The Lost Art of Practicing New Skills

My BS meter was pinging loudly.

A participant in my customer service training class had just informed me that he was awesome at customer service. He told me he was only attending the open enrollment workshop because his boss had sent him. "I've never had a complaint," he insisted.

The very first exercise proved him wrong. 

It was a rapport-building challenge. Participants were asked to meet three people and learn three things about each person in three minutes. It seems simple, but it's really hard. Typically, only 10 percent of participants can do it on the first try.

Mr. Awesome wasn't one of them.

His problem wasn't a lack capability. His challenge was that he'd convinced himself customer service was easy. The participant's overconfidence prevented him from practicing his craft.

This post is part four in a series about Do-It-Yourself customer service training. We've been exploring techniques for learning new skills without formal training. 

Today, we'll focus on the lost art of practicing.

Background: The DIY Training Project

You might want to catch-up on the project so far before reading ahead.

  • The first post provided an overview of self-directed learning.
  • The second post focused on using goals to get focused.
  • The third post described how you can engage experts to help you grow. 

You can also check out the Inside Customer Service group on LinkedIn. A few people are using the group to document their DIY customer service training journey.


Why Practice is Essential

Imagine your favorite athlete.

Picture him or her performing at peak level. It could be in a team sport like baseball or football. Perhaps your favorite athlete plays an individual sport like golf or tennis. 

Whatever the case, picture this athlete at their best.

You know they don't just show up on game day and perform. There's countless hours of training, preparation, and practice that goes into their performance.

There's no reason we should be any different. If we want to get better at the customer service game, we need to practice. 

Practice does two essential things.

First, it gives us feedback. The participant in my customer service training class got immediate feedback that his rapport-building skills weren't as awesome as he'd thought.

Second, practice helps etch skills into our memories. Without practice, it takes just one week to forget half of what we learn in training.


How to Practice

Practice won't make you better if you do it the wrong way.

There's a kid in my neighborhood who plays the drums. He's terrible. He can't keep a simple beat despite having years of experience.

It's easy to understand why when you hear him practice. He never works on the basics. His sole aim appears to be nailing some sort of crazy Neil Peart drum solo.

So, what's a better way?

I like to use David Kolb's experiential learning model:

Kolb's experiential learning model

Kolb's experiential learning model

I've been working on my photography skills for the DIY Learning Project. My goal is to take a landscape picture that my wife will agree to hang on a wall in our home.

Here's how I used Kolb's model to work on my ability to using lighting to my advantage.

The first step is to reflect. I did this by reviewing some pictures I took to make note of what I didn't like about the lighting. Here's an example:

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister


The color in this picture is washed out. That's because the picture was taken into the sun. A thin layer of clouds diffused the light even more.

Deciding what to improve is the next step. I found a training video on called Up and Running With Lighting: Natural Light by Erin Manning. The course gave me some great tips to try out.

Experimentation is the third step. I took my camera to the Presidio in San Diego to try out some of the lighting techniques I'd just learned. This also allowed me to learn how to make adjustments on my camera.

This first photo is too dark:

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

This next photo is too light:

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

This last photo has much better lighting:

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

I used skills I learned from the training video to make adjustments that would improve the use of lighting for this scene.

All this practice leads to more experience and Kolb's cycle begins anew.

This technique is also perfect for developing your customer service skills. Here's how I used it in my recent training class to help Mr. Awesome actually be awesome:

First, we reflected on reasons why most participants (including Mr. Awesome) weren't able to successfully complete the rapport-building challenge.

Next, we decided what we'd do differently the next time. People quickly came up with some great ideas.

Finally, we ran the exercise again so participants could experiment with their ideas. This time around, Mr. Awesome nailed it. He really did a great job.


Recognize Progress

This brings us to the last piece of the practice puzzle: you must recognize the progress you are making.

It's unreasonable to expect perfection right away. Many people give up on learning a new skill if they don't nail it on the first try.

Don't be that person! Step back and take pride in progress. 

Here's an example from my photography project. I wanted to capture a beautiful beach I had seen in Hawaii. 

The original photo had too many shadows:

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

I took the new photo earlier in the day from a slightly different location so I could maximize the sun's natural lighting:

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Using pictures makes it easy to see the progress I'm making.

You might not have that luxury with the skills you're learning. But, you can still evaluate your progress by using Kolb's experiential learning cycle. Reflect on your experience, decide what (if anything) you'd like to do differently, and then experiment with new techniques.

Practice is an essential part of learning new skills. The payoff is discovering that you can do something you couldn't do before.