DIY Customer Service Training: Harnessing the Wisdom of Experts

This post is part three in a series about Do-It-Yourself customer service training. 

You can learn new skills on your own. You don't need to wait for a class or for your boss to pull you aside and teach you. 

This post focuses on finding experts to help you achieve your goals.

You might first want to catch up on the project so far. The first post provided a general overview of self-directed training and how it has the potential to transform the way we learn. The second post focused on setting clear goals -- an essential step towards learning new skills.

You can also check out the Inside Customer Service group on LinkedIn. A few people are using the group to document their DIY customer service training journey.

The Power of Expertise

Here's a great definition of an expert from

a person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field; specialist; authority

Experts have the amazing ability to speed up your learning process. 

Let's use my DIY learning project as an example. I want to learn more about photography. In particular, I want to take landscape photographs of places I visit so I can hang them up in my home. 

(I know, it's not a customer service project, but it does let me visually show you what I'm talking about.)

My first challenge was upgrading my camera from a pocket-sized point-and-shoot model to something a little more powerful. 

How should I pick out a new camera?

  • Wade through endless reviews on photography websites?
  • Take a photography class to learn the ins and outs of various models?
  • Visit an electronics store and hope for the best?

All of those options would take a lot of time. And, they still might not help me make a great decision. So, I decided to ask Tony Cruz for advice instead.

Tony is definitely a photography expert. He's directed a few of my courses on, including Customer Service Fundamentals, Working With Upset Customers, and Using Customer Surveys to Improve Service.

He also takes some amazing surf photography. (Do yourself a favor and check out his Instagram feed. You can also see some of his projects on his website.)

Pacific dreamer III #totallyother #ISD #WHPlowaltitude

A photo posted by Tony Cruz (@tonycruz) on

Tony asked me a few questions before making some recommendations. He suggested I look at mirrorless cameras since they combined the features of high-end DSLR cameras with the compactness of point-and-shoot models. 

I checked out his suggestions online and quickly decided to get the Olympus OM-D E-M10. It combines idiot-proof performance with an amazing array of high-end features.

Going to Tony first saved me a ton of time. It also gave me the confidence that I was making a great decision. 

This approach works for almost any type of DIY training.

  • Who do you know that could help you improve your customer service survey?
  • Do you know someone who can help you develop a customer-focused culture?
  • Can one of your colleagues help you improve your skills with upset customers?

(Hint: feel free to drop me a line if you'd like expertise in any of these areas.) Experts can help you find solid answers to your questions in a lot less time.


How to Approach an Expert

Experts typically have a lot of passion about their field of expertise. They are also typically short on time. So, you have to be efficient when you ask an expert for help.

The wrong way to do it is to bring up a vague topic.

If I had approached Tony and said, "I want to know more about photography," he'd likely have struggled to give me the specific advice I needed.

The right way to approach an expert is to ask for advice on something simple and specific. This is when it helps to have a clear learning goal for your DIY training project.

I asked Tony to recommend a camera that would be an upgrade from my point-and-shoot model. I told him my purpose (shooting landscape photography) and skill level (not much). This meant I needed a camera that was easy to use but also had more advanced features that I could learn.

Tony was able to answer my question immediately with some great advice.

So, before you approach an expert, make sure you have a clear learning goal.


Applying Expert Advice

Tony helped me pick out a great camera, but he also helped me use it.

One of his first suggestions was to take it somewhere interesting and just take pictures. He told me to play around with the various settings and notice the differences when I did. 

Here are a few examples I took from the beach in Santa Barbara while I was there filming one of my courses for

Credit: Jeff Toister

Credit: Jeff Toister

The late afternoon sunlight had this amazing effect coming through the trees. This picture doesn't do it justice. I'm still learning.

Credit: Jeff Toister

Credit: Jeff Toister

It's incredible how the same scene can look so different just by altering a few camera settings. My next challenge is to understand what adjustments product what effect. Here, I was just selecting random options.

Credit: Jeff Toister

Credit: Jeff Toister

This was the best photo I took. The dog hit me in the head with that huge branch as he walked by me on the sea wall. The camera was in full automatic mode and the shot was pure reaction. Sometimes, lucky is best.

I showed Tony these pictures the next day and he gave me some great advice. He pointed out how a large contrast between light and dark made it difficult for the first two pictures to come out. 

Tony also explained how the light worked in my favor on the last picture. Sunlight was diffused by the trees in the background and there weren't dark shadows to contend with.

Here's the key to expert advice:

If you're going to ask for it, you'd better take it. Following-up on Tony's suggestions opened the door to ask more questions. It wouldn't be very fair to Tony if I asked him for insight and then did nothing with it.

So, go ahead an ask an expert for advice. Just make sure you follow-up to let them know how things go. 


Finding an Expert

There are many ways to find an expert.

If you're lucky, you already know one. I was already working with Tony and knew about his passion for photography. I'd also seen his work and knew he could take the types of photos I aspired to take.

Of course, there are other ways to find an expert if one isn't already inside your inner circle. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Search LinkedIn - you never know what skills are in your network
  • Ask friends - it's often easy for them to recommend someone good
  • Get social - many experts are very accessible on social media

Once you find your expert, don't be afraid to ask a question. You may just be surprised at how much they love to share.

DIY Customer Service Training: Setting Clear Goals

This post is part two in an ongoing series on Do-It-Yourself Customer Service Training.

Today, we’re going to focus on setting clear goals. You might want to start by getting caught up on the first post in the series where we explore what DIY or self-directed learning is all about. You can also follow along in real time on the Inside Customer Service group on LinkedIn.

The first step in a DIY learning project is setting a goal to learn a useful skill. This post will look at how to set a good learning goal and provide some examples.

Getting Clear

Most people falter here. Their goals are too squishy and ambiguous. Learning goals have got to be clear and very specific.

A great way to start is to choose a specific focus area.

I chose to focus on photography for this project. It’s not a customer service topic, but it does make it very easy to provide visual updates.

My starting point was pretty squishy:

I’d like to learn more about photography.

A goal like this isn’t really a goal. It’s just a theme. It’s also a recipe for procrastination - something to put on your “someday, I will…” list.

Your learning goal needs to focus on something more specific. A great way to boil things down is to ask yourself these questions:

  • Why do I want to learn about this topic?
  • How will learning these skills help me?
  • What’s an example of something useful I could do with this skill?

These questions bring much more clarity to my photography goal:

Why do I want to learn about this topic? I spend a lot of time outdoors and want to capture some of the beautiful scenery.

How will learning these skills help me? My wife and I want to use pictures of places we’ve been as art in our home.

What’s an example of something useful I could do with this skill? I could start by taking one photograph my wife agrees to hang on a wall.

The answers to these three questions add much needed clarity. I went from “I’d like to learn about photography” to “I want to take one picture good enough to hang on a wall.”

My friend Jenny provided a great success story on our LinkedIn group. She started with a very squishy desire to "learn tips and tricks to allow myself to do better with time management at work!"

We talked a little about why time management was an issue and how new skills could help her. Afterwards, Jenny made some revisions. She ended up focusing on playing guitar and singing at one open mic gig in San Diego.

Wait! That isn't customer service. What gives?

I actually think Jenny's focus area is really smart. She moved to San Diego several months ago. Work has been crazy and she hasn't played any gigs since moving here. Her real struggle with time management is prioritizing work, setting clear boundaries, and making time for things outside of work that she's really passionate about.

Carving out time to play guitar and sing at an open mic gig will help Jenny develop time management skills. Those skills will be very useful in her day job as a customer service manager.


Words of Caution: Many customer service initiatives falter here. They never get specific enough to take action.

To be clear, this step is difficult

Impatience often gets the better of the people. They decide to skip this part and keep moving, not realizing this part is essential. You won’t have clarity until you have direction.


Setting A Goal

Now that you’ve clarified where you’re going, the next step is to set a specific goal. A good goal should fit the SMART model. 

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

Let’s go back to my photography goal. Here’s what it looks like when I make it SMART:

By August 7, I will take a landscape photograph that my wife agrees to display on a wall in our home as art work.

Here’s how it fits the SMART model:

  • Specific: Take a photograph my wife agrees to display on a wall.
  • Measurable: If my wife agrees, I’ve achieved it.
  • Attainable: I like my chances here, but I also know I have to earn it.
  • Relevant: It’s definitely related to photography.
  • Time-bound: August 7 is my deadline.

Jenny's goal provides another great example:

By August 7th, I will play guitar and sing at an open mic in San Diego.

Here's how it fits the SMART model:

  • Specific: Play guitar and sing at an open mic in San Diego.
  • Measurable: If Jenny plays the gig, she achieves the goal.
  • Attainable: Yes. Jenny already plays and sings quite well. She just needs the gig.
  • Relevant: It’s definitely related to time management and prioritization.
  • Time-bound: August 7 is her deadline.


Words of Caution: A SMART learning goal is an example, not a destination. Learning to take that one picture will give me skills I can use to take many other pictures. Playing an open mic gig will give Jenny skills she can use to prioritize projects and work.

Setting a clear goal makes it easy to focus my energy on accomplishing something tangible. And, once I do, I’ll have learned some skills that are transferrable to other situations.


Finding the Gap

A clear goal can also help you pinpoint what you need to learn. The key is to compare your current performance to your desired performance.

Here’s a landscape picture I took of a place in Kauai called Mahaulepu:

Credit: Jeff Toister

Credit: Jeff Toister

The place is gorgeous. Unfortunately, my camera skills weren’t good enough to capture an image that I’d want to blow up and hang on my wall.

Here's another photo I took of a Kauai beach at sunset:

Credit: Jeff Toister

Credit: Jeff Toister

I like the view, but the sunset part is severely missing. This wasn't a great choice in terms of composition.

Finally, here's a sunset photo taken on the water in Kauai:

Credit: Jeff Toister

Credit: Jeff Toister

The sun was bright, but the scene is missing the pastel hues and sharp contrasts that make a great sunset picture. There's a little something in the right hand corner (the tail of a surfboard?) but it's not clear enough to be interesting so it's just in the way.

The key is figuring out what I don’t like about these pictures so I know what I need to learn. For me, three things stand out.

Lighting. None of these photos really pop. For example, in the first picture, there are too many shadows on the beach. A better understanding of lighting would help.

Composition. All three scenes looked amazing in person but that didn't translate to a great photo. My challenge is to find scenes that will look great in pictures. Some variables might be timing, location, and technique.

Equipment. These pictures were taken on a point-and-shoot camera. It’s great for snapping a few vacation photos, but not the best tool for taking a picture for my wall. I might need to upgrade.

Jenny's gap was much easier to sort out. She hasn't played any open mic gigs since moving to San Diego. Playing just one puts her in the right direction.


Next Steps

I’ll post updates on this blog over the next few weeks. 

For now, here are a few things to get you started:

I’ve already discovered one cool technique for DIY Learning.

If you are trying to learn something, put it out there. Let your friends and colleagues know what you’re up to. Share your goal so they know exactly that you’re trying to accomplish.

When I shared my photography goal, my friend Jess sent me some resources. One was Ted Forbes’s Art of Photography YouTube channel. The first video I saw was a short tutorial on exposure. Perfect! 

The DIY Customer Service Learning Project

Let’s say you have to learn a new skill.

It could be something to do with customer service. Something that would elevate your service game. What would you do?

OK, I mean after you procrastinate a bit. What then? 

Would you:

  • Sign up for a class?
  • Read a book?
  • Google it?

All of these seem like natural solutions. None of them are very efficient.

That’s why I launched a Do-It-Yourself Learning Experiment on the Inside Customer Service LinkedIn group. The goal is to identify best practices for self-directed learning. 

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting updates on our progress. We’ll look at the challenges, techniques, and successes.

The idea is simple. Most of the skills we acquire come from informal learning. This first post is all about getting started.

Self-directed Learning Defined

We tend to think of learning as a formal activity. 

Examples might include attending a class, taking an e-learning course, or participating in a structured program. Informal learning is quite different. 

The American Society for Training and Development published a white paper in 2009 called Tapping the Potential of Informal Learning. It offered this definition: 

A learning activity that is not easily recognizable as formal training and performance support. Generally speaking, it takes place without a conventional instructor and is employee-controlled in terms of breadth, depth, and timing.

The truth is most of our learning happens informally. 

Research from the Center for Creative Leadership has popularized what's known as the 70-20-10 rule. It's a rough estimate of where employee learning generally occurs:

  • 70% - challenging assignments
  • 20% - developmental relationships (bosses, mentors, etc.)
  • 10% - formal training

Here's what that might look like in a customer service context. Think about a skill you have, such as serving angry customers. How did you learn it?

You may have taken a class somewhere. (My new class on, Working with Upset Customers, is a good resource.) You might have talked through a tough situation with a boss or a co-worker.

But, I bet you learned the most from experience. You noticed some things that worked well with an upset customer and some moves that definitely didn't. 


Benefits of Self-directed Learning

Sugata Mitra won the 2013 TED Prize.

That’s a pretty big deal. It’s awarded each year to an “individual with a creative, bold vision to spark global change.” The prize includes $1 million to help make that vision a reality.

Mitra’s vision was building cloud-based schools. It was born out of an amazing experiment where he installed a computer in a wall in New Dehli slum and then watched what happened.

The results were truly amazing, as you can see in Mitra’s TED talk.

What does all this mean for us?

Mitra’s experiments prove that self-directed learning has the potential to deliver three major benefits over traditional classroom-based learning:

  • Faster. We can learn faster when our curiosity and need are driving the bus.
  • Better. The learning experience is more immersive and enjoyable.
  • Deeper. We tend to learn much more when we’re self-directed.

Mitra focused his research on K-12 education. There’s no reason the same principles can’t apply to the corporate world. In fact, one of the big trends in training is something called flipped learning that leverages similar strategies.

The promise of flipped learning is clear: better learning for less money.


Getting Started

Self-directed learning requires a fundamental shift in thinking.

Learning must be a means to an end. The point is to learn a new skill so we can do something that we can’t do now. That’s a big switch from how most corporate training is delivered now:

Old approach:

“I’m going through training.”

New approach:

“I’m learning so I can do something new and useful.”

This mind-shift has already proven to be an interesting challenge. 

I reached out to a handful of people before I launched the DIY Learning Project. Would they be interested in participating? Most quickly replied with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

Things changed when I asked them to commit to doing something new. Some had trouble articulating their goals. Others felt pressed for time, even though a new skill might help them use their time more efficiently.

Real learning is scary and exhilarating at the same time!

So, keep an eye on this blog over the next few weeks as I report back on our progress, our lessons learned, and the challenges we encounter along the way.