How-To: Integrate Customer Service and Applications Training

Directed rehearsal of customer service scenarios in a training environment is key.

By Kent Sipes, Senior Consultant, CedarCrestone

In customer service offices around the world, employees interact with customers, then intently study their computer screens, then interact with customers again. Often, the switch from customer to screen and back is awkward, and most customer service professionals are more comfortable dealing with people than with computers. There’s often a tendency to do all the “computer” work, then all the “people” work.

This behavior is caused by the way we train customer service staffs to use computer applications, concentrating solely on the operations to be performed: “Click here, enter this…” While such operational training is foundational, it shouldn’t be regarded as the end of the process. Employees still must gain the ability to move with confidence between computer and personal interactions. Smooth integration of these will improve the outcome of the customer service experience.

Directed Rehearsals

This can be accomplished by directed rehearsal of customer service scenarios in a training environment. A good example of this is the PeopleSoft training I often deliver to university cashier staffs, in which trainees are divided into teams of two and assigned the roles of “student” and “staffer.” Each team is given specific printed instructions on the student account to check, the charge in question, the attitude and concerns of the “student,” and more. To make the scenario as real as possible, every aspect of the interaction is described.

When one scenario is complete, the “student” and “staffer” roles are reversed, and the team exchanges that scenario with another team. If there is an odd number of trainees, the trainer can serve as the second member of a team, so no one is left out. Otherwise, the trainer should circulate among the groups, listening, commenting, and providing direction. When all scenarios are complete, the trainer leads a discussion about the interactions. This often provides valuable insights into the usability of the application and/or business processes.

Training should focus on the shifts between computer and customer interaction, and should emphasize ways in which the customer service professional integrates application data into the customer dialog. This is also a good time to develop effective questioning and active listening skills, to ensure the customer service professional is asking the right questions and listening to the answers. You also should stress that “listening to the answers” means allowing the information received to guide the situation.

Be sure to ask pointed, specific questions in the debriefing session, and don’t be too concerned if the response starts slowly. Participants sometimes are reluctant to speak up, but once a participant has “broken the ice,” feedback flows. Occasionally, someone will share how much more confident he or she feels after rehearsing. Be sure to note these statements verbatim, as quotations such as this help justify training when resources are tight.

If the discussion exposes problems in the application, be sure to note at what point in the process the problem occurred and capture screenshots, if possible. If there are questions about the business process that can’t be answered during the debriefing, be sure to follow up as quickly as possible.

You probably will find it helpful to develop a form for each rehearsal session, outlining the application being used; the scenarios to be rehearsed; specific customer information for each scenario; names of participants; and issues, comments, or questions that arose.

Positive Outcomes

The major benefit of this type of training is that customer service staffs are better able to blend application use and customer interaction, because they’ve already experienced a similar situation. They are less likely to become rattled or defensive, and more likely to remain in control of the situation. Customers are more likely to experience positive outcomes and perceive the organization positively. Rehearsals require thoughtful planning, sufficient training time, and diligent follow-up, but they can pay great dividends.

Kent Sipes is a senior consultant with CedarCrestone, specializing in training and communications. He holds an M.A. in Strategic Communications (Journalism) from the University of Missouri. Prior to consulting, he worked with the University of Missouri, the MO Department of Revenue, the Evergreen Marketing Group, and AT&T Broadband.

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training Top 100 and Emerging Training Leaders.