think that 43 pages is something that everybody would be happily willing to read?

What is the Cost of Good Customer Service?

But here’s come the catch. Many people feel that Good Customer Service is in opposition to cost control. I.e. investing in the quality of service immediately increases costs, something that HR under pressure for cost optimization cannot sustain.

Well, I see it differently. In many cases the cost of not delivering good quality much higher than the cost linked to improving your HR services.

When you don’t deliver positive services for the sake of efficiency, you are in reality moving inefficiencies somewhere else in the business. Which was the case in the example above, where Laura spent how many hours figuring out where to look for the information? And what about her boss? Or the 5-6 people involved in the email chain that eventually led to a policy delivered to her? As you see, poorly designed services have immediate effect in the organization. This may not be in the P&L of HR, but it ultimately is in the Business one!

Customer Service Components

High quality service is a must for all HR organizations that want to stay relevant for their business. There is no choice for this.

Clearly linking Quality, Efficiency, Service and Reliability are the only way to make a Customer happy. Something that is really key for the new HR organization.

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