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Tell me if this situation sounds familiar.
Your boss tells you to organize customer service training for your team. You don't have the time or resources to quickly create something in-house, so you consider bringing in an external consultant.
Unfortunately, the boss is like one those couples looking for houses on HGTV shows—million dollar taste, thousand dollar budget. You shop around for a few consultants and realize you don't even have enough funds to cover their travel expenses.
How do you keep your boss happy without spending too much?
I've put together seven totally free customer service training ideas you can use right now. These are all proven approaches that will get you great results.
Why should you trust me? I'm a Certified Professional in Learning and Performance (CPLP), a past president of the Association for Talent Development's San Diego chapter, and I've authored multiple courses for trainers on LinkedIn Learning, including How to Design and Deliver Training Programs.
In fact, I'll admit something to you I probably shouldn't. These ideas are more effective than hiring me or anyone else to come in and do the training for you.
I'll back up that claim in just a moment. But first, let's define training so we're all on the same page.
What is training?
Training is any activity that helps people build knowledge, skills, and abilities they can use on the job. It can be a formal process like an instructor-led class or an eLearning program, or it can be informal like working side-by-side with a more experienced employee.
It's helpful to think of training as more than just a class.
Years ago, a client of mine was getting reimbursed by the State of California for training her company did. It was part of a special program designed to help companies invest in employee development to keep jobs in the state. My client only documented formal training until she had a lightbulb moment: there was a lot more training going on!
Here's the definition of the verb "train" from the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
a: to teach so as to make fit, qualified, or proficient
b: to form by instruction, discipline, or drill
Applying that definition, my client realized a lot of other activities counted as training:
Team meetings to discuss a new process.
Product briefings from one of the company's experts.
One-on-one instruction to show an employee a new technique.
My client started documenting all of these activities as training. And guess what? The State of California agreed with her, and reimbursed her company for the time spent on those activities as well as the formal classes!
So let's start thinking about training in the broadest sense: helping people develop new knowledge, skills, and abilities to do their jobs.
Free customer service training ideas
Here are seven proven methods you can use to deliver customer service training to your team. Some are unconventional, while others might be ideas you are already using but didn't realize they qualified as training. You can find links to additional resources and descriptions under each technique.
While none of these cost a dime, I have provided links to a few additional low-cost resources that can help you enhance the training without breaking the budget.
Idea #1: Create a customer service vision
A customer service vision is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that gets everyone on the same page. There are a few benefits to writing one with your team:
Everyone will understand their role the same way.
Employees will come up with ideas to deliver outstanding service.
The team will make a commitment to excellent customer service.
For example, the customer service team at the online grocer, HappyFresh, met to create a vision to guide their work. Timothy Chan, the team's manager, emailed me to follow-up on how it went.
"I helped the team develop this vision by following the step-by-step guide provided in The Service Culture Handbook.
"The presentation was attended by representatives from the customer service and logistic team as well as the heads of Field Operations and HR. After the presentation, everyone was divided into 2 groups to draft their visions. By comparing the visions, we then decided on certain words that we felt simply could not be left out from the finalized vision and from these words our vision was born.”
Bonus resource: I took my entire process for helping companies become customer-focused, and packaged step-by-step instructions in The Service Culture Handbook. The book costs less than $15, which is far less than hiring a consultant like me!
Idea #2: Hold daily huddles
A huddle is a short, focused meeting that typically lasts between 5 and 15 minutes. It's alternatively known as a stand-up, pre-shift, or tailgate.
The power of a huddle is it is short, yet consistent. Huddles can be used to:
Quickly re-train employees on small issues
Introduce new procedures
Reinforce essential skills
Keep employees focused on important updates
Facilitate team discussions around challenging situations
The UPS contact center in Las Vegas, Nevada uses daily huddles for each of its teams. The meetings are highly choreographed and take just nine minutes. Team leaders gather their employees around a whiteboard where they discuss key metrics, review challenges, and share success stories.
You can learn more about harnessing the power of huddles here.
Idea #3: Subscribe to weekly email reminders
A common challenge for customer service leaders is employees know what they should do, but they fall into bad habits over time.
This is where reminders can be helpful. The idea is to remind employees of specific skills and techniques so they maintain good habits. For example:
Building rapport with customers
Using listening skills to understand customer needs
Empathizing with customers to resolve service failures
You can subscribe yourself and everyone on your team to a free email reminder system called Customer Service Tip of the Week.
Share this link with your team: www.toistersolutions.com/tips
Ask everyone to subscribe.
You'll receive one tip per week via email.
See examples of different ways that customer service leaders use these tips here.
Bonus resource: While the weekly email is totally free, you can get over 52 ideas in one paperback book for less than $10. Amazon is best for single copies while Porchlight Books offers quantity discounts.
Idea #4: Create a "quick hit" training program
A "quick hit" training program is an ad-hoc session that focuses on just one issue. These training programs are relatively easy to put together. Here are some common characteristics:
Short: one hour or less, sometimes just 15 minutes
Focused: addresses one specific issue
Ad-hoc: these training sessions are only called when needed
Major League Soccer's Chicago Fire uses quick hit training sessions, called "spark training," to keep stadium employees sharp on game day.
Session topics come from guest feedback.
For example, there might have been a few guest complaints about a particular concession stand during the last match. The Fire's fan services team will investigate the issue and identify a solution. The solution is then shared with employees at that concession stand via a 15-minute spark training session immediately before the next match.
Need ideas for quick hit training?
You can get a workbook with 10 customer service training activities when you subscribe to this blog. The activities all focus on different issues and are perfect for quick hit training sessions.
(Note: if you're already a subscriber, you can find the workbook here.)
Idea #5: Practice while you shop
Did you know you can build your customer service skills while you are a customer?
Think about the fundamental service skills for a moment. All of them are based on principles of human-to-human interaction:
You can practice these skills when the tables are turned and you are the customer. It's a low-risk situation where you can experiment with new techniques, since a customer or your boss isn't evaluating your performance.
The added bonus is you often receive better service!
Here's a free video that explains three exercises for developing your rapport skills while you are a customer.
Bonus resource: You can find many more practice while you shop exercises in my training video, How to Get Great Customer Service. You can take the course using your LinkedIn Learning subscription.
If you don't have a LinkedIn Learning account, you can get a free 30-day trial to the entire library or purchase the individual course. Many local libraries also offer free access to LinkedIn Learning.
Idea #6: Conduct an after action review
Our experiences teach us far more customer service skills than a training class. One way to help employees learn from their experience is an after action review.
Contact centers already do this on a regular basis. A call, email, or other communication is reviewed by the agent and their supervisor, and the two discuss what went well and what can be improved.
You can do after action reviews in other industries, too. It can be one-on-one, or a team discussion.
A library staff could review a special event.
A restaurant staff could review a busy lunch rush.
An IT service desk could review an unexpected outage.
A good after action review should do two things:
Identify what worked well, so people keep doing that.
Identify what could be done better, so people improve the next time.
Be careful that you don't let these reviews get too negative. An after action review should give an individual or team confidence in how they will perform the next time around.
Max Yoder, CEO of the training software provider, Lessonly, shared some great advice for focusing on what's already working in this interview.
Bonus Resource: Yoder wrote an excellent book called Do Better Work that's full of practical suggestions for bringing out the most in people.
Idea #7: Film short videos
A simple video can be an incredibly helpful learning tool.
In fact, you probably know this already. Chances are, you've gone to YouTube to find a how-to video on something, whether it's a household chore or a work-related task. Many of those videos are homemade using simple equipment like a cell phone.
You may have seen my training videos on LinkedIn Learning. Those are filmed in a studio and produced by a professional crew. But I've also created far simpler videos without all those resources that have been incredibly effective.
Here are a few examples:
A welcome video for new hire orientation.
A product training video to enhance associate knowledge.
A video that explains how to set SMART goals.
You can see that last one here. I must warn you in advance that the quality is embarrassingly bad, but that's okay. The video still gets the job done.
Video is also a great way to film short messages or reminders for employees. John Peek, owner of Peek Brothers Painting, uses short video clips to share weekly reminders with his painting crews.
Here's one example.
Bonus Resource: If your company already has a LinkedIn Learning subscription, you have access to an enormous library of training videos, including my customer service courses. Your local library may also provide access to LinkedIn Learning at no charge.
Why are these techniques more effective than hiring a trainer?
There are two big reasons why the techniques I've shared can be more effective than hiring someone like me.
The "forgetting curve"
The 70-20-10 rule
Let me explain each one, starting with the forgetting curve.
The Forgetting Curve
Various studies have found that we quickly forget new information unless we use it.
This is called the Forgetting Curve. The original term comes from studies conducted in the 1800s by Herman Ebbinghaus. His research was extremely limited—he was the subject of his own memory experiments—but it showed how difficult it is for us to retain information that we learn.
For example, think of the very last training class, seminar, or conference you attended. What are your honest answers to these questions:
What specifically do you recall?
What specifically did you implement?
Now think of those answers in comparison to all the content that was covered. Chances are, you've retained and implemented less than 10 percent of what was covered.
Here's another test:
Think back to when you were in high school and had a combination locker for your books or PE class. Do you remember how fast you could open your locker back then?
Chances are it was a matter of seconds. That's because you knew the combination from daily repetition. You could open that locker without even thinking about it.
Now imagine you are standing in front of the same locker today. The combination is still the same. Could you open it? (More than 95 percent of people could not.)
Forgetting is a huge challenge with long training classes.
There's simply too much content to remember. That's why the techniques outlined in this post can work so much better. They are all examples of microlearning, which is learning delivered in small chunks that's immediately useful.
The 70-20-10 Rule
This model was first developed by the Center for Creative Leadership more than 30 years ago. It refers to how people generally learn skills they use at work:
70% comes from experience, particularly challenging assignments
20% comes from a boss or mentor
10% comes from formal training
There are a couple of important caveats here. First, the 70-20-10 rule was originally applied to leadership development, although it’s been found to be broadly applicable. Second, the term "rule" is a bit misleading because the percentages aren't fixed. It's better thinking of these percentages as rough guides.
Even so, think about what the 70-20-10 rule tells us about our training programs. Here's an example from a customer service leader:
She had hired customer service trainers in the past. Each time, the team improved for a week or so, and then lapsed back into old habits. The leader explained she was looking to hire a trainer again because she didn't have the time to coach or train her team.
Can you see what the training repeatedly failed?
The formal training covered the 10%, but she didn't reinforce the training (20%). Eventually, the employees' old habits took over (70%) and they went back to doing things the way they used to do them.
The training ideas shared above help prevent this.
There's still training going on (10%)
The techniques rely on you, the leader, to facilitate learning (20%)
They help employees draw from their own experiences (70%)
My hope is this post is more than a one-time read. I encourage you to bookmark it and refer back to it as you try the various training ideas.
I'd like to offer you two more training resources.
The first one is me. Feel free to contact me or leave a comment with your questions. I'm happy to help.
The second resource is my LinkedIn Learning course, How to Design and Deliver Training Programs. It will walk you step-by-step through creating training programs that are fast, inexpensive, and highly effective.
In the spirit of this post, I'll share three ways you can get the course without spending an extra dime!
Access the course with your LinkedIn Learning subscription.
Sign-up for a free 30-day trial (bonus: you'll get access to the entire library).
Visit your local library—many libraries offer free LinkedIn Learning access.
Here's a preview of the course.