Change Management vs. Training

Over the years, we’ve had the opportunity to work with several vendors who were adding support channels (adding phone to an existing email channel, introducing chat to replace phone, or adding an in-person option for internal customers) and wanted to organize soft skills workshops for the support team. The workshops often function as the main forum for discussing concerns and process issues about the new channel — so I thought it would be  interesting to explore the pros and cons of training as change management.

Let’s start with the pros.

  • When rolling out new channels, a boost in soft skills is welcome. Support engineers who are comfortable carefully reviewing written messages before composing thoughtful responses often find it very stressful to have to pick up the phone, both because they feel tied to their desk and also because they worry about saying the wrong thing. Training helps! On the other hand, adept phone reps may need to upgrade their writing skills, by a lot.
  • With the new skills comes comfort. During soft skills workshops, we see how relieved support engineers become once they realize that they can (and should) get off the phone to do research, gracefully and productively. A comfortable individual is more likely to embrace change.
  • While training should not serve as the only QA tool for the new process and setup, it is a great QA tool, both during the development of the curriculum and during delivery. A couple dozen support technicians practicing to welcome eager face-to-face “customers” will quickly realize that the sign-up tablet is too small or that the customers who are waiting need a place to do just that, away from the working techs. It could have caught in a standard Q&A session, but (realistic) training will make it obvious.
  • Offering training signals that the change is important and, also, not a fleeting “flavor of the month” change. For the reps, it means that the initiative is serious, and that they are taken seriously.

That said, using training as the sole instrument for change management is problematic.

  • It can be seen as a punishment. Soft skills training is often forced down everyone’s throat during a rollout, regardless of individual strengths or background. This creates serious resentment, often abundantly expressed to the instructor and the hapless fellow attendees, and, worse, it lingers through the rollout. Training everyone helps develop a common terminology and approach, but consider offering more skilled individuals an accelerated curriculum, or setting them up as mentors to others.
  • It cannot substitute for careful defining of goals, processes, and metrics. All the soft skills training in the world cannot make up for deficiencies in these areas. Are you adding chat to cut costs, to meet customers’ demands, or because it’s cool? Are you expecting reps to multitask between chat and phone (hint: bad idea!)? Are you thinking of imposing time limits on chat sessions (hint: see the last hint)? You need to work all that out before the soft skills workshop.
  • It will not fully address concerns about the change. Yes, a good soft skills facilitator can and will calm the team’s fears about handling multiple concurrent chat sessions or getting off the phone when needed — but s/he can do little to address the anxiety about how the new approach will impact individual customer satisfaction ratings or productivity metrics. The managers need to hear the concerns, discuss them openly, and find good solutions to address the likely dip in performance in the short-term, if nothing else.

Bottom line: by all means, include soft skills training when rolling out new channels or making other process changes, but wrap it into a good layer of specific change management strategies.