Small business and startup tips: training day!

Just like our larger brethren in the Fortune 100, lots of small businesses have training programs for their workers: lectures, classes, role-playing exercises, and motivational speaker sessions. However, most small businesses and startups ignore training programs altogether, or cobble together ad hoc strategies when on-boarding new hires. These differing approaches are sometimes stylistic, sometimes strategic, often driven by economics, and sometimes prompted by the company’s own culture.

Training new employees takes time, detracts from mission critical work, costs real money in salaries and benefits during the training period (not to mention the training materials, people, venues, etc), and often return results that are not relevant for many businesses. Frankly, many companies simply don’t have the time or resources to send their new hires away for days or weeks of formal training before expecting them to start producing a real work-product.

The question is, “What is right for my business?” And like so many choices that businesses large and small make on a daily basis, there is a simple answer: “It depends.” Businesses that hire workers involved in complex technical tasks, or the operation of dangerous equipment, or the preparation of food, medicine or other highly-regulated products obviously need to take the time (and spend the money) to properly prepare their new employees to perform their specific jobs. But many other businesses that are not involved in dangerous processes, nor serving food to the public, nor dealing with hazardous materials do not necessarily need to develop or execute complex training programs; in many cases new workers at these types of companies can hit the ground running after an hour or two of instruction from an experienced colleague.

I would argue, however, that there is one functional area where new employees for ALL companies do require specific, sometimes extensive, training: customer service. As we have written many times before, great customer service is something that no business can go without. And, in order to provide great customer service, employees need to be well-trained not just in the mechanics of running whatever software or other tools they use in their jobs, but in the culture of the company, the products or services offered by the company, and (most importantly) in understanding the customers. This doesn’t mean that a small business necessarily needs to take days or weeks to train a new customer support person, but it does mean that a careful and thoughtful mix of formal training, on-the-job training, and periodic reflection and review can greatly increase that worker’s effectiveness and productivity.

Formal training.
For most small businesses the “formal” training of customer service workers consists of teaching them to use the tools they will leverage to deliver support: help desk software, telephone protocol, email templates and the like. These operation of these tools can typically be taught very quickly, usually on day 1 of training. If you are hiring people who need more than a day to learn their way around customer service software, you are probably hiring the wrong people. Similarly, if you need to teach someone how to be respectful and polite with customers on the phone or in person, you also need to take a look at your hiring decisions. It is important that your new employees understand the right way to operate their tools, but much of the skill will be acquired after the initial, remedial instruction. Let them get their hands dirty quickly and let them learn from their experience.

On-the-job training.
Crucial to successful training for small business customer service folks, is on-the-job experience. Workers can learn quickly when thrown into the pool and asked to swim; the trick is to throw them in the shallow end, NOT the deep end! Start them off with the simple requests while they are finding their footing. For instance, oft-requested support at crowdSPRING includes simple issues like username changes, other uncomplicated account questions, and similarly simple tasks that can be learned quickly and have responses that are often template-driven. For us, this is a great way to start receiving productive results from new employees while they gain confidence, learn the system, and start practicing customer interactions, at the same time giving a new worker time to learn the more complex details of our business. Just be vigilant and not to fall into the trap of leaving these new workers with no backup support; we are careful to always have a more senior person available for them to ask questions of, bounce possible solutions with, and receive feedback on the quality of their work.

Reflection and review.
Many companies and organizations neglect to execute what is arguably the most important part of a new worker’s training: review and reflection. People learn in a variety of ways: repetition, direct instruction, written explanation, peer modeling, and many other methods, but the opportunity to learn through self analysis and guided evaluation is critical to retention, focus, and creative problem-solving. Make sure that your own training “program” includes ample time and opportunity to sit with the employee and ask, quite simply, “How could you have done better?” And never forget to ask the follow-up, “How could we help you to do better?” Meaningful answers to these two questions will go far to increasing productivity and improving quality, not to mention benefitting from greater customer satisfaction and lower employee turnover.

Photo: Virginia Guard Public Affairs