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How HR Balances Customer Demands

July 14, 2002
Related Topics: The HR Profession, Featured Article

Despite the tremendous expectations of its many varied constituents, HR professionals are coping -- and even thriving. There are many ways of dealing effectively with the countless pressures, but there is really only one strategy: "HR must be customer focused," says Paul Benson, who has 30 years of HR experience in organizations such as Kraft Foods, Pizza Hut, and Kaiser Permanente. He interprets that customer focus broadly.

Alan Wolfson, a New York-based HR consultant with the Hay Group, concurs. "If you’re not serving an external customer, your job is to serve someone who is," he says. "The HR organizations that score highest in any internal assessment are those that have a focus on internal customers."

Is that really all there is to it? Yes and no. Accepting the value of having a customer focus is one thing; making it happen is another. Benson acknowledges that "it takes time to get the process right." Carrie Shearer, an HR professional in Ithaca, New York, who has more than 30 years of experience, says it’s important that setbacks not be seen as failure. They -- and Wolfson -- also agree that it’s important to have a plan.

Benson draws a metaphoric triangle. "Start with self-clarity," he suggests. "Ask yourself, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What’s my contribution to the organization going to be?’" The third side of the triangle is to determine what the ultimate outcome for the organization should be and then figure out how to link the three ideas.

In considering the outcome for the organization, however, it’s vital to look outward. "Never assume you know what customers want," Wolfson says. "Giving customers only what you currently have or do is arrogant." He calls on HR professionals to use their consulting skills to help customers define what they need. Giving customers exactly what they want, when they want it, defect-free, at a competitive price is useless, he points out, if it doesn’t solve their problems.

How does HR know when it’s successful at solving customer problems? Too often, HR relies on what Wolfson calls "friends of the family" who offer subjective feedback and tend to say what HR wants to hear. Instead, he says, there are four requirements that any HR organization must meet before it can truly be customer-focused:

  1. HR must have service standards for its internal customers (e.g., the time to provide new-hire candidates, a tangible measure of the quality of those candidates, or the timing of new-hire orientation).

  2. HR must be organized to easily serve internal customers (can managers get the help they need from a single source, or do they have to call different people for help with different issues?).

  3. Measurements must be customer focused (assessments of training-program quality are more important than how many programs were delivered, for example).

  4. HR must get meaningful objective feedback from its customers including stakeholders, top management, line management, and employees.

To achieve those requirements, he suggests using every tool available:

  • Organization structure within HR
  • HR communications (formal and informal)
  • Re-engineering HR processes
  • Eliminating unnecessary measurements
  • Setting service standards jointly with clients
  • Participation (involving HR’s constituencies)

"HR and management need to sit down and come to an agreement as to what is most important and how HR fits within the company," agrees Shearer, noting that "administrivia" and strategic issues can’t have equal priority.

But what if the items management and employees each want are different? That’s the point at which many HR professionals capitulate to management’s desires and let the chips fall where they may. Trouble is, it doesn’t work. "HR’s role is to bring the groups together to settle the schisms," Wolfson says.

Benson observes that many HR professionals, held back by the box that asks for conformity, look for leadership at the very time they should be exerting it. "Sometimes we’re out in front, sometimes we’re in the back pushing, and sometimes we’re in the middle of the team contributing," he says. "We can lead from the head of the table or from three seats to the left, depending on the situation."

For Benson, the table is no metaphor. In several organizations he took the lead in getting people to the table to discuss -- and agree on -- HR’s goals and responsibilities. Benson acknowledges that there were disagreements, but ultimately they were resolved and the stakeholders agreed on a plan. He says that clarity and confidence were key to getting it done.

"When we were clear on our ultimate goal, and as clear as we could be about what we were working on, we were able to go into a meeting with confidence," he says. "Then we didn’t get bogged down in how we were going to respond, and we were better able to listen to our constituents." He adds that the clarity of purpose helped keep HR honest: "People at the table could call us on pursuing our agenda." Benson says the process made clients much more likely to accept HR’s recommendations.

Once the plan was complete, it became a signpost for everyone. It was apparent which goals had been met and which had not, so HR’s performance was a matter of record, not conjecture. At the same time, if disagreements arose about how HR should be spending its time, the plan reminded everyone of the priorities that had been established.

Other HR professionals have taken similar approaches to getting client buy-in. Some have established oversight committees, made up of line managers who contribute to the design and delivery of major HR services, such as a training program.

In other cases, teams focus more on business initiatives than on HR programs. Ian Clark, a professor at the Leicester School of Business at De Montfort University in the United Kingdom, worked with a U.S. firm he calls Exbeck (the firm asked for confidentiality when he published the results of their efforts) when they implemented a project task force initiative. The system calls for a project manager to draft a briefing on the technical and process requirements for a job. It includes a forecast of the HR needs for the project. Under the system, corporate HR is responsible for the management development program and monitoring the performance of other divisions in the task force framework. The emphasis is on developmental HR management aimed at reducing cost overruns on projects.

It works. Cost overruns before the initiative were $1.4 million a year for each year of the three-year project. Overruns after the initiative were $330,000 per year. What’s more, studies showed that most of the $1.4 million overruns were attributed to direct and indirect HR failures.

Although the rewards of getting client buy-in and participation are great, Benson says that staying on track was sometimes a challenge. "If you’re not careful, it’s very easy to spend your day putting out fires and thinking you’re doing a bang-up job because you made some folks happy," Shearer says. "The reality is that HR should be more proactive and less reactive."

Toward that end, Shearer carved out time for herself every day. "If you want to find the time to do what you think is important, you must make the time," she says. Her workday officially began at 8:00, but Shearer was at her desk by 7:00 to focus on strategic thinking and mapping out the steps to take toward longer-term goals. She spent another hour immediately after lunch on the same work. "Did it work? Some days yes and some not so well," she says. "The important thing was that I set aside time to work on what was really important."

Shearer also was a dedicated list-maker. At the end of each day she would write down what had to be accomplished the next day, then decide what could be delegated and what was nice but not necessary.

Whether an issue is delegated or you solve it yourself, Benson says, part of the secret of success is to solve it for both for now and the long term. He likens many problems to having a small splinter in your finger. "You can put a bandage on it and make it feel better," he says, "but the splinter is still there, and if you leave it there, it will get infected. Ultimately, it will be a much worse problem, and much harder to heal."

No one is claiming that meeting contradictory and substantial expectations is easy. But they can -- and should -- be met.

The effort shows where it counts most: on the bottom line. Wolfson notes that the firms with the best-regarded HR functions perform better financially. He says that the most-admired firms (Hay participates in identifying Fortune’s most-admired companies) have two attributes their peers lack: a much stronger focus on external customers and a culture in which employees are valued as assets, not seen as expenses.

Workforce, June 2002, pp. 46-48 -- Subscribe Now!

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