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Jodi Baker

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What does service excellence look like for HR?


One key question on every HR Director’s mind recently is how to get their HR teams delivering a truly excellent service to the business. So how do you?

With constant pressure to cut costs while enhancing value, HR functions in both the public and private sectors in the UK, across Europe and globally are trying to take their service to the next level and step up their game. The challenge is that most are unclear of not only what this will look like, but how they can get there with minimal investment and distraction to the current service delivered.

Defining service excellence
Through research and working with clients at all stages of their HR maturity, Orion Partners understands what service excellence looks like for HR. In our experience, it is the combined presence of nine key criteria that differentiates good vs. truly excellent service. We call this the service excellence success grid. The nine criteria of the success grid are detailed in the box below; they are not related to a specific job or company, but describe the characteristics we continue to find present in the most successful HR functions around the world.

Looking at the success grid it quickly becomes apparent that service excellence is not achieved through the deployment of strong technical skills alone, but the behaviours and attitudes that exist across the HR function. This does not downplay the need for strong technical skills in HR, but denotes them as a base criteria rather than a differentiator.

The success grid in detail

The service grid

The nine elements of the service excellence success grid are detailed below:

Passion and involvement – Excellent HR functions love what they do. They are interested and committed to their work, company and colleagues. In our experience in working with truly ‘excellent’ HR functions, the presence of this characteristic tends to drive many of the others listed below.

Positive outlook – Excellent HR functions see challenges as opportunities and obstacles as a means of testing skills. Having a positive outlook better places these functions to handle pressure and setbacks and to achieve more of their goals. Borrowing from the discipline of social intelligence, positive outlook within HR functions is contagious – the presence of a positive outlook in teams has been shown to lead to higher productivity and higher motivation.
Self belief – Self belief is not determined by level of experience the HR function possesses, but rather a balance of; confidence (inner knowing), commitment (determination to achieve the goal, and control (knowing what you can and can not do). In any task or interaction the most successful HR functions seek to assess and balance each of these.

Health and energy – The phrase "if you don’t have your health, you tend not to do anything" seems to be fairly accurate of this characteristic. Successful HR functions tend to look after their mental and physical health. They manage stress and other pressures as well as monitor their energy and wellbeing. The best HR teams have tips and techniques to energise each other on those days that seem to never end or when faced with stressful scenarios.

Continually seek to improve
– The best HR functions have a ‘healthy dissatisfaction’ with that they do. They continually question themselves using the debrief formula; ‘What went well? What can I learn from the task/interaction? And, what will I do differently next time?’ This is rooted in a strong desire to continually seek ways to improve and to challenge themselves in more difficult situations.

Combine short term and long term goals – The most successful HR functions have both short and long term goals. They are focused on the current task when they are engaged in it and recognise how each task contributes towards a positive long-term outcome. This keeps a sense of progress and motivation and prevents them from being overwhelmed by everything that needs to be done to achieve a long-term goal. They scan the environment and notice the shifts and changes: in politics, trends, customer needs and employee motivation. This enables them to adjust their short term goals to meet subtly shifting needs.

Own standards and measures
– The best HR functions are clear about their own professional standards. Standards are not imposed on them from external sources. Their standards provide them with guidance and direction no matter what is going on in the company.  In times of change, they take time to redefine their standards keeping clear on what good would look like. Measuring themselves on the progress they are making not by comparison to others functions or business units.

Inner motivation – The most successful HR functions, similar to findings around gold medal winning athletes and business people, are motivated primarily by their own beliefs and goals rather than by external pressure or others wishes. They crave success and to be the best and are 100% aware of what they need to be motivated. 

Create relationships of mutual respect
– The best HR functions form and manage relationships; to achieve their tasks and to further the organisation’s goals. These relationships are based on respect; respect for others views (even when they are not shared), for others skills and for the other person as a member of the business. They may not always be warm and close relationships but they are based on respect and authenticity.

Using the success grid to achieve service excellence
Understanding the elements of service excellence is only part of the journey. To really gauge where the HR function sits against the most excellent organisations, it must be scored from 1-10 against the nine areas of the grid (where 1 is a total weakness and 10 is a total strength).

For the best results, all parts of the HR function (from the customer service agent answering queries in shared services, to the Reward specialist in the Centre of Expertise, to the HR Director) need to be involved in the debate regarding where the function sits at the moment and discussing evidence which demonstrates how they are performing. Where we have seen this done best, this activity is followed up both within functional teams and individually to ensure all of the function is involved in the collective rating and has a view of where they sit individually.

After scores are agreed, careful thought must be put into analysing the strengths and weaknesses. To bring the function closer to a state of service excellence, follow up actions need to be put in place to make the most of strengths and remedy weaknesses. Orion’s tips to do so:

  • Strengths: consider how the obvious strengths can be used to overcome the weaknesses.
  • Weakness: knowing what they are considerably lessens them being an obstacle.  Set clear and manageable goals (e.g. where relationships are a problem – map out key work relationships and consider how authentic they are and how much respect you show others and any steps you will take to improve weaker relationships). Break each goal into smaller chunks and consider what can be done tomorrow to lead you closer to your goal.

The achievement of service excellence is neither a tick in the box activity, nor a static state. The best HR functions continue to revisit the presence of these criteria and consider whether they are using their plans to get them closer to their goals. Service excellence is a journey that HR functions can only achieve in a state of full awareness.

 Jodi Baker is a partner at Orion Partners

  • If you would like to find out more about the service excellence success grid, please contact us on: +44 (0)20 7993 4699 or [email protected] or visit our website:

3 Responses

  1. Recognition needed
    To excel in what I do, to achieve and grow in my role and to meet every challenge that comes my way, and then overcome that challenge with decency and effort………….and then to be called a HR Function?

    HR is about people and that should include the HR workers who put in the time, effort and interest every working day.

    To paraphrase a great modern thinker: “I am not a ‘function’….I am a free man!!”

  2. the system or the people?

    Well what an interesting challenge. so I offer you one back!

    Show me an example of where the process/system has acheived service excellence as measured by the clustomers.

    There is clear evidence from neuro sicence that this will never be the case. Happy to share some of that. I have been an HRD and a consultant and have NEVER seen the system work without the relationships. The system can make things better but real excellence demands more.

    By the way let me declare an interst I am  the Partner at Orion Partners responsible for our strategy and capability area. We can show where this makes a difference!

  3. All about the people not the system – again!

    Once again an article that simply espouses the same tired rhetoric of focusing on the people! I have seen the success grid in various guises throughout my extensive career in business and in HR. These all continue to encourage people to do more of the same activity expecting a different result – a sign of impending madness.

    These articles indicate continually that the problem lies in the people who work in HR or in the organisation, that they aren’t good enough, that they need to be more xxxxx (insert anything you want), more of everything to be perfect, when in fact the people are OK.

    Here’s the thing. What HR needs to do is start getting knowledge about what is happening in the work that people are doing. They need to understand warts and all the what and why of current performance. If you have ever read W Edwards Deming you will understand that 95% of what affects performance lies in the system of work, less than 5% lies under the control of the individual. So stop looking at the people and instead look at how the work currently works, then redesign it. Get the people who do the work to do the intervention. And the results? Service will be spectacularly better, costs will reduce and morale will improve. How do I know this? I’ve used the Vanguard Systems Thinking Method and it simply works. And the best of it all? The culture change comes for free. Brilliant! Check out the website below.

    Andy Lippok

    A Systems Thinker


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