How Training Reinforces Old Skills and Discourages New Ones

“The training was life changing.”

That’s how Matt felt about the week-long leadership course he had just attended. It was the most inspirational training he had ever experienced.

Now, Matt’s head was full of new ideas. He was excited to use what he learned to help his team achieve unprecedented levels of service.

Fast forward a few months and Matt's excitement had waned.

I asked Matt what he had implemented from the leadership course. My question was met with a prolonged silence.

Finally, Matt said, “If I have to be honest with you, I haven’t used anything.”

Matt’s story isn’t unusual. In fact, it’s typical. Companies spend thousands of dollars to send employees to training and nothing happens.

They hope for better customer service, better leadership, and better results. All they really get is a big training bill. Even worse, the training might actually reinforce old habits rather than build new ones.

Let’s explore why this happens and what you can do to change it.

The Vortex

Matt was buried in work when he returned to the office after the week-long training. He faced a mountain of phone calls, emails, status meetings, updates, and project work. 

This is hardly unusual. Most of us face increased workloads after attending training. Like most of us, Matt worked hard to grind through it.

This whirlwind of post-training activity is called the Vortex. It heightens fatigue and stress levels and sucks up all of your attention. 

We revert to our old habits when fatigue and stress levels rise. This delays the application of anything you learned in training. Unfortunately, this delay happens at the most critical time for learning.

The Vortex consumes the time we know we should spend applying what we've just learned. We push aside the new lessons for a later date when we're more caught up. That date rarely arrives.


Learning & Forgetting

A 2006 experiment by Henry Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke revealed how we easily forget what we learn.

Students at Washington University in St. Louis were asked to memorize poetry passages. Some students were then asked to study the passages for additional periods while other students were immediately tested on their recollection of the passage.

All students were tested again five minutes later to see how much of the poetry they could recall.

The students who spent more time studying fared a little better, recalling an average of 81 percent of the poetry vs. 75 percent for the students who had studied once and then were tested.

An interesting thing happened a week later when the researchers tested the students again.

The students who studied once and then were tested retained 14 percent more than the students were spent more time studying!

This experiment shows us two things about learning and forgetting.

First, testing is critical to long-term memory. Testing can come in many forms. It might be a knowledge quiz, but it could also be opportunities to apply new knowledge to a real problem.

Second, we forget information quickly. The students had all forgotten roughly half of the poetry passage after just one week. Now, imagine how much content from a week-long or even a day-long course would be forgotten after just one week!

Unfortunately, the post-training Vortex ensures any on-the-job application will be delayed and much of what we learned will be forgotten.


Improving Training

The ideal learning environment involves intense practice, smaller chunks of learning, or both.

Training should also focus on helping learners solve current problems. In this way, the new learning isn't a distraction from the post-training Vortex; it's a solution.

There are many ways to achieve this, but you have to think beyond the traditional event-based training module where participants attend a class or take an e-learning and that’s it.

Here are a few examples:

A flipped learning approach trains content by video or e-learning and gives participants practical opportunities to apply what they learned.

I’ve had success training contact center agents via a series of one-hour webinars. Each session focuses on one specific skill. The sessions are scheduled two weeks apart to give participants time to apply what they learned in between.

An action learning approach can also be highly effective. Here, participants work on a real-world problem. They’re given access to self-paced learning and real-time coaching as they need it. 

The key to all of these approaches is less study time and more immediate application.

Changing the traditional event-based learning model takes guts, but it can be highly effective. Your participants will retain more, apply more, and achieve more.

For more information on how learning can be improved, check out this short video on

Improving Email Response Time: Interview with Leslie O'Flahavan

The results of the 2015 Toister Performance Solutions email response time survey were released last week.

Customer service writing expert Leslie O’Flahavan joined me for a Google Hangout interview to discuss the results and offer some tips to help companies respond faster and better.

You may want to review the survey results before watching the interview.

Here’s the video plus some additional links and discussion below. 

Discussion & Links

The survey suggested a new response time standard for businesses: one hour.

A 2014 survey revealed the average business currently responds within one business day. Many businesses will risk disappointing their customers by prioritizing cost savings over responsiveness.

O’Flahavan raised the point that organizations trying to meet the new standard may end up compromising quality for speed. (You can see an example of that here.)

She gave us this great quote in the interview:

You have to figure out where does quick overlap with good.

O’Flahavan offered several suggestions for businesses to improve both speed and quality. One was a warm confirmation email that can be used to respond to more complicated problems and inquiries.

This is a message from a real person that essentially says, “We’ve received your email, we’re working on it, and here’s when you can expect a response.”

This tactic does a few things:

  • It lets the customer know their message has been received
  • It creates a stronger connection than a automated response
  • It buys the company some time to respond properly

You can also use this email to direct customers to other channels such as phone or a website that may be faster or more appropriate. 

Companies often face a challenge of coordinating email with other service channels. It wasn’t referenced in the interview, but O’Flahavan provides an excellent example in this recent blog post on her Writing Matters blog. 

Finally, we discussed co-workers. 

The email response time survey revealed that people also expected co-workers to respond within one hour.

O’Flahavan laid out a number of ways this unreasonable expectation might cause some workplace problems. For example, people are less present in meetings because they’re trying to respond to email on the sly.

Wasted time is another potential problem. I recently discovered several surprising email stats including this one: the average person wastes 24 percent of their day on useless email.

Do you have a question for Leslie? She’s very responsive to email.

You can also reach her here:

Employees Waste 24 Percent of Their Day on Useless Email

No, the title of this post is not an exaggeration.

Email is a huge time suck. Many of us feel stuck on a perpetual hamster wheel of back and forth communication.

Here’s how I calculated that scary number:

A 2012 McKinsey study found that the average knowledge worker spends 28 percent of their day responding to email. 

A 2012 study from Mimecast found that 86 percent of the emails we receive are useless.

So, 86 percent of 28 percent = 24 percent of our day wasted. Ouch.

What’s causing this problem? There seem to be a few culprits.

One challenge is time pressure.

My latest research on email response time expectations revealed a new one hour standard for replying to email sent by customers and co-workers.

Those expectations pressure us into responding quickly without putting much thought into what we’re writing. 

A 2014 analysis by Front revealed that people average 4.5 emails per conversation. All that back and forth is pretty inefficient.

People expect fast responses, but actual response times are much longer:

  • Most businesses still adhere to a one business day standard (source: TPS).
  • The average response time for individuals is 27 hours (source: Front).

That triggers a lot of “Did you get my email?” calls, texts, IMs, and emails. More clutter.

Here are a few more examples of email time sucks:

  • 19 percent of email is spam (source: Radicati)
  • Reply all abusers
  • Updates on the status of cake in the conference room
  • Checking email constantly
  • Email alerts that remind you to check email constantly

So, what can we do about it?

Check out my Google Hangout with customer service writing expert Leslie O'Flahavan. Most of the interview focuses on how businesses can do a better job of responding to customers, but she has some terrific advice for co-workers towards the end of the 30 minute interview.

Get Ready to Respond to Customer Email Within One Hour

There’s a new standard for email response time.

You can toss out the old school one business day standard. That's so 1999. Even 2014’s four hour response time standard is old news.

The Toister Performance Solutions 2015 email response time survey revealed that customers now expect businesses to respond to their emails in just one hour.

Over 1,000 adults in the U.S. ages 18+ participated in the survey.

Here’s the breakdown of the survey results along with an invitation to tune in to an exclusive interview with customer service writing expert Leslie O'Flahavan.


A Big Challenge for Business

This isn't good news for most companies.

A separate 2014 Toister Performance Solutions survey revealed that 66 percent of companies currently take 1 day or more to respond. (Take the survey yourself and see how you stack up.)

One business day is still favored by many customers, with 43.4 percent of survey respondents selecting this option. The problem with this standard is 43.9 percent of customers expect a faster response.

That means the one business day standard could be alienating nearly half of your customers.

The new one hour standard reflects the longest response time that will meet at least 80 percent of customers’ expectations.


The survey looked at response time expectations by age, but found no significant difference between generations. It seems we all want it now.

More bad news?

In 2014, just 4 percent of survey respondents said they expected businesses to respond within 15 minutes. That jumped up to 14.5 percent this year.

You can see where this is going.


High Expectations for Co-Workers

The survey also revealed that people expect their co-workers to respond quickly too.

The most popular selection on the survey was four hours, but nearly as many people responded “one hour” as did “one day.”

Using the 80 percent rule, the new expectation for co-worker response time is just one hour too.

This is really bad news for workplaces already beleaguered by email overload. 


Learn How to Respond Faster

Check out my Google Hangout On Air interview with customer service writing expert Leslie O’Flahavan. 

Leslie and I discussed ways that companies and customers service agents can respond faster without compromising quality.

Image courtesy of Leslie O'Flahavan

Image courtesy of Leslie O'Flahavan

Leslie O’Flahavan is principle of E-WRITE, a company that helps customer care organizations write well in any channel: email, chat, social media, and SMS.

You can connect with Leslie on Twitter, the E-WRITE website, and of course via email.

You can also watch a video of the interview here.


Extra: Some Good News

The survey did reveal some good news.

We still give our friends a bit of leeway when it comes to response times. The standard is unchanged from 2014. It’s still one business day.

Are Your Customer Service Reps Suffering from TMI?

The chain restaurant branded itself as a fun place to eat. In reality, it often wasn’t.

Servers struggled to provide fun service because they had too much to think about. The company had a litany of service steps, procedures, and brand promises to follow.

It was enough to make your head spin:

  • Four service focus areas
  • Four separate cornerstones of guest experience
  • Sixteen steps for serving every guest
  • An internal customer service slogan
  • A customer-focused mission statement

It was a challenge to keep all of it straight. Even the chain’s executive team didn’t agree on what was most important. Servers often found themselves just trying to be efficient.

These servers were inundated with Too Much Information, or TMI. It’s an epidemic that affects many customer service employees in a wide variety of industries.

TMI’s Impact

TMI causes employees to divert critical brain power away from focusing on their customers. It’s harder for them to build rapport and critical opportunities to serve are missed.

TMI comes in many forms. We know that excessive feedback can impact performance. So too can having to memorize too many product facts, procedures, or processes. 

In many organizations, customer service TMI comes in the form of too many service steps, standards, and principles. One contact center asked its agents to follow 35 steps on every call. A credit union asked its tellers to follow 21 steps with every member interaction. 

TMI can even have a negative impact on customers. The venerable McDonald’s brand has suffered in part due to a dizzying array of menu options. Their menu has bloated to 121 distinct items (not counting different sizes), up from just 26 in 1980.


Reducing Noise

TMI creates noise that makes it hard for customer service employees to prioritize service. The solution is to cut out the noise.

Home Depot is a success story that I profiled in my book, Service Failure

Between 2007 and 2010, they embarked on an ambitious simplification program in an effort to improve customer service. Marvin Ellison, Vice President of U.S. stores, said in an interview:

First, we simplified things for the stores, giving them three primary things to focus on: remaining in stock, store appearance, and customer service.

One example was 200 weekly reports and emails that were sent to each store. These were merged into a one-page scorecard. Information and tasks had previously overwhelmed both managers and employees. Now, their top three priorities were clear.

The results were impressive. Home Depot increased their American Customer Satisfaction Index score from 67% to 75%. Their net promoter score increased from 48% to 68% during this same time.

The restaurant chain improved service quality by taking a similar approach.

First, their executive team and store managers all agreed that the company’s mission was the most important description of outstanding customer service. This gave everyone a clear customer service vision to follow. 

They also paired the sixteen service steps down to eight guidelines. These guidelines emphasized fun service over efficiency, which was the hallmark of the restaurant’s brand.


Reducing TMI

Cutting through the information clutter requires organizations to identify what’s truly important. Here are three steps you can take.

Step 1: Articulate a customer service vision. This is a clear definition of outstanding customer service that is shared by all employees. It should serve as a compass to help point employees in the right direction. You can download the customer service vision worksheet to create one for your organization.

Step 2: Measure what’s most important. Companies measure a lot of stuff, but often ignore what should be their top priorities. If service is your top priority, then make those metrics front and center. Better yet, set a goal around service. You can use the SMART goal worksheet to do this.

Step 3: Focus on the priority. Employees understand something’s importance by how often you talk about it. Simplify your messages to focus on the top priority. Written communication, team meetings, and one-on-one conversations should all be focused and concise. 

Customer service TMI comes from the top. Elite customer service leaders know this and obsessively protect their employees from TMI to help them stay focused.