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Craig Cochran  |  03/06/2005

Craig Cochran’s picture

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The Top 10 Training Topics for Customer Focus

These ideas will help you create the most important element for business success: customer loyalty.

Training is profoundly strategic. It’s a process aimed at improving the single most important resource in the organization: people. Nothing affects customer loyalty more than the behaviors and competencies of employees.

Training is the most effective way to communicate the correct behaviors and competencies that will keep customers coming back.At its core, training is very straightforward: Figure out what competencies are required for personnel to effectively serve their customers, and take action to address gaps in competency. The challenge comes in trying to build a system that will deliver. With good intentions, organizations often build unwieldy systems that are both confusing and doomed to failure. That’s why training process must be carefully designed, with an eye toward relevance, simplicity and customer expectations.

Let’s start with an understanding of the starting point for training, which is competency. Competence is the ability to apply knowledge and skills in a job situation. In other words, it’s the condition that enables someone to successfully drive customer loyalty. There are countless topics on which employees can be trained, but resources for training are finite. Organizations must choose the critical few training topics that drive customer focus and the organization’s long-term success. The 10 most critical training topics companies should select are as follows:

  

1.

The organization’s mission and strategy. The mission is an organization’s core reason for existence: serving its customers. Employees need to understand this fact in no uncertain terms. The message needs to come from the highest levels of the organization to reinforce its credibility.

Strategy defines exactly how the organization is going to deliver on its mission. Many organizations treat their strategies as big secrets. The only problem with secrets is that they aren’t good communication tools. If employees are going to help drive the organization’s strategy (which they must so it can work), they have to understand exactly what the strategy is. Pick the relevant pieces of the strategy as they relate to individuals’ roles within the organization. When the strategy clearly focuses on customers and their expectations, its relevance becomes obvious to everyone.
  

 

2.

How to present a professional appearance and attitude. Professionalism is an attribute that has become rare. How many times have you been put off by the appearance and attitude of someone by whom you were supposed to be served? It’s an almost daily occurrence. Disgusting and disinterested employees are among the biggest liabilities that an organization can possess.

The best way to let employees understand how they should look and act is to provide explicit guidelines. Don’t leave it up to individuals’ powers of creativity and interpretation; give them clear rules for dress and behavior. Then enforce the rules consistently for all members of the organization.
  

 

3.

Handling customer complaints. Even in the best organizations, customers sometimes complain. The fact that customers complain isn’t nearly as important as how the organization deals with the complaints. All employees who have even the most remote chance of receiving a customer complaint should receive training that lets them know how to record the complaint, what kind of details to capture, where the complaint should go after being recorded and how to empathize with the customer in an appropriate manner. Customers get irate with employees who don’t know how to handle their complaints. This kind of ignorance only makes a bad situation much worse. On the other hand, employees who are trained in handling complaints can diffuse potential disasters and build customer loyalty.
  

 

4.

Effective communication. Communication is one of the weakest competencies within organizations. It’s also a weakness that has an enormous affect on customer loyalty and satisfaction. When employees can’t communicate clearly, problems are bound to happen: customer requirements are lost, messages are muddled, information is misinterpreted and people inevitably get angry. It’s categorically impossible to breed customer loyalty when employees can’t communicate effectively.
Employees should receive training on the types of communication most appropriate to their customer interactions. These include the following:

  • Listening skills. This is possibly the weakest link in the communication formula. Simply put, most people like to talk but few like to listen. Organizational members need to understand that listening to customers and really understanding what they’re saying, is absolutely critical.
  • Nonverbal communication. The way somebody stands, sits and moves often conveys much more than his/her words. Training should include guidance on appropriate nonverbal communication.
  • Proper use of language. English is a constantly evolving language. Despite this fact, there should be clear guidelines for how employees speak and the kind of words they use. Language to be avoided at all costs includes slang, street rap, profanity, off-color humor, derogatory remarks and political rants.
  • Written communication. As hard as verbal and nonverbal communication is, written communication is even harder. One of the reasons it’s so difficult is that written words are often misinterpreted. Written communication must be carefully constructed, with an eye toward simplicity and brevity. Employees must get plenty of opportunities to practice writing skills, along with feedback on the effectiveness of their writing.
      
 

5.

 

Time management. Failure to manage time means that customers won’t be served. Organizations rarely provide guidance on how employees can best use their time. Much to the contrary, organizations tend to build bureaucracies, ensuring that employees will fail to use their time effectively. Some of the keys to time management include planning each day in advance, prioritization of tasks, avoidance of activities that distract from priorities, meetings that are brief and timely, and information provided at the point of use. Nonwork-related temptations, such as unlimited Internet surfing and chatting with friends on the telephone, should be controlled. A little bit of oversight usually goes a long way.
  

 

6.

Root cause analysis. The ability to investigate a problem and identify its root cause is critical to customer loyalty. After all, most customers are willing to endure occasional problems if the organization aggressively attacks their causes and prevents recurrence. Inability to address the root cause guarantees customer dissatisfaction.

Everyone in the organization should receive training on problem solving, root cause analysis and the use of simple analytical tools that will enable them to solve problems. After receiving training, employees need the opportunity to practice. Effective root cause analysis is a skill that rarely comes naturally.
  

 

7.

Safety. Customers should care if employees are safe because a lack of safety delays processes, causes defects and drives up costs. Ultimately, a lack of safety will doom the organization. Training employees to work in a safe manner may not ensure customer loyalty, but a lack of safety will certainly negatively affect it over the long term.
  

 

8.

Business ethics. Remember all those fundamentals that everyone was taught in kindergarten? Well, not everybody learned them. I’m talking about: “don’t lie,” “don’t cheat,” “don’t steal” and “play nice.” These principles can be lumped into a category called business ethics. Over the last couple of decades, the notion of ethics has seemed quaint and outmoded to some organizations. Their attitude seems to be, “We’re here to succeed, and we’re going to do anything it takes to be No. 1.” Never mind if that results in unethical and sometimes illegal behavior.

Unethical behavior can destroy an organization. Reputable customers don’t want to associate with organizations that bend rules and violate accepted standards of conduct. Training of employees should include specific guidelines on ethical practices, with lots of examples that people can relate to. Then it’s up to top management to model ethical behavior in their day-to-day activities. Years of ethics training can be undone in a matter of minutes when organizational members see that their leaders don’t practice what they preach.
  

 

9.

How to propose improvement ideas. Organizations are full of creative people. They’re always discovering new and improved ways of doing things. You don’t even have to ask people to find improvements; they’ll generally do it on their own. The organization should to provide a way to communicate and standardize improvements. One person with an excellent method is nice, but when that excellent method has been adopted by everyone, it has enormous implications. Suggestion systems are one way to formally solicit people’s ideas for improvement (for information on suggestion systems, refer to The Continual Improvement Process: From Strategy to the Bottom Line, (2004, Paton Press). A simple open-door policy can also be a tool for organizational members to communicate their ideas to leadership. Whatever the method, train employees to seek improvements and how to communicate them once they’re found. And make sure they think about improvements from the perspective of their customers.
  

 

10.

Document control. This may seem like an unusual training topic to drive customer focus. However, document control has a huge affect on customer loyalty. It’s an invisible process to most customers, but they’re directly affected by its effectiveness. Think about how many errors result from someone having the wrong specification, requirements, order or instruction. Having the correct information is nothing more than document control. All employees should receive training on the organization’s process for document control, including how documents can be revised, who approves revisions, where the current versions of documents are located and what to do with obsolete documents.
  

These 10 topics are by no means the only training issues that affect the customer. Depending on the nature of your organization, there may be others. Put yourself in the shoes of your customer and think about the kinds of training you would expect organizational members to have. Even better, ask a few customers about the kind of training they would like to see you provide your people. Their input might surprise you. Keep the training focused on issues that affect the customer and you can never go very far off course.

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About The Author

Craig Cochran’s picture

Craig Cochran

Craig Cochran is a project manager with Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. Cochran is the author of The Seven Lessons: Management Tools for Success; Problem Solving in Plain English; ISO 9001 in Plain English; Customer Satisfaction: Tools, Techniques, and Formulas for Success; The Continual Improvement Process: From Strategy to the Bottom Line; and Becoming a Customer-Focused Organization, all available from Paton Press.

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