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Why Most Customer Service Employee Training Fails (And What to Do About It)

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A few common mistakes could be costing you time, money and customer satisfaction.

Most employee training programs are designed solely around knowledge delivery.

Employees attend a class or watch a video series, then they take a quiz to “certify” their understanding.

The problem?

70% of employee training is forgotten within five days.

If that much is forgotten, we have to ask: “Is it really worth sending employees to the training in the first place?”

The answer is: absolutely.

But your training must include steps to overcome the “application gap.”

The “Application Gap”

Have you ever heard something funny, then failed miserably when you tried to retell it?

Maybe you were trying to recite a Chris Rock bit you thought was hysterical, but on retelling, you only get a few polite giggles?

You might know the exact words in the right order. But that doesn’t mean you can tell the joke.

This is the “Application Gap.”

It’s the difference between the knowledge in your head (the words of the joke) and the ability to tell the joke in a way that brings down the house (like Chris Rock does).

This is one of the most important principles in employee training (and learning)—and one of the most overlooked.

Having knowledge is important—but it’s only half the equation.

Knowledge is useless if you can’t apply it in real-world situations.

That means: if your training program doesn’t teach employees to apply knowledge in real-world situations, it’s not as effective as it could be.

And you should change it—immediately.

Use Failure & Rapid Feedback to Teach Real‑World Skills

For employees to learn knowledge well enough to apply it in real life, failure has to be built into the training.

I would even recommend setting people up to fail—it’s that valuable.

With that said, if you’re going to force people to fail, you must be on hand to provide immediate feedback.

People should know what they did right and what they did wrong as soon as possible. Without feedback, the experience will be demoralizing for them. But with quick feedback, they’ll be motivated to do better.

Think about a teenager trying to master a new video game.

He’ll spend hours trying to defeat a level or master a new technique. He’ll fail many, many times in the process. But the failure doesn’t discourage him. It motivates him to learn.

The game provides feedback—then provides an unlimited number of attempts to get it right.

When we design training courses at Hickory, we try to build failure into the fabric of every program we create.

Specifically, we use three techniques to ensure learners fail—and then succeed—with the material we want them to master during the course.

3 Ways To Build Failure Into Your Employee Training

1) Modeling & Examples

Learners need to see what great execution looks like so they have an example in their minds of what’s expected.

After we’ve taught students a new set of information, we like to show them good and bad examples next.

Here’s what I mean by bad examples: the learner needs to see what poor execution looks like so they have an example of what not to do when they return to their jobs.

Models and examples can be presented with video, audio, or other visual examples. We’re essentially training students what they should be looking for when they implement the concept in their job.

2) Mock Scenarios

After we present good and bad examples, we put students through mock scenarios.

That gives them the chance to feel what good and bad execution look like for themselves. And the learner receives immediate feedback about his or her performance.

It’s like when military personnel drills in mock buildings — breaking down doors and practicing entry patterns. They’re not using live ammo, but they get to feel what it’s like to execute their skills hands-on.

My favorite example of mock scenarios is the way Brazilian soccer teams practice on small fields.

You would think that your practice environment should be as “real” as possible, but the Brazilians know what really matters is touches on the ball.

Practicing on small fields allows every player to touch the ball 3 times more than they would on a regulation field. The more touches they get, the more experience they have with right and wrong decisions.

At Hickory, we create accelerated exercises—ones that help customer service reps get more “touches on the ball.” By doing so, we help them quickly develop the muscle memory they need to respond correctly.

3) Role Playing

Finally, at some point, every learner should role play. No matter the department, no matter the training program, you need to scrimmage.

Role playing is useful because it’s as close to the real environment as you can get, the feedback is immediate, and the feedback typically comes from an expert.

If learners perform well in their role playing exercises, there’s a good chance they’ll perform well when they return to their regular responsibilities.

The Payoff: Employees That Successfully Use What They Learned

If you want your customer service reps to successfully retain the concepts you teach them, a 15-minute video followed by a 10-question quiz isn’t enough.

You have to let your people grapple with the material, experiment, and yes, fail a few times before they get it right.

It’s a lot more challenging to conduct training this way.

But it’s the best way we know to get real, lasting results.

This is a guest post from Brian Tobal, CEO of Hickory Training. Brian has spent his entire career studying where common employee training methods fall short, and how we can do better.

Today, Brian and his team help companies like Etsy, Blue Apron and Handy save thousands of dollars⁠—and weeks of classroom time⁠—on every customer support employee they train. For more info, read the story of how Hickory helped Etsy save $8,000⁠—and six weeks⁠—on every employee trained.

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About the Author

Brian Tobal is a teacher, researcher and Founder/CEO of Hickory Training, a customer service employee training platform. Brian has spent his career studying the science of learning, and today Brian and his team help some of the biggest brands in the world use Hickory to train their employees more effectively and efficiently. Brian studied Cognitive Science at Columbia University in New York.

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