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.


The Customer Service Training Your Employees Absolutely Need to Have

Customer service training is often an arbitrary decision.

Here's an example. A customer service manager decided she wanted a four hour onsite training class. She hoped the training would help a group of long-term employees become more customer-focused. She also needed the workshop to be inexpensive because her budget was limited.

There are big questions that come with a request like this.

  • How do you know that four hours is the right amount of training?
  • What specific skills need to be trained?
  • Will training even solve the problem?

Given the manager's limited budget, perhaps the biggest question is whether or not training is a good investment? 

These questions are difficult to answer. Moving ahead with generic training before you've answered them is an arbitrary decision.

You can do better. 

This post will show you how to determine the customer service training your employees absolutely need to have. And, you'll see how to eliminate the training you don't need.

The Cost of Poor Training

Before we explore how to make the right decision, let's look at some of the potential costs of making the wrong decision.

Here are a few hard costs:

  • The cost of the training itself.
  • Wages for employees who attend the training.
  • Wages for employees who cover the employees attending the training.
  • Facilities costs (room rental, etc.)

There's also a soft cost to consider that's harder to measure, but can still have an impact on your team. 

Employees might resent attending training they don't feel is useful. Or worse, they might feel punished if they perceive the training is intended to correct their poor performance.

All of these costs can be hard to justify if you schedule the training and customer service doesn't improve.

 

Solution: Construct a Business Impact Model

Robert Brinkerhoff provides a simple method for narrowing down the training content your employees really need while simultaneously building a case for the expense. 

It's called a Business Impact Model. You can read more about it in one of Brinkerhoff's outstanding books, The Success Case Method.

I've borrowed heavily from this concept to create a four-step process below:

Step 1: Identify Your Business Goals

The whole point of training is to help your team achieve something. That means you have to clearly define what they're supposed to achieve.

So, forget training for just a moment. Focus first on your overall customer service goals. Here are just a few areas you can explore for setting your goals:

  • Survey scores
  • Complaint reduction
  • Customer retention

You might even try to reduce costs. I've found at least 13 different ways that poor customer service can cost your company money.

Be sure to set your goal using the SMART model. SMART is an acronym:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Once you complete this step, you can eliminate any training that doesn't support the goal.

 

Step 2: Determine Key Actions

It's pretty hard to train employees to do something if you haven't defined what exactly you need them to do.

Let's say you want to give your employees training on handling upset customers. In step one, you decided to set a SMART goal for reducing customer complaints. Now, you need to determine what employees actually need to do to serve an angry customer.

Here are a few things you might look at:

  • Is there a process, procedure, or policy employees should follow?
  • Do employees have the tools, resources, and authority to do the job?
  • Are there factors outside their control that contribute to angry customers?

In most cases, this exercise will quickly reveal that training alone won't fix the problem. There are other factors that need to be addressed first.

It will also reveal the specific topics that may need to be trained.

 

Step 3: Describe KSAs

Before you train, it's important to know what training can and cannot do. Training can only help your employees develop KSAs:

  • Knowledge
  • Skills
  • Abilities

So, training won't solve the problem if your employees know how to do something, but won't do it, forget to do it, or don't do it consistently.

Managers often mistake KSAs for other issues. Here are some examples of items that cause poor customer service, but can't be trained:

  • Lack of clear processes, procedures, or policies.
  • Lack of tools, resources, or authority.
  • Lack of motivation.

That last one is a huge challenge. How do you motivate employees to serve their customers? It turns out you don't.

The real challenge is preventing demotivation.

One way you can do that is by involving employees in this process. Get their input on a team goal. Have them help document what needs to be done to achieve it, and identify what barriers get in the way.

Back to training, only the necessary KSAs should be included.

 

Step 4: Identify Missing KSAs

You don't need to train employees to do things they already know how to do. That would be a waste of time.

The only train they need are KSAs they don't already have that are necessary to perform the key actions that will help achieve the goal.

That's it.

This is usually a small, focused list. Once you've created it, you can go back to decisions such as how much time is needed, when to hold the training, and who needs to attend.

 

Focusing Your Training

The truth is most managers will skip all these steps.

They get impatient, so they jump to conclusions and hope for the best. The paradox is the training they offer typically doesn't work and they've just wasted time, money, and resources by taking shortcuts.

In reality, training is only responsible for one percent of customer service. The remaining 99 percent can be attributed to other factors.

The process of finding that one percent is called a needs analysis. You can learn more about the importance of going through this process by watching this short video.


How Headlines Lead to Sad Customer Service Stories

Headlines can be seriously misleading.

Let’s take a quick detour from customer service and look at an example from the NBA. The Los Angeles Lakers are getting bad press. Lots of it.

NBA teams have just entered the free agency period. The Lakers are trying to rebound from the worst record in franchise history last season, but elite players don’t want to sign with them.

Here’s a sampling of the headlines:

  • Laker Mystique is Dead (SB Nation)
  • Has Franchise Lost Its Mythical Allure? (Hoops Habit)
  • Lakers Are In Denial of Shrinking Status in the NBA (LA Times)

You get the idea.

The point of all these articles is the Lakers are no longer a team that top free agents want to sign with. The glory of seasons past has now faded.

These headlines also distort the truth. 

The Lakers have never been a top destination for elite free agents. Shaquille O’Neal (1996) and Jamaal Wilkes (1977) are the only marquee free agents they’ve signed since moving to Los Angeles in 1960.

If we aren’t careful, these misleading headlines will point us in the wrong direction. Data is an antidote to hype. Whether it’s building a title contender in the NBA or a team of customer service all-stars, a little analysis can go a long way.

 

Misleading Customer Service Headlines

Here are a few typical customer service headlines that can be misleading:

  • Our people need training
  • We need more people
  • Yelp is evil

These headlines frame a perspective about the content of the story. It’s convenient, and perhaps lazy, to stop there. 

A closer look at each headline reveals a different story.

 

Our people need training. 

The Hype: Send poor performers to a customer service training class and they’ll magically become awesome. 

Sad Twist: The problems don’t go away, but you’re still out the cost, time, and lost productivity associated with the class.

The Truth: Training alone rarely solves performance problems. Other solutions are often required. I once did the math and discovered that when it comes to improving service, training is on average just 1 percent of the solution.

 

We need more people

The Hype: Hire more people and we’ll magically become awesome

Sad Twist: You overspend on hiring and the problem still exists. Later, you’ll need to lay off employees in a desperate bid to cut costs.

The Truth: New people won’t make problems go away if you don’t first fix the underlying issues. A recent blog post provided several alternatives that could be much more effective.

 

Yelp is evil

The Hype: Yelp is just a place for disgruntled customers and unsavory competitors to ruin your business. There’s no solution here. Run for the hills! 

Sad Twist: Your mistrust of Yelp becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as more and more upset customers write scathing reviews.

The Truth: Yelp is good for business. Yes, plenty of reviews are fake (16 percent, according to Yelp). However, businesses that master Yelp end up driving more revenue. Yelp estimates that businesses add an average of $8,000 in revenue just by activating their free account.

 

Finding the Truth

It always helps to look at the data and then draw conclusions. 

Let’s go back to the Lakers for a moment. They’ve won a total of 11 NBA championships since moving to LA in 1960. Each championship team had elite players who were considered among the best in the league. 

Let’s look at how each of these elite players were actually acquired:

  • Jerry West (draft, 1972 championship)
  • Wilt Chamberlain (trade, 1972 championship)
  • Gail Goodrich (draft, 1972 championship)
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (trade, 1980, ’82, ’85, ’87, and ’88 championships)
  • Jamaal Wilkes (free agent, 1980, ’82, and ’85 championships)
  • Magic Johnson (draft, 1980, ’82, ’85, ’87, and ’88 championships)
  • James Worth (draft, 1985, ’87, and ’88 championships)
  • Shaquille O’Neal (free agent, 2000, ’01, and ’02 championships)
  • Kobe Bryant (trade, 2000, ’01, ’02, ’09, and ’10 championships)
  • Pau Gasol (trade, 2009 and ’10 championships)

The path to glory for the Lakers suddenly looks different. The data suggests that shrewd drafting and cunning trade deals are a better bet for turning around the Lakers.

Sometimes, it’s as easy as making a list. Other times, a bit more analysis is required. 

My Needs Analysis course on lynda.com provides three basic steps for analyzing data. It’s presented in the context of designing a training program, but it could be used to solve other problems too.

  1. Set clear goals
  2. Gather data
  3. Analyze data

You can watch a preview of the course here. A lynda.com subscription is required to view the whole course, but you can get a 10-day trial account.

New Training Needs Analysis Course Launched on lynda.com

A needs analysis is the first step when developing a new training program.

It can help you identify what training participants really need and connect that training to business objectives. In many cases, a good needs analysis allows you to create training that's faster, cheaper, and more effective.

My new course on lynda.com will take you step-by-step through the needs analysis process. It’s intended for instructional designers, but anyone who creates training programs can benefit. 

Topics include:

  • Setting project objectives
  • Identifying the target audience for training
  • Selecting data sources
  • Facilitating focus groups and interviews
  • Designing effective surveys
  • Identifying participant needs
  • Defining learning outcomes
  • Presenting results to project sponsors

The course is part of lynda.com’s online library of video-based training programs. Using video allowed me to create some interesting visual examples.

In the sample video below, you’ll see me meeting with a Vice President who requested an interviewing skills training program. Initial meetings like this can help trainers discover a lot of really useful information. (Click here if you don’t see the video.)

You’ll need a lynda.com subscription to view the entire course. The good news is your subscription gives you unlimited access to all of their courses. 

Even better news? You can use this link to get a free 10-day trial.