A Christmas homily

Hello PPMA members and friends

Our blog post this week has been written by our good friend Peter Reilly from IES (Institute for Employment Studies) and as always gives us some food for thought.

As a vicar might say at Christmas time, ‘my theme today’ is HR customer service, but I’m examining it through the lens of the Post Office/Royal Mail and their customer service offer (not least because at this time of year their services are more in demand and their quality more evident).

What I’m about to say will no doubt seem unfair to those fine organisations and to the government whose actions seem to have induced recent changes. Yet in a way unfairness is irrelevant to my point: this post (pun intended) is all about customer reactions and nothing to do with a logical corporate vision.

What I am about to describe may have happened in your town. Following the closure of sub post offices that has inconvenienced customers, the split between the Post Office and Royal Mail has led to further frustration. The full business logic of the organisational separation meant that facilities under Royal Mail’s control could not seemingly be offered under the Post Office’s auspices. Thus the mail box in the wall of the post office was closed and a new pillar box built 50 yards away (inconveniently across a busy road). The parcel collection office in the post office was closed and we were invited to collect parcels in another busy town 5 miles away. Finally, rather than the posties having rounds at set times of the day we have the flexibility of delivery at random hours delivered by unknown agents.

The customers were not happy and made their feelings known. Whether in response or as part of an original plan I don’t know, but the consequence has been the building of a pillar box inside the post office (!) and a parcel collection point at one of the service counters of the post office. Nothing has changed in flexible delivery.

What you might say has this got to do with HR’s service delivery model? The answer is HR transformation. One important, indeed dominant part, of HR transformation has been structural change. Like the split between the Post Office and Royal Mail, HR transactional activity has been separated from expert help and strategic business support through the creation of shared services, centres of expertise and business partners. For many customers this logical segmentation has removed a one stop shop and replaced it by fragmentation. The customer has to work out where to ask, who to speak to and what sort of questions to frame, depending on where on the administrative to strategic, specialist to generalist scales it sits. They too get their services in a flexible delivered by the most available agent, be in through a contact or service centre.

As I have argued elsewhere , much of this change has been delivered to suit functional needs (cost reduction) rather than customer. Moreover, the level of customer consultation has often been weak to non existent. Managers and employees have been presented with a fait accompli, justified on the basis of an improved service (sic) or, more honestly, a cheaper service.

The comparisons with the Post Office and Royal Mail should now be obvious. The match is even stronger where you see HR Directors adding back in resource to deal with the gaps in service provision pointed out by their customers – often operational support to close the gap in the middle (the ‘polo’ problem ii).

When will we learn to take a more consumer and less producer view of the world, and when will we learn to model change before implementation.

This brings us to the same problems that can occur with the e-enablement of HR processes with added dimensions of depersonalisation and disenfranchisement of the offline community. But that will have to wait for another post….next Christmas.

Peter Reilly

Director, HR Research & Consultancy, IES

Reilly P (2012) ‘Transforming HR to support strategic change’ in Francis H, Holbeche L, Reddington M, People and organisational development, CIPD
ii Reilly, P (2006), Falling between two stools, People Management, 23 November

By | 2017-07-30T12:23:22+00:00 December 27th, 2012|Categories: Guest Blogger, Peter Reilly, Uncategorized|3 Comments


  1. Joanna Ruffle 28th December 2012 at 10:28 am - Reply

    As always Peter, your comments are well made and provide food for thought. Here in Southend we are dealing with a local mutiny around the closure of our sorting office and the impact that this will have on our community – particularly ( as sadly always seems to be the case) the elderly and vulnerable.
    I have just this morning read an article in People Management about proposed 24/7 working in the NHS – if you have a moment read the comments that have been posted – fascinating!
    The tension between the needs of the ‘customer’ and what is affordable seems to be rising.

    It seems to me that we are continuing to buy into the view that in order to cut costs, there must be a corresponding decrease in customer service and satifaction.

    There are many examples across all sectors where services have been delivered at lower cost and customer needs have been exceeded. In Southend we used to run a respite programme for children with disablilites during the summer holiday. As budgets were squeezed the continuation of this valuable and treasured ( but non-statutory) service came under threat. But instead of simply cutting it and telling parents and young people that we had no mony and therefore no other option, we involved them in the conversation and invited them to work with us on the solutions. Result – a theatre group came in to work with the young people over the summer period culminating in public perfomances at our local theatre. Ticket sales from these performances will now fund the activity for next year. Costs cut – customers happier than ever before!

    It is possible if we start to think differently which in turn drives different behaviours, but we have to be brave.

    And as for HR delivery models??
    I have made my New Years resolution – to stop obsessing about different models and names; to talk to my customers and to REALLY understand what they need, and to deliver that to the best of my ability within the resources I have available to me.
    The rest is silence!

  2. Martin Rayson 28th December 2012 at 5:48 pm - Reply

    Happy New Year to you too Joanna and very good to hear from you. I think your comment about reviewing what customers need from HR in 2013, in light of the big changes taking place is extremely important. We need some fresh ideas and not be constrained by the conventions of particular models.

  3. Martin Rayson 31st December 2012 at 8:25 am - Reply

    I had a further thought about this at the weekend. I am my Council’s lead on a project to introduce once version of the Oracle system across six Councils. The intention is to have one version of the product in place across the six Councils and as far as possible, this should be the “out-of-the-box” version, with minimal customisation.

    As you can imagine, this is a complex project, involving a lot of debate and much compromise between the six Councils. This will require our Council and the users of the system to change significantly what we do. This has not been particularly well-received by those who see themselves as customers of the HR service.

    It is important that there is an understanding of the nature of the relationship we have with our “customers” in HR. It is not the same as that which individuals may have with their local butcher. I get very frustrated when we have long debates about the size of individual recharges to departments. Whilst it is important that we treat every user of the service with the care and attention we would a paying customer, part of me thinks I have one customer, “the organisation”, with whom I can agree a specification of what we need and how much we can afford and then get on with it.

    As we seek to minimise cost and get real value, we need uniformity and compromise.

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