How to be a Strategic HR Business Partner to Your Clients

If you’re in HR, you may be familiar with this common lament – “We want to stop being treated like a pair of hands and start being treated like a strategic business partner.” You want your clients to listen to your advice, to include you in strategic conversations, to seek your input before embarking on major initiatives. You want to have influence over your clients’ decisions and actions.

But what do you do when you get an audience with a senior client? Do you take some solution or product that you want your client to buy into – perhaps it’s team coaching, action learning, employee engagement, or some kind of training? Do you focus on what’s good about it from your own point of view, and assume the client will agree that this is valuable?


How HR Managers Sabotage Themselves With Clients

For example, a HR manager was trying to sell a talent management system to her company’s project governance board. She wanted this system because it would allow her group to better track the knowledge and skills of employees. But do line executives care about that enough to allocate budget to it? How would this capability be useful to her audience? Would she get their attention more if she showed them how this system would allow them to more quickly fill temporary staffing gaps?  speed up recruiting? help managers more easily and efficiently complete annual employee development plans? Now she’s talking – those are all issues that give her line managers headaches.

Your clients don’t care about a talent management system or an employee engagement survey or training – they care about accomplishing their goals and the actions that will help them do that. If you focus on your product or solution, you haven’t demonstrated the connection between what you’re offering and the goals they care most about.  Or, perhaps you have dragged out the usual generic suspects ­“This will save you time,” “increase efficiency,” “have a positive ROI,” “increase retention.” Those are all good goals, but they’re too broad – they don’t get to the heart of what’s keeping your client up at night.


A More Powerful Client Conversation

What can you do to show your client the compelling value of what you’re offering?

1-Start with the client’s viewpoint. 

Before you talk with your client, think about:

  • How does this business leader see their role?
  • What impact are they trying to have?
  • What stakeholders or customers are they trying to influence?
  • What are their major goals this year?
  • What challenges are they experiencing in reaching their goals?

When you get in the room with the client, start by sharing what you think they care about, and ask whether you’re on target. That will give you additional information to refine your initial picture, and you will also show your client that you care about tuning into what’s most important to them. Even if you’re a little off-base in your initial hypothesis, this puts you ahead.

2-Frame whatever you’re proposing in the context of that viewpoint.

Your task is to make a link between the interests your client just validated, and the solution or approach that you’re offering. How do you do this?

  • Clearly explain how your proposed solution will be useful in helping them advance their goals.
  • Don’t just link it to their interests, but to their most important interests.

What if you got in the room and the client told you something that changed your view of their interests?  Perhaps you will need to re-think the rest of your conversation, and come back later.  Don’t you think your client will appreciate that you want to take the time to make sure what you’re proposing is right on target with what they care about?

3-Honor resistance.

If you think you’ve linked your proposal to the client’s viewpoint and they still resist, one of two things is likely to be happening. Either you haven’t made a powerful enough case for how your proposed action will address the client’s interests, or the client has additional interests that you haven’t uncovered. You need to treat their resistance as valid, and dig deeper. You may have to use “re-framing,” to help them get a new perspective on the actions that will and won’t help them reach their goals. Or, you may have to adjust your proposal, or take additional steps to make it work for them.

The Fears That Get In The Way Of Powerful Client Conversations

Sounds like a simple formula, right? Well, it’s simple, but it’s not easy. There are many reasons why HR partners resist doing these things, even when presented with this approach. Many of these reasons revolve around fear:

  • fear of being wrong in their guess about client’s viewpoint and hearing a “no”
  • fear of offending the client and damaging the relationship – challenging the client’s right to define their own need, demanding too much of the client’s time, being seen as unresponsive to what the client is asking for

What these folks aren’t seeing – what we try to help them see when we coach them – is that engaging with clients in this different, more challenging way actually promises to strengthen the relationship rather than threaten it, promises to satisfy the client’s deeper interests rather than just their stated interests. Clients want a strategic partner who is willing to tell them the difficult things. It’s worth it, and it brings unexpected rewards.

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