Using gracious service and warm hospitality to make stressed-out customers happy is an art form at Delta Air Lines, but can its employees feel the love when HR functions are outsourced?
Crowded airports and hectic schedules raise the bar for making air travel a pleasure, but Delta Air Lines tackles that challenge every day. Recently emerging from 19 months in bankruptcy, Delta has restructured operations, grown its network, improved its balance sheet, and changed its cost structure—all while maintaining high levels of customer satisfaction.
Outsourcing its day-to-day human resources functions was one of the significant challenges Delta took on in 2005. Now, two years after embarking on the journey, Delta’s resurgence is an appropriate occasion to recount lessons learned and chart the future.
• Lesson One: Be Prepared. Reading books about parenting did not fully prepare me for having children. There is just no substitute for living it. The same is true of outsourcing, yet I still think of the Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared.
Prepare your workforce, prepare your service provider, and prepare for a learning curve. Our workforce knew the business case for change. Our company’s survival was at stake. We spent a lot of energy to create a strong, seamless user experience, but people should also understand when the outsourcing provider is handling the work. It is also important to assimilate the provider into your culture. We had the advantage of many former Delta employees taking jobs with our provider. The bottom line is that outsourcing is a change management process of big proportions.
• Lesson Two: Have a Clear Scope. Even before we married, my wife made it clear that anything outside the exterior walls of any home we ever lived in would fall under my care. More than a decade later, the outdoors has never ever been an issue. It’s rare to get that kind of clarity in an HRO statement of work, but it’s an objective worth pursuing.
Common sense requires that statements of work be as detailed as possible. What is the predicted outcome? What is the HRO provider going to do to make that happen … on time and on budget? What internal resources will be required? In our world, the fewer surprises, the better.
• Lesson Three: Stay Focused. I have tremendous respect for our pilots. They know how to deal with any eventuality in the course of getting our passengers safely to their destinations. Staying focused on success despite the inevitable distractions is critical.
We learned that the transformation to an outsourced environment is evolutionary and likely will be for any organization. Not everything you envision will be functional and not everything will be perfect on your go-live date. Satisfaction levels will likely dip and rebound. But by communicating and keeping realistic expectations—among senior management and your employee customers—you can rise through the clouds and keep your goals in sight.
• Lesson Four: Measure Quality. Having a great trip may start with your plane being on time, but that is only the beginning. We know passengers also want clean planes, reliable baggage service, and helpful agents. Likewise, satisfying employees who have questions or need assistance takes more than simply answering their calls on the second ring.
The services your employees receive—and the health of your outsourcing relationships—are well worth capturing and go beyond the routine statistics you might normally track. Identify what quality looks like for your organization, and build appropriate measures into your service level agreements.
• Lesson Five: Govern Fairly. As in the case of the pig that was once allowed to board a flight (thankfully, not ours) and famously ran amok, some rules need to be defined right up front.
Establish an appropriate governance model before the relationship actually begins. Spell out rules of engagement, and communicate them. Identify how to address emerging issues fairly, consistently, and promptly. Have executive sponsor champions within your company and at your partner’s organization. It is in your service provider’s best interest to provide great customer service, and the customer benefits more when your service provider is operationally and financially successful, too.
These “lessons learned” are often hard-earned. We have accomplished quite a bit in the past two years and are focused on more improvements for the future. You can commit our lessons to memory, but in the long run, knowing them will be just like reading an article on parenting—you will learn much, much more as you go down the road yourself. Safe travels.