What Would Happen If HR Had to Really Sell Their Services?

What if Human Resources had to sell their services to their customers, fulfill the promise, and be paid based upon results?

How many HR teams would get passing grades from the executive team, the leaders and the employees?

I came across a cute blurb in Travel & Leisure magazine called “Confessions of a Hotel Reviewer” who travels incognito to hotels where there has been a complaint, and inspects the level of customer service.

Actually, I remember that well from years ago when I was a desk clerk at a Holiday Inn. Everyone panicked for weeks before the inspector was “due” because the implications of failure were severe.

Hotels engage these “reviewers,“ stores and banks use “secret shoppers,” health care uses the Joint Commission, and all to make sure that the promise to their customer/patient is being fulfilled.confess3

A store customer can reasonably expect to get some version of good merchandise, good price and good style. A hotel customer should be able to expect the promises made on their website. A patient expects high quality and safe care.

Who are HR’s customers?

As HR practitioners, do we think of the Board and executive leadership, of the leadership team and of the employees, as our customer? Hopefully because we are HR professionals, we know what they need. But do we know what they want?

If we know what they want (e.g., fire an employee) but that is not in their best interest, do we help them understand why?

Years ago, someone in a company I worked for coined the phrase, “find a way to say ‘yes.’ ” We stumbled over ourselves until we realized that there are some times that “yes” is not the right answer, but neither is “no.” Not being able to give the customer what they want is a unique opportunity to explain, educate, influence and communicate authentically.

Human Resources as a business

But let’s go back to the first question. What if HR was not an overhead department, but a business offering human resources services to the organization? How would we know whether we are fulfilling the promise of the engagement?

First, we would need to be clear on our products and services, right? We would define exactly what we would do for the customer, and what it would cost.

Then we would probably negotiate a bit, and come up with an agreed upon engagement. We would probably provide a “service level agreement,” where we would commit to certain levels of service with a penalty for failure to provide. That’s pretty standard vendor engagement process.

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Oh, and part of the sourcing and engagement process wold probably be a thorough review of regulatory and legal requirements, to ensure that we, as the vendor, were protecting our client. We would most likely have provided a thorough overview to the organization, educating them on the need for the services, both from a regulatory perspective, as well as a business perspective.

That’s not usually how we do it

However HR typically is not an outsourced provider and instead is an overhead department, often raising questions in line management like “why am I paying for this?” and “why can’t I do that?”

I wonder if perhaps there is an opportunity for HR to avoid some of the “overhead” whining by treating the work as if it were being paid for the value being provided.

Many Human Resource teams spring up out of necessity – someone needs to do the hiring, someone needs to determine pay levels, someone needs to do training. Being busy, we keep on keeping on.

Could HR do all of this?

What if we followed the vendors’ playbook with our customers?

  • Clearly define expectations. Work with all of the constituents to define what must be done, what should be done, and what could be done – and why. Come to agreement on the products and services, along with the cost to deliver.
  • Provide options and facilitate decisions. In reality, the business needs to make a decision about the level of products and services, along with the cost. If HR decides for them, and provides more than they want, the business won’t see the value and will continue to whine about overhead.
  • Engage customers in the development of programs, products and services. As I have pointed out before, HR should not “own” policies or programs without ensuring that the leadership team knows the implications of those policies – bad or good. They’re paying for this work (in personnel and equipment), and should know what they are getting.
  • Ask the customers routinely if HR is providing the level of service to which both parties agreed. The service expectations may be different, therefore the responses different, for each of three customers – executive leaders, leaders and managers, and employees. Use the results of the research to report back progress, and frame products and services going forward. This is where the accountability resides – is HR fulfilling the promise.

The stores, the banks, the hospitals routinely review their success in fulfilling their promise. Should HR not do the same?

This originally appeared on the ….@ the intersection of learning & performance blog.


Carol Anderson is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in February 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications. Contact Carol at carol@andersonperformancepartners.com.


14 Comments on “What Would Happen If HR Had to Really Sell Their Services?

  1. Carol, you are speaking my language, as always. Years ago, a manager in my organization elected to use an external recruiter instead of the internal recruiting team. He told the department leader why (in his view they hadn’t delivered the results or service he needed) and that if she wanted to compete to fill the role with a qualified candidate quicker, she was welcome to. Her comment was basically “How dare he make us compete for this work? He shouldn’t have a choice.” My view was, why shouldn’t he? If we think we can’t compete, then what does that say about our capabilities or performance? If we aren’t providing the best service needed by the business in the most efficient, cost effective way, then we are impeding the performance of the business. I’ve always believed in HR we had to earn the business every day. HR departments that don’t believe this soon find themselves sidelined as a ‘necessary evil’ instead of a true business partner.

  2. This is a bit of a cynical view of HR, but it has its place. My company is actually an HR consulting firm. Organizations hire us to be their HR function either through complete outsourcing or on a project basis. HR can do it. Our contracts all contain clearly defined expectations and our relationships have continuous benchmarks and quality controls. What percentage of all HR departments can work this way? Hopefully more than not. Sometimes it comes down to expectations. Does the C-suite expect HR to be a strategic partner or just handle payroll and benefits
    renewal? And then to Carol’s point, what does HR expect of itself?

    1. Yes Patrick, I do struggle with cynicism for HR. I have watched HR folks wanting to be “strategic” and missing the very things that their client are looking for. I’ve seen a lot of articles about what CEOs expect from HR, but I wonder if that matches what they need. What I like about the vendor model is that it starts with a bit of education and setting of expectations.

  3. Maybe HR needs to stop hiring people into its ranks who are vocationally trained HR generalists and start hiring from its own various business functions? That might make the term ‘Business Partner” a little more meaningful, in a practical way.

    1. Funny you should say that, Mitch. My first civilian role was in department store retailing. I was one of the few HR professionals that hadn’t come up through the ranks of either sales or buying. I resented the “stigma” that put on my, but worked my butt off to learn the business and eventually built my credibility. I think peppering HR with operational talent is absolutely the way to go. But I think it is intimidating to HR professionals….not sure why.

      Thanks for your comment.

      1. I think a lot of HR professionals aren’t intimidated so much as they don’t care to engage. HR has the potential to offer a meaningful strategic advantage, but it’s a field that also appeals to administrators. Many people don’t see the potential or want to take the effort like you did.

        1. I’d like to hear more of your thoughts, Scott. I think you’re saying that the field of HR, by its nature, appeals to those who are comfortable and fulfilled by the administrative roles available? That’s an interesting perspective which says a lot about where we are as a profession. In reality, we need some of those talented administrators, but we also need HR leaders who can communicate and drive toward the business vision. It’s there where the decision is made on the skills and experience of the team.

          Thanks for your comment.

          1. After 40 years in large multinational companies, I concluded that HR people are nothing more than benefit planners and paid professional liars.

  4. I wholeheartedly agree and would take it a step further: If people really are the primary value drivers of the business, and HR is responsible for the people side of the business, why not measure ourselves by the revenue we create? Couldn’t we figure out our impact on the average revenue per employee? Don’t we know the cost of acquisition? The cost of losing quality employees? Why not really run HR like a business function and track metrics that are connected to the bottom line?

    I wrote about this a while back and I’d really love to know all of your thoughts on what I propose here: http://joaquinroca.com/2013/02/run-od-like-a-business/ (so sorry if this is the wrong place to put a link and I totally understand if you take this down)

    I think it is incredibly important that we move away from accepting HR as a cost center and toward the view of HR (a term I hate, I prefer People Operations) as the primary value generating part of the business. If you truly believe people are your most important asset, People Operations is all about optimizing the most important part of your business.

    1. I love the article, Joaquin, and although you lost me on some of the acronyms, I think you’re saying that HR measures should be business measures – the same ones that the business uses. I agree.

      What I really like is your last paragraph, “love the problem not the solution”. I have been ranting a bit on my frustration with business books, conferences, and best practices that all tout the perfect solution that worked somewhere else, only to find that the variables in another organization make the solution ineffective.

      Thanks for your comment.

  5. Hi,

    I have 6 years of HR experience. Reading this article brought up a question in my mind – how many of us are even aware if it is possible to consider our work ‘billable’ to our ‘customer’ (other than as a recruiter)? I admit, I wan’t. haven’t a clue. Good thing is, I know which direction to think in. 🙂 Thank you Carol, for this insightful article.

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