Training Concept You Need to Know: The Magic Window

The Constanzas earned their nickname in new hire training. Their constant bickering perfectly imitated George Constanza’s parents on the the TV show Seinfeld.

This argument was over a role place exercise.

“You’re not doing it right,” said Mrs. Constanza. She was breaking character to correct Mr. Constanza’s data entry error.

“You can’t see me! You’re on the phone!” yelled Mr. Constanza. He wanted none of Mrs. Constanza’s coaching as he struggled his way through entering the order.

“But you’re doing it wrong.”

“You can’t see me! You’re on the phone!”

The scene devolved into a stand off. Mr. Constanza kept trying to figure out the computer system. Mrs. Constanza retreated to another part of the training room.

The trainer watched the entire scene and did nothing. 

She was deliberately letting them fail to see if either one would make it through the magic window. 

The Learning Curve

It’s helpful to take a trip along the learning curve to understand why the trainer was standing back while the Constanzas went down in flames.

The learning curve consists of four distinct stages that were first identified by Noel Burch in the 1970s. They're known as the Four Stages of Competency: 

  1. Unconscious Incompetent: You don’t know what you don’t know.
  2. Conscious Incompetent: You know what you don’t know.
  3. Conscious Competent: You know what you know.
  4. Unconscious Competent: You don’t know what you know.

Most people can relate to these stages when they think about how they learned to drive a car. 

You were Unconscious Incompetent before you got behind the wheel. Driving may have seemed easy, or least it was more exciting than intimidating.

A specific situation jolted you into the Conscious Incompetent stage. This probably happened the first time you drove. Perhaps it was an oncoming car or stalling a manual transmission vehicle. 

Passing your driving test was the ultimate Conscious Competent moment. You were vividly aware of everything you did as the person in the passenger seat noted every move on a checklist. 

Today, you are a Unconscious Competent driver. You can get in your car, drive to work, and have no idea how you got there. Driving a car doesn’t take much brain power at all.


The Magic Window

The most important part of any learning process is the transition from Unconscious Incompetent to Conscious Incompetent.

I call this transition the Magic Window.

Learning is impossible unless a person makes this transition. People stuck in the Unconscious Incompetent stage don’t realize exactly what they have to learn, so they aren’t able to change behavior.

Which brings us back to the Constanzas. 

Neither one of them had made it through the magic window. They repeatedly failed at exercises yet couldn’t seem to grasp that they were falling behind. The rest of the new hire class made it through a long time ago. 

Pairing the Constanzas in the role play was a deliberate move. So was letting them work it out without providing feedback. The trainer was following an established protocol to give them one more chance to reach the Conscious Incompetent stage.


The Magic Window Protocol

There’s a protocol trainers should follow to move their learners through the magic window.

The first step is challenge

Learners need to experience a challenge so they move from Unconscious Incompetent to the Conscious Incompetent stage.

It might be a quiz, a hands-on activity, or even a difficult discussion question. 

An unfortunate side effect of challenge is learner confidence and motivation often takes a dive. Nobody likes to fail, especially if other people are around to see it.

It’s tough to balance challenge with learner self-esteem, but it’s essential.

Sadly, challenge alone isn’t always enough to help people move through the magic window. The Constanzas were challenged but didn’t realize they were struggling, even when they began falling behind their fellow new hires.

That’s when a second step is required: feedback.

This is when the trainer gives the participant specific feedback about their performance. A good trainer is careful to preserve the learner’s self-esteem, but is also direct in their assessment. They make it clear what aspects of performance need to be improved.

This direct feedback is often enough for the participant to realize they have some learning to do. Unfortunately, the Constanzas both found this feedback hard to accept. The trainer gave them feedback individually, but their reactions were remarkably similar.

They thought they were doing fine. They’d work harder to make sure they caught up. There was even a hint that the trainer needed to be more effective.

That’s when a third step is required: self-assessment.

At this stage, the trainer asks the participant to self-assess their performance. This shift to self-critique can often help a participant overcome self-esteem barriers and focus strictly on their performance. 

Some participants finally admit they're struggling. Others, like the Constanzas, continue to insist they’re doing just fine.

That’s when a fourth and final step is required: failure.

This step feels a bit harsh, but it’s also necessary. In this stage, the trainer allows the learner to fail on their own without a figurative safety net. (In situations where a literal safety net is required, this step would be cruel and should be avoided.)

In this particular class, the trainer paired the Constanzas together for a role-playing activity so other participants wouldn’t be affected. This gave them once last chance to break through the magic window. 

Unfortunately, neither one of them made it. They blamed each other. They blamed the trainer, the computer system, and the content. 

For them, the magic window remained closed.

The One Way Employees Sabotage Self-service

I stood in front of the airport self-service kiosk, navigating my way through the airline’s check-in procedure.

The airline employee behind the counter greeted me and we exchanged pleasantries as I continued checking in. It's a procedure that's burned into my memory from countless flights.

And then, she committed an act of unthinking sabotage.

She stepped from behind the counter and, without asking, started pushing buttons on the kiosk for me.

I wasn’t going slowly. There wasn’t even a line. I’ve done this too many times to count and I don’t need any help.

Her intrusion was annoying. It slowed me down. I had to tell her to back off so I could complete the process.

Let's imagine I really did need some assistance. This well-meaning, smiling employee still got it all wrong. The one thing you should never, ever do in self-service is push your customers’ buttons.  

The proliferation of self-service kiosks is amazing. A recent WhaTech report estimated that interactive self-service kiosks are growing at a rate of 7 percent in North America. The same report predicted the value of transactions conducted on these kiosks will reach $1 trillion in 2014.

These kiosks provide a double benefit when done right. The customer saves time because kiosks eliminate waiting in line and can actually speed up some transactions. The company saves money because they don’t have to hire costly employees.

Sometimes, employees are needed. Customers might need a little training or encouragement to learn how to use a self-service kiosk.

Other times, employees intervene simply because they can. They genuinely desire to help their customers but don’t understand how to do it correctly.

Whatever the situation, the one thing employees should never do is operate the kiosk for the customer.

There are a few good reasons why:

  1. It can be annoying to the customer.
  2. The customer is disempowered when the employee operates the kiosk for them.
  3. Customers won't learn how to do it themselves, defeating the purpose of self-service.

Self-service done right is faster and easier for customers. It gets slower and more annoying when a button-pushing employee gets in the way.

Employee can still play an important role in helping their customers use self-service kiosks. They just have to be taught how.

Here's an example:

The Portland Airport unveiled self-service kiosks in 2005 to allow passengers to pay for parking. The kiosks were a huge success in part because helpful, friendly employees were stationed near the machines to help customers learn to use them.

Parking employees were carefully trained to never push a customers’ buttons. They were given a three-step service process to follow instead.



The first step is to ask customers if they’d like assistance. Never assume they need or want your help.

Portland Airport parking employees took it a step further by inviting customers use the kiosks to save some time. They explained that customers could pay for their parking at the kiosk rather than waiting in line for a cashier at the airport exit. This embedded a clear customer benefit inside their offer of assistance.



If a customer would like some help, guide them through the transaction using verbal directions and pointing to the appropriate buttons. This approach incorporates all three basic learning styles into a mini-training lesson on how to use the equipment.

  • Auditory: the customer hears your verbal directions
  • Visual: the customer sees the correct button for each step in the process
  • Kinesthetic: the customer does the transaction themselves



The final step is to encourage the customer. Making sure they have a pleasant self-service experience is key to getting them to do it again.

These tips can mean the difference between self-service kiosks taking off or being neglected. My local post office provides a great example.

During busy times, a postal employee is stationed in front of their self-service kiosk. He or she invites people over to try the machine, but this same employee frequently sabotages the process. The employee takes over each customer's transaction, shooting out rapid-fire questions and pushing buttons before the customer really understands what's going on.

Confusion and anxiety are apparent on most customers' faces. The self-service kiosk isn't a pleasant experience for them. 

This spills over to slower times. There is almost never someone using the kiosk when I go to the post office. People would rather wait in line because it's less stressful.

Meanwhile, I breeze over to the kiosk and complete my transaction in less than a minute. With nobody there to push my buttons, using the kiosk is a breeze.

The REAL Way to Motivate Customer Service Employees

Employee motivation has been a hot topic in customer service for as long as anyone can remember.

In the old days, the threat of punishment was used to motivate customer service employees. The message was clear — do a good job or be fired. 

That approach didn’t work because employees would do just enough to avoid getting fired.

In more recent history, rewards and incentives became an import facet of management philosophy. The idea was you could get employees to do something they’d normally find distasteful by incentivizing them with cash and prizes. 

That approach didn’t work because employees would do just enough to win a prize.

The current management thinking revolves around gamification. Think of it as rewards on steroids. A perfect attendance prize gets a lot more exciting if you can win points, badges, and work your way up the team leader board.

Unfortunately, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that gamification doesn’t play well with customer service employees.

So, what does work?


Intrinsic Motivation - The REAL Motivator

In his book, Drive, author Daniel Pink examines reams of evidence on employee motivation and comes to a clear conclusion:

The carrot and stick approach doesn’t motivate knowledge workers to do a better job. In fact, it’s counterproductive and often results in poorer performance.

Pink discovered that knowledge workers, such as customer service employees, are intrinsically motivated. He found three specific factors that motivate employees to do a better job. Unfortunately, these factors are sorely lacking in many customer service environments:

  1. Purpose
  2. Mastery
  3. Autonomy



People want to belong to something and know their work has meaning.

In customer service, this means creating a customer service vision. This is a clear definition of outstanding customer service that is shared by all employees. It serves as a compass to point everyone in the same direction.

Most customer service teams don’t have a clear purpose. My own research revealed that only 62 percent of companies have clearly defined outstanding service. Of those companies, only a few can honestly say their employees can give a consistent answer to two critical questions:

  1. What is our customer service vision?
  2. How do I personally contribute to the customer service vision?

If you want to know why customer service at In-N-Out Burger is so much better than McDonald’s, look no further than purpose. Both started with the same core values, but only In-N-Out has made them a real part of their culture.



People love developing their skills. It feels good to be good at something.

Many customer service teams are anti-mastery. Companies keep salaries low by hiring low skilled employees. They skimp on training. Leaders find themselves with very little time to give coaching and feedback unless something goes wrong.

Amazing things can happen when you give employees the opportunity to grow and be their best. Not in a superficial, here’s your “Knowledge Badge” and ten experience points sort of way. True mastery is that process where people become increasingly better at their jobs.

Earlier this year, I wrote about Jesse, a new employee at a bagel shop. She was awkward and lacked confidence because she hadn’t been properly trained.

Jesse underwent a complete transformation over the course of a few weeks. She stuck with it and figured out how to do her job. She asked questions and learned from her experiences. Now, Jesse engaged customers with confidence and personality because she had mastered her basic responsibilities.



Ask customer service employees what they dislike most about their jobs and many will tell you it’s a lack of autonomy.

  • They don’t like scripts, because it feels like they aren’t trusted to say the right thing.
  • They don’t like rules, because it seems like they aren’t trusted to do the right thing.
  • They don’t like data, because it appears to be a tool for micromanagement.

Engaged employees are given the autonomy to do what’s right.

They have a clear purpose they believe in and are trusted to work towards that purpose. They are given opportunities to learn and grow so they can master their ability to contribute to the purpose.

Creating a clear purpose, helping employees develop mastery, and giving employees autonomy can be time-consuming. Many managers fall back on the carrot and stick approach because it seems easier. In the long run, any time savings is lost in lower productivity, lower morale, and higher turnover.

If you’d like to see more, check out this amazing ten minute video that summarizes Pink’s research on employee motivation:

What Angry Customers Tweet About

In September 2013, Hasan Syed decided to voice his displeasure with British Airways by paying to promote his angry tweets about the airline's service.

The tweet when viral and the story was reported by many major news outlets. British Airways soon found itself in the uncomfortable position of issuing a public apology for a single service failure.

The viral tweet is something that scares a lot of executives.

It’s one thing to disappoint a customer one-on-one. It’s quite another issue to see that disappointment broadcast for the world to see. 

So, what do angry customers tweet about?

To find out, I sampled 250 tweets:

  • 100 tweets with the hashtag #badservice
  • 100 with the hashtag #customerservice
  • 50 tweets with the hashtag #servicefail

Both #badservice and #customerservice are among the more popular hashtags used by customers. I only sampled 50 tweets with the hashtag #servicefail because it isn’t used as often.

Only complaints were counted. Compliments, general discussions, or people promoting a product or their content were all left out.

Here are three things I discovered:


Don’t Make Customers Wait

Waiting is the top source of twitter complaints, with 37 percent mentioning an excessive wait time. 

This covers a wide variety of situations. 

It could be waiting for a replacement product to arrive, waiting for the cable repair technician, or waiting for food to arrive in a restaurant. 


Respond Or They’ll Tweet

The number two source of twitter complaints was a defective product or service at 23 percent. No real surprise there, but number three was interesting: 22 percent of twitter complaints mentioned the company had not responded to them via another channel.

Many companies are their own worst enemies here. 

Customers now expect a response to email within four hours, but most companies are still at one day or more. Phone calls go unreturned. 

“I’ll get back to you” often really means “I’ll forget about you.”


Twitter is a Second Channel

A majority of the complaints on twitter hint that this isn’t the first time they tried to resolve the issue.

Many customers have tried to resolve their problem via a more traditional one-on-one channel that isn’t broadcast to social media. Perhaps they visited a store, called a contact center, or browsed a company website.

Here’s a chart with the overall results:

Key Take-aways

This data highlights a few things savvy companies should be doing.

Reducing wait times is an obvious start, but companies often struggle here. Keep in mind that wait time is a factor of both reality and perception. You can use a few secret tactics to help customers feel like their wait time is shorter.

Responding to customers is a no-brainer. There’s no excuse for being unresponsive. 

Focusing on first contact resolution may be the best way to prevent angry tweets. People often complain on twitter when their original complaint has gone unresolved.

How do Adults Learn? Find out on

Many of us train in some capacity.

You might consider yourself a trainer. Or, perhaps you're a leader who trains employees one-on-one. You may even be asked to help out an inexperienced co-worker.

Whatever the situation, it helps to know how adults learn new knowledge, skills, and abilities.

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Topics include:

  • Adult learning theory
  • Understanding the four stages of learning
  • Comparing active vs. passive learning
  • Overcoming learning barriers
  • Turning theory into practice

In the sample video below, you'll see how two courses on the same topic can be vastly different. (Click here if you don't see the video.)

You’ll need a subscription to view the entire course. The good news is your subscription gives you unlimited access to all of their courses. 

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