Consumerization is pushing HR technology vendors to embrace customer service or risk losing business.

By Mark Feffer

hen it comes to customer service, Matt Brown wants his HR technology vendors to be proactive.

As manager of systems and technology for Psynergy Programs, a family of residential treatment centers in the San Francisco Bay Area, Brown is in the process of evaluating HR tech providers. As he considers each candidate, he gives a lot of weight to how much access customers have to the vendor’s developers and other technical professionals as opposed to only sales and customer service staff.

Vendors get his attention when they’re willing to help him tailor an implementation to his needs or proactively suggest how processes can be improved. And while he doesn’t expect them to provide his 125-employee business with a dedicated customer service team, he does insist on having easy access to support staffers who are familiar with his company and operations.

Consumerization is pushing HR technology vendors to embrace customer service or risk losing business.

By Mark Feffer

hen it comes to customer service, Matt Brown wants his HR technology vendors to be proactive.

As manager of systems and technology for Psynergy Programs, a family of residential treatment centers in the San Francisco Bay Area, Brown is in the process of evaluating HR tech providers. As he considers each candidate, he gives a lot of weight to how much access customers have to the vendor’s developers and other technical professionals as opposed to only sales and customer service staff.

Vendors get his attention when they’re willing to help him tailor an implementation to his needs or proactively suggest how processes can be improved. And while he doesn’t expect them to provide his 125-employee business with a dedicated customer service team, he does insist on having easy access to support staffers who are familiar with his company and operations.

Consumerization is pushing HR technology vendors to embrace customer service or risk losing business.

By Mark Feffer

hen it comes to customer service, Matt Brown wants his HR technology vendors to be proactive.

As manager of systems and technology for Psynergy Programs, a family of residential treatment centers in the San Francisco Bay Area, Brown is in the process of evaluating HR tech providers. As he considers each candidate, he gives a lot of weight to how much access customers have to the vendor’s developers and other technical professionals as opposed to only sales and customer service staff.

Vendors get his attention when they’re willing to help him tailor an implementation to his needs or proactively suggest how processes can be improved. And while he doesn’t expect them to provide his 125-employee business with a dedicated customer service team, he does insist on having easy access to support staffers who are familiar with his company and operations.

In past years, Brown might have had trouble finding a vendor willing to offer that kind of service. But today, even vendors that focus on smaller businesses are more likely to provide their customers’ HR and IT functions with high-touch, highly accessible contacts who can help resolve issues more quickly.

“The problem with a lot of people is that when I start talking about anything development, they kind of turn and run,” said Brown, who added that he considered ADP, BambooHR, Workday and Namely, among others in his search. “I say, ‘Hey, this is what I’m trying to tackle. At least hear me out. I’m not trying to change your source code. I just need to link a couple of things.’ ”

While many providers offer advanced technical capabilities, the best also pull from service management best practices to improve service quality, customer experience and operational efficiency, said Julie Dodd, chief services officer for Weston, Florida-based Ultimate Software. “Without this, vendors are most likely responding reactively to concerns, adversely affecting both the service provider and customer,” Dodd said.

Once consumers stopped making phone calls to check their bank balances, they expected the same type of conveniences for work tasks.

Brown’s attitude is increasingly common among the IT and HR professionals charged with introducing a new technology solution to their organizations. The reason: consumerization. From smartphones to tablets, restaurant apps to ride-hailing services, the slick, simple-to-use products consumers have integrated into their personal lives are inextricably linked to the success of the self-service HR tools they use at work.

HR, IT professionals and vendors say that once consumers stopped making phone calls to check their bank balances or reserve a hotel room, they inevitably expected employers to provide the same type of convenience for routine tasks like clocking in or requesting vacation time. And HR had a real incentive to meet that expectation: Such simple-to-use self-service tools freed up time for practitioners and business partners to tackle more complex and strategic responsibilities.

However, the consumerization of HR brought with it a critical challenge: providing user support that’s both accessible and effective. When a remote telemarketer can’t clock in because of technical troubles, they don’t call the solutions provider. They call HR, vendors and HR practitioners say. Similarly, if they don’t understand how to navigate a tool, they call HR.

And when HR has to field too many calls, the advantages of self-service disappear as practitioners spend less time on strategic efforts and more on user support.

Despite all that, many HR tech vendors aren’t making the grade. According to a 2016 survey by researcher Kelton Global, 77 percent of HR decision-makers regretted their choice of HR technology provider, and the top reason cited was poor customer service. Sixty-five percent said they should have given more priority to researching their vendor’s support programs, while 62 percent believed customer service is either as or more important than the functionality of the product itself.

Such sentiments are having a real impact on their business, vendors say. “The prioritization of service is a natural extension of the consumerization of service,” said Dodd. “Improving service is key for winning business and retaining customers.”

Building in User Support

Against this background, more vendors are taking a preemptive strategy to customer service. Some are changing their product-development methodologies to include more input from their own customer service staffs so they can better anticipate areas where employees and end-users may run into trouble, then design solutions into the product itself.

At BambooHR, for example, Martell said her team is trained to look at how new releases might impact their intended users, whether they’re employees, managers or HR professionals.

Customers like that approach. “I think if they’re smart, they’re doing that,” said Leslie Kurtz, senior director of human capital management and HR operations for Fortive Corp., a holding company in Louisville, Kentucky. (Fortive is close to selecting a new HR technology vendor, though Kurtz declined to identify who that will be.)

Self-service, Kurtz observed, “looks totally different today than it did even five years ago.” In 2013, tools addressed what she called table-stakes tasks like approving an employee’s time-off request or changing their address. “It’s taken on a different layer,” she said. “When you think about that consumer-grade experience, that’s what people are going for.”

End users generally ask how-to types of questions, observed Karen Williams, executive vice president of product strategy and customer services for Dublin, California-based Saba Software. Those often can be answered by features that walk users through a task on the screen, she said. At the same time, such an approach emphasizes the importance of usability. “Simplifying and making the user experience more intuitive makes it easier for the user, which decreases their dependence both on us and their administrators.”

Marc Farrugia goes further. The vice president of human resources at Sun Communities, a Michigan-based real estate company with properties in the United States and Canada, thinks ease of use touches every part of the self-service world.

How Simplicity Drives Advanced Technology

A big driver of HR technology’s push for consumerization has been the cloud, said Pete Tiliakos, Atlanta-based principal analyst with market researcher NelsonHall. In the past, employers purchased on-premise software and lived with it, for better or worse, because of the complexity and expense involved in replacing it. However, the cloud allows technology to be more flexible and more easily updated, so today’s solutions providers have become more attuned to customer service than their predecessors may have been.

Because customers expect their products to evolve with their needs, vendors “have to stay in front of what the next thing is to keep those customers sticky to their product,” Tiliakos said.

“We’re finally getting to where technology has created a customer service environment where the majority of what needs to be done is getting done on the front end, by the employee,” at what technical support professionals call “tier zero.” Tier one, where users reach out to have basic questions resolved, is becoming less of an emphasis, allowing support staffs to spend time on more complex issues, Tiliakos said. Because employees have become empowered to address more of their own tasks directly, both in terms of self-service and support, “we’ve really created a point where tier zero is where it’s all kind of happening.”

In today’s environment, “the user and the client are really driving how the system is being shaped and how it’s being configured,” Tiliakos said. “Some [vendors] are boasting that 50-plus percent of their enhancements are coming directly from their users.”

As a result, “now more than ever they’re focused on going to the source and saying that they’re designing around the employee, or they’re designing around the practitioner, and they’re not designing around the process.”

— Mark Feffer

“It encourages adoption, which decreases the need for training and resources and support,” he said. “So to me, probably the most critical thing from an internal customer service standpoint is making things run simple.”

Behind Every End User Is Strong IT

Consumerization isn’t only about end-user tools. As the IT professionals charged with implementing solutions demand more interaction and access, vendors must support two types of user: the individual employees who use their products, and the employer’s HR and IT staffs who identify, implement and administer the technology suite.

“I think about convenience, I think about availability, responsiveness and accuracy,” said Heather Brooks, associate vice president for administration and finance and director of human resources for Thomas Edison State University, a distance-learning institution in Trenton, New Jersey.

An autonomous state agency, the university also administers the New Jersey State Library. That imposes a number of unique complexities on the HR processes it uses to manage the combined workforce of 425 employees, Brooks said.

Her team must coordinate processing payroll for library employees following the state’s centralized payroll schedule and pensions systems. “For us, customer service is very important because we’re really quite specialized,” she said. “We certainly don’t want any issues when it comes to paying employees.”

Thomas Edison, which uses ADP’s HR platform Workforce Now, saw relationship management as a key point to evaluate while it reviewed proposals, Brooks said. “Having one person who understands you and your needs is really helpful when implementing new technology,” she said. The university implemented payroll first, followed by recruitment, onboarding, performance evaluations and finally time and attendance. “There are different pieces of it, but we always stuck with the same relationship person,” she said.

Relationship-Based Service

Whatever size the employer, downplaying the importance of a vendor’s customer service can be a big mistake, said Tim Gregory, director of HR innovation and workforce technology at Corning Inc., in New York. “The alternative is to be stranded out there” at a time when “there’s so much disruptive tech coming into the enterprise through HR,” he said.

Since advances in mobile devices and app design have made many self-service tools as simple to use as consumer products, a vendor’s commitment is necessary to ensure solutions consistently meet expectations. If an update causes unforeseen problems downstream, HR and IT teams need to know the vendor can quickly provide the necessary fixes.

“You need a strong and good and reliable relationship, and that’s what you want to find out about as a buyer,” said Holger Mueller, vice president and principal of Constellation Research, a Silicon Valley-based technology research and consulting firm. No matter how small or large the employer, companies must pursue their own due diligence in their own vetting of potential vendors and not simply rely on the vendor’s references.

“They’re going to talk to you a little more honestly than the vendor-provided references,” he said. Mueller also believes it’s important to identify companies that are of similar size and in a business that operates much like yours.

To many customers, support has become so important to their purchasing decisions that they begin evaluating a vendor’s approach at the start of their discussions. “It was actually a big, big part of what we were looking at throughout the process,” said Gregory. “Even at the very beginning of it.”

In fact, Gregory said Corning’s decision in 2015 to replace its aging HR system with SAP SuccessFactors was influenced by the vendor’s willingness to accommodate the complicated meeting schedules of Corning’s global staff and quickly respond to information requests from different stakeholders. Other vendors were much less flexible or easygoing, Gregory recalled, and Corning’s team interpreted SuccessFactors’ attitude as a sign of how it would approach implementation and support.

Vetting customer service may be especially important for smaller customers, many experts said. “If you’re a smaller organization, you probably don’t have a lot of IT infrastructure,” said Saba’s Williams. “You definitely want to make sure that if you have an issue, you’ll have someone to call who will understand what you’re talking about.”


Mark Feffer covers HR, analytics and related technologies from his base near Philadelphia. He is editor of the HCM Technology Report. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.