Stories liven up training: making customer service training relevant to trainees

By Anne Sexton - Last update

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One of the most frequently asked questions that customer service trainers ask themselves is: How can I make my training content more relevant to the needs of my trainees?

I have always found that a healthy sprinkling of stories and personal anecdotes can make a big difference.

Once, I was delivering customer service training to people involved in front of house in the hospitality trade. I was expanding on the theme of giving more than the minimum if we want the customer to enjoy the total customer service experience.

A lesson from a train journey

To illustrate my point, I told them of the day I decided to take a train instead of the car. I arrived at the award-winning railway station, and decided to beat the queue at the ticket counter by purchasing my ticket from an automatic ticket machine. There was a woman buying her ticket at one machine, so I went to the other one. When I had completed my transaction using my credit card, I noticed that the woman from the first machine was standing behind me. She was holding money, waiting to buy her ticket from my machine. I asked her if there was a problem with her machine.

“Yes,” she said, “it’s not accepting notes.”

This intrigued me. I asked the guy who was punching holes in passengers’ tickets, if he knew that there was something wrong with the machine.

“Oh yes,” he said, “It only accepts the exact change.”

I decided not to ask the obvious question: “If you were standing 2 yards from the woman having problems with the machine, why didn’t you share this information with her?” Instead, I settled for the more neutral, “It might be an idea to place a notice on the machine to this effect, so that other passengers aren’t inconvenienced and don’t experience the same problem.”

This public servant, who must have seen dozens of people trying and failing to buy their tickets from the faulty machine on a daily basis, then produced a classic response straight out of the How to Provide Bad Customer Service manual: “I’ll do it if I have time.”

Because I was telling a story that happened to me, and because I didn’t have to pretend that the incident had incensed me, I think the trainees got the point.

A lesson from personal experience

Another time, I was delivering training to dozens of managers of a leading salon chain. The particular issue was how to greet first-time customers to the salon. Before I explored the various techniques we can use to try and convert a walk-in casual customer into a long-term permanent customer, I asked them to tell me how they felt the very first time they walked into an unfamiliar salon.

The responses came fast and furious: Excited. High expectations and anticipations. But most of the responses were adjectives like: Intimidated. Anxious. Worried. Nervous. Uncomfortable. When I asked the salon managers what would help them overcome these negative feelings, responded quickly: “Being made welcome; greeted in a friendly way; made to feel special; told how this particular salon operated.”

In other words, the managers knew from personal experience, that the first task is to create a comfort zone for first-time visitors. It was no surprise that when we then did a role play, all the managers knew precisely what they should do to help new customers get over the first-time blues.

By recounting their own experiences and their own stories, they absorbed the message very quickly, and were ready to put this into practice in an instinctual and intuitive way. Yes, I could have gone through a list of Must Do tips. But I believe that more fundamental learning took place that day because the trainees used their own stories to understand the principles we were trying to master.

A lesson from Delta Airlines

One of the recurring themes in customer service training is how to deal with difficult people. I like to tell the story – I cannot swear to how true it is, but it’s a fun story anyway – about the day that Delta Airlines had to cancel a very busy flight in a very busy US airport.

A lone check-in agent was left trying to sort out all the displaced and disgruntled passengers. Suddenly, an irate and aggressive passenger barged his way to the front of the queue to confront her. He informed her that he was a first-class passenger, and demanded to get on the flight.

When the agent politely explained the situation to him, and requested that he take his place in the queue with all the other passengers, he bellowed at her, “Do you know who I am?”

Without missing a beat, she calmly picked up the microphone of the PA system, and announced to the entire airport: “This is Delta desk 64. We have a gentleman here who does not know who he is. If anyone can come and identify him, please do so.”

Anne Sexton

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