The Best Way to Ask Employees About Training Needs

You may be tempted to survey employees to ask about their training needs. Don't.

Asking employees what training they need is like asking young kids what they want for dinner. An enthusiastic answer doesn't mean that's what they need. 

I once worked with a payroll department that was struggling to serve its internal customers. They frequently couldn't process payroll on time and made many errors. The team was denied a request for additional staff so they asked me for time management training.

It turned out they really needed a better process. 

We worked together to map the existing process, identify bottlenecks, and implement a new workflow. Productivity immediately improved by 25 percent and errors went down to nearly 0.

No training required.

This won't always be the case. Employees often need training to help them do their jobs. The trick is asking them directly will often yield what they think they need, not what they actually need.

Here's a better way to ask employees about training needs.

Do This Before Asking Employees About Training

There are a few steps you should take before asking employees about training.

Step one is to identify a business need for your company, department, or team. Think about a problem you're trying to solve, such as improving customer service, reducing complaints, or improving customer retention. Resources are limited, so we want to focus our training investments on areas of business need.

Step two is to identify the key drivers that contribute to that goal. For example, Palo Alto Software recently decided to focus on customer retention. In an interview with Celeste Peterson, a Customer Advocacy Supervisor, she described two key retention drivers her team identified:

  • Customers logged in to the software more than once in the first week they signed up.
  • Customers can easily access help when they're confused or frustrated.

Step three is to determine what employee behaviors lead to good results with your key drivers. This step may actually involve dialogue with your employees, though you're not discussing training yet. The conversation should focus on what's working and what's not.

Palo Alto Software determined that its customer advocates (customer service reps) needed to do two things in particular:

  • Provide helpful support to customers in need.
  • Use positive phrasing when customers are confused about annual billing.

Notice the goal for these steps is to identify a business need and then link it to what employees need to do. Only now are you ready to assess employee training needs.

 

What to Ask Employees

Once you've identified what employees should be doing the next step is to find out what employees are actually doing.

The best way to do this is to observe employees in action. Here is when you can ask a few questions:

  • What do you do now?
  • Why do you do it that way? (If it's different than expected.)
  • What's preventing you from achieving your goals?

For instance, Peterson observed her team at Palo Alto Software to see how they handled situations where a customer complained about being charged for 12 months of service. These customers had signed up for annual billing to get a discount, but somehow didn't realize they would be charged for a year's worth of service at one time.

Customer advocates would generally apologize, and offer to refund the charge and convert the customer's account into a monthly one.

This seemed like a customer-friendly, low-friction approach but it was actually costing customers money in the long run since monthly accounts billed at a higher rate than annual subscriptions. Monthly customers were also more likely to cancel.

This observation revealed a simple training need—customer advocates needed to learn a better approach to handle complaints about annual billing.

Here's how Peterson described the new approach she trained her team to use:

"Now, rather than immediately addressing their confusion and apologizing, giving a negative impression, we empathize, and focus on the positive, that the annual subscription provides the benefit of a 40% discount by collecting for 12 months in advance. We also let the customer know that we're happy to convert it to the monthly option or cancel and refund if they prefer, since we have a 60 day money back guarantee."

Notice there's still no survey involved.

I do like using surveys when there's a larger audience. For example, I'm working with a client now where about 700 people will need training on the organization's customer service vision. In this case, the survey is a convenient way to ask people for their current understanding of the vision.

 

Conclusion

Asking the right questions up front made a huge difference at Palo Alto Software. These questions were focused on what employees needed to do their jobs, not what training they wanted.

Peterson's employees may have asked for customer service training if she simply asked for their training requests. That might have resulted in a half-day training class on serving angry customers or having each person take my one-hour Working With Upset Customers course on Lynda.com.

Doing an upfront needs analysis allowed Peterson to make a bigger impact by offering very limited training on a specific technique for a particular situation.

You can learn more about assessing employee training needs by taking my Needs Analysis course on Lynda.com.

I also highly recommend the book Courageous Training by Tim Mooney and Robert O. Brinkerhoff. It provides step-by-step instructions for identifying training needs by first framing business needs.