Planning soft skills training for support teams

Training support teams is a tough job. There's so much to cover — systems and processes, products and services, all the different touch points (company web site, FAQs, app, Youtube channel)... it's not always easy to see the the path through the trees.

"Hire for attitude, teach knowledge and skills" 

More and more companies follow this great principle. But if support people's ability to communicate is misunderstood as a talent, a personality trait or an attitude, teams are only going to grow their frustration instead of their most important professional skills.

Fortunately, being a great communicator is a skill that can be learned:

Communication skills = hard skills + knowledge * attitude

In order to plan a successful training programme for your team, you'll want to define the hard skills and knowledge they need.
Then, you can use cooperative learning techniques, lovingly designed materials and copious amounts of food and drink to create an environment in which the right attitude will thrive.

Plan your training programme in three steps

1. The general direction: strategic goals

Describe the support you want your customers to experience in one sentence.

For example, Our customers feel scooped up and carried through any difficulties they've run into.
Or, The team help our customers to help themselves, while displaying intercultural sensitivity.

Your strategic goal should be relatively vague and high level. Some companies have a mission statement that includes support strategy — that's the ideal place to start from. If your company doesn't already have this, engage with others in the company to define your support strategy.

2. How to get there: tactical goals

Next, you'll want to break down your strategic goal into 3-7 concrete skills and areas of knowledge that will help the team to 'travel in the right direction'. 

If your strategy were to help customers to help themselves, while displaying intercultural sensitivity, your list might look like this:

  • Knowledge: Insights into the cultural backgrounds of our customers (daily life; support expectations; the role of our product)
  • Skill: Offering and declining help politely
  • Skill: Using positive language to give bad news
  • Knowledge: Self-service options available to customers
  • Skill: Close reading of customer emails 

These points allow less interpretation, and you can centre your activities around them.

If you get stuck while making such a list, check some support emails or chat messages you've received yourself.
Did you like them? Why? What stands out to you? Would you like your team to learn how to do this (better)?

3. Observable behaviour: operational goals

Finally, it's crunch time! Turn the skills and knowledge you've defined into very precise actions that you can observe and assess. This will give you specific modules and activities for your training. You'll be able to combine those into a running order for one or more sessions and assess the team's results elegantly as you go along.

Most soft skills training programmes stop at step 2, which is why they often don't give the desired results. People change when they learn something — but that change is usually invisible. Therefore, answering the following question is the key to your training's success:

What behaviour would prove that this person has learned the desired skill or information?

Usually, you'll find that each item from step 2 will comprise several distinct actions you want to teach and assess.  

To give you an example: close reading of customer emails is a skill you can't observe directly.
You can check someone's grasp of the finer details in a variety of ways though:

  • multiple choice tests
  • group conversations
  • written responses to predefined questions
  • short essays to characterise the customer

How many items must be solved correctly so you can be sure you've achieved your training goals?

Make sure to write down all the factors that come into play for these activities too — such as available time, tools (such as computers vs pen and paper), and whether they'll work alone, pair up or form a group.

Over to you

What's your support strategy? What kind of activities have helped you achieve your goals?