Is it time to ditch the annual customer service training day?

13th Mar 2014

Should we move on from the one-day customer service training course?

Although elearning, in various forms, has been around for many years, it has begun to be seen as a primary method of developing a workforce. It has come of age. Many think that elearning can now challenge classroom-based learning on equal terms. So is it time to ditch the annual half-day or one-day customer service training course that so many companies have used as their method of motivating employees to enhance their customers’ experience?

Elearning market growth

Elearning is going through huge growth, and will continue to do so into the future. In 2011, an estimated £21 billion was spent globally on self-paced e-learning. Today, in 2014, elearning is a £34 billion industry, and that number is estimated to double by 2015 to £68 billion.

Here are some more key facts about the elearning industry.

  • About 42% of the biggest global companies now use some form of educational technology to instruct employees during formal learning hours.
  • By 2019, roughly half of all college and university classes will be elearning-based.
  • E-learning saves businesses at least 50% when they replace traditional instructor-based training with elearning, and elearning reduces instruction time by up to 60%.
  • It has been estimated that nearly 25% of all employees leave their job because there simply aren't enough training or learning opportunities. On the other hand, companies who do offer elearning and on-the-job training generate about 26% more revenue per employee.
  • According to a recent study conducted by the Research Institute of America, elearning can increase information retention rates by up to 60%. Hence, not only is elearning more cost efficient, but also it's also more effective (in terms of how much knowledge is truly acquired during the learning process).
  • 72% of companies in a recent survey stated that e-learning helps them to keep up-to-date with changes in their industry, which helps them to remain competitive.

Global reach

Elearning’s growing acceptance is not limited to the US and Europe. The world's most rapidly growing e-Learning markets are Malaysia and Vietnam. The estimated five year annual growth rate for the Asian elearning market is 17.3%, the highest compound annual growth rate of any global region. Growth of elearning markets in some other parts of the world are also significant:

  • Middle East - annual growth rate of 8.2%, estimated to increase to a market size of £340 million by 2016.
  • Western Europe - annual growth rate of 5.8%, estimated to increase to a market size of £4.8 billion by 2015.
  • Africa - annual growth rate of 15.4%, estimated to increase to a market size of £307 million by 2016.

By the way, elearning is also eco-friendly. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the UK's Open University found that elearning consumes 90% less energy than traditional courses.

Learning online

So what relevance does elearning really have for customer service?

Surely, one might say, the only effective way of engaging employees around customer service is to bring them together in the training room with an inspirational customer service guru? Isn’t the face-to-face element vital for all organisations that want to make their customer promise a reality at the interface? Well, yes and no.

Yes, if your HR budget can stretch that far, across the whole workforce. (And let’s face it; everyone needs to take part in learning and collaborating about customer service, from top to bottom, and from the customer interface to the back-office, if your business is really going to achieve its outstanding service objectives).

But no, the classroom is not the only way to inform, motivate and inspire your people. By utilising the online medium you can reach out to all your employees, sending them all your key customer service messages, whether that’s in a local, national or international business, The flexibility and convenience of online courses can work wonders for organisations - especially those that are trans-national or even global. The ability to bring together geographically scattered employees turns e-learning from a cost-saver - probably the accepted view from the past - to an enabler. It can be the only realistic way of delivering training and of spreading a consistent customer service message across large organisations. And, done in the right way, it is capable of motivating and inspiring employees to turn around their level of service quality.

So I think that businesses need to find ways of linking their employees together - right across the organisation if possible - with access to a wide range of knowledge sources, subject matter experts, examples of best practice and other peoples' experience of customer service.

How do you make it good quality elearning?

The key is ensuring that the quality of the learning experience is as good as, or better than the face-to-face alternative. Or, of course, elearning and face-to-face can sit side-by-side in a blended learning solution.

Customer service skills, competencies and behaviours can be developed in the training room, in the office, and in the contact centre, but a key advantage of online courses is that they give employees the golden opportunity to talk to each other - in a structured way - about the knowledge, skills and competencies that make the difference for customers. Elearning participants often relate online discussions to what they are actually doing in their customer service role. Participants can take more control of their learning, and can continue to engage with colleagues long after the learning outcomes have been achieved, via online forums and/or social media sites.

Employees have many competing demands on their time, both at work and at home. See it from a participant's point of view. Design your elearning around the factors that will maintain the progress of your participants. As a general rule, the activities that will remain on an individual's agenda over any length period of time have to include one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Essential: If my training programme is a compulsory part of my development activities at work, then I will certainly remain engaged. However, there should be other reasons that really motivate me to become wholeheartedly involved.
  • Enjoyable: It is a positive experience which I look forward to, and in those moments when I am deciding which of a range of competing demands to engage in, I'll often choose the learning, because I know I'm going to enjoy it and find it rewarding.
  • Structured: If there is a clear, predetermined structure to my learning programme, such as completion dates and times, or I can access the learning at certain times of the week, then my mind is predisposed to expect the learning to take place. Any doubts I might have are lessened by my assumption that I will do the learning.
  • Social: People are social beings, and we all enjoy activities where we relate to other people. If we can actually make friends through our learning, then we will be motivated to keep returning to the discussion forum or to see the latest news about the ideas and activities of our new-found online friends.
  • Supportive: We need support from the friends we make online, together with our online tutor and even the technology and resources that are made available. If they support me in my learning endeavours they will help me to be successful, take my learning forward and build my confidence and desire for more learning.

Levels of learning

Learning is not, for participants, simply a matter of taking on a body of knowledge. Yes, there are important knowledge requirements that you need to get across in the programme - such as how employees should deliver their service to customers, how to handle problems, and so on. But participants need to develop their own knowledge and understanding to higher levels. Gilly Salmon’s 5-stage model provides an excellent insight into how learning changes and develops as a learner progresses through an elearning experience.

One can identify three stages of learning that typically exist for participants as they go through an elearning course. At the lowest level they are engaging in shallow learning, becoming familiar with the use of the system, and introducing themselves to their online tutor, if there is one, and the other participants. They begin to learn, taking on new knowledge and concepts.

Next, at a deeper level, they progress in their learning, beginning to understand how to apply facts and concepts in order to analyse situations. For example, they may use or even generate a behavioural model for dealing with a difficult customer or colleague in a customer service situation. Much of the learning at this deeper level comes through the sharing of information and ideas with others - online collaboration.

At the highest, profound level of learning, key questions are asked - by participants and online tutors. The learning, knowledge, concepts and ideas are now applied to totally new contexts, and participants at this level will challenge previously accepted ideas and assumptions, creating new meaning and collaborating. For example, participants might discover innovations in their customer service delivery for their organisations.

Moving through the stages from shallow to profound learning maintains momentum for participants, and enables the organisation to gain real and measurable benefits from the learning programme.

So consider: is it time to let go of the annual customer service day, and institute a full elearning or blended programme to achieve those inspirational yet challenging service objectives?

Stephanie Edwards is director of Customer 1st International.


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