How to Train Faster and Better with Microlearning

Contact centers constantly face pressure to make agent training faster, cheaper, and better. One way to achieve this is through microlearning, where agents learn new information or review content in small chunks at a time.

Chance are, you're using microlearning already.

For example, have you ever gone to YouTube to find a short how-to video? I did this when I had to change the battery on my solar-powered keyboard. I quickly found a short video and, a few minutes later, I had step-by-step instructions for doing the repair.

I used a YouTube video to learn how to change the battery on my solar-powered keyboard.

I recently joined Bryan Naas from Lessonly to present a webinar on how to train contact center agents faster, reduce costs, and deliver better results with microlearning. Lessonly builds easy-to-use training software that helps people do better work, so it was really helpful to have Bryan's perspective.

Here are a few highlights from the webinar.


Training and Reinforcement

Bryan and I shared multiple microlearning examples throughout the webinar. 

A simple one is my Customer Service Tip of the Week email. Anyone can sign up for free to receive one tip via email, once per week. These tips are helpful reminders to help us build lasting habits.


Budget-Friendly

Microlearning is generally inexpensive and can be deployed quickly.

The biggest cost associated with traditional classroom training is paying agents to attend training along with other agents to provide coverage while your staff is in class. One benefit of microlearning is you don't need to take your agents out of the queue for training, so it is far less disruptive to your operation!


A Proven Model

Bryan shared Lessonly's Better Work Method, which is a model contact center leaders can use to easily develop microlearning lesson plans. 

The first step in the model is to assess needs. It's very common for contact center training programs to deliver too much unnecessary contact, while omitting essential lessons. A simple assessment can help you deliver the right content at just the right time.

You can watch the entire webinar replay here.

Bryan and I mention a couple of links during the webinar that you can't see on the replay:


How to Give Feedback to a Defensive Employee

The feedback session wasn't going well.

A contact center supervisor was reviewing a call with an agent where the agent's lack of friendliness seemed obvious. She had replied to the customer's questions in a monotone voice with short, clipped responses, and didn't acknowledge the customer's frustration.

The agent's response was to the supervisor's coaching was to flatly disagree. "Well," said the agent, "that's friendly for me."

Customer service leaders often face this dilemma. How do you get employees to embrace feedback, when they don't agree their performance needs to improve? 

I was lucky to have a mentor show me a technique that works.

A defensive employee argues with his boss.

Step 1: Identify Observable Behavior

One of the challenges faced by the supervisor is that friendliness is surprisingly difficult to define. You might know friendliness when you see it, but describing it isn't so easy. 

The supervisor couldn't explain what exactly the employee was doing wrong or what specifically she needed to do to improve. "You weren't friendly," was ultimately a subjective assessment.

Leaders often struggle getting employees onboard with murky concepts like friendliness.

My boss, Debbi, was a mentor to me when I supervised a contact center training department many years ago. She taught me to overcome this challenge by focusing on observable behavior. These are behaviors you can actually see, rather than inferences.

For example, let's go back to friendliness. What specific behaviors did the agent display that led the supervisor to conclude the agent wasn't being friendly?

  • Monotone voice

  • Short, clipped responses

  • Did not acknowledge the customer's frustration

So what does friendly look like? Here's an experiment you can try. Observe an employee you know is being friendly. Try to identify the specific behaviors they display that tell you they are friendly.

You can see an example in this short video. Skip ahead if you’d like to 1:20 to see a poor example and then a good example at 1:58.

Step 2: Check Your Intent

Your intent in a feedback conversation is critical to getting that surly employee onboard.

The supervisor's intent with the unfriendly contact center agent was to get the employee to acknowledge she hadn't been friendly. Ultimately, the supervisor hoped the agent would accept being marked down on the quality monitoring form that was used to evaluate agent performance.

That feels pretty adversarial. And right or wrong, it's human nature to get defensive when confronted by an adversary.

I once made the mistake of confronting an employee about her bad attitude. She immediately became defensive and it didn't go well. That's because my intent was to get her to accept that she had a bad attitude.

My mentor, Debbi, gave me some advice that helped me change my intent with this employee. I started my next meeting with the employee by explaining that five different people had complained about working with her, and I wanted to work together to help her change that perception.

This time, I didn't try to get my employee to admit she was wrong. We focused instead on identifying specific behaviors she needed to display to convince colleagues she didn't have a bad attitude. It was still a difficult conversation, but we were now on the same side.

The next time you want to give an employee feedback, make sure your intent is to help them deliver a great performance the next time.

Step 3: Provide a Good Example

People can still disagree despite the best of intentions and seemingly clear, observable behavior. This makes it important to have an example of what good performance looks like.

There are a few ways you can do this.

One way is to share a visual. For instance, a chain of pizza restaurants has a poster showing two employees standing side-by-side. One is wearing their uniform correctly, while the other is not. This makes it easier to see what a "good" uniform presentation should look like.

Supervisors can also demonstrate the expected behavior. A hospitality manager who wanted his employees to give friendly greetings had employees observe him greet several guests.

Still another approach is to use your employee's past performance as a model. The contact center supervisor could have found a previous call where the agent was friendly, and played them for the agent back-to-back so she would better understand the difference between the two.

Debbi consistently coached me to set a positive example for my employees. So when I made suggestions to help an employee convince colleagues she didn’t have a “bad attitude,” I could show her examples of what I was looking for.


Take Action

Okay, here's the caveat.

These steps won't work 100 percent of the time. Some employees just aren't open to feedback, no matter how you approach them. In those cases, a poor performer should be told to improve or move on to another position.

Yet I've found that most employees will improve if you approach them the right way. My “bad attitude” employee made the adjustments she needed to make and completely changed how her colleagues perceived her. I made sure to acknowledge her progress and continued to communicate that I was on her side.


Lessons From the Overlook: The Power of Checklists

Note: Lessons from The Overlook is a monthly update on lessons learned from owning a vacation rental property in the Southern California mountain town of Idyllwild. It's a hands-on opportunity to apply some of the techniques I advise my clients to use. You can find past updates here.

I went to change the air filter on the heater while visiting The Overlook recently. 

Normally, there's an extra filter on hand to make this an easy chore, but I discovered I hadn't re-ordered filters the last time I'd used one. So I drove into town to buy one, but the size I needed was out of stock at both hardware stores in Idyllwild.

(Side note, I'm a big fan of Idyllwild's True Value, Forest Lumber. They pack a lot of merchandise into a small store, and the friendly staff are always very helpful.)

In the end I had to order a new filter online and have it delivered to our property manager for installation later that week. 

Changing the air filter was a minor hassle this time. It was also a terrific reminder that I had fallen out of habit of doing something very important: using a checklist.

Here's how a checklist is (usually) a timesaver at The Overlook, and why you should be using them, too.

An inspection revealed a pipe under the spa deck was missing some insulation. We asked our property manager to have it fixed before it caused any real problems.

An inspection revealed a pipe under the spa deck was missing some insulation. We asked our property manager to have it fixed before it caused any real problems.

Using a PM Checklist

When my wife, Sally, and I first bought The Overlook in October 2016, we created a preventative maintenance (PM) checklist. 

Our plan was to use the checklist when inspecting the cabin on our regular visits. It would help us remember what to inspect while identifying some maintenance items that had to be done on occasion. We've updated the checklist as we've discovered new requirements or added a new feature, like a game room.

We've found the checklist to be extremely useful. 

There's been some minor maintenance to be done each time we've visited the cabin, which is usually once every six weeks. Glasses are missing, lightbulbs are burned out, guests leave personal items in drawers, furniture has been moved, you name it.

The PM checklist also contains a lot of helpful reminders, such as pumping the septic tank, trimming trees, and checking our propane consumption. We also use it to identify when to re-order supplies such as spare glasses, dishes, lightbulbs, and cleaning supplies.

Forming a Bad Habit

We've strayed away from using the checklist during the past few months. The excuse was busyness.

A day trip to the cabin in September was a whirlwind of chores. We returned in October, but storm knocked the power out and put a damper on our plans. Another trip the first weekend in December was nice, but there was also a long list of chores that needed to be done.

In hindsight, these were precisely the times when a checklist would have been handy. It would have helped me remember to order new air filters for our heater or inspect the piping under the spa deck (see photo). I allowed myself to get so busy focusing on whatever task was right in front of me that I neglected to follow our own procedure.

Fortunately, the only fallout was a little wasted time from not having replacement air filters on hand. I know it could have been worse, such as a frozen pipe!

We'll definitely be using our PM checklist on the next visit.

Build Your Own Operations Checklist

A checklist is great to have if there's something you want people to inspect or a list of chores you want people to do on a regular basis.

  • Retail shops use them for opening and closing the store.

  • Contact centers use them when evaluating phone calls.

  • A home repair technician uses them to inventory parts on the truck.

  • A mechanic uses them when inspecting your vehicle.

  • Restaurants use them for cleaning the kitchen.

There are probably multiple ways to build a PM checklist. Here's how we built ours.

  1. Start with an initial walk-through.

  2. Capture any items to add to your checklist.

  3. For the first few times you use it, identify any needed adjustments.

  4. Review and update the checklist periodically, at least once per year.

Another consideration is how people will access the checklist. This should be a function of who is using it, when they're using it, and where they're using it.

For example, you've probably seen an inspection checklist posted in a public restroom. This makes it very easy for the janitorial crew to identify what needs to be cleaned or inspected, and mark down the work that has been done.

We keep our PM checklist on a Google Doc, so it's easy for either of us to pull it up on an iPad and update it as we walk around the house. 

A Final Reminder

Our experience taught us that it's easy to use busyness as an excuse to stop doing things the right way. In the long run, not using the checklist cost us more time than it saved.


Four Corporate Customer Service Blogs Actually Worth Reading

Many companies that sell a product or service to customer service teams have a corporate blog. It's part of a content marketing strategy that brings visitors to the company website, establishes some brand awareness, and hopefully generates sales.

A lot of those blogs are hard to read.

They're overly self-promotional. Content is generic and written with no real viewpoint. Some become a dumping ground for poorly curated guest posts.

A few corporate blogs stand out from the crowd. They pair excellent writing with real advice that's both thought-provoking and actionable.

Here are four corporate customer service blogs I consistently read. Full disclosure: I know people at each of these companies. I also respect the work they do and really do subscribe to their blogs.

Professional reading a blog on a tablet while drinking a cup of coffee.

HelpScout

The HelpScout blog has a nice mix of product how-tos, insights from real customer service leaders, and posts that address topical issues such as working with remote teams. What I like about this blog is the articles are well-written and often contain a lot of helpful examples. For instance, a recent post about making content more inclusive was really thought-provoking.

Relate

This is what you get when you mix real journalists with industry thought leaders and consciously create distance between the blog and the corporate agenda. Though run by Zendesk, Relate almost feels like a separate entity. Heck, Zendesk even has a separate Zendesk blog. Relate is packed with highly relevant topics that don't get enough attention, such as an interview with Jenny Dempsey about self-care in customer service or this post on how to be a good Airbnb guest.


FCR

Posts on the FCR blog are primarily written by FCR's Director of Customer Experience, Jeremy Watkin. Since FCR is an outsourced contact center, Jeremy gets to work with a wide variety of client organizations, and he shares many of those insights in his practical, often folksy posts. A good example is this post about creating a voice and style guide for your customer service team.


Thematic

Data nerds rejoice! The Thematic blog weaves compelling data and solid storytelling to share some unexpected conclusions. For instance, a recent post on using customer feedback to prevent churn showed how one Thematic client was getting most of its customer churn from happy customers. There's a huge lesson there about not taking your best customers for granted.

What Blogs Are You Reading?

These are all blogs I subscribe to and actually read, but it's by no means an exhaustive list. Please leave a comment or drop me a line and let me know which corporate customer service blogs you read on a regular basis!


The Hidden Danger of Murky Buzzwords

Years ago, a company hired me to conduct customer service training that showed employees how to align their service with the company's corporate values. 

One of those values was integrity. 

I interviewed several employees and managers to prepare for the training. None of them explained integrity the same way. Some employees were aware it was a value, but hadn't given it any thought. 

"It's just some corporate thing," explained several people I talked to.

To put some context in place, integrity has been a buzzword for corporate values statements for some time. A 2004 study by Booz Allen and the Aspen Institute found that 90 percent of corporate values statements listed ethics or integrity. Even Enron, the company made famous for a massive accounting scandal that sent executives to prison, listed integrity among its core values in the company's 2000 annual report.

Herein lies the challenge for customer service leaders. So many buzzwords that guide our decision-making are murky. 

Guy scratching his head in confusion.

Common Murky Buzzwords

Here's an experiment you can try. Share the following terms with your leadership team. Ask each person to write down a brief definition of each one. Then compare what people wrote.

  • Employee Engagement

  • Customer Success

  • Customer Experience

  • Leadership

  • Empowerment

My guess is you'll get a lot of great definitions, but they'll all be slightly different. 

This creates a real challenge. For instance, most leaders I speak with agree that employee engagement is important. Yet they have wildly different ideas of what it really means. It's pretty hard to improve something if we don't agree on what we're trying to improve.

I once sat in on a conversation between an IT director and the two managers that reported to him. He was frustrated with the department's performance, but was having a difficult time articulating what he felt was going wrong and what needed to improve. 

Finally, the director blurted out, "You need to be more managerial, or... you're fired!"

Nobody in the room, including the IT director, had any idea what "be more managerial" meant or how one could go about doing it. 

You can't improve something if you don't define it.

Sample Definitions

I don't want to leave you high and dry, so here are some sample definitions for the five terms I shared above. 

Keep in mind these aren't the only definitions. You're free to find another source or even come up with your own. What's important is you establish a common frame of reference with the leaders and employees in your organization.

Employee Engagement: An engaged employee is deliberately contributing to organizational success. (source: Jeff Toister)

Customer Success: An organizational function that helps customers get maximum value out of a product or service. (source: Hubspot)

Customer Experience: The sum of all the interactions that a customer has with an organization over the life of the “relationship” with that company… and, especially, the feelings, emotions, and perceptions the customer has about those interactions. (source: Annette Franz)

Leadership: A leader is someone who inspires people to take action. Leadership is the skillset or tools they use to do so. (source: Grace Judson)

Empowerment: a process of enabling employees to deliver outstanding service to their customers. (source: Jeff Toister)

The Power of a Common Frame of Reference

If you've read this blog before, you may know I'm a proponent of companies adopting a unique customer service vision.

This is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that gets everyone on the same page. It binds the group with a common purpose, and establishes a common frame of reference when it comes to delivering great service.

Some companies, like the client I mentioned at the start of this post, choose to use corporate values as the customer service vision. That's fine, so long as everyone has a shared understanding of what they meant.

Which brings us back to integrity. 

Through a series of workshops, my client's employees decided that "integrity" should mean doing the right thing for the customer by trying to be the customer's advocate. Together, we brainstormed real workplace stories that were examples of serving with integrity.

Suddenly, the word had meaning. Employees could use integrity as a guide when handling tricky situations. Managers could use it when giving employees feedback. Everyone was on the same page.

Take Action

Identify some of the buzzwords that are floating around your workplace. Take time to define them, and make sure everyone shares the same definition. 

This exercise not only gets everyone on the same page, it can greatly influence your next steps. 

For example, if a company is blindly pursuing employee engagement without defining it, leaders might conduct a survey, form a committee, and be done with it. But if leaders understand that an engaged employee knows what makes the company successful and is committed to helping achieve that success, leaders might first make sure every employee understands the company's vision and goals.