Customer Service Pros Face Obstacles to Learning New Skills

A small experiment in Do-It-Yourself Learning has just wrapped-up. The idea was to see if customer service professionals could learn new skills on their own.

The results were very mixed.

None of the participants achieved their learning goals. However, many did make valuable progress. And, broader lessons were revealed about learning new skills.

Here's a rundown of what happened, what we learned, and how you can apply these lessons to learning customer service skills on your own.


I launched the experiment a month ago on the Inside Customer Service LinkedIn group

A few people said they were interested. Then, the inevitable dropouts came. People were busy. We ended up with four participants plus me.

That's obviously not enough people to draw any scientific conclusions. However, there are still plenty of insights to be gained.

The first major question is why did people think they were too busy. Shouldn't we always be learning something new?

One possibility is that we can't shake the idea that learning new skills has to be a big formal thing. The reality is we're learning new skills every day as we try to solve the various challenges thrown our way. 



The Results

Each participant was asked to set a specific learning goal. 

Most of the goals were focused around building customer service skills. I set a goal to so I could participate, but I chose to focus on photography because it would be easy to provide visual updates. My goal was to take a landscape picture that my wife would agree to hang on a wall.

I'm happy to report this is now hanging on the wall in my guest bedroom:

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

It's a picture of a small mountain called Kwaay Paay in San Diego's Mission Trails Regional Park. The shot is taken from the park's visitor center loop trail. The top of this mountain is one of my favorite places in San Diego. The stairs in the foreground represent unlimited possibilities.

The other participants made progress even though they didn't achieve their goals. So, what got in the way?


Obstacles to Learning

Malcolm Knowles developed a framework for adult learning more than 30 years ago. It helps to look at the challenges participants encountered through this framework.

(You can also watch this short video explaining Knowles's theory.)

The framework consists of six principles:

Need to Know. People must have a clear reason for learning. This factor held back many participants and potential participants. Most of their learning goals fell into the nice-to-have versus need-to-have category.

Foundation. Learning should build on things we already know. There probably weren't any problems here.

Self-concept. People should make decisions around their own learning. This was the lure of a DIY learning project. It may also be a challenge since nobody was being held accountable.

Readiness. Participants have to be ready to learn. This was a major challenge in the experiment. People like the idea of learning something new, but there wasn't an urgent reason to invest a lot of time in doing it. Several participants told me that other priorities got in the way.

Orientation. Learning should be focused on solving a specific problem. This was a challenge for some participants and it kept a few people from participating. Each person was asked to define a clear and specific learning goal.

Motivation. Participants must be internally motivated to learn. Here, competing priorities hurt participant motivation. They had other, more pressing projects to work on. 


Lessons Learned

There was a common thread that ran through all of the participants. The people who expressed interest, but ultimately didn't participate, had this in common too.

None of them identified an urgent learning need.

That's the biggest lesson learned. Many of us like the idea of learning something new but we don't follow through on it. We're just too busy. Other priorities get in the way. 

Urgency is the key. Learning a new customer service skill shouldn't be abstract. It should help solve a real problem.

Start with the need and the rest will follow.

The other lesson learned is that most people perceive learning as a big, formal event. It doesn't have to be this way. In fact, most of us are learning something new every day. Knowing how to learn can simply make this process easier.

Am I discouraged? Yeah, a little, I really wanted the participants to build new customer service skills that could help them achieve great things.

But, I think I can learn from this.