‘The Customer Is Always Right’—Even in Hiring?

By Amy Gulati April 25, 2016

The old adage that the customer is always right has guided client service philosophies for generations. HR professionals understand the importance of identifying service-oriented behaviors and attitudes in candidates and continuing to train and develop these competencies in employees. So if the customer truly is always right, and HR needs to serve that stakeholder effectively, what does that really mean for HR disciplines like talent acquisition or talent management?   

HR professionals should rethink what it means to serve the customer, and then realign their organization’s talent acquisition and talent management practices accordingly, argues author and thought leader Dave Ulrich.

Ulrich, the Rensis Likert Professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and a partner at The RBL Group, a consulting firm based in Provo, Utah, says HR practitioners should expand their definition and understanding of the customers they serve—the organization’s employees—to include actual customers, clients or constituents of the organization.

“Instead of being the ‘employer of choice,’ become, ‘the employer of choice of employees our customers would choose,’ ” he said in an interview with SHRM Online. This is a subtle but meaningful difference, and it begs the obvious question: How does HR, often sequestered away from client-facing activity, even know what the organization’s customers would choose?

How HR Can Incorporate the Customer Perspective

To better understand and act as a steward for the customers’ perspective and needs, HR must partner with colleagues who know the customers best: salespeople, front-line workers, or employees in charge of client services. Scott Wintrip is founder and president of Wintrip Consulting Group, based in St. Petersburg, Fla. Wintrip said that HR shouldn’t be content to get feedback from other partners—HR needs to actually be in the room during interactions with customers. “An HR leader and a sales leader can witness the same conversation with a customer and filter it differently, so it’s important to participate directly in gathering client feedback,” Wintrip said.

Once HR has established internal partners, then it should follow these suggestions to serve the organization’s customers when sourcing and hiring talent:

Get input from customers or clients on competencies, candidate profiles or means of candidate assessment. Don’t take the hiring manager’s word for it; seek input directly from customers if possible. “Conversations with customers can eliminate ‘hiring blindness’ to issues with the process or candidate profiles that may otherwise go unnoticed,” Wintrip said. Attend events where customers are present and solicit their feedback through formal and informal means. This may mean going on a sales call, attending a conference or perhaps just shadowing someone whose job routinely has them interacting with the end customer.

Solicit customer feedback on candidate interviews. While it’s not possible in every situation for customers to give their opinions on interviews, it should be prioritized for critical positions and aggregated everywhere else. Hiring a new vice president of business development? For such an important and customer-focused role, it only stands to reason that key customer input would be important. This practice can be reframed as a customer retention or engagement tool in and of itself. “When customers participate in HR activities, they become more committed to the firm,” Ulrich said. Can you imagine how it might affect your own sense of loyalty if your cable company asked you, as a customer, for input on what traits you value in a service technician? 

Rethink risk to serve your ultimate objective. Concerned that customer input in hiring may reflect customer bias or even create co-employment issues between the customer’s organization and your own? Ulrich said a customer-focused HR department cannot relinquish responsibility for people processes and HR decisions, but he advocates for an integrated and holistic approach. “If customer bias causes the customer to increase customer share and help the [organization] be more profitable [or effective], this is a good bias,” Ulrich said.

While we cannot and should not acquiesce to a key customer’s request to be served only by one gender, for example, HR professionals absolutely should seek to understand the traits and characteristics that define success for customers and honor those preferences as they hire and train employees, he explained.

Continue to Evaluate

If you make changes to your organization’s talent acquisition and talent management practices to better reflect customer needs, remember that evaluating and assessing the impact of these changes are critical steps in the process. Check in regularly with customers and clients to gauge if their needs and preferences are changing, and ensure measures of success are updated accordingly.

Finally, Wintrip cautioned HR to manage expectations when gathering customer input. “Asking certain questions of customers may imply a promise [to change something] that can’t be kept.” It’s important to give context and set reasonable expectations for how customer feedback will be used so no one will be disappointed or disaffected by the end result, he said.

Amy Gulati, SHRM-SCP, is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.



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