Anne M. Obarski

Article Summary:

What are the four most important, measurable and testable elements necessary to any good customer service-oriented employee training program?

Employee Training Programs: The Four Service Elements Every Program Must Cover

We have all been there.  You run in a store to pick something up and as you approach the checkout lane, you see that there are a dozen people ahead of you.  You roll your eyes, you sigh loudly, you look around hoping someone will open another register and you even think of just leaving your items right where you are and stomping out of the door.  As you look at your watch for the sixteenth time, you rationalize that you really need the items and if you leave now, you just might encounter the same situation at another store, so you wait your turn.

What's worse is that by the time you get to the register and the employee says, "Did we find everything alright today?", you probably just sigh and say "yes", instead of saying something like, "Since my time is very important to me it would have been nice not to have waited 10 minutes to buy a stick of deodorant!".  Politeness usually over rules and we may mumble that under our breath out the door swearing we will never come into that store again.  Until next time!

Customers are used to waiting in line.  We wait at the drive-thru, we wait in traffic, we wait at the theater, we wait to see the doctor, as I see it, life is a waiting game.  I recently read the following from a plant foreman for General Motors Corp, "Everybody decides, "What do I want to trade for what I want to do".  The General Motors Corp. manufactures the Hummer, and his comment was related to the fact that with gas prices rising, people will not necessarily give up driving a big car, they will re-adjust their priorities.

So if a customer wants your item badly enough, they will wait on the phone, they will wait in line, they will wait until they turn purple, because they want what you have to sell so badly, they won't go anywhere else. 

If you aren't a Hummer dealership or any other highly desired business of choice, then I suggest you make it easy for the customer to spend their hard earned dollars from you and stop making them jump through the hoops you've created!

The following are 4 major areas your employees should be trained to handle before they ever set foot out of a training room. 

1. Know the answers.
Customers want their questions answered, now.  They don't want to wait for someone to make a phone call, call a manager, look it up on a computer or ask for divine intervention.  Your employees are the experts and they represent your company.  One employee or 1,000 employees, they all need to be trained and up-dated on the newest information and the most frequently asked questions from customers.  FAQ's should be a big part of your training program.  Add these questions as a final segment of your training.  Most people don't like role playing because it puts people on the spot.  I say, good, draw a big spot on the floor and make your employee stand on it and let the drilling begin.  Take an item and ask the employee questions like: what sizes does this come in, how do use it, where is it made, how many colors does it come in, what is the length of the warranty, what if I hate it, how do I clean it, where else can I find it in the store, is it on your website and so on. 

This "quizzing" session will show you two things; one, how much has the employee retained during training and second, what areas in the training sessions need more emphasis.  I firmly believe that the efficiency of your employees is a direct reflection on the quality and amount of training you provide on an ongoing basis.

Review your current training program and evaluate how much time and educational procedures you are allotting to product knowledge.  If you don't have a training program, teaching your employees about the merchandise you sell is the best place to start.  Only when they feel confident in their jobs can they smile and say, "What other questions may I answer for you today?"

2. Know how to handle the sale.
Have you ever been in line in a store and you hear the employee say, "I'm sorry, this is my first day and I don't know how to do that."  It's almost like giving a toddler the car keys and saying, "Here, go to the store and get me some milk."  I am sure some of you who know an assertive little toddler who just might crawl into that seat and try to figure it out!  Silly as that example sounds, there are policies, procedures and expectations for important tasks.  With out those enforced, you run the risk of expensive mistakes being made by untrained employees.  It can also be costly to the business through simple errors as well as those customers who refuse to deal with incompetent help.

Review your current training procedures in relation to every type of sale that the employee will come in contact with.  Explain the importance of every transaction and have them run multiple scenarios, even though some of them may never happen.  Continually quiz your employees as to what the "next step" will be until they have the procedures memorized.  You do a disservice to your employees as well as your customers when you place an employee either on the floor or on the phone with a customer and they have not been fully trained as to how to correctly handle a sale.

3. Know How to Handle a Problem.
I would guess that most employees would find their jobs more rewarding if they never had to deal with a customer problem.  If life and work were just that simple! I believe that business problems usually fall into one of three categories; errors in communication either through the manufacturer or the employee, problems with product performance or customers being "just plain human".  Two of those three have to do with communication and relationship building skills.  I say a "skill" because most of us have not have had training in conflict resolution.  We have seen our parents fight, we have watched movies and TV programs and seen the worst of the worst on how to work through disagreement and then we have our own experiences to draw from. 

Do you allow your employees to role-play situations that will come up with customers?  Do you prepare them with the knowledge and decision making abilities that will help them satisfy the customer without bringing management into the decision?  Have you banished the overused line, "well, that is company policy"?  Customers have learned through much media coverage that they can and will get around any "company policy" if they complain, scream and threaten enough. So to avoid having your customers put on an Emmy award winning performance in the center of your business, prepare your employees for the potential problems upfront.

Develop a list of as many of the past "problems" you have had in your company that an employee may have to deal with.  In the column next to each one, write what an acceptable answer or procedure would be to handle it.  You may wish to add a column, "If all else fails", and advise the employee what to do when they fear for their life!  Remember, this list will never be stagnate, and you may even let your employees add to it with their "best stories"!

4. Know your job!
I just spoke with a client who said that they did not have a training program, they just told the new hire to smile at the customer and ask how they could help them and don't worry about anything else.  Amazingly, this client wonders why their turnover is so high!  How can we expect performance when we haven't explained what that performance looks like!

Throughout our school years we functioned by "expectations".  Each new school year brought new classes and requirements.  Teachers handed out a syllabus that detailed all that we were to learn and the quizzes and tests that would analyze our progress.  Granted, many of us memorized the information for the test and quickly forgot it, but we still needed to be able to show that we learned the information.  With many companies eliminating physical programs and moving towards web based training, employees are learning the required material in a whole new way.

Regardless as to the training procedure, my question is HOW are you holding your people accountable for what they are learning?  How often are you reviewing your employees?  How often are you recognizing their good performances rather than harping on mistakes?  Employees will perform better if they know exactly what is expected of them and they don't have to "guess" about their current performance for an entire year until their annual monetary review!

Review your current review system and documentation.  Carefully read each question and ask yourself whether it is an accurate evaluation of your employees work performance.  For example, Area 1 on your review form may be that of Customer Service.  The first question may be; "Does the employee answer the phone in a friendly way?"  My question is what does the word "friendly" mean?  Is that word "measurable"?  Probably not.  So a more appropriate question may be, "Does the employee answer the phone by saying, "Hello, thank you for calling the ABC company, how can I make this a great day for you?" and do they say that every time?

If you require all of your employees to answer the phone that way in your job training, then you can hold them accountable because their performance is measurable.  You may have to re-word many of your review questions to make them more specific but also easier for the employee to understand exactly what is expected of them.

Anne M. Obarski is "The Eye on Performance!" As a professional speaker and trainer, Anne helps companies focus on the profit building service strategies that will keep their customers coming back. Anne presents nationwide keynotes, break-out sessions and customized training in the area of customer service. She has written "Surprising Secrets of Mystery Shoppers" and "Real World Customer Service Strategies That Work". For more information visit her website at www.merchandise concepts.com.

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