Winning repeat business for HR (Guest commentary)

Raising HR’s status means making an organization’s managers loyal HR customers
By Frances Horibe
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/15/2005

Customer loyalty — HR often gives courses on how to foster it, and works with operational groups to increase it. But how often is that lens turned on HR itself? Does HR have the loyalty of its own clients?

The classic measure of customer loyalty is repeat business. Some businesses, like accountants, have it automatically. Taxes and books have to be done every year. So too for some parts of HR; there is a continuing need to pay people, manage benefits, track leave hire.

But for high leverage activities like training courses, developmental assignments, organizational interventions or strategies for diversity, HR often finds its clients looking outside the human resources department for assistance. That can be perfectly reasonable. HR cannot be all things to all people, especially since new HR concepts (or old ones repackaged) seem to come out almost daily. But that should be a decision by HR, not an unfortunate consequence of a lack of customer loyalty.

For services that provide credibility and profile, customer loyalty may be defined as the point at which HR has obtained the right of first refusal from its clients.

A manager with a problem will place the first call to the HR department if he believes HR is competent, honest about its ability to do the job and able to find him someone if it can’t.

How does HR earn the right of first refusal? Work backwards. First, know how to find the right HR contractors. Second, know your capacity. Third, identify and build existing internal skills in high leverage activities.

Contractors and experts

Credibility is built by being the go-to person. The manager knows HR understands the marketplace well enough to get him help through a well-developed network of experts.

To develop this network, HR professionals should focus on their own development. Going on courses, attending conferences, reading the management literature, interviewing prospective contractors. All these build expertise — not necessarily in how to do everything, but on who to call to get it done.

However, simply being a broker between the manager and the outside world doesn’t boost HR’s profile or credibility. This is best obtained if the internal HR professionals run the high level interventions themselves, with one proviso — if it’s done stunningly well.

If not, if the outcome is just okay, it won’t be the rave that actually builds customer loyalty. If an internal HR intervention will not deliver that, using the expert is probably the better bet for the time being.

Assessing HR competence

The right of first refusal is predicated on the manager’s assumption that HR will be honest about its capabilities to provide the service at the level of sophistication needed. HR departments typically make two mistakes in this regard.

With the best intentions in the world, some HR professionals either look for issues they already know how to solve or try to morph the manager’s problem into one for which they have a solution.

One HR professional had a client who needed a better performance evaluation system. The HR professional spent her time running focus groups asking employees what they wanted. Employee input has a place in developing appraisal systems, but the manager was rightly puzzled.

Until there is a revolution in how organizations are run, performance appraisal is a management tool. So while it’s interesting to know how employees feel, it isn’t a substitute for a management focus. This HR professional’s strength was facilitation of small groups. Therefore, she morphed the project into the kind of nail for which she had a hammer.

The other mistake is an assumption that enough reading makes one an expert. Research is necessary but not sufficient for success. Success is due as much to political expertise and strategic thinking as it is book learning. An example: Classic change management texts stress change efforts fail without senior management support. However, senior managers sometimes undertake a change process without fully understanding their roles. When the change agent tries to raise it, the senior manager may slough it off with, “Sure, I’ll do that,” or try to argue the change agent out of the need. Most change management texts do not deal with this scenario because they assume that a change effort would not be undertaken without senior support.

One way out of this dilemma is to prepare to fail — that is to work at lowering expectations, delineating what will be possible, under-promising with the hope that you can over-deliver. This type of maneuvering is not easily obtained by reading the literature but is critical to success.

Identifying internal high leverage skills

The third thing HR needs to do is to identify existing high leverage skills and develop new skills where deficient.

Continuing to build internal high leverage skills can be done as the network of outside experts is built. When an external expert is identified whose expertise is coveted, find a project that needs her expertise; contract with her to complete the project while transferring the knowledge internally.

Thus, the manager gets what he needs when he needs it, and it builds internal skills for HR. This is a lot of work. HR departments, always strapped for resources, cannot easily divert time and money for staff development, or to be second chair to experts. As in all things, the urgent easily pushes out the important.

Organizations need an HR department with high credibility, not because it is satisfying to HR, but because in a world where human resources really are the key to success, management needs to hear sound strategic HR advice. But right now, in more HR departments than anyone would wish, HR is speaking but the right people aren’t listening. So while this is an onerous process, it is also important one. Customer loyalty to HR will be good for the whole organization.

Frances Horibe is the author of Managing Knowledge Workers and Creating the Innovation Culture: Leveraging Visionaries, Dissenters and Other Useful Troublemakers. She speaks to and consults with organizations, and can be reached at

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