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Are you in touch with your clients?


HR business partner

Like most valuable ideas, the simple ones often produce the most impressive results. It’s agreed that HR business partners (HRBPs) need to know their business and their client to ensure they give valuable and sound strategic input. But how is this done and how much time is usually given to it? Jan Hills provides some answers.

It often seems to be forgotten just how vital it is to set aside time to have proper discussions with your client. How can HRBPs be properly effective if they don’t know what is happening with their clients as people, not just as managers or business leaders?

HR should know and understand what impact internal and also external events are having on their client, so that they can properly understand how they can help, support, challenge and influence the client.

If you asked them, I would guess that as many as 99 per cent of HRBPs would think that they are already in close contact with their client. But when I delve a little further and ask them how much time they spend talking to their client face-to-face about what was going on for them personally, as opposed to talking about a specific business issue, it is often surprisingly little and infrequent.

“HR should know and understand what impact internal and also external events are having on their client, so that they can properly understand how they can help, support, challenge and influence the client.”

It is so easy for time to slip by when you are busy getting on with the actual doing of the role, but taking the time to step back can be incredibly useful. Firstly, consider the external factors that may be influencing the client, such as what the competition is doing, legal and regulatory changes, political and economic changes or their life and family issues outside of work.

Ideas and influence

By thinking more about what is influencing a client, it becomes easier for you to take these factors into account when suggesting ideas and influencing.

It is also vital to step back from your day-to-day role in order to personally evaluate your findings after speaking to your client; in this way you will be in a better position to reflect on how you are working with your client. It will give you the time to consider whether you are truly focused on issues that are key to furthering the business goals and whether you and the HR team are maintaining objectivity and independence on key issues.

Information from client conversations can also be the cornerstone for planning how to manage the other tiers of the business and so can help to make sure that the Service Centres and Centres of Excellence are kept informed about the client, so that everyone is working towards the same goals.

Getting in touch with your client does not only have to be on a business level; understanding them as individuals, and learning about their ambitions, concerns and pressures will create a stronger and more effective working relationship.

And so, since client conversations are so vital, it’s important to consider what you want from them before they actually happen. Always set your goals for the meeting and decide what you need to achieve. This can be formal information or informal. It can be useful to think about this in the following categories:

  • External influences. For example, if your client’s business competitor is on an acquisition trail, HR needs to know whether or not your company is a target so that you can effectively communicate reassurances or information to employees.
  • Internal influences but outside of the client’s department. For example, have there been organisational changes within a different part of the company, any promotions or people leaving? How will this impact on the client?
  • Internal influences on the client. For example, the impact of a competitor winning a key account. You will want to ensure you ask how this is impacting on morale, the impact on revenue and other accounts, whether it threatens any jobs, whether it raises training and development needs or external recruitment and the actions planned to restore the position in the market. This will help you to proactively form the strategic response with your client.
  • Personal information. For example, what is worrying the client? What are they happy and excited about? How are they feeling about their department and their own performance? What ideas and opinions are they beginning to form?

Without this type of conversation you may find you’re left in the dark, but with that conversation, HR will be contributing to the business.

So, we know these conversations are vital and we know the impact they can have on your performance, but we also know that since they do not happen often enough, it’s certainly not enough to assume they will happen organically; here are some tips for how to ensure they do not get lost in the busy week:

  • Set aside specific time for the purpose. If meetings are tagged on to other agendas or on an informal basis, they will be overlooked or not be given the focus and attention they need.
  • Be prepared for the meetings – read the trade press, make sure that you are aware of what is happening in the industry so that the discussions will be on a more informed and deeper level.
  • Have regular meetings with a clear agenda for proactively brainstorming on what’s happening within the industry and how it affects the business.
  • Practice scanning. Either on your own or with your team, scan through all the different aspects of the business and highlight any event or activity that could have an impact so a plan can be put in place to deal with it.

“During the meetings put yourself in their shoes. Being able to fully understand the perspective of your client is one of the key skills of successful HR people.”

Remember that these meetings are not really about fact finding, they are an opportunity to challenge or influence. If there is a particular issue that the manager is not focussing or acting on, you can use this time to work out why that is.

For example, if you’ve heard on the grapevine that a competitor has just begun a strong recruitment drive but this has not yet been addressed within the client’s organisation, you will want to be discussing the implications and forming a strategy.

Challenging and influencing a client is one of the more difficult aspects of a HRBP’s role, but there are some tools and working practices that can help improve your skills in this area:

  • During the meetings put yourself in their shoes. Being able to fully understand the perspective of your client is one of the key skills of successful HR people. By breaking down the situation and putting yourself in the mind set of the client, it becomes much easier to begin to understand their priorities, assumptions and viewpoints.
  • Proactively ask questions on issues and ask for the client’s opinion so that you can find out their points of view and interpretation on a subject.
  • Practice coaching conversations. Ask questions that get your client thinking about an issue from a different angle or perspective. For instance, if a manager is ignoring an issue and you need to find out why they are reluctant to tackle or address it, start by asking questions that get them to think from a different perspective. So, if there are rumours in the market that an employee is interviewing with another firm but the manager is taking no action, ask them questions such as: If they were looking for another job, what would the signals be? What conversations have you had recently that could indicate they are planning to leave? What would the effect on the business be if they left?

This will encourage them to see the situation from different perspectives and to consider different possibilities.

We all know that sometimes it’s the most common sense areas of practice that get neglected, but now is the time to realise the value of client meetings and remember that old adage ‘it’s good to talk’.

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