Six Ways to Improve Customer Service Without Training

What’s the fastest way to improve customer service? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not training.

A lot of customer service managers prescribe training as a cure-all for poor service.

  • Rude employees? Train ‘em to be polite.

  • Error-prone service? Train ‘em to not make errors.

  • Crappy products? Train ‘em to convince customers the products are really good.

Don’t get me wrong. I love training.

I’ve been doing it for over 20 years. I’m a past president of my local ATD chapter, a professional organization for trainers. I volunteer to mentor people who are new to their training careers. I would train more often if I could.

It’s just that training is often the wrong solution. There are at least six solutions that are almost always faster and better.

A group of employees enjoying a fun and interactive training class.

Why customer service training fails

Customer service training typically fails when it’s not the right solution to improve service. Poor products, unfriendly policies, a lack of resources, and unhelpful managers all make serving customers difficult.

My rough calculations suggest that training is responsible for just 1 percent of customer service.

Even when training is needed, the content is often poorly delivered and there’s little to no follow-up. Employees are left to implement what they learn without any meaningful support from their manager.

Most of the customer service training I’ve seen can be classified as “smile” training.

It’s chock full of time-worn platitudes such as “friendliness is free”, “the customer is always right,” and “don’t take it personally” when an angry customer is rude to you. If you need to train an employee to smile, you’ve either hired the wrong employee or you've put a good employee in a bad environment.

There’s scant evidence that suggests this approach actually results in noticeably better service.

Customer service managers typically report a one to two week bump in motivation followed by employees gradually settling back into old habits. Meanwhile, you’re out the time and cost of the training.

Here are several reasons why many customer service training programs fail:

  • The training is generic and not focused on the specific skills employees need.

  • Employees aren’t fully empowered to implement what they learn.

  • Participants are poorly prepared to attend training.

  • There is little to no skill-building follow-up or coaching after the class.

  • The manager doesn’t model the skills taught in the workshop.

  • The training isn't aligned with clearly defined objectives.


How to improve customer service without training

Customer service will quickly improve when you address the root causes of poor performance. This frequently involves solutions other than training, such as providing the right resources or improving processes.

Here are six ways to improve customer service that are consistently effective.

  1. Create a customer service vision. Get everyone on the same page with a shared definition of outstanding customer service. You can use this step-by-step guide to create your own.

  2. Conduct a root-cause analysis. Investigate what’s hurting employee performance. Work with employees to identify barriers that get in the way. You can use this root cause analysis primer to help you.

  3. Fix the poor products & services. No amount of training can overcome products that don’t work, or services that routinely fall short of expectations. Analyze customer feedback to identify pain points and fix them.

  4. Involve employees in the problem-solving process. Employees often know exactly why things aren’t going well. And they’re more likely to buy-in to solutions that they help create.

  5. Remove toxic employees. Toxic employees can drag down the entire team. Removing a toxic influence can be like a breath of fresh air for the entire team that instantly produces results.

  6. Provide regular coaching and feedback. Employees need regular reminders to keep their skills sharp. Have regular team and one-on-one meetings to focus on service. You can use these tips for topics.

This list is by no means exhaustive. What would you add to the list?


When customer service training is the right solution

The best time to train your employees is when they lack all the knowledge, skills, and abilities they need to serve customers. The key is to be specific, so rather than train employees to “handle rude customers,” hone in on the particular skills they need to be more successful such as empathizing with angry customers and refocusing on finding solutions.

Here are a few situations when customer service training makes sense makes sense.

Your team is good already. Years ago, I noticed an interesting trend with my clients. The companies that did the best after receiving training were pretty good at customer service already. They got there by having good products and services, attentive managers, and a strong customer-focused culture. The training helped to fine-tune the specific skills employees needed to take their service to the next level.

You’re growing. The larger your company becomes, the more you need to codify your tribal knowledge. This is especially important with new employees. I’ve worked with clients to formalize new hire training and cut training time by as much as 50 percent while improving performance.

You have a specific initiative. It also makes sense to provide customer service training when you’ve pinpointed a specific challenge. For example, I recently worked with a client who had developed a set of internal core values. They wanted to train their employees to deliver service in a way that aligned with those values.

Bonus Tip: If you do decide to offer your employees customer service training, make sure you first create clear learning objectives. This will help you make the training much more specific and targeted. You can learn more by reading my overview of how to create A-B-C-D learning objectives.