Staff Training That Works

Job training is essential to the success of your business. The better trained your employees are, the smarter they work. Well-trained employees are more engaged and more likely to solve problems independently. Because they feel more valued, they are happier in their jobs, which in turn is reflected in their productivity.

staff trainingAnd yet, job training is often random and uninspired. An outgoing employee shows a new person the ropes in whichever way he or she likes. A manager spends half an hour going over a new piece of equipment. One complaint too many triggers a lecture-style presentation by the owner on ‘best practices’ in customer service. But job training should be forward-looking, interactive, and carefully planned—it should be an integral part of your business strategy, not something you are forced into by circumstances.

Train With Purpose
Base your job-training program on your job descriptions.
What do you want your employees to know and what do you want them to do? Your program should teach and develop that knowledge and those skills. The more clarity and precision your job descriptions have, the easier it is to design a staff-training program.

Design for the long haul.
Training should be ongoing, not reserved for new employees or left until problems arise. You can follow this strategy and still allow for tactical, one-off sessions to address specific problems or to teach new skills. (Don’t be afraid to ask employees for ideas about topics for ongoing training. People on the front lines are often the ones with the greatest insights into what might improve everyday work life for staff and the service experience for customers.)

Goal Setting
A training topic—or fancy title—doth not a training session make. In other words, don’t mistake a training topic for the intended outcome of the session. Customer service may be the topic and How To Wow the title, but for training to be successful you need a clear set of goals for your desired outcome.

Goals should be:

Spell out what you want people to know and do. “This training will be about customer service” is a non-descriptive statement about a topic broad enough to encompass most anything. By contrast, “Learning protocols for greeting clients in the morning rush” describes the content of the training session in specifics. “Learning to read canine body language” is too broad; “Recognizing when a dog is anxious” is well defined.

Another problem with broad goals like “Learning to give good customer service” is that they are tough to measure. What would the yardstick be? No more client complaints ever? A measurable goal would be “Employee will be able to follow phone protocol.” The goal “Take good care of the dogs” is open to interpretation, whereas “Keeping kennels clean” or “Using positive feedback whenever a dog greets you calmly and politely” is immediately quantifiable.

“Learning basic training skills” is a specific and measurable goal, but it is too big a project to achieve to any satisfying level in just one training session. Instead, aim for something like “Learn basic luring techniques and when to reward.”

The Time Won’t Make Itself
Though many business owners believe in and plan for staff training and skill development (“I fully intend to do that some day!”), few actually find the time to do anything about it. Training is left until a crisis hits and circumstances force the situation. To make staff training a reality, first of all prioritize it. Think of it as a regular, ongoing business task that has to be worked into the schedule for, say, every third Thursday.

Second of all, make it mandatory. Anything else undermines the importance of the program. And third, keep sessions short. Resist the temptation to do too much in one sitting—with training sessions happening regularly, there is no need.

The more content you squeeze in, the less attendees will retain. Pick one thing and focus on it.

Make Training Effective And Fun
One of the biggest training sins employers commit is to choose a lecture format for their training program. The research is unequivocal on this. People retain only about ten percent of what is said in a lecture, making it a very poor way to teach anybody anything.

Instead, make your training interactive. Provide plenty of opportunities for your employees to apply the ideas in practice. In addition to increasing the likelihood that the learning will stick, this approach has the further benefit of giving you the chance to see what they are learning.

Step 1. Get people invested by asking them to participate from the very beginning.

  • Send out a survey before the training, for example, asking people to contribute their experiences, concerns, questions, thoughts, etc. about the upcoming topic. In each case consider whether the survey should be anonymous, and whether it will be optional or mandatory.
  • Request a case study. Giving people a form to fill out often makes this easier and yields better information. The form might include questions like: What happened? What did you do? What were the results? How did you feel about it? What questions did this experience raise that you would like to see addressed?
  • Give people a short article to take a look at. Ask them to make notes for discussion.

And so on. The idea is to get people to interact with the material before the event. Say you were doing a training session on how to deal with difficult customers. You might send out an anonymous survey asking people to contribute a recent experience they found stressful and ask for details about how the scenario played out, the customer’s reactions, the results, how the staff person felt about the experience, and what questions he or she was left with.

Step 2. Always open your training with an interactive opportunity.

  • A brainstorming session, for example. Have people throw out ideas or questions or examples and write them all on a whiteboard for later discussion. (Always have a few examples up your sleeve to get the ball rolling if nobody volunteers.)
  • A quick poll. Prepare questions ahead of time and have someone capture the figures for some on-the-spot statistics: Sixty percent of Castor Kennel staff finds the cleaning manual confusing. Who knew?

Opening a training session this way gets people engaged and avoids setting the expectation that they are just going to sit and listen. Follow up by stating the goals of the session and, where possible, tying those goals into something your employees shared during the opening segment.

If we return to the hypothetical training session about difficult customers, you might open that by asking people to brainstorm the kinds of customer situations they find especially difficult.

Step 3. A lecture / presentation.

  • Cover the points you want to make, and the things you want to teach.
  • Keep it brief.
  • Load it up with examples.

In the customer training example, you might use the presentation part of the session to outline strategies for how to defuse troublesome situations, provide specific language for employees to use when a customer has a complaint, and describe the complaint process from A to Z, so everyone knows what is required of them if and when a customer is unhappy.

Step 4. Give people a chance to apply what they have learned.

  • Whatever format you choose, be careful not to put people on the spot. Begin by showing what you want people to do, while narrating what you are doing. Then give people a different scenario and ask them to brainstorm as a group how it might be tackled. If applicable, demonstrate their suggestions, and then ask everyone to chime in on how the proposed solution worked.
  • If you ask people to carry out a task or role-play, don’t make them do it in front of the whole group. Avoid anything that smacks of performance or testing; this is training. Instead, break people into groups or pairs, or give individual tasks that people can self-assess by comparing against an answer sheet. (Any performance-like role-playing should always be on a volunteer basis only.)

In our difficult-customer training example, this step might be a scripted role-play between you and another manager or a confident, pre-recruited employee. The role-play would be followed by a discussion in which you ask the group to analyze what you did and why it worked.

Then, in a second role-play, things should go less smoothly. Your counterpart would now throw complications at you. Stop at various points during the role-play and ask your employees to give you specific advice about how to handle the situation. Again, ask for input about what works and why, and what alternative approaches one might consider.

Finally, you could have your employees role play a new situation in pairs, letting them stop at various points to discuss how to handle things. (If an employee wants to role-play in front of everyone, take on the role of customer yourself. That way you can ensure the experience is useful, not painful, for your employee. Allow him or her to pause the action at any point and get suggestions from the whole group.)

Make It Count
Training is too often carried out in a vacuum, unrelated to everyday routines and problems. Tie training topics to daily protocols, systems, etc., and follow up to make sure procedures are applied. Use daily or weekly checklists to make this easier. Say you do a staff training on proper phone protocol. Provide a form that guides people step by step through the protocol while they are on the phone. Or, if your staff training focused on proper opening and closing protocols, provide checklists for people to follow.

Remember to reinforce the behavior you want. Make a point of complimenting people when you see them applying what they have learned during a training session.

Finally, tie your staff training into performance reviews. When you go through the trouble and expense of providing training on a subject, you are entitled to hold people accountable for what they have learned. And yet most staff reviews bear no relation to day-to-day tasks, centering instead on vague, generic standards for dress code and attitude. When your job descriptions, staff training, and performance reviews are in sync, you are much more likely to have a smooth-running business where everybody knows their role and plays it competently.

Read more about getting the most from your review process in Staff Reviews That Work