Soft Skills Training Tips for Exceptional Customer Service
What makes soft skills so hard to master?
For contact center managers and supervisors, teaching adults in the workplace to relate more effectively and consistently to their customers and colleagues can feel like herding cats. Of course, it just feels that way -- soft skills can be learned, reinforced, and continually refined.
As customer service experts, the development of soft skills is central to our ability to consistently meet our client’s service levels. That is why soft skills training is emphasized at GCS. Today we’re going to look into why soft skills training can be so challenging, and offer some practical advice for managers on how to train your trainers and staff.
The Importance of Feedback in Soft Skills Training
Writing in LinkedIn Pulse, management consultant Darren Smith identified two fundamental challenges for trainers attempting to successfully coach soft skills: weak situational dynamics and weak feedback quality.
The specific skill sets needed for physical work (hard skills) are well-defined, as are the results those skill sets will produce. The situational dynamics for hard skills are typically clear-cut: a thing is broken and requires repair, for example. In contrast, Smith suggests soft skills have a much lower level of situational dynamics making them tricky to grasp.
Because soft skills are so essential to providing top-notch customer service, we argue that the level of situational dynamics in call centers is as high as those in workforces that depend on hard skills. Our mission at every touch point is to ensure the highest degree of satisfaction possible, and the employers that we work with have clear, specific metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) to determine effectiveness. With that in mind, let’s focus on the feedback aspect of Smith’s equation.
“Feedback is a strong factor in learning and creating behavioral change,” he writes. “Research has consistently demonstrated that consequences or feedback that is immediate versus later, contingent (always occurs) versus non-contingent (doesn’t always occur or is absent), and positive versus negative has the strongest motivating impact. Feedback that is immediate, contingent and positive sends a message of encouragement and motivates the trainee to perform in a similar way in the future. I consider this ‘strong’ feedback.”
Hard skills get hard feedback. For a worker whose job it is to fix a physical thing that’s broken, the ultimate feedback is absolutely concrete: when the thing has been repaired successfully, it’s no longer broken.
Soft skills often get soft feedback, which Smith defines as not immediate, non-contingent, and negative or absent.
Smith’s approach to strengthening feedback includes:
- Shape behavior with feedback that is immediate, contingent and positive. Trainers should instill a commitment to practicing soft skills, because repetition and practice is the key to retaining learned skills.
- Create opportunities for self-evaluation and personal feedback. Encourage participants to be aware of the ways they can get feedback on their performance that is immediate, contingent and positive. Create a checklist of expected behaviors that employees can use to evaluate their own performance. According to Smith, “remembering to use the checklist exercise on a regular basis while developing new habits creates strong feedback.”
- Support buddy coaching. Study buddies can give worthwhile feedback about specific behaviors a trainee wants to change or improve. Smith suggests developing a checklist of specific, observable behaviors to share with potential coaches.
Soft Skills Training Isn’t Just for New Hires
Not all call center improvement programs include the luxury of hiring a brand new cadre of agents to custom train. More often than not, there will be plenty of existing members of the crew that require as much soft skills training in customer service as the new hires will.
Consistency of message is another area that benefits from strong soft skills. Often the older agents have weakened the messaging or tweaked it for their own. No longer is the organization speaking with one voice.
One strategy we’ve applied successfully is to choose new staff based on personality traits needed for customer service and other specific job functions. But what should a manager do who doesn’t have the ability to hire the ideal replacement for an existing staffer who lacks soft skills?
Organizational development consultant Daniel White of AGH CPAs & Advisors suggests helping them to develop the skills they need. “Soft skills can’t be learned by just studying about them,” he writes. “They have to be learned through a process of change that can be difficult and uncomfortable at times, but it can have dramatic effects on your company’s bottom line.”
In a recent issue of Fast Company, White outlined six steps that we agree can bring the old guard into step with interpersonal skills development.
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1. Willingness To Change
White describes this as a small step but an essential prerequisite for learning. “You cannot force people to become more self-aware; they must be willing to begin the process of change themselves. If this basic building block is not present, there isn’t much that can be learned through this process.”
While ongoing practical application is essential to soft skills development, education on best practices should also be part of the equation. Whether built in to classroom training or an e-learning program, getting up to speed on industry- or company-specific best practices can further support and engage your team.
As important as it can be for employees to know what the best practices are, it’s also important to see where they are in terms of those practices. “Assessments help to evaluate where an employee stands (areas of strength and areas in need of improvement) as well as to describe the natural tendencies an individual has,” says White. Both self-assessments and input from others give important feedback.
Once employees have learned more about themselves (strengths, faults, tendencies, etc.), it is necessary for them to reflect on what they have learned. White asks: “Are they humble enough to realize they aren’t perfect? Are they willing to put in the effort to grow even though it may be difficult and uncomfortable? Can they understand their natural tendencies and see how they interact with others?”
5. Goal Setting
“Defining a clear vision for the future is an important next step, which should involve choosing three to five tangible goals to work toward,” White notes. Goals can be developed out of feedback and should be shared with peers, coaches and supervisors so changes can be seen and employees can be held accountable.
It’s true – soft skills have to be learned, then lived. As with any training, there will be setbacks – or as we like to think of it – new opportunities to learn. Soft skills development is a process and an investment that takes time, and over time can yield stellar results, even with the toughest trainees.
At GCS, we believe in the need for training, education and coaching throughout the life of a program to improve agent performance, increase user satisfaction and maintain a focus on constant improvement. We begin with initial training that’s reinforced daily through formal education, individual coaching and self-assessments.
We create custom training programs that meet the needs of the specific situation and industry; our material follows a structured process developed from our experience and the best practices for adult learning. We dive into any existing client training materials available and adopt and modify them as needed to fit our process.
We measure each training program’s effectiveness is measured in three major ways:
- Direct feedback from the representatives
- Independent training surveys of the training class once completed
- Calibration with the trainers themselves
The training style and methodology utilized at GCS is patterned to present the material, imbed learning, challenge the skill and then translate it into employees’ daily activities.
Here’s a quick look at our 5-Step Soft Skill Training Approach:
- Delivery – our “train the trainer” strategy makes sure our trainers experience everything they need from the client’s program so they can successfully translate it to the rest of the organization. .
- Learning – we combine online learning, classroom exercises, independent study and coaching.
- Thinking – trainees are actively encouraged to assess situations and apply new skills independently.
- Practice – taking a collaborative approach to learning helps to reinforce essential messaging, so trainees are tasked with working with their co-workers to reinforce and hone interpersonal skills
- Doing – because exceptional soft skills are at the heart of the best customer service organizations, every day execution is part of the ongoing learning process.
We’ll get granular with our five steps in another edition. For now, we leave you with this inspiring quote from Davis Bell, vice president of corporate markets at Instructure "The hard skills required for a company's success are ever-changing, while the most critical soft skills remain constant."
Ready to step up your soft skills training? Check out “Say THIS, not that…Most of the time,” our online training program for great customer service, and reserve your demo today.
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