Don’t Start with Training as the Answer

Don’t Start with Training as the Answer

/ People, Performance Management
Don’t Start with Training as the Answer

Formal training is not the panacea for all performance problems. Know when an alternative approach will yield better results.

As a learning and performance consultant, there’s nothing better than finding a request for training in my inbox. I’ve learned not to get too excited, though. Many times, when I dig a little deeper into the performance problems that prompted the request, I find one of the many performance gaps that can’t be—won’t be—solved by training, no matter how effective it is.

It’s common to prescribe “training” as the panacea for any and all performance ills. It makes sense—it’s concrete, it’s easy to measure, it’s an event that we can point to as a “fix” and hope that when employees emerge from the magical training event, the performance gap will be closed and we can check it off our performance improvement list.

Unfortunately, many performance problems aren’t solved with training, no matter how diligent the trainer or how effective the class. Keep reading for a list of criteria you can use to determine: When is training the answer to our performance problems and when should alternative performance improvement approaches be used?

When Training IS the Answer

Of course, there are times when conducting a training intervention—in person or remote, live or self-paced—is absolutely the answer. Let’s start with when an instructional intervention is the right solution.

Training IS the answer when: The issue is lack of knowledge or skill.

Recommended Approach: When an employee does not know how to do something—including when to do it, to what degree to do it, the conditions under which they should do it, or even what it is you’re asking them to do—training is the right solution.

It’s important to make sure lack of will isn’t masquerading as lack of skill. Determining the answer to this question may require investigation and analysis, since “they must not know how” is an all-too-easy answer to explain non-performance.

That’s it! It sounds elementary yet many organizations continue to prescribe training when it’s not the solution. For new-hires, of course, training is almost always the answer since they don’t know our processes or tools, yet. But, a request to put tenured low performers through customer service skills training again because of poor QA results? It might be time to do a little more detective work to determine the reasons for non-performance. Hint: It’s usually not lack of knowledge or skill. Same with non-performance that is related to not doing something “fast” enough, or employee qualities such as “empowerment” or “urgency.”

Even when we agree that training is the answer, three more conditions are necessary to greenlight training as an intervention:

1. We have defined and agreed on the desired performance with all training stakeholders, and described the conditions required to meet that objective.

Training should only happen when all stakeholders agree to a documented description of the desired performance—what it looks like, what it sounds like—we expect from training participants as the result of the training. This discussion includes agreement on the most effective delivery format and time allotted.

This sounds like: “Every training participant should be able to process a standard return in a role-play using the new guidelines. We can accomplish this objective in a 45-minute e-learn course, and one hour of live practice and role-play.”

2. The stakeholders have agreed to support post-training reinforcement and support activities.

It’s not realistic to expect employees to leave the classroom and perfectly and consistently apply what they learned (even if they were able to do it at the end of the training). I resist going into a classroom without stakeholder commitment to a post-training plan with responsibilities and deadlines for feedback and structured reinforcement.

This sounds like: “Within 3 days of the training, supervisors will complete the documented reinforcement activities with their training participants, observe at least one return per participant and provide feedback, and return a completed ‘training feedback form’ to the training team.”

3. There is a plan in place to measure the effectiveness of the training.

A clear testing methodology must be designed, resourced and documented. Training that isn’t measured runs the risk of wasting of participant and trainer time.

This sounds like: “The QA team will prioritize evaluating returns, and track participants’ ability to process returns 4-7 days after the training class. They will provide a daily tracking report by participant, along with qualitative feedback, to the stakeholder team (Training, Operations, QA).”

Our stakeholders are often in a rush to get from training request to training delivery quickly. It’s the performance consultant’s responsibility to persuade our partners that a successful training intervention depends on much more than just what happens in the classroom (more on the performance consultant title later). Without these three extra steps, it’s unlikely that training—even when it is the right solution—will consistently close the performance gap.

When Training Is NOT the Answer

In reality, there are such a wide range of reasons for non-performance and so many non-training performance interventions available, there are almost always viable alternatives to formal training interventions. When we consider the cost of training—shrinkage, development and delivery time, technology and training supplies—and the mixed results earned by many training classes, it’s irresponsible to NOT consider alternatives. Table 1 lists common examples with recommended approaches.

TABLE 1: When Training Is Not the Answer, Consider These Alternatives
Training Is NOT the Answer When: Recommended Approach
It’s a simple or factual process or change.

Example: Current year program changes.
  • Electronic job aids with examples and guidance.
  • In-tool support that pops when the new process is attempted.
  • Drop-in practice lab for hands-on system support component.
  • Electronic assessment to demonstrate understanding and test compliance.
There’s a lack of clarity about what’s expected and how it’s measured, or there are conflicts between performance objectives.

Example: New-hire training covers “customer handling skills” which aren’t included on the QA form.
  • Align performance requirements and targets.
  • Ensure measurement tools are valid and reliable measures of desired performance.
  • Resolve conflicts between performance objectives, or explain nuances to help employees balance requirements.
Employees aren’t motivated to perform.

This encompasses the complex reasons which underpin non-performance including: incentives to performance are not in place, or there are incentives to not perform.

Example: Employees know how to process a manual customer enrollment but feel like it takes too long and customers should do it themselves, so they don’t offer it.
  • Add rewards/incentives for desired performance.
  • Coach to persuade/educate about benefits of the desired performance.
  • Make non-performance more difficult. In this example, a system prompt, “May I assist you in completing your enrollment today?” on the “Enrollment info” screen.
  • Remove incentives for non-performance. In this example, handle time targets.
The issue could be corrected with adjustments to processes or technology solution.

Example: Retrain employees on how to accurately complete an enrollment.
  • Make it difficult or inconvenient to NOT perform or remove roadblocks to performance. In this example, auto-populate known customer data, force required fields, and automate real-time auditing.

Two Real-Life Scenarios Where Training Wasn’t the Answer

The examples in Table 2 represent training requests I’ve received as a learning and performance consultant. In each example, I had the chance to analyze previous performance interventions (to figure out what we tried that didn’t work) and complete a gap analysis. As you can see, in each example, we determined that training was not the right intervention to start with, even though that’s what was requested. In this case, this was the best possible outcome to this training request. We are most valuable to our partners when we can steer them toward a menu of effective options they haven’t considered.

TABLE 2: Two Examples Where Training Was Not the Answer
Current State Previous Interventions Gap Analysis Results Non-Training Intervention
Too many exceptions to the standard return process.
  • New-hire training.
  • KB guidelines.
  • Agents understand the guidelines, but customers are aggressive about unclear verbiage on the website and challenge agents’ explanations.
  • Revisit return policy.
  • Improve website return language.
  • Share recorded scenarios of customer objections with suggested responses.
  • Coach and role-play with agents to respond to aggressive return inquiries.
Customer complaints about agents’ customer service skills.
  • New-hire training.
  • Remedial training.
  • QA form guidelines.
  • Agents understand the requirements taught in training—they can describe them—but don’t know HOW to perform them in the context of a customer conversation on a call-by-call basis.
  • Not enough practice and feedback in customer service training.
  • Weekly opportunities to practice and role-play in group settings with immediate feedback and rewards.
  • Side-by-side opportunities for agents to learn from top performers.
  • Implement recognition/rewards for demonstrating great customer service skills.
  • Role-play in 1:1 coaching sessions.

Transition from “Training” to Performance Consulting

This all sounds straightforward until a manager requests a training session to fix a problem you suspect won’t be remedied by training. Imagine a conversation where a manager asks you for “empowerment” training to help agents “be more proactive” and “accountable” to customers. You think to yourself, “Our agents are pretty smart. I don’t think they need a class to define empowerment and tell them they need to practice it more.”

You just realized something really important! While the world sees us as trainers, most of us have much more to offer than just designing and delivering training courses. In reality, most trainers are already performance improvement specialists with the expertise needed to prevent our business partners from choosing a performance intervention—training—that might not solve his or her problem. As trainers, we are well-acquainted with when training won’t work, and alternatives that will.

Start by defining the desired performance and exploring the performance gap:

  • What’s your definition of empowerment? What does it mean to be proactive and accountable? How do you identify when an agent is demonstrating these capabilities? What do they do? What do they say?
  • Where does it happen? Is this something an agent does on the phone with customers? After a customer interaction? During non-ACD activities?
  • When do you expect the behavior to happen? With all customers or just customers experiencing problems? During specific types of problems or specific situations?
  • What problem does it solve, or what’s the benefit? Why is it important?

Now you’re ready for deeper analysis to learn more about why the desired behavior isn’t occurring:

  1. Is anyone demonstrating the desired performance? Who? What do we know about those people? Why can they can do it but others can’t or aren’t?
  2. Why do you think non-performers aren’t demonstrating the desired performance? Do they know how? Do they want to?
  3. Where is the desired performance documented?
  4. What have we done so far and what were the results? Why do you think what you’ve done so far didn’t hit the mark?
  5. How are we measuring, rewarding and reinforcing the desired performance? Is there a chance the non-performance is inadvertently being rewarded?

You may complete your analysis and:

  • Decide training IS the answer. Fantastic! You’ve gathered the information from your partner that will guide you toward designing a training program that will hit the mark.
  • Decide training IS NOT the answer. Through your analysis, you’ll have identified a solution that will work BETTER than training. This consultative approach will provide you with the rationale to make your case for an alternative, more effective performance intervention.

Maybe It’s Time to Rename Your Training Department

The best training departments aren’t those that deliver the most training hours or reflexively respond to training requests with training courses. Innovative leaders know the training department’s work product isn’t training. It’s performance consulting, where we guide our partners toward the interventions—training or otherwise—that will drive employee growth, learning and performance.

Want to Learn More About Non-Training Performance Interventions?

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