Why Good Service Reps Need Training (And Bad Ones Don't)

Many people have an interesting reaction when they learn I'm a customer service trainer. 

They'll tell me about an awful customer service experience. It's inevitably some company with a bad reputation. Then they'll say, "You should talk to them - they could really use your help!"

These people mean well. Unfortunately, I'll never be able to help those companies. Training isn't the answer for bad customer service teams.

That's why I only work with teams and organizations that are already good at service. This post explains why.

Why Bad Teams Don't Need Training

Let's start by looking at what training can, and cannot do.

  • Training can help an employee develop new knowledge, skills, or abilities.
  • Training can't compel that employee to actually use knowledge, skills, or abilities.

Training also can't fix the myriad of other problems that lead to poor customer service. Here are just a few causes of poor customer service that have nothing to do with training:

  • Defective products or services
  • Unfriendly policies
  • Unhealthy incentives
  • Rotten workplace cultures
  • Ineffective leadership
  • Emphasizing the wrong metrics
  • Lack of empowerment
  • Lack of tools and resources

Most bad customer service teams have plenty of these non-training problems. Unfortunately, training can't make a significant impact until these problems are fixed. I once did some back of the envelope calculations. Training is only responsible for 1 percent of service quality

There are other problems with trying to train bad customer service teams.

One is leadership. Managers of poor-performing teams often believe that the training will somehow fix their people. These managers assume they don't have to be a part of the process.

Unfortunately, this hands-off approach actually reinforces bad habits, rather than helping employees build new ones. That's because how and when you apply what you learn in training has much more impact on learning than the training itself.

Finally, there's the Dunning-Kruger problem.

Researchers Justin Kruger and David Dunning discovered a phenomenon where the less someone knows about something, the more they overrate their abilities.

That's right - employees on poor performing customer service teams typically think they're awesome! 

I've run a small experiment many times where I ask employees to rate their customer service abilities on a scale of 1 to 5. Then, I ask them to rate the team on the same scale. 

Here's the inevitable result:

  • Individual Average = 4
  • Team Average = 3

The math just doesn't add up. On average, these customer service employees think they're personally better than the rest of the team. 

It's hard to train a group of people that thinks that way. So, I don't even try.


How Training Helps Good Teams

Good teams generally do well on the non-training factors that contribute to outstanding customer service. That's part of why they're good.

Good teams also have an insatiable desire to continuously get better. That's another reason why they're good.

So, where does training fit in? Two ways:

  1. It helps employees developed advanced skills.
  2. It reminds employees to use the skills they already have.

Here's an example of how that works:

A client of mine is absolutely crushing it when it comes to service. They're CSAT scores are awesome, they've used service to save tons of money, and they've won so many awards it's getting embarrassing. 

They've done a lot of things right to get there:

  • They have a customer-focused vision
  • Leadership is committed to the vision
  • Employees are hired for commitment to the vision
  • They constantly work to improve products, services, and policies
  • Customer service is a never-ending topic of discussion

Despite their great results, this client still hires me to do an annual refresher version of my customer service training program. We've been doing it for the past six years.

Part of the training always focuses on new skills. The team is always looking for ways to get an edge. One year, we worked on techniques to make wait times more bearable. They immediately used the training to address a nagging problem and improve CSAT.

The other part of the training reviews basic skills. Studies show that we forget nearly half of what we learn in training after just one week. Practice and application can help, but over time our knowledge gets rusty. The refresher training provides valuable reminders to everyone.

The annual refresher training has become one part of how this client keeps their edge year after year.


Are You Ready For Training?

It's easy to look at customer service training as a remedial step. I hope this post will help you think about it as more of an advanced move.

Once your team is ready for training, here are few resources to help you out: