With customer expectations growing, no part of a business can afford to distance itself from the frontline. The best HRDs embrace this and put customers at the heart of what they do: walking in their footsteps, listening to their needs and ensuring the right people and processes are in place to serve them.  
In Research conducted at Criticaleye’s recent HRD Retreat, attendees said customers are their most challenging external stakeholder. We asked them how they are responding and this is what they said:  
For Tracey Kneller, HR Director of the Co-operative Bank, it's crucial that everyone knows their role in the customer journey. She explains how the bank’s Customer-First programme “requires every person in the organisation to really understand how they contribute to serving the customer”.
She continues: “The most important thing you can do is ensure that your colleagues throughout the organisation understand the role they play in making the business successful. It’s important to recognise that the customers are your business and are not seen as ‘getting in the way’."
While HR isn’t a frontline function, its impact is fundamental. “We know we’re not touching the customer personally, but what we are doing is making sure we have people in place with the right skills and values to make the best experience for them,” Tracey says.  
“Our challenge is to recruit colleagues, and have policies, processes and ways of working, that meet the expectations of our customers.”  
Joanne Ferris, Chief People Officer at Babylon Health, agrees, saying that HR exists “to ensure the organisation has the capability it needs to compete and win; so that the customer puts money in our wallet and not the wallets of competitors”. 
As leader of the function, she constantly checks-in with her team to make sure serving the external customer remains their focus: “I ask people: ‘What have you done that’s been helpful to the customer today?; ‘What is it we’re working on that makes our people more efficient or more effective and enables us to serve our fee-paying customers?’” 
To have the greatest impact, Tracey says that HR Directors need to have a clear picture of their current and target customers. “Focus on what kind of customers you want to attract and therefore the type of people you want to employ to serve them. That will be different based on the organisation you work in – there's not a one size fits all,” she says. 
Perhaps the best way to understand your customer, and ensure the business is working with them in mind, is to go and experience what your frontline employees are doing. Joanne did this in her previous role as Group HRD of EasyJet: “I went on flights and sat in the cockpit; I pushed a trolley down the aisle serving drinks; I attended the training that the flight attendants had.  
“You have to immerse yourself in the business and get on the pointy-end of what customer-facing employees are dealing with. When you understand this, you’re better equipped to do your job,” she says. 
Watch and Learn  
To truly understand your customers, you also have to appreciate how their expectations are changing. There is a significant shift underway as we are all demanding a more immediate, personalised service, with a greater focus on the complete experience.   
Gary Kildare, Chief HR Officer of IBM Europe, says: “Organisations and HR teams are having to come to terms with a changing world in which clients and customers have much higher expectations than they ever had before. HRDs are having to consider how they respond to these changes.” 
To discover what your customer is now looking for, Gary says you have to 'hear' their view: “Make sure you listen to what people are saying, because they can see where things can be improved and where you may be able to do a better job.”  
Tech offers new opportunities here. “One advantage of social media is that we have more opportunities to solicit input, take feedback and to act on that,” Gary says. “But businesses have to take the next step and become 'listening' organisations – ready to hear criticism, be open to opinion and willing to make changes.” 
Joshua Tearney, Account Director in the Advisory Practice at Criticaleye, agrees that business leaders need to both understand and act on their customer data. “HRDs have privileged access throughout the organisation and direct access to feedback from employees at all levels, including those on the frontline,” he says.  
“The best HRDs are bringing customer intelligence to discussions at the top table and helping to shape the business strategy. These customer-centric HRDs are the true business partners that all businesses should be looking for.” 

Alice French, Editorial Assistant, Criticaleye 


Findings from Criticaleye’s HRD Retreat Research:
  • 48 percent of HRDs say leadership teams need to improve the quality of debate around strategy 
  • Limited exposure is the number one barrier to HRDs influencing the Board
  • Only 24 percent of HRDs are fully confident the Executive Team has the ability to execute on strategy
  • 87 percent of HRDs are facing business model disruption

To read the full HRD Research report 2019, click here.