Learning to Face Customers

learning to face customersIntroduction

Dealing with customers successfully is a critical skill for an organization, yet developing these abilities is not a given. And for organizations that face high employee turnover, it’s even more challenging. How can you systematically develop and deliver great customer experience skills? The principles behind human learning are still key.

The nature of the task

Facing customers is complex. You have to manifest certain values, respond to complex requests within boundary conditions, work with the full panoply of personalities, and maintain a professional disposition. Individuals need to be able to respond within their area of responsibility, and gracefully segue when they need to hand off.

Additional pressure comes from the financial pressures on practice. Finding the balance between getting people into successful interactions quickly and running the risk of losing a customer is a fine line. What can be done?  To answer that, we need to look at what’s entailed in successful performance.

What goes into good customer relations? There are many lists of the core skills, with disparate numbers of elements. For the sake of argument, let’s suggest it consists of the following steps in the relationships:

  • Acknowledging any emotional components
  • Restating the customer’s request
  • Probing for any additional needed information
  • Knowing the necessary foundation information
  • Making a decision on the answer (or handing off)
  • Being positive
  • Maintaining decorum
  • Following through

The underpinning qualities needed include:

  • Empathy
  • Attentiveness
  • Patience
  • Communication
  • Diligence

While it’d be ideal to hire people with these qualities and develop their understanding of the steps, you typically can’t be so choosy. How do you develop the ability to maintain the qualities while executing the steps? The short answer is practice. But the longer answer is about striking a balance between learning and performing.


Practice is the only way to develop skills. You need to be put in the situation, and have a chance to perform. You also need models to guide your performance, and examples about what to do (and what not).  And you need specific feedback based upon your performance that refers back to the models that should guide your performance.

Now, you may not need to be immediately thrust into facing customers. Instead, we use scaffolding, starting with simpler challenges and working up to more complex ones. Similarly, we can go from lower to more complete immersion. We may deal with mini-scenarios (multiple choice questions with situations and choices of response), branching scenarios, simulations, a role-play, and/or Virtual Reality before we go live. Ideally, it’s a progression. The tradeoff is time; how can we shorten this learning curve?

One approach is to look beyond the formal training. For instance, we can use the 70:20:10 framework to guide our development. That framework suggests that in addition to formal learning, we can look at learning with and from others, and then real practice as ways to develop as well. Thus, the scaffolding continues into coached live performance, where we’re closely supervised initially, and that coaching gradually fades as our performances improve. We can also be given gradually more responsible roles, starting perhaps in a small role, and gradually assuming more ability to make determinations.

This suggests a steady intermingling of more complex and demanding scenarios interspersed with richer examples, and a frequent refresh of the underlying models. Further, we need a sequence of models to address the importance and nuances of different elements: addressing emotions, probing, etc., is implied.

Here, the elements of good learning, such as identified in Brown, Roedigger, & McDaniel’s Make It Stick, are important. The initial and subsequent skills can be interleaved to ensure the necessary varied practice. Spacing the practice out is also necessary.

Feedback, too, needs to be nuanced. The ways in which learners typically go wrong need to be made available, and feedback should be tailored to the way in which the learner has erred. The feedback should correspond to the variance from the model that should be used to guide performance in this instance.

Beyond Formal

Integrating this structure into a full up-skilling course would be ideal in a perfect world. Instead, there are pressures to move this process faster. As mentioned, putting people into customer-facing roles with limited responsibility and close supervision can bootstrap the learner into initial productivity, while still developing them and minimizing risk.

Tracking performance can be enhanced these days, through a variety of mechanisms. In addition to customer surveys, supervisors can be documenting observations into a mobile device. Similarly, mobile devices in the learner’s hands can provide product knowledge and task scaffolding, and document the outcomes, as well as extending the learning through challenges that can be accessed at quiet times. Connections to others with answers can help learners perform even while still developing the foundational knowledge. With increases in responsibility and other more tangible rewards, learners can be motivated to persist and improve at their optimum rate.

While none of this is necessarily unique to customer-facing, it’s a distillation of learning principles specifically for this situation, which isn’t to say there aren’t other approaches. You could put someone into the firing line immediately with a mentor and have the mentor alternately presenting material, modeling behavior, and handing off small practices. This doesn’t scale as well, but it’s appropriate in circumstances where there is a reasonable quantity of pre-existing expertise and sufficient resources.

Social aspects can be built upon as well. The content and practices could all be done asynchronously and technology-mediated. With benefits from observing others, a ‘reciprocal teaching’ (taking turns modeling behavior and providing feedback) can support internalizing self-monitoring. This suggests a ‘blended approach’ with simpler tasks done offline, and graduating to face-to-face interactions as the material gets richer.

Ultimately, the goal is to provide sufficient practice, gradually increasing in challenge and decreasing in support until the learner has acquired demonstrable competencies. Resourced appropriately with the necessary (but minimal) content of concept and examples, with an emphasis on practice and feedback, the necessary skills can be developed.


Join Me at Litmos LIVE

As a side note unrelated to this article, I wanted to personally encourage you to register for the Litmos LIVE virtual summit, November 7-8, 2018. I’ll be leading a session entitled “Integrating Effectiveness & Engagement: Creating Experiences” (more on this subject in my next post) from 12:15-1:00 PM (PST) / 3:15-4:00PM (EST) on November 7, which you’ll get direct access to as a registrant. I hope you’ll attend this and many of the other 30+ sessions offered at the event.