Customer service an elusive concept for HR

By Brian Orr
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/05/2003

For too many years I have participated in debates about who the customers of human resources are: managers or employees?

In truth, HR has a broad range of customers — people across the organization who expect or need services from the department — but regardless of who HR feels it’s serving, the more important debate needs to be how well those customers are served.

If HR spends its time enforcing government regulations, collective agreements and corporate policies, then little attention is spent on customer relations. This is often the case, and many HR staff members have difficulty grasping the concept of customer relations.

Rarely do HR professionals think in terms of how many customers they served in a day, or whether the value created for customers covers the costs of paying for the HR department’s salaries and benefits.

When HR views itself as a service, then it must assume a customer-first orientation. Good HR customer relations is a multi-dimensional proposition that entails establishing and maintaining relations with customers, understanding their needs and expectations, adapting to changing issues they face and improving customer experience with HR.

One way to develop a customer focus is to first imagine that the HR department is required to be a profit centre and must bill its customers for every service provided. What would customers think of your rates?

Second, no one within the organization is required to use the HR department’s services. In such a scenario customers would have the option to buy services from another source rather than using the HR department.

Third, every member of HR has to generate enough revenue to justify her existence.

For the HR department to be successful enough customers would have to believe it provides high value-added services.

HR may not charge customers, but the success of every HR department depends on developing a customer-oriented culture that acts as if services are being sold in a competitive market. To be customer-oriented, HR departments need a shared set of values that put HR customers at the centre of HR strategy, operations and attention.

To create a customer-oriented culture HR staff must have a clear understanding of customer needs, expectations and people management challenges.

HR leaders must know how to integrate services with other corporate support groups and everyone in HR needs to think about people management issues from the customers’ perspectives.

Another vital aspect is the adoption of a customer-focused improvement cycle that drives how HR improves the development and delivery of its products and services. Reflecting customer needs is incorporated into all five components of the following customer-focused improvement cycle.

Understand market and customer needs.

To respond to changing needs, HR leaders must recognize any developments that affect human resources management. At a minimum HR needs to understand regulatory developments, job market conditions and developments in HR practices. But equally important is understanding the needs, expectations and work challenges facing all of HR’s customers.

Assess how HR is meeting current and future needs.

Routinely assess how well HR is meeting customer needs as well as determining what impact changing needs will have on HR products, services, and delivery processes.

Create new or update products and services.

Based on the assessment of customer needs, HR leaders must enhance the capability of the HR function to serve its customers better. This includes improving existing HR products and services, developing new products and services, and increasing the skills and knowledge of HR staff.

Improve product and service delivery.

Of equal importance is investing in the processes, tools and systems that improve how HR delivers products and services. This includes the HR department’s own development capability and how HR manages itself as a business unit.

Communicate HR’s direction and priorities.

Underlying everything is the need for HR leaders to regularly update and communicate the direction and priorities of the HR function. The goal is to ensure HR customers and staff members understand where HR is going, how it responds to client needs and where the HR function is focusing its attention. An important component of communication involves HR leaders listening to customers and HR staff to better understand when and how HR needs to adapt its direction and priorities over time.

Brian Orr is vice-president of human resources, learning and communications with the London Health Sciences Centre in Ontario. He can be contacted at

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