By Dave Crisp
There’s a truism I think we all recognize when it’s pointed out — consultants are extremely frustrated by HR departments and we can expect them, as a result, to bad-mouth HR fairly consistently.
There is an endless supply of products and services that purport to improve the functioning of people and the achievement of people-related results in organizations. Since people actually do everything a company does, obviously anything that improves how people work and their productivity, or saves time or effort should be of value. So every consultant has an argument that their product should be championed by the "people-champions" in the organization and the moment they don’t the world is going to hear about it. But is the value worth the cost?
My musing on this for the umpteenth time was set off by a Karl Moore article entitled “Why does HR too often kill innovation,” published in Forbes with co-contributors by David Creelman and Phil LeNir (of Coaching Ourselves), all of whom I respect. This looks once again like a headline writer attempting to snare readership with an inflammatory title. But even so, I take issue with the general thrust.
HR, as they eventually point out, is in a state of evolution and many departments now do what they recommend: “HR often suffers from a bad reputation (often, may I note, through no fault of their own). They are seen to get in the way of the business rather than help it along. HR can go a long way in building rapport with managers if it encourages them to experiment with things they think might work, providing only enough support to ensure there are no uncontained risks. This will lead to rapid learning, happier managers and a better loved HR function.”
At least there’s a nod to constructive advice here I can support.
But the article leads off with a different message: “Whatever you do, please don’t mention this to anyone in HR, they will kill it.”
That quote may sound odd, but it's real. The "it" being kept secret from HR is an innovative learning program. One must assume this is an experience from Coaching Ourselves, which I will say outright I believe is a great program, very inexpensive, that deserves to be embedded in many more organizations.
Having said that, not all programs deserve to be promoted and the suggestion HR kills excellent programs is a lot less true than if one says HR kills a lot of crappy programs that would waste an organization’s hard earned dollars for very little or no return. One of HR’s less pleasant business duties, that in fact prove its worth in truly understanding the business and its objectives, is to keep a lot of inappropriate offers from wasting time and money. There’s no doubt some good programs get killed along the way, often lost in the press of garbage HR managers have to put up with, if I can be blunt.
I’m all for HR stepping up and encouraging managers to try out low cost, high involvement programs like Coaching Ourselves, but I can’t fault them all for not always being able to pick out the differences. Like their line managers, HR is often overwhelmed by the sheer daily demands for their time. Yes, I can see how frustrating it is for consultants. I tried very hard to give them an ear and regretted brushing some off brusquely at times when I was just too busy.
Unfortunately my soft approach often seemed worse. Rather than tell a salesperson outright I thought their product was an expensive, useless waste of time, I’d try to make some positive comment about how it might fit (somewhere else) and explain rationally why we just wouldn’t have the money or time.
Unfortunately with all the rejection salespeople get, that tiny ray of positivity often seemed to just egg them on. They would ask if they could phone again next week, month, quarter, season, year or when else did I think management might have an interest? No matter how much I tried to backpedal at that point, they’d keep phoning, emailing, reminding and reviving their efforts until finally, after sometimes as long as several years, they stopped calling, perhaps having moved elsewhere themselves or just tired out and become disgusted with another recalcitrant HR executive who wouldn’t listen to reason.
The fact is that as much as we hope HR will treat product pitches rationally and recommend those that make sense, we also have to be ready to acknowledge their rationale when a rational manager says "not for us." The idea is that salespeople are supposed to like rejection because, as sales gurus are quick to say, "if you hear no 10 times, you’re that many times closer to hearing yes."
That means, may I point out, a "yes" that comes from another potential client, not from asking me the same question and getting 10 no’s and thinking I will say yes on number 11.
I recall saying no to at least 10 DiSC-type test salespeople from different providers with the same explanation — too expensive at the typical asking price of $75 to $150 per test. I would explain that, in retail, hiring thousands of people a year, we would perhaps consider testing 1,000 or so if the price was maybe one tenth of that and they’d laugh and think they had me on the hook, liking their test, but not with enough budget.
Some walked away, but quite a number kept on phoning to see when the next budget would be. Until finally I tried to stop one guy with the usual "Hey, I know the test type, but it has to be one tenth the usual cost."
He asked, what would that be and I said "maybe $10 a copy."
"No problem," said he. "In fact less if you buy more."
We did — using hundreds if not thousands over the next few years. So all the scoffing from more expensive providers finally got me into the right zone both for us and the new provider.
Sorry that the key in selling is to listen to the customer, but when a buyer, HR or not, says "too expensive, too time-consuming, no fit, or whatever" they shouldn’t have to say "your product sucks" for that to mean "no."
Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com.
HR just isn’t going to promote every product if they are applying the very business skills they’re so frequently accused of not having. But if you’re lucky, they will tell you logically why not and perhaps that can even help you to creatively improve your product instead of accusing them of lack of creative thinking.
Oh, and let me be clear — "not all salespeople are this way." But sorry if I bite back after being bitten a few times too often. If two bites don’t make a right, maybe we can all be more positive with each other. I have no trouble with people telling me constructively what they’d like from HR, but I get upset with people telling the world that most of HR sucks based on these situations. End of rant… for now.