Customer, customer, customer. No, this isn’t a retail blog – the customer is what HR is all about. Yet how many practitioners, hand on heart, can say this is what they focus on every day? In retail it’s simple – the customer comes into your store, or buys from your website. If they like the product and the service, they’ll hopefully come back and shop again. If they don’t like the product and they don’t like the service, you’re out of business. I know the sharp end. My parents and in-laws have built up successful small retail businesses, and I’ve seen their competitors go under because the customer preferred my family’s business.

A service shared

So why should HR be any different? We shouldn’t be. We have many kinds of ‘customer’ – employees, senior stakeholders, the markets (or in the public sector, elected members) and potential recruits. Yet in too many HR functions that I have seen, we seem to forget the customer, or even better, we claim that we know what they want.

Many of us believe that, on receiving positive feedback from a customer survey, we can just continue with what we’ve been doing.

Now, I love shared services. It’s definitely not the ‘sexy’ end of HR, but it’s the part where the customer should be king, and very rarely is. Our processes have grown up over months, if not years, and for every occasion where the process has not catered for a particular incident, we add another step.

I’ve seen process maps containing hundreds of little boxes with instructions on what should happen next, leaving little or no scope for the individual HR practitioner to use their discretion. When the same thing happens to us when we phone a call centre about a bill, for example, we complain bitterly, loudly proclaiming that it would help if the agent listened to our individual circumstances. Yet, back in our own safe world of HR, how often do we stand up for the same right?

A quick test

Ask yourself the following:

  • When was the last time you went out and questioned your customers about what they wanted from you?
  • When did you really analyse the results and ask what they meant?
  • When did you last review your processes – not while hidden away in a dark room with a consultant and your teams, but by going out to your customers and asking what their frustrations are?
  • How many times have you said: ‘No. The policy/process doesn’t allow it’.
  • Do your customers know who to contact? Do you keep in touch with them if their issue can’t be handled immediately?

The best of us will be able to answer all these questions positively, and there are certainly many organisations that can hold their heads up high. Even then, there is always room for improvement and adaptation. The best retailers adapt and innovate continuously to meet customer needs. Why doesn’t HR do the same?


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Written by Stephen Forrest, HR shared services & transformation manager

A transformation specialist with a people and business change skillset and a special expertise in shared services – design, implementation and optimisation through improved processes, systems and structure, all aligned to customer requirements.

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