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Five insights HR can gain from marketing

By Dr. David Weiss


The human resources profession has undergone major transformation in the past decade, which has delivered much greater value to organizations.

HR departments have become far more outcomes-focused and have advanced their ability to meet the talent requirements needed to help their organizations be successful now and in the future. What’s the next stage for HR? How can HR continue to develop and mature? Is there a best practice that HR can leverage to further define how it could create value for its organization?
HR can further enhance its contribution to its organization by utilizing practices and processes that are well developed in marketing. Here are five insights HR can gain from marketing to reach for the next level of value.


Insight 1: Hear the voice of the external customer

A major challenge for HR presented in my book, Leadership-Driven HR (Wiley, 2013), was that HR needs to take an “outside-in” perspective with a clear line of sight to the external customer. Some HR professionals argue that they should not be concerned with hearing the voice of the external customer since HR’s work is within the organization and not with the external customer. This argument is shortsighted and reinforces HR’s role as an internal administrative service.

When HR takes an outside-in perspective, HR defines priorities based on work that eventually delivers greater value to the external customer. Although, how is that achieved if most of HR’s work is done internally? The most obvious way is for HR to engage with external customers directly. Some do that by having all senior HR staff visit a customer location once per month or by linking in with their HR counterparts in the customer organizations. However, these approaches are often not sustainable over the longer term. A more sustainable approach is to align HR with marketing because marketing is the department that is expected to hear the voice of the customer on an ongoing basis.

When HR hears the voice of the external customer, HR begins to describe its work differently. Instead of saying HR will do a training program that will build leadership capacity, HR says the external customers need a certain kind of value and the organization will develop leaders to deliver that value. When HR professionals hear the voice of the external customer, they elevate HR’s contribution from a service provider to a business partner. If HR professionals only think internally, then a senior leader is the customer and HR is a service provider. By focusing on the senior leaders’ customer, HR functions as a partner to the leaders to co-develop solutions for that customer.

The arguments are compelling that HR needs to hear the voice of the external customer regularly and effectively. In order to do this, HR should become familiar with marketing’s customer research and analytics. Marketing regularly does customer surveys and understands customers’ perception of the organization. If HR professionals understand those findings as well, they can use that knowledge to define what should be their priorities internally to deliver maximum value to the external customer.


Insight 2: Focus on finding hidden talent

HR has developed considerable expertise in talent selection, increasing the probability that they can choose the best candidate from a group of candidates. The new recruitment frontier is finding hidden talent – i.e., candidates who should be working at their organization, but these candidates are not applying or do not even know the organization exists.

HR’s current efforts to use social media to find hidden talent parallels how marketing uses social media to attract new customers and retain existing customers. Another effective way to discover hidden talent is to develop an “employment brand,” which is the labour market’s perception of employment in your organization. Essentially, HR organizations use their business’s marketing approach to produce and service branding for their recruitment advertising and the creation of a powerful employment brand. The employment brand packages all employment initiatives under an integrated set of symbols and key messages. The messages must be clear and consistent – if not, your employment brand message may be lost. A good example of a successful employment brand is one promoted by a major retail organization that developed an employment brand by re-using the exact colors, promotional materials and language included in its advertisements and brand development to the external customer.

HR should develop an employment brand that is appealing to current and potential employees as well as to “hidden talent.” They should align the employment brand tightly with the marketing brand that is known to customers and ensure that the employment brand reinforces the marketing brand.


Insight 3: Link employee engagement data to customer satisfaction data

Many HR leaders are using engagement survey data as a primary source to define what their priorities are each year. That process is a positive development and one that should be encouraged. However, how does HR set priorities among the many issues identified in the employee engagement survey? Too often, the priorities are set based upon the top engagement gaps. However, addressing the greatest engagement gaps may not be the real organizational priority. An alternative approach is to examine the employee engagement data through the lens of the customer satisfaction data (most often collected by marketing). Table One shows the link between customer satisfaction and employee engagement survey results.


Table One Low Customer Satisfaction Result High Customer Satisfaction Results
High Employee Engagement Results Why is the engagement high if customer satisfaction is low? How can high engagement be reinforced to continue to contribute to high customer satisfaction?
Low Employee Engagement Result How does low engagement contribute to low customer satisfaction? Is the low engagement an early warning sign that the high customer satisfaction is at risk?


To clarify the approach, divide it into the above four quadrants. Suggest that HR place its priorities from their employee engagement survey results on the following quadrants:
High-level priority. Customer satisfaction is low and employee engagement is low. In these situations there is a reasonable proposition that the two results are connected. HR should diagnose the low engagement results with a line of sight to how it impacts customer satisfaction.

Mid-level priority. Customer satisfaction is high and employee engagement is low. No organization wants employees to be disengaged; that negativity over the long run can often be counterproductive. However, in this situation, when employee engagement is low it might also mean that the positive customer satisfaction is at risk. This early warning sign should heighten the organization’s concern so that they repair the negative employee engagement before it impacts the way customers are experiencing the organization.

Mid-level priority. Customer satisfaction is low and employee engagement is high. In this situation one might wonder why employee engagement is high if the customers are dissatisfied? It is possible that this group of employees might have limited impact on the customer experience, so the findings are unrelated to each other. However, if employees do have an impact on the customer experience, then HR should investigate if the high employee engagement reflects complacency or if they are working towards low standards. Perhaps, for this particular group, new standards and changes need to be implemented to raise customer satisfaction.

Lower-level priority. Customer satisfaction is high and employee engagement is high. In these situations where both customer satisfaction and employee engagement are high, HR should find ways to celebrate these outcomes, showcase them to the rest of the organization and use them as a way to further reinforce the kind of culture where strong customer satisfaction and employee engagement occur.


Insight 4: Determine the return on investment of human capital

HR has struggled with the notion of return on investment (ROI) of human capital for many years. In my second book, High Performance HR (Wiley, 2000), I argue that HR needs to become effective at calculating the ROI in human capital. Since then, other theorists have written about that expectation as well. I also reinforced this idea in my seventh book, Leadership-Driven HR (Wiley, 2013), as a core organizational capability.

This capability is more easily said than done. In my executive development classes on Strategic HR, I often ask what the mathematical formula for ROI is and most participants do not know the answer. I then tell them that ROI, is a literal description of the formula of “return divided by investment” or R/I. I then ask which part of the formula is easier for HR to calculate, and they all answer the investment denominator. The numerator, representing the economic return on HR work, is hard to calculate because there are so many factors that can contribute to return, so it is difficult for HR to take credit for it.

The recommendation for HR is that they can learn from marketing how to claim partial credit. Just as marketing claims partial credit for building a brand that delivers a return on intangible assets, HR can also claim partial credit for the return associated with building an employment brand. HR can extend this argument to all of its programs. For example, HR should claim a percentage of the return if engagement survey results improve, if an effective total reward system realigns behaviours, if a leadership development program contributes to improved organizational performance, if the culture aligns better with strategy and if change is implemented effectively.

The outcome of this ROI of human capital approach should be an internal repositioning of HR as an investment rather than as a cost in the same way that marketing is perceived as an investment rather than a cost.


Insight 5: Take ownership of internal communications

Edmund Jerome McCarthy proposed the concept of the four Ps Marketing Mix in his classic book, Basic Marketing: A Managerial Approach. The four high-level categories known as the “Four Ps of Marketing” are price, product, promotion and place. Although the Four Ps have evolved significantly over the years, one key feature that is instructive for HR is that marketing owns promotion. Marketing is accountable for developing the communication strategies and programs to highlight to the customer the key product features and benefits for the right price and distributed to the customer at the right place.

Unfortunately, in many organizations, HR has little to no control over internal promotions, often referred to as internal communications. In many organizations, internal communications are viewed as add-ons to external communications and often report into a communications unit that frequently places priority on external over internal communications. The result is HR may have great programs and processes, but they lack “voice” – the ability to communicate with employees directly and inspire them to take action. This approach is a missed opportunity for the organization and puts HR programs and processes at risk of not being heard, understood and implemented.

Some HR leaders report that they have advanced this issue by having dedicated communication partners for internal communications just as there are dedicated business partners for HR from finance and information technology. However, that only improves HR’s ability to communicate its programs and processes – it doesn’t give HR the opportunity to be the trusted organizational voice to employees.

Now imagine an organization where HR has the accountability for internal promotion just as marketing has accountability for external promotion. HR would be accountable for developing the organization’s communication strategies and programs for all messages to employees. HR would become the trusted voice to employees that keeps them informed about all developments of interest to them. HR would then be able to leverage their internal communications to explain key features and benefits of various HR programs and processes. The outcome would be that employees would more readily implement HR programs and be more engaged with the organization’s priorities.

There are some organizations that have heeded this advice and divided internal and external communications by placing internal communications within HR. The anecdotal feedback has been very positive. HR leaders can communicate regularly to shape culture and enhance engagement, and they more easily can influence leaders and employees to put into practice HR programs and processes. At the same time, the overall organization benefits from the enhanced engagement and greater connectivity with its leaders and employees.
HR has a lot to gain from linking more closely to the positioning and processes deployed by marketing. When HR applies these five insights, their credibility will be enhanced and they will have a solid platform from which they can reach the next level of value creation for their organization.


Dr. David S. Weiss, PhD, ICD.D, FCHRE, is president and CEO of Weiss International Ltd. Attend Dr. Weiss’ presentation, “What HR Strategy Can Learn from Marketing,” on Feb. 1 at 7 a.m.



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