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One Could Say Soft-Skills Training is More Important Now Than Ever. So, Why Are We Cutting It?

“For the best return on your money, pour your purse into your head.”
― Benjamin Franklin

Layoffs are a cold, hard fact for many of us in Learning and Development. We don’t turn wrenches or build buildings. We don’t pull in new customers or upsell existing ones. L and D is viewed as a cost center and, therefore, is something that is always put under the microscope when cost-cutting is necessary. This is especially true for soft-skills training.

But that is done at the detriment of business on the whole, employees in particular, and customers in the end.

At a time like this, when there is so much uncertainty and confusion about how to just keep a business in operation, it’s understandable training could fall by the wayside—especially soft skills training. On the flip side, though, one could argue soft skills training is more important than ever. Can you think of a time when you have most needed to connect with and support others? Communication, collaboration, customer service, and analytical thinking (all soft skills), are necessary tools for companies, and their employees, to put into play right now. Yet, these same much-needed skills are the ones being pushed aside.

As Mr. Franklin said, in the quote above, investment in training and developing the knowledge and skill sets of employees is money well spent, yet companies are loath to spend it.

Let’s look at some real-life examples of times where employee training sure could help:

· Case #1—This case is about a retail store that has reopened to the public, and now faces issues with controlling traffic within the store and asking customers to adhere to guidelines and regulations.

People have been cooped up indoors for months, and now have the chance to get out, go to the mall, and flex their spending muscles. There is some pent-up demand out there, and this retailer is experiencing a sales boom. The customers want to buy, they’re ready to buy, they need to buy! However, the store staff are required to enforce health and safety regulations like controlling the number of people in the store, traffic flow throughout the store, and change room usage. Eager shoppers are less concerned with adherence to all these rules, and often try to force their way into the store, crowd in too closely to other customers and staff, and disregard the one person to a change room policy.

This leaves employees in a tough spot. They’ve been taught about customer service before, but now need new direction. In a situation where pretty much everything has changed, how are they supposed to keep providing the same service? What do they say to customers who refuse to follow health and safety guidelines? Where does their own personal protection enter the process?

Soft-skills training they need: This moves beyond the usual talk about store policies. What is now at stake is the safety of the people in the store, both staff and customers. Therefore, all staff need to thoroughly understand the what, how, and why of guidelines surrounding health and safety. If they have a thorough understanding, they’ll be better able to communicate the benefits of adherence to customers. It’s helpful to also give them some of the words to say, and resources to turn to should they have questions. Refresher training on customer service practices will help all staff to know how they can revisit the ideas of empathy and service with Covid in mind.

The staff would also benefit from training aimed at having them look at each transaction as an interaction i.e. it’s more than just a purchase, it’s building a relationship with the customer and ensuring they leave happy. With things being so busy (and strange) in the store, it’s easy to just put in the minimum effort to get sales rung up and everyone out the door. However, in the long run, that serves neither customer nor employee (nor company, by extension).

· Case #2—This second case is about a large transportation company that is, of course, faced with the worst of all situations—forced cancellations and customer refunds.

Many travel companies are currently being faced with financial shortfalls, the necessity of cutting costs, and just trying, in general, to keep their corporate heads above water. There is no end in sight to this problem, as borders remain closed and customers are hesitant to make future travel plans. Certainly, this is a tough situation. However, it has to be dealt with, and customer service staff are the ones left dealing with disgruntled customers.

This is a time for companies to come through with training for their front-line service providers. I’ve heard stories, though, that tell me this isn’t happening.

Take the story I heard recently of how one manager put it when explaining customers would not get refunds, but vouchers for future travel instead… “The customer should feel lucky they’re getting anything.” Along with the follow-up comment “Technically, we don’t owe them anything. They should have bought travel insurance.”

This may be true. However, imagine the outcry from customers if the customer service provider told them that! Imagine how the poor service provider is going to feel when all that customer anger is unleashed on them over the phone line!

Soft-skills training they need: First and foremost, all staff—including management—must understand and empathize with the customer. This is not a time to take a hard and immovable line. When a service provider resorts to speaking about policy, customers turn off. Therefore, companies would be wise to offer training in customer service, communication, and empathy. They should also offer training in handling difficult customers because their front-line staff is sure going to need it.

Of course, the company has policies and procedures in place to help them to… well… avoid bankruptcy. If they give out full refunds to everyone, they may not survive the pandemic. Customers are remarkably sympathetic when they hear sincere and heartfelt apologies and offers of help. Training should emphasize the number one thing customers want—to be heard and truly understood. Once that is done, a response that demonstrates empathy and consideration will help to make the service interaction much better.

These are just two of many sample cases I could cite. Prior to the pandemic, the World Economic Forum had already stated soft skills training is crucial for companies to succeed going forward. It’s now more important than ever!

As companies struggle to deal with how to ride out this unprecedented period in our lives, their staff are going to be the ones on the firing line. It’s not fair to just ask them to figure it out as they go along. It will be challenging, for sure, but with training and support, employees will feel better equipped to handle what’s thrown at them. And that is something that will be noticed by customers, reflected in sales, and worth the investment.

If you know soft skills are in demand and important for your company, but you’re not sure what they are or how to get them, contact me. I can help with that. You’ll find me at I offer soft skills training for managers and their teams, including customer service, communication, and coaching for challenges thrown your way.

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