L&D Best Practices: Nov./Dec. 2012

Strategies to improve communication/customer service, employee retention, and sales training.

Training magazine taps 2012 Training Top 125 winners and Top 10 Hall of Famers to provide their learning and development best practices in each issue. Here, we look at strategies for communication/customer service, employee retention, and sales training.


By Jon Kaplan, Director, Training Center of Excellence, Discover Financial Services

Discover has always taken significant pride in the quality of its customer service. When other financial service companies outsourced support jobs and off-shored call centers, Discover remained committed to providing all support services with exclusively domestic call center employees because we felt this approach considerably improved the customer experience. Discover consistently has been rated among the top financial services companies when it comes to customer service, and, according to a 2011 annual benchmarking survey, Discover led the industry in overall customer interaction. While these accomplishments are impressive, Discover is not satisfied with merely leading credit card companies; we aspire to lead all service providers across all industries. In late 2011, Discover rolled out its iShine servicing strategy, empowering its call center employees and aligning its call strategy to its brand personality of providing a “friendly, helpful, and refreshing” customer experience. The new servicing strategy placed a premium on allowing call center employees to listen to customers and take the most appropriate action to fulfill their needs. In response, Discover’s Training Center of Excellence, the organization responsible for all call center training, had to rethink how it prepared Discover’s customer service employees to provide this level of differentiated customer service experience.

DiscoverServiceAcademy Debuts

In late 2011, the Training Center of Excellence rewrote and reorganized its Customer Service Employee New Hire program, replacing six weeks of classroom training with the 13-week DiscoverServiceAcademy. This new program combines on-the-job experiences with in-depth classroom and interactive online training, providing customer service employees with top-notch communication and customer service skills. The new program puts a premium on helping customer service employees listen compassionately, build customer rapport, and identify and act upon customer needs.

Discover’s ServiceAcademy provides participants meaningful opportunities to practice critical listening skills. Participants listen to recorded calls, identify key customer needs, and practice finding creative solutions to the challenges our customers face. Participants build improved verbal communication by developing a phone persona, learning how to be friendly and helpful, and refreshing on every call.

The DiscoverServiceAcademy provides participants with in-depth coaching and rigorous call monitoring. Participants spend approximately 40 percent of their time in a small team, taking calls with a dedicated coach focused on improving participants’ listening and verbal communication skills. Each participant receives a set of “communication effectiveness” scores based on random call monitoring. These evaluations help inform and improve the individualized coaching and remediation we provide.


We have been encouraged with the results of our efforts. In a 2012 benchmarking study, Discover posted a 20-basis-point increase in the Live Phone Representative score over our existing excellent rating from 2011. There were many initiatives across Discover that allowed the company to stay at the forefront of customer service, but our new ServiceAcademy was a significant contributor to this effort.


By Judy Whitcomb, SPHR, Vice President, Human Resources and Organizational Development, Vi

Chances are you have visited or helped a great-grandparent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or parent move into a retirement community. While not everyone’s image of a senior-living community is a positive one, Vi is different: The communities; the programs; the services; the amenities; and especially the highly tenured, engaged, and talented employees serving Vi’s residents, make Vi a standout. Vi (pronounced vee) is the Latin root for the word, “life.” The name was chosen because it captures the positive opportunities to live a more engaging and fulfilling life as an older adult.

Established in 1987 as Classic Residence by Hyatt, Vi was founded by Penny Pritzker, whose family started Hyatt Hotels. Penny believed the company could leverage Hyatt’s hospitality expertise in the retirement living industry to better cater to the needs and lifestyle of older adults. Today, celebrating its 25-year anniversary, Vi is a national leader in providing quality residential communities, services, and programs to enrich the lives of older adults. For individuals contemplating a move to a senior living community, there are two key issues to consider.

  1. The tenure of the community’s employees
  2. The training and development employees receive from the company

Attracting, retaining, and engaging top talent is a priority for Vi because the company recognizes that engaged employees produce quality results and are more productive, innovative, and loyal, which, in turn, leads to customer satisfaction. Vi also recognizes and has proven that well-trained and engaged employees have a significant impact on Vi’s resident satisfaction and employee retention rates.

Since the inception of a comprehensive corporate university more than five years ago with a strategic plan around investments in an online university, certification programs, customer service training, and leadership and management development programs, Vi’s focus on employee development has paid off significantly. The link between employee engagement and customer satisfaction is evident in Vi’s 2012 customer satisfaction survey where customer satisfaction scores grew from 86.5 percent two years ago to 93.6 percent in 2012. In addition, Vi’s engagement of its customers has grown significantly. Two years ago, 82.6 percent of Vi’s residents would recommend the company compared to 94.7 percent today.

Part of Vi’s success in driving business results is the strong partnership between the Human Resources and Learning Team with their internal customers. “We began to make real strides when we realized that no single department owns a problem, nor the solution. Once we got beyond the emotion and ownership of certain challenges or past failures, we were able to examine root causes and develop solutions we all could support,” says Bill Sciortino, senior vice president – Operations at Vi. “We sent a different message to our corporate and community leaders when they saw that HR doesn’t own training, HR doesn’t own retention or employee relations…we all do. We set the expectation that all leaders will have effective discussions with their staff to ensure our people get the benefit of our many training programs, and that we’ll hold them accountable if they’re not continuously evaluating and developing our talent. As a result, we have realized a significant benefit in improved employee satisfaction and retention of top performers.”

Building Bench Strength

To attract and retain front-line staff seeking to move into leadership roles within the company, Vi introduced a Management Development Program four years ago. Each year, a select number of front-line employees and emerging managers apply and are selected to participate in this year-long program. Individuals chosen for this program engage in mentoring, classroom training, online learning assignments, Webinars, access to the Harvard Business Library, and reading assignments. In addition, Vi developed a custom Management Development Program online learning site for participants to take advantage of programs and learning plans specific to new and emerging managers.

The projects and assignments used to develop leadership competencies and business skills are one of the highlights of the Management Development Program. Participants across the company have worked on assignments and projects to increase resident satisfaction, sales, employee engagement, and other business results. For instance, participants in the program this past April launched Vi’s new recognition program, which already has yielded five times the number of employee nominations than with the previous program. Vi’s Management Development Program participants also were responsible for developing and executing strategies to encourage participation in Vi’s employee engagement survey. As a result of these efforts, Vi realized record-high employee engagement survey participation results of 98 percent in 2012.

“Our employees tell us that one of the highlights of the Vi employee experience is our Management Development Program,” says Vi HR Director in Highlands Ranch Naomi Karavouzis. “Our program includes monthly learning sessions focused around different managerial skills such as hiring the best and budgeting, and are led by our leaders. The program ends with a final project where participants are responsible for identifying a challenge or opportunity, taking baseline metrics, researching solutions, implementing strategies, managing a budget, presenting their project to a large audience, and conducting peer-to-peer evaluation on their performance. This program has been a tremendous success, with 25 percent of participants moving into a higher-level position within one year of completing the program.”

More than 400 employees have participated in Vi’s Management Development Program over the last four years. During this same time, internal promotions have grown to nearly 25 percent. Vi believes its focus on employee development has paid off in the form of employee loyalty and engagement. Turnover rates in the senior-living industry average more than 30 percent—some studies show attrition as high as 45 to 70 percent compared to Vi’s turnover rate of 22 percent in 2011. Average length of employee service at Vi is strong at 5.5 years.

Retaining Key Employees at Vi

Quality care is a cornerstone of Vi’s value proposition to its customers. More than one-third of the company’s employees are nurses. To attract and retain front-line nursing talent, Vi offers 500-plus free professional education courses to its staff. However, in 2010, Vi recognized a greater focus needed to be placed on retaining top nursing leader talent because of a large uptick in nurse-leader attrition. At Vi, retention of nurse-leaders had never been an issue. Given Vi’s strong service culture, high employee engagement, and strong resident satisfaction, Vi conducted a needs analysis leveraging data from exit interviews, interviews of existing staff, and focus groups to identify the cause of the attrition. Vi determined that while the company hired nursing leaders with strong technical and clinical skills, many of them rose through the ranks from a nurse to a leader of nurses without a deliberate approach to identification of leadership competency gaps and development. As a result, Vi struggled with retention of nurse-leaders because many individuals felt unprepared to lead.

Based on this finding, Vi determined it needed a comprehensive and sustainable leadership development program for nurse-leaders, as well as for high-potential nurses. Program objectives included: improving nurse-leader retention by 50 percent, developing participants’ skills in leading others, creating a clear understanding of roles/responsibilities, and developing a sustainable network of resident care leaders to onboard and mentor new leaders.

Leadership Institute Program Highlights

Nurse-leaders participating in Vi’s one-year Leadership Institute Program (download the graphic below for a program summary) engage in a variety of assessments, professional coaching and mentoring, action learning, and assignments. Participants also attend a week-long discovery program designed around Vi’s leadership competencies. The classroom experience gives participants concrete tools to improve knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors. Participants engage in live case studies, group discussion, peer coaching, and experiential learning. Additionally, every member of Vi’s executive management team leads discussions on Vi’s leadership competencies to set expectations and reinforce key concepts. Each program participant receives tools, resources, and executive coaching to develop and execute an action plan for integrating program concepts into a personal development plan.

“Success starts from a company that is invested and believes in its leaders,” says Vi Director of Nursing Christine Bernal. “Vi’s Leadership Institute has helped my self-awareness and affirms my strengths as a leader. As a result of this program, I am a more confident and courageous leader.”

To sustain and reinforce learning and focus on executing on an individual’s leadership development plan, Vi conducts collaboration calls/Webinars with program participants and their managers. Each participant also completes quarterly learning assignments. Nine months after participants complete their development plan, they participate in another assessment to measure how aware they are of their development needs and how much progress has been made toward focusing on these needs. Since implementing this program in 2011, Vi has realized 0 percent nurse-leader voluntary attrition.


By Lou Tedrick, SVP-Workforce Development, Verizon

Know thyself” will get you through life, but “know thy products” will get you the sale. That’s a tall order at Verizon, given the vast range of devices, applications, and business solutions the company’s wireless network can support. But they represent one of the biggest opportunities to generate increased revenue. To take advantage of that opportunity, Verizon needed a sales organization well-versed in the company’s products and services—so well-versed that our salespeople would have the ability to easily discern a customer’s unmet wants and needs, and then skillfully connect on those two crucial points.

In May 2011, John Stratton, then-COO for Verizon Wireless, challenged the sales organization to rise to that level of expertise. That meant mastering a different kind of selling and upgrading the sales skills across the company’s more than 27,000 sales professionals. To lead the sales transformation effort, Stratton selected Matt Carr, director of retail stores for the New York Metro Region, as the new director of Sales Team Development.

The Design and Development Process

One of Carr’s first initiatives was to develop and implement a new solution sales process for the Retail Channel, along with an accompanying new solution sales skills curriculum. For that, Carr turned to me as the staff vice president of Wireless Workforce Development. I then selected a small team of curriculum developers devoted to developing a Wireless solution sales skills curriculum. Carr also created an advisory core team of region presidents, retail directors, and the senior Learning & Development (L&D) leaders. Their charge: apply their collective expertise to approve the new sales process; select a third-party sales training vendor; approve the new solution sales curriculum; and serve as the champions for change with the sales and L&D communities.

With the advisory and curriculum development teams in place, Carr’s next order of business was to go directly to the employees in the field to learn and get their input. Carr directed the Wireless curriculum development team to conduct multiple focus groups with high performers from all levels of the Wireless retail organization, including front-line representatives, store managers, district managers, and directors. The team gained insight into what separated high performers from their peers and led to successful sales, as well as positive feedback from customers. The observable behaviors of these high-performing employees became the basis for the new solutions sales process and the new skill set needed to transform the sales force.

The Learning Solution

After reviewing several well-regarded, third-party sales training and business-transformation providers, Carr, the advisory core team, and the curriculum development team selected Wilson Learning to assist with the development of two customized programs: Earn the Right (ETR), a two-day program for front-line retail representatives, and Coaching to Earn the Right (CETR), a one-day companion course for retail leaders. The name, “Earn the Right,” came directly from the high-performing representatives who repeatedly talked about the critical need to build a relationship with their customers before “earning the right” to uncover their customers’ needs and recommend a solution.

ETR centers on the unique, observable behaviors of high-performing sales representatives:

  • Earn the right to move forward
  • Take the time to get it right
  • Understand how customers use technology
  • Personalize the solution for every customer
  • Practice, practice, practice

Short videos showcase high-performing representatives sharing best practices and tips and modeling effective customer interactions. Participants complete numerous activities and practice rounds called “skills drills” that push them to try new skills outside of their comfort zone and to give each other targeted, constructive feedback. To underscore that ETR was a new way of selling, the workshop was purposely designed to be different from other Wireless learning experiences, with trainers spending minimal time in “lecture mode” and instead leading discussions, facilitating activities, coaching skill drills, and leading debriefs designed to reinforce the new way of selling.

CETR teaches retail leaders how to reinforce the ETR approach by coaching their employees on the observable behaviors that drive success rather than coaching to metrics. Retail leaders were required to take ETR, then CETR. Through CETR, leaders learn how to use coaching observations and performance reports to identify the opportunities that would have the most impact for each representative and to address those opportunities with effective coaching conversations. Leaders practice their coaching skills using video scenarios of representatives interacting with customers. To assist with on-the-job reinforcement, the curriculum development team created a library of customer scenarios for skill drills and short refresher modules—all housed in a new online Coaching Portal.


Throughout the development process, which included an alpha pilot in October 2011 of focus group members and the advisory core team, the participants provided valuable feedback on the overall design of ETR and CETR. In November, beta pilot programs for ETR and CETR were conducted in five regions across the country. Entire districts tested the two courses and a top-down implementation strategy, which led to final course content and delivery refinements. The curriculum development team then implemented trainer certification for 250 trainers who attended a beta pilot program delivered by one of 30 lead trainers. After the pilot program, the trainers were required to work in a retail store during December—the company’s busiest season—to get first-hand experience in applying the new sales process and skills. The ETR rollout started with senior sales executives in December 2011. Executives’ firsthand experience with ETR built excitement and sent a strong leadership support message. Full deployment of the programs began in February 2012. By the end of June, more than 1,000 workshops were delivered to 20,000-plus sales professionals, and the program was integrated into retail new hire training.

Results and Next Steps

This sales-skills transformation initiative represented a significant investment in our sales professionals. Preliminary results from pilot groups showed a 41 percent return on investment. In April 2012, Verizon was No. 1 in the J.D. Power Wireless Purchase Experience Study, which found improvements in the sales organization’s execution on customer experience and satisfaction. Based on the initial success in retail, versions of ETR and CETR have been developed and deployed in our indirect sales and telesales channels.

To ensure that ETR becomes embedded in our culture as a way of doing business, Marni Walden, current COO of Verizon Wireless, tasked an ETR “Tiger Team” of high-performing representatives, store managers, district managers, key marketing and sales operations leaders, and members of the L&D team to look at all non-training opportunities to integrate ETR concepts into our business practices. This cross-functional team addresses aspects as diverse as compensation structure, hiring profiles for front-line representatives, new hire training integration, quarterly reinforcement, and the point-of-sales process. A separate ETR Content Governance Team, led by the curriculum development team, meets quarterly to review proposed ETR enhancements and changes that keep ETR evergreen, yet focused on the original objectives and concepts that make it successful.

This initiative is a great example of how powerful the partnership among business leaders, front-line employees, and L&D can be on the development and delivery of effective learning solutions. And it’s established a precedent for how we are approaching all new skills-transformation requests going forward.

Lorri Freifeld
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 APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.