Small- to mid-market employers' expectations for HR technology support often significantly exceed reality. Many organizations purchase a service upgrade but fail to ask the right questions to ensure the upgraded service meets expectations.
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Author: Edward F. Barry


Employers' expectations for human resources technology support significantly exceed reality in most instances, especially in the small- to mid-market. As a result, many HR leaders purchase a service "upgrade." Yet, our HR tech consultants regularly hear from frustrated clients who believe they aren't getting the promised service.

In most cases, the client and the provider share responsibility for this situation. While HR tech sales teams may not intentionally promote a service they can't deliver, employers make assumptions about service that they don't confirm with the provider. If what they hear sounds better than what they currently have, they'll bite. At the same time, few providers spell out precisely what the service package does and doesn't include, the standard service process and when clients can expect a resolution.

The decline and return of HR tech service

After observing years of declining service, we see more HR tech companies return to offering "dedicated" service using one team or point person for a single client, for a price. Large enterprise organizations benefit from such dedicated service — sometimes at no cost — while smaller organizations pay substantially for this level of service, if it's available at all.

In defense of tech providers, offering dedicated service to small clients isn't financially feasible, given the labor cost. The math doesn't work unless the customer service manager supports four to six clients. In this scenario, the support is referred to as "designated" versus dedicated service.

Few clients focus on the difference between dedicated and designated. Would-be clients often assume a tech contact will focus solely on their account. The salesperson is unlikely to clarify that designated service may be nothing more than a call center serving other clients. It may take months or even a year — support tends to be strongest immediately following implementation — before a client grasps the limitations of their upgraded service package. Hence the frustration.

Theoretically, one account manager should be able to provide service to multiple smaller clients effectively. In reality, service needs increase for everyone at the same time. Examples include during open enrollment, year-end (W-2s and 1095s) or following a regulatory change. Also, scheduled vacation and other temporary staffing reductions mean there are times when the primary service contact is unavailable. In these instances, a generalist may step in but not be able to solve every issue (which is an argument against dedicated support for multi-function platforms).

What to do when your upgrade service falls short of expectations

When tech service falls short of your expectations, you may turn to your benefits advisor first to voice your frustration. However, benefit brokers are limited in what they can do. Because the contract serves you and the provider, some providers won't talk to brokers because brokers aren't a party to the agreement. Instead, calling your account manager is the right first step.

Depending on the size of the account, becoming a squeaky wheel can pay off. Typically, however, a provider will redirect you to a salesperson who will try to upsell to a higher level of service.

Employers have little recourse at this point unless they're prepared to accept the penalties for breaking the contract. Providers will risk losing smaller clients over service issues because those clients represent a small percentage of the tech provider's overall business. Your best strategy in this case may be to learn from experience and become a savvier buyer in the future.

Avoid post-purchase service upgrade surprises

Before you buy a service upgrade, learn as much about the service package as possible. You might consider engaging an HR technology consultant to do the heavy lifting. These professionals understand the market and know the players. If you plan to do your own sourcing, use the following questions to help you understand the provider's service offering more fully to avoid post-purchase surprises.

  • What specific service support do I get? If the response is a call center or service pod, you're getting the basic service provided to every client. You want to hear specific service commitments, such as guaranteed resolution/turnaround times based on the severity of your problem.
  • How do you define dedicated or designated support? Ideally, you want dedicated resources that you won't share with other companies. This service level is typically unavailable to small- and mid-size organizations. If it's a designated service, ask how many organizations your customer support team will support. The number of provider employees is irrelevant; the question is about understanding their system. Ideally, your service group includes 10 organizations or fewer.
  • What is your service upgrade model — in-house team, outsourced, certified technicians? There's no right answer. However to manage expectations, you want to understand the model and any associated limitations fully.
  • What is the exact function/role of the service account manager? In most instances, the account manager's job isn't to resolve a problem, but to coordinate the resources necessary for a resolution — which may not happen immediately.
  • What formal service agreements do you have with a consultant or third parties? Many technological functions require third-party assistance, especially if you need work done quickly. For instance, if you need help correcting set-up or eligibility rules or repairing the connection between a carrier and the provider, you may work with a third-party consultant. Review the service menu listing costs, including companies certified on the provider's software. See third-party ecosystems below.
  • What procedure exists if I have a problem after hours? You want to hear that there's an emergency call center or contact number for your account manager.
  • Is there an escalation path to follow if an issue remains unresolved? Escalation processes vary depending on front-line support and typically require the provider to escalate the issue; you can't bypass a step. Ask about options such as a specialty service line if a failure occurs at the first line of service and an account manager is unavailable or unable to resolve the issue. (Note: the provider defines "failure.")
  • How long will it take to put a new carrier file in place if I change carriers? At Gallagher, we consider any time longer than four months to be unacceptable; however, some reputable providers take as many as six months. The best scenario is 90 days or fewer to create the file. Expect another 90 days to perfect it. Longer times may not be a deal breaker, but you should plan to pay someone else to do the work if long turnaround times create other problems.

Repeat back to the provider what you believe you're getting for the most critical service areas and ask the provider to confirm and spell out the service in your contract. If the provider refuses, it's a red flag you need to pursue. Ask for and check references. In our experience, few clients follow up on references. Such checking is important, however, because even satisfied clients may share information that informs your decision.

Balancing priorities

Service satisfaction is often about balancing priorities. How much are you willing to pay for better service? If the bottom line is the priority, consider the organizational cost of ineffective service. In the long run, are you paying more for lack of productivity, employee dissatisfaction and turnover or other indirect or hidden costs? Unfortunately, many providers don't offer top-of-line service to small organizations — even those prepared to pay for it.

Regardless of your ability to upgrade and pay for higher service support, retaining mental ownership of the software is essential for long-term satisfaction. Too often, clients stop engaging with their software, reading release notes and participating in provider training, instead preferring to call someone to fix the problem. Such as mindset can quickly lead to bigger and potentially costly problems.

Pick your battles

No service provider delivers 100% satisfaction 100% of the time. If your service provider says no to your service request, only you can decide if that's acceptable. You can live with the shortfall in service or change providers. We recommend picking your battles. Stay focused on the big picture and those implications that impact your organizational priorities and drive productivity.

Explore the third-party ecosystem

The robust third-party HR tech ecosystems largely grew out of software providers' inability to meet clients' service demands. The provider may outsource service as needed, leaving the client with no say in who provides the service. Some providers outsource 100% of their service, including implementation, so clients work with the de facto provider under a different brand. The provider may also certify or endorse multiple companies to provide tech support.

A provider-endorsed or default tech support company may not necessarily represent your best option. Depending on the provider's service model, third-party relationships, and your ability to choose who provides the service, you may be better off paying only for the software and independently sourcing implementation and service support.

How Gallagher can help

Gallagher's HR technology consultants engage with providers daily, giving us a solid understanding of the market. We're experts at defining and matching clients' needs to best-fit provider offerings. Contact us to discuss options for your HR technology service support needs.


Author Information


Consulting and insurance brokerage services to be provided by Gallagher Benefit Services, Inc. and/or its affiliate Gallagher Benefit Services (Canada) Group Inc. Gallagher Benefit Services, Inc. is a licensed insurance agency that does business in California as "Gallagher Benefit Services of California Insurance Services" and in Massachusetts as "Gallagher Benefit Insurance Services." Neither Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., nor its affiliates provide accounting, legal or tax advice.