Contributors

Critical Measures

 Gauging customer satisfaction in HR outsourcing requires an eye on factors far beyond delivery of service.
 
By Debbi Dameshek, Lisa Spence, Veronica Perl, Melanie Alexander, and Bryan Sansbury, Hewitt Associates

 
 
When employees interface with an HRO provider, their stress level is usually high. Something has gone wrong, or they perceive that something has gone wrong: a paycheck is smaller than expected, a request for time-off has been denied, or enrolling dependents in the company’s health plan is proving more problematic than expected. These are emotional, sensitive topics, and employees need a knowledgeable, patient guide to help them maneuver through the often twisted maze of HR policies and practices.
 
Even routine matters, like a change of address, can be stressful and confusing. Employees want to take care of what they need and then get back to their jobs and their lives. If they don’t feel they’ve received the kind of service they expected, they may call the service center repeatedly, driving up costs. Meanwhile, HR is left with unhappy employees, and department members might feel that they have let their people down.
 
That’s why it is critical to keep a finger on the pulse of customer satisfaction. After all, who knows the quality of service being provided better than actual customers? Any company engaged in an HRO relationship has ready access to a wealth of customer satisfaction data through its provider, which invariably conducts customer satisfaction surveys on a regular basis. The resulting data provides a vivid picture of how employees feel about the quality of service they receive. A standard component of the HRO relationship, customer service surveys provide client organizations with access to far more metrics than they could ever develop on their own.
 
 
Drivers of Satisfaction
Standardized customer satisfaction surveys measure satisfaction in a consistent and actionable way by tracking an employee’s overall approval or disapproval of both the call and the rep who provided assistance. This is best accomplished by focusing on the key drivers of customer satisfaction.
 
Traditional customer satisfaction measures focused on metrics such as average call time, abandonment rate, first call resolution, system availability, and percentage of calls answered in 30 seconds. While these are all important measures, we advocate moving beyond basic metrics and focusing specifically on the reps’ knowledge and their ability to resolve customer requests. These include:
 
Personal Service. Does the rep know who is calling and why? Is he or she aware of any special requirements the caller might have?
 
Knowledge. Does the representative have a thorough understanding of the issue? Is the representative able to offer additional assistance to the employee beyond what the customer is specifically requesting?
 
Confidence Building.  Does the rep effectively reassure the customer that he or she understands the issue and will handle it for the employee in a timely manner?
 
Timely Resolution. Does the rep follow through and resolve the issue as promised?

 
Additional drivers such as courtesy simply are must-haves. A service center with rude associates will invariably find itself struggling to achieve high levels of customer satisfaction. That’s not to suggest good manners can override poor service.
 
On the contrary, courtesy has little ability to boost satisfaction scores. No matter how friendly and polite the rep, poor service is still poor service, and the resulting score will reflect that fact. However, if a caller perceives service is poor, a lack of courtesy can further sink an already bad score.
 
Understandably, satisfaction drivers vary from channel to channel. Someone who accessed services via the Web would not have valid feedback with regard to a call center rep’s knowledge or his ability to build a caller’s confidence that he or she will actually resolve an issue on the employee’s behalf. Rather, ease of use is a more appropriate key driver for users of a web-based, self-service system. Thus, customer satisfaction surveys should be tailored to the specific channels being used.
 
 
Strategic Partnerships
When evaluating customer satisfaction survey results, remember that an HRO relationship is a partnership. While it’s easy to assume that customer satisfaction rests solely with the provider, the employer plays a big role in making sure employees’ issues are handled promptly and accurately. If an issue isn’t resolved on the first call, for example, the ability to reach resolution may fall back on the employer, as more information or clarification may be required.
 
Survey results often pave the way for internal improvements. If a respondent indicates a question wasn’t answered to his or her satisfaction, the provider and client can review an actual recording of the call to identify the problem and evaluate whether any changes need to be made on either side of the partnership.
 
For the provider, that may entail additional training for associates, technology upgrades, or new online, self-service tools that give people the ability to interface when, where, and how they prefer. When trends are identified early, customer satisfaction data can actually help head off bigger problems. When one of our clients acquired another company, for example, Hewitt segmented survey data in such a way that we were able to report on a daily basis where the majority of calls originated and what issues were on peoples’ minds. That enabled us to train customer service associates at individual call centers on hot topics and questions they should expect.
 
Employers, meanwhile, may recognize the need to fortify HR staff or expand their hours of operation to better provide the support their people need. In some instances, survey findings may even lead to policy changes. An extraordinarily high number of complaints or exceptions, for example, may point to the need to revise a particular policy.
 
Widespread confusion over a specific benefit may indicate that existing communication efforts have been ineffective, thus calling for a new approach to employee education. Granted, survey results can be skewed because those employees who were dissatisfied with the service they received are more likely to respond. Employers can help ensure more accurate results by encouraging employees to participate in the survey should they be contacted. Employee newsletters and other communication vehicles can prove quite helpful in boosting participation by stressing the importance of their input. HR can also use such opportunities to reassure employees that their responses are confidential and they should have no fear of retribution if their feedback is less than positive.
 
 
Making Comparisons
Whenever survey data is discussed, the issue of benchmarking inevitably comes up. In terms of HRO, benchmarking against other organizations—even those in the same industry—might not always be useful, because HRO initiatives can differ vastly from company to company. And what drives customer satisfaction for one company might be very different from what drives customer satisfaction for another.
 
Harried financial services employees might have little regard for basic niceties like “How are you?” or “Is there anything else I can help you with today?” In their rush to get back to the trading floor, they might simply hang up after receiving the desired information.

 
Employees in other industries might expect an entirely different experience. One Hewitt client, a Midwestern pharmaceutical company with a large number of retirees, doesn’t care if calls run 25 minutes or longer because, say, the caller wants to talk about a recent fishing expedition with his grandson. They encourage such exchanges, in fact, because that’s what will please their retiree population.
 
Where benchmarking proves most helpful is in looking for trends across an organization’s own customer satisfaction data over time. Working in conjunction with their provider, a company can identify whether key drivers increased or decreased in a statistically significant way from the previous quarter, for example. This allows them to take appropriate action.
 
While customer satisfaction data is incredibly valuable in terms of the feedback garnered, it has its limitations. Respondents could be angry if their employer is denying their request for time off and will rate the provider poorly as a result. During open enrollment, meanwhile, most interactions are business-as-usual and few contentious issues arise. Employees are more likely to rate the provider positively at this time.
 
Clearly, it’s important to review survey results in context to gain perspective on what lies behind high or low customer satisfaction scores. Recently, we saw one client whose customer satisfaction ratings dropped dramatically in the second quarter. A major hotel chain that prides itself on providing stellar customer service to both internal and external customers recently experienced a sudden decline in ratings from more than 90 percent to 79 percent. As we got behind the data, we discovered that at the time of the survey, the company had been in a compensation cycle during which it gave no increases. It had also just announced a number of layoffs, resulting in an onslaught of calls related to severance payouts. In other words, the people calling Hewitt had not received much good news.
 
By putting the numbers in context, we were able to discover that the root cause of the low scores was not necessarily an indicator of poor performance by the service reps.
 
Therefore, identifying the root cause enabled us to manage the situation jointly with our client, resulting in a stronger offering and more satisfied employees in the end. Clearly the success of any outsourcing engagement is in part dictated by the employee experience. However, employers should be diligent in accounting for additional factors influencing customer satisfaction other than service delivery alone, regardless of whether those scores are increasing or decreasing. 

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