Why Role-playing Doesn't Work for Customer Service Training

Note: This post was originally posted on the Salesforce Blog.

Here are two things you can count on when scheduling customer service training. 

  1. Employees will be worried that the training includes role-playing.
  2. Managers will be worried that the training doesn’t include role-playing. 

Employees don’t like role-playing because it feels awkward and uncomfortable. 

Managers like role-playing because it provides hands-on practice. Many are convinced that role-playing helps their employees learn new skills inside and out. 

The bad news is it doesn’t work. The good news is there is an alternative training technique that does build skills through hands-on practice. And, unlike role-playing, employees actually enjoy it.

More on the alternative technique in just a moment. Let’s start with role-playing’s limitations.

Why role playing doesn't work

Role-playing falls short as a training tool because it works against the way our brains acquire new knowledge and skills. One challenge is multitasking.

Role-playing requires participants to focus on two tasks simultaneously. They must concentrate on playing their assigned role while also concentrating on applying a new skill. Unfortunately, our brains aren’t built for multitasking. We can only focus our conscious attention on one thought at a time. Researchers have discovered that multitasking actually slows us down and hurts performance. The net effect is role-playing makes it harder to learn new skills, not easier.

There’s a second reason why role-playing doesn’t work.

Learning a new skill requires a certain amount of discomfort. It’s that feeling you get when you realize you aren’t very good at something. This is healthy in small doses because it helps you understand that you still have some learning to do. Role-playing amplifies this feeling of discomfort to the point where it disrupts the learning process. Many training participants feel awkward when they have to pretend to be someone else.

An alternative that works

Experiential learning is an alternative training technique to role-playing that’s highly effective. Like role-playing, participants get hands-on practice applying new skills in a realistic fashion. Unlike role-playing, participants don’t have to pretend to be someone else. They get to be themselves.

I like to use David Kolb’s experiential learning model to create highly effective customer service training activities. There are four steps in Kolb’s model:

  1. Concrete experience
  2. Reflective observation
  3. Abstract conceptualization
  4. Active experimentation

One of my favorite experiential learning activities trains customer service reps to work fast on a busy day while still providing attentive service to each individual customer.

Step 1: Ensure participants have concrete experience in this situation

This helps employees understand what they do well and what they need to improve upon. They can draw from their actual work experiences, but I prefer to incorporate this into the activity. To do this, I give participants three minutes to learn three pieces of information from three other people in the room: the person’s name, a hobby, and their customer service strength. Sounds easy, right? It’s more challenging than it seems. On average, only 10 percent of participants are able to successfully complete the activity.

Step 2: Reflective observation

I do a short debriefing session where I ask participants to think about two things:

  1. What were the challenges they faced in the activity?
  2. Do they encounter similar challenges in their daily work?

Step 3: Abstract conceptualization

This is where participants determine what they’d do differently the next time to improve their performance.

To do this, we discuss specific skills and techniques that could be used to improve our success. The best part is the participants usually contribute great ideas on their own. I usually only have to add one or two suggestions.

Step 4: Active experimentation

Participants get to try out their new ideas. I give participants another three minutes to talk to three new people. Nearly everyone succeeds this time. And, they now have a new concrete experience to start the continuous learning process all over again.

Don’t lose sight of the goal

The ultimate goal for training is to have employees learn new skills that will help them achieve better results. You can make your customer service training much more effective if you ditch unsuccessful methods like role-playing in favor of approaches that truly help employees perform.

Enjoy this blog? Subscribe via email:

Every Customer Service Team Needs the Spirit of Flo

Some employees are naturally infused with the spirit of service.

People visiting the San Diego Botanic Garden last December encountered an employee named Flo who had this spirit. They were so moved by her kindness and generosity that they wrote a letter complimenting her service.

The letter described the type of service we hope all our employees will provide. It also revealed a bit of a mystery. 

Photo credit: Rachel Cobb

Photo credit: Rachel Cobb

More on the mystery in just a moment. First, here’s the letter:

Human Resources Department:

This letter is to express gratitude to one of your employees. Her name is Flo and she worked at Quail Gardens on the night of December 28. [Note: Quail Gardens is another name for the San Diego Botanical Garden.]

We noticed Flo at the Gardens because she greeted us as we were walking around enjoying the Christmas lights. Three of us visited the Gardens that evening but ended up exiting near the additional parking lot instead of at the main parking lot. Rather than retrace our steps, we very much underestimated how far it would be to walk around the neighborhood to the main lot.

One in our group uses a cane so he waited for us on a bench at the Seacrest residential facility. After reaching Encinitas Blvd, we stopped at a gas station to ask exactly how much farther we would need to go to get back to Quail Gardens. It was 8:45 pm. The facility was closing at 9:00 pm and we were worried that we could not walk that far in 15 minutes. 

That’s when we meant Flo. She remembered us from Quail Gardens and greeted us again when we saw her at the gas station. We offered to pay her to drive us back to the parking lot, and she agreed to drive us but would not accept any money. 

We made it back just in time to get the car before the Gardens closed. We then returned to pick up our friend at Seacrest and to explain why it took us so long to get there.

We appreciated the generosity that Flo gave us that night. We are both in our sixties and the walking had already tired us out. We could never have walked the rest of the way to the Gardens. 

We hope that Flo’s kindness and generosity can receive some type of recognition for going out of her way to assist us. We know this type of generosity does not happen very often, and hope that Flow can be acknowledged for her kindness.

What customer service leader wouldn’t want to receive this letter?

Flo exhibited many traits of an outstanding customer service professional. She made her guests feel welcome, she connected with them in a personal and authentic way, and she took care to help the guests in a time of need.

Which brings us back to the mystery.

There are no employees named Flo at the San Diego Botanic Garden. They don’t have any Florences or anyone else with a name that sounds like Flo.

The letter was shared with employees but nobody recalled the story. 

While Flo remains a mystery, employees have decided they can all embody Flo’s service spirit. The story is very reminiscent of Fred in Mark Sanborn’s The Fred Factor. Like Fred, Flo found a way to make a difference.

It’s a great reminder for anyone in customer service. We can all find a way to make a difference when we’re infused with the spirit of service.

The San Diego Botanic Garden is a wonderful place to visit. The friendly staff enjoy helping guests feel welcome and discover the gardens. If you’re in the San Diego area, consider visiting to see for yourself. 

Enjoy this blog? Subscribe via email:

Customer Experience Success Story at AT&T

Customers view service relative to their expectations. 

  • Good service meets expectations.
  • Poor service falls short of expectations.
  • Outstanding service exceeds expectations.

Here’s an email I received from my friend Larry. He expected to receive poor service from AT&T, but was pleasantly surprised in several ways.

Hey Jeff,

I wanted to share a GREAT customer service experience with you.

While I was out of town this weekend there was a power outage and I thought I lost my internet modem. I have not always had the best of luck when dealing with AT&T and am quick to say it. But I want to also be quick to point out my good experience.

First, I went to the local store. I got there about 15 min before they opened at noon. The parking lot was packed and there was a line at the door. 

When the door opened at noon, it was an amazing sight…there were a ton of employees inside and everyone who came in the door was immediately greeted and helped. No waiting at all. This caught my attention in a positive way.

I was met by a young lady who took me to a table and I explained my problem. We trouble shot the modem and immediately determined that it wasn’t the modem, but the power cord. We got the cord from another new piece of equipment and everything worked just fine. 

A power supply costs $10. A new modem costs $100. I asked for the $10 option. 

Initially she suggested we order one and I could have it come to my house or to the store and pick it up. She was unable to find the part # for the cord, and went to ask for help finding it. 

After a few minutes, she came back and I asked if there was a cord in the store I could borrow or rent for a few days until it arrived. She didn’t object and tried to order the cord for me. After another couple minutes, she just took my broken power cord and replaced it with the working one from the new modem box without charging me and said they will fix it on their side because she could not order a new one.

This is a great example of a front line employee taking the initiative and going above and beyond to FIX a customer issue. Instead of being without internet for several days or having to unnecessarily purchase a new piece of equipment. I was out of service for a couple hours and left a very satisfied customer who wanted to share that experience.

I am also sharing this on FB.

~ Larry

Notice how expectations played a role in Larry’s experience.

Larry’s initially low expectations made it easier for him to be pleasantly surprised by good service.

He was worried about wait times when he saw the large crowd. Excellent staffing levels allowed Larry to receive service much faster than he expected. 

Larry expected to pay for the repair. The associate took the initiative to find a solution she was empowered to deliver and gave Larry a replacement power cord at no charge.

These pleasant surprises prompted Larry to share his experience with AT&T on Facebook and with me. It all came down to one customer, at one store, served by one associate.

AT&T promises smart, friendly, and fast service at their AT&T stores. It sounds like they delivered. Here's a video describing the promised customer experience:

Enjoy this blog? Subscribe via email:

How to Engage Your Employees: A Step-by-Step Guide

Let’s get in the Wayback Machine and take a trip to the year 2006.

Reese Witherspoon was nominated for an academy award for her role in a biographic film. The Seattle Seahawks had just earned a spot in the Super Bowl. Employee engagement was a hot topic. 

Fast forward to today and very little has changed.

Reese Witherspoon has once again been nominated for an academy award for her role in a biographic film. The Seahawks are in the Super Bowl. And, employee engagement is still a hot topic.

Back in 2006, businesses were starting to understand the impact of disengagement on productivity, customer service, and profits. Gallup released a study revealing that a whopping 73 percent of employees were not engaged.

Today’s numbers are nearly identical. The latest Gallup engagement report shows that 70 percent of employees are not engaged. 

Companies are still not getting the results they should.

This step-by-step guide to engaging employees can help you change that.


Step 1: Define Engagement

It’s important to gain clear agreement on the meaning of employee engagement before you go any further.

The question hampers a lot of initiatives. Even leading consulting firms like Gallup and BlessingWhite disagree

  • Is it employee satisfaction?
  • Commitment to the company?
  • An emotional connection to the job?

Here’s the definition we’ll use for the purposes of this guide:

Employee engagement is the extent to which an employee deliberately contributes to organizational success.

This definition incorporates three critical elements:

  1. Employees must know what makes the organization successful.
  2. Employees must know how they personally contribute to organizational success.
  3. Employees must care enough to give discretionary effort.

We’ll come back to these three elements in just a moment. For now, let’s move on two Step 2.


Step 2: Identify the Impact

Most failed corporate initiatives suffer from the same problem: executives see the costs but they can’t quantify the benefits. You have to identify the business impact of employee engagement if you want it to become truly important.

Start by identifying key metrics that are likely affected by employee engagement. Examples include:

  • Employee Turnover
  • Productivity
  • Quality
  • Customer Satisfaction
  • Revenue

Next, use these metrics to assess the financial impact of employee engagement. 

For example, a hospital decided to focus on employee turnover. Their annual turnover rate for nursing staff was 30 percent compared to an industry average of 20 percent. 

The hospital took the following steps to calculate a hard dollar estimate that their CFO endorsed:

  1. Calculate the hard costs associated with employee turnover using this worksheet.
  2. Multiply that cost by the number of nursing positions refilled in a one year period.
  3. Calculate what the cost would have been at an average turnover rate of 20 percent.

The difference between #2 and #3 was the potential savings associated with improving employee engagement.

For the hospital, that was $100,000 in hard cost savings. 

The hospital’s CFO acknowledged this was a very conservative number. It didn’t account for hard-to-measure soft costs such as improved patient outcomes. By the CFO’s own estimate, the potential soft cost savings were $1,000,000.

You’ll have your executives’ attention if you too can make a compelling business case for improvement.


Step 3: Add Missing Pieces

Let’s go back to the three critical elements of employee engagement we examined in Step 1. The first is:

Employees must know what makes the organization successful.

There are three pieces to this puzzle that you must put in place for employees.

  1. Define success. 
  2. Set goals.
  3. Measure success.

The first piece represents your organization’s overarching purpose. It could be your mission statement or customer service vision.

The second piece makes things more specific. For example, if success is “leading your industry in customer service,” how will you know if you’re actually doing that?

This is where it’s helpful to create SMART goals to share with your employees. 

The final piece requires you to measure progress towards your goals and share updates with the team.

This brings us to the next critical element of employee engagement:

Employees must know how they personally contribute to organizational success.

Asking your employees is the best way to assess this element. If they can give a great description, you know they understand. If they’re unclear about their role, it’s a signal that a little coaching and training is required.

Which brings us to the final element:

Employees must care enough to give discretionary effort.

This speaks to motivation, a topic that’s widely misunderstood. Employees don’t join companies and think to themselves, “I’m going to be disengaged.” Their passion somehow gets deflated after they start their new job. 

Managers shouldn’t focus on getting employees to care. Rather, they should make sure employees don’t stop caring. Good managers prevent demotivation.

This is where the basics of good management comes into play:

  • Empower employees to do a good job
  • Help eliminate obstacles that get in their way
  • Let employees know their contributions are valued


Step 4: Measure It

Many companies do an annual employee engagement survey. 

If yours does one, stop. It’s a waste of time

Can you imagine measuring anything else that’s so important to your business only once a year?

We look at financials, customer satisfaction ratings, and other metrics at minimum on a monthly basis. Employee engagement needs to be evaluated just as often.

“But, wait!” you exclaim. “There’s no way I’m going to ask my employees to take an engagement survey once a month.”

You don’t want to do that, but here’s what you can do:

  • Divide your employees into twelve random groups. Survey a different group each month.
  • Do an employee engagement assessment.
  • Focus on related metrics like turnover or customer satisfaction.

Want to get really progressive?

Combine your performance management and employee engagement initiatives into one process.

Here are just a few ways these two concepts can overlap:

  • Employees are focused on increasing their contribution to organizational success
  • Managers are focused on helping employees maximize their contributions
  • Annual reviews summarize past performance and layout goals for the next year


Step 5: Take Action

This is what a failed employee engagement initiative looks like:

  1. An executive proclaims, “Let’s get serious about employee engagement.”
  2. A survey is implemented.
  3. Results are reported.
  4. Committees are formed.
  5. Nothing changes.

A process like that is nothing but a distraction from real work. Employee engagement can’t be a side project. It has to be the way you do business. 

Let’s go back to the definition of employee engagement:

Employee engagement is the extent to which an employee deliberately contributes to organizational success.

Your ability to engage employees comes down to making three things happen:

  1. Employees know what organizational success looks like. 
  2. They know how they can contribute.
  3. Managers prevent employees from getting demotivated.

Accomplish those three things and watch the magic happen. 

Enjoy this blog? Subscribe via email:

Five Customer Service Trends Worth Watching

Yesterday, I facilitated a webinar called Customer Service Trends to Watch in 2015. Here’s a re-cap along with links to additional information.

You can watch a replay of the webinar here.

Trend #1: Fixing Broken Systems

Most service failures are caused by broken systems.

It might be a rotten culture, an unfriendly policy, or an underperforming department. These issues go beyond a simple employee error. They can’t be fixed with training. They’re systemic.

The now infamous Comcast cancellation call is a terrific example.

In 2015, I predict we’ll see more companies getting serious about fixing broken systems and making it easy for their employees to provide outstanding service.


Trend #2: Preventing Service Failures

Matt Dixon was a keynote speaker at ICMI’s CC Expo conference last May. One of his slides really caught everyone’s attention:

Delighting customers is fine, but service failures are what really impacts loyalty.

This isn’t a new idea. Dixon co-authored a 2010 Harvard Business Review article called “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers.” And, he released a book on the subject called The Effortless Experience in 2013.

So, why is this a trend now?

Because companies are starting to realize how badly service failures are costing them. Not just in terms of lost customers and lost business, but in terms of wasted time, increased costs, and lots of unnecessary damage control. 

I expect to see a few more companies get serious about service failure prevention in 2015.


Trend #3: Proactive Social Care

My 2014 study on what angry customers Tweet about yielded a surprising result. Waiting is the number one reason angry customers Tweet. The number three reason was no response to a message sent to the company.

In other words, customers send angry tweets because another service channel failed to resolve their problem.

Some smart companies are flipping the script. They’re actively searching for problems they can solve. 

Here’s a great example from cable provider Bright House Networks. The rep happened upon a casual Twitter conversation about cable packages.


Trend #4: Fewer Surveys

In my 2014 article on the Salesforce blog, I detailed five signs that a customer service survey is missing the point.

People are getting tired of taking surveys. Even worse, most companies don’t do anything with them!

In 2015, I expect to see more companies fix their broken surveys. Or, better yet, abandon their customer service surveys altogether for one of these alternatives.


Trend #5: Employee Motivation

Managers just can’t seem to figure out employee motivation. 

Some try incentives. Others try threats. All too many don’t try.

A few are discovering Daniel Pink’s outstanding book, Drive, where he lays out three keys to motivating knowledge workers (e.g. customer service employees):

  • Purpose
  • Mastery
  • Autonomy

Here’s a synopsis of how these principles work for customer service employees.


So, will any of these trends hold true? Only time will tell.

Enjoy this blog? Subscribe via email: