Why Customer Care Training Often Fails

I’ve facilitated many sessions on the theme of customer care or customer service over the last fifteen years. Often the phone rang with a story from the client that they has already invested in customer care training the year before and that it hadn’t been well received by staff, or that it had had little impact on the “front line”.

Often customer care training is triggered by a poor inspection report or quality audit. The Board believe that training will sort it, and it quickly becomes a tick box exercise.

I’m currently in discussions with a number of housing associations who are treating the training as if it is on the “back burner” even as their rhetoric claims otherwise. I always step back. I won’t put myself in a room with hard-working housing staff, if I don’t feel the training is genuinely needed or will be used and, most importantly, supported by leaders higher up the organisation.

For customer care training to have an impact, it has to be seen authentically as strategically important. It can never be a tick-box exercise.

So, why do I get the call?

Often the training already tried was experienced as:

– too classroomy (Powerpoint-driven and dry)

– felt as patronising (“Have a nice day” flavoured)

– not rooted in the real needs of the client organisation (too detached and off the shelf).

Training is customer care for any front line staff has to be respectful of the real pressures and tensions of front line staff. It has to be supported by senior management AFTER the training has ended with permission and resource to put the learning into practice. It also has to be interactive, rooted in skill and experience. It can’t be classroom based (except in terms of legal knowledge transfer and procedural stuff). It has to be problem focused and the facilitator has to be able to adapt and improvise, keeping the experience real, engaging, useful and usable.

My own training sessions feel more like workshops, away days and tap into real stories, problems, issues and questions experienced by the participants.

The workshops have to be challenging and not afraid to lead participants into their areas of discomfort, where real learning and development takes place.

Blah. Blah. Blah!

Now, the real challenge lies in the nature of the topic. Not all housing association staff feel comfortable with seeing their tenants as customers. It feels a cheesy, inappropriate term to many of them, borrowed from other, more commercial sectors. They use other terms – tenants, clients, service users. Customers buy things in shops. Customers do not sign tenancy agreements.

It therefore becomes key to focus on the core idea of “service”. And also the idea that tenants, even where they do not have much choice in where they live, do need to be serviced, and that treating them as customers (they do pay rent, and pay for other services in most cases) allows us to focus on making that service as good as possible. Without buy-in to the core values of serving others, a customer care course falls on deaf ears and is a waste of time and money.

Another key issue is that, often, customer service training is identified as a need, when what is really needed first is training and change in communication, internally and externally. Almost all of my customer care workshops result in discussions about, and highlighting of internal communication as a critical “Back stage” problem in delivering excellent front line customer care. Poor customer care is a symptom of poor internal communication, and critical processes (online and face to face) that do not join up properly – logging of calls and complaints ans passing them to the right person or function, maintenance systems, purchasing of products and services, finance and I.T. The customer care workshop then becomes a band aid over much deeper wounds in the housing association!

So, work on communication – processes AND skills – will often then lead to very different customer care training needs. I’d suggest a communication audit (internal and external) should always precede any investment in customer care training. Significant change management will often be needed (and training in leadership and change management is also often vital to precede customer care improvement efforts).

Well designed and interactive customer care training courses and workshops will often throw up useful insights in what is happening behind the scenes. They will reveal (often on flip charts) communication and process problems that need addressing, that are adversely affecting customer care. Participants on courses need to feel safe to be honest and open and that any key issues and problems will be fed safely up to the management team, acknowledged and acted upon. In this way, the courses more than pay for themselves as they becomes applied, focuses and linked to practice. Reflecting on practice during the course creates the dual benefit of improving learning AND improving organisational self-awareness.

Customer care training is all about performance. Performance on the front-line is very dependent on what happens behind the scenes as well.

If we get the back stage right, then the performance in front of the curtain can be five stars.

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About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

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