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Training: Don't ignore the soft skills.
By John Tschohl
Saturday, 11th June 2005
 
Customer service is the cornerstone of a successful business, and training is the cornerstone of customer service. If you train your employees in the skills that will allow them to do their jobs with skill and efficiency, they will provide exceptional customer service. And, if you provide your customers with exceptional customer service, they-and their money-will return to you week after week, year after year.

Also critical to your success is the focus of the training you provide. Many training programs concentrate on technical skills, completely ignoring the soft skills-which include listening to and understanding what the customer is saying-that are vital elements of customer service. They fail to realize that how employees treat customers is every bit as important as their mastery of the technological systems your company has in place. Put another way, it is not enough for an employee to know how to use a computer to solve a customer's problem, the employee also must be trained to ask the appropriate questions to determine the cause of that problem and to empathize with the customer in the process.

Before developing or purchasing a training program, you must identify both the technical skills and the soft skills your employees need in order to take care of your customers. For example, call centers typically spend 80 percent of new hire training time on products, 10 percent on call center systems, and the rest on hard and soft skills, according to Elizabeth Ahearn, president of The Radclyffe Group, a training consultant group based in Fairfield, New Jersey. A preferred ratio, she says, is 50 percent on hard and soft skills, 35 percent on products, and 15 percent on systems. Companies that follow that formula, she says, not only would generate greater customer satisfaction, they would reduce employee turnover. But more about that later.

Ahearn goes on to say that every customer satisfaction survey she has conducted places issue resolution at the top of the list, while product knowledge and technology training rank toward the bottom. Not surprisingly when companies boost their soft skills training, their customer satisfaction ratings-and their sales-increase.

Employees who haven't been trained in the art of customer service will find themselves frustrated at their lack of skill in, for example, handling customer complaints. That frustration will quickly turn to anger, at both the customer and the company, and will result in employees who do more to turn customers away from your doors than to invite them in.

A major obstacle for many companies is the cost of training. Many companies simply don't train their employees because they think those employees will then take those skills and head to the competition. While that might occasionally occur, the employees who stay with you will perform better than if they hadn't been trained.

It's important to realize that most employees don't go in search of new jobs in order to make more money. They do so because they haven't been trained to handle the jobs they're currently doing. Training has another benefit: When you take the time and make the investment to train your employees, they feel valued. And, when they feel valued, they are loyal.

Of course, cost is still a consideration, but excellent training programs are available at affordable prices. For example, the Service Quality Institute (SQI) offers several customer service training programs, including FEELINGS, which can be conducted online, or in a classroom setting with an SQI facilitator or the company's own facilitator. Technology-based training can cost 50 percent less than facilitator-led training (FLT), because it negates the need for training room space and long periods of time spent away from the office. On the other hand, the benefits of a FLT program include group interaction, which increases employee involvement. I recommend a blend of both types of training to maximize the results.

Whatever route you choose, training must be continual in order to reinforce the skills and behaviors employees need to perform well for your customers. Train each employee within the first two weeks of hiring and provide additional training at least every six months. And, just as you vary the advertising you use to lure customers through your doors, you must vary the training you use to train and keep your employees. Make that training fun, focus on the fundamentals of customer service, and use a variety of media to keep employees interested.

Employee training, as with every company expenditure, involves a return on investment. While that return is easily identifiable for expenditures such as new computer systems, it is more difficult to calculate for soft skills. How do you measure the impact of an employee is who empathetic with customers and solves their complaints quickly and to their satisfaction? One way to do so is to determine the lifetime value of each of your customers. If that value is $1,000 and the cost to train an employee is $200, you will lose at least $800 by not training your employees to provide the type of service that will maintain that customer's loyalty. It's not uncommon for a business to lose 15 to 20 percent of its customers each year. If you cut those defections in half, you could more than double your growth rate.

The bottom line is this: If you want to increase customer loyalty-and reduce employee turnover-provide training that not only teaches employees the technical aspects of their jobs but gives them the soft skills they need to provide superior customer service.

John Tschohl is an international management consultant and speaker. Described by Time and Entrepreneur magazines as a "customer service guru," he has written several books on customer service, including The Customer is Boss, Cashing In, and Achieving Excellence Through Customer Service. As president of the Minneapolis-based Service Quality Institute, he has developed more than 26 customer service training programs that have been distributed and presented throughout the world. You can contact John at (800) 548-0538 or e-mail him at quality@servicequality.com.

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