Training professionals, particularly those employed in training units of larger organizations, are subject to the customer service philosophies and practices of their organization as well as the industry the organization works within. This is inherently good; a customer-centered business is often a very successful business, and in our increasingly technological age, quite necessary to ensure some semblance of human contact.

However, training units in many organizations are guided by a retail or call center customer service philosophy that does not speak to the specifics of the training industry and reduces the word "customer" to those seeking products or services that they will pay for. It envisions a world of competition that, for most training units, simply does not exist (at least to the level that concerns the larger organization).

What is needed is a customer-centric training unit that bases its customer service philosophy on something other than what I am calling "the profit model."

The profit model

The profit model of customer service operates with certain assumptions that motivate the way customers are served. It assumes external customers - online, in queue, shopping in the store - as the life blood of the organization. It finds itself under the constant threat of competition and fixates on correct pricing, market share, revenue centers, and repeat business.

Customer service in this world takes on the role of problem solver and dispute corrector, as well as lobbyist for future purchases. The face of customer service becomes the retail salesperson or, more commonly, the call center. This is evidenced by the plethora of customer service books available that use the call center as its basis.

One recent book, Emily Yellin's Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us, reflects this call center emphasis, as does Customer Service for Dummies (3rd Ed.) by Karen Leland and Keith Bailey, the cover of which features operators sporting headsets. Arguably the most successful customer service model is that of retail giant Nordstrom, where "goal setting [for the sales staff] fuels the Nordstrom engine." Even the unconventional customer service theories of Bill Price and David Jaffe's The Best Service is No Service rely on the retail and sales industry. But for all their great, customer-friendly ideas, do any of these perceptions of customer service speak to training units? I would argue that they do not.

The implication is that to perform true customer service training, units have to act like retailers. There are, to be sure, training organizations that must live by the profit model. These would be the organizations whose general business is to train (New Horizons comes to mind). They must therefore keep an eye out for competition and the bottom line. But by and large, training units within organizations have a different set of motivations, most of which do not directly impact the retail or call center battlefields.

Very often, our customers are captive in the sense that they must come to us for training specific to the organization that cannot be reproduced outside the organization - not without a great deal of effort and, especially, money. Who else will train an organization's technical or functional courses? Who else will train an organization's culture and make it specific to that culture? Organizations can hire consultants to design, develop, and deliver training, but at an extremely high cost.

Training units should not lose sight of the fact that they are a vital part of an organization's infrastructure and are therefore beholden not so much to outside customers but internal customers first and foremost. Therefore, they must adopt an appropriate customer service philosophy that speaks directly to that audience and develop a business model that incorporates customer service in a way that is unique to training and brings value to the customer as a member of the organization. I call this "the value model."

The value model

In the value model, providing conceptualized, planned, and consistently reliable goods and services to learners is the height of customer service and has little to do with sales quotas met or dollars spent. The customer must, of course, be pleased with these goods and services, but the customer also has to be recognized as an organizational partner. Once the customer is redefined as someone with whom we partner for the operational good of the organization and not as someone we pursue primarily to ensure the financial good of the organization, we can similarly see a redefining of customer service as a concept.

In other words, we provide service to our customer in a way that makes business sense for us. It's still customer service, but it now follows a new model based on how our particular business approaches customers. There is therefore no need to think of customer retention or increased market share; and customer loyalty is judged not on repeat spending but on professional respect and value.

In the profit model, customers often seek out the organization because they have a problem or complaint (thus the emphasis on the contact or call center). The suggestion here is that the product itself is flawed, its documentation lacking, or its users not well-equipped to understand it. The emphasis, then, is to appease the customer (the short-term solution) or somehow enhance the product (the long-term solution).

Under the profit model, the organization, in an effort to keep the customer, tries to please her by making concessions (refunding a fee, for example), offering incentives, or promising to fix the product. A sure sign that a training unit is operating under the profit model is its similar response to perceived flaws in its product: to offer more training whether it is needed or not (although to be fair, this "solution" is often dictated by the organization itself). In such a case, the training unit exists to keep the customer coming back for more, whether it is appropriate or not.

The essence of the value model is for the customer to come back because there is personal and professional value in doing so. If the customer has nowhere else to go (as is often the case) and no other option than more training, the training unit may be seen to lack value, particularly if repeated training does not produce the desired result.

The first step in operating from a value model perspective involves the creation of a formal business strategy. Is it not a genuine form of customer service to outline for the customer the training unit's business practices and what it can do for them and in partnership with them? This statement should detail how the training unit intends to conduct business: what products and services it plans to offer, how training requests will be handled and by whom, the process by which it demonstrates partnership with other business units within the organization, and the service level agreements it proposes to honor with its customers.

How long, for example, will the customer expect to wait before she gets a response from the training unit to a question or comment sent via telephone or email? How long before certifications of completion are sent? What is the anticipated time for the completion of training development? (I recognize that service-level agreements in practice often are contractual and in some respects, legally binding. I see no true difference between the more formal definition and the understanding that training units should enter with their customers.)

Once developed, the statement should be made available to the organization as a whole and serve as the seminal document of the training unit's existence. It should establish the training unit as a member of the organization that brings value and lives up to its promises.

The training unit should also embrace standards that govern all of its endeavors, whether instructor-led or e-learning. For example, a standard should be set for instructional design. Whatever design model is used is fine and particularly worthwhile from a customer service perspective in that it encourages customer contact (subject matter experts help conduct the task analysis, for example). A delivery methodology should be developed and used no matter who trains the customer, even if it's someone brought in by the organization for a special training event.

A style guide should also be created to outline the way that training materials will look and feel, including all the technical requirements that come with e-learning development. Each of these standards strives to ensure a consistent product - a typical customer service consideration and one that in the profit model is vital (so that customers do not switch brands). The value model customer, often with no brand to switch to, also demands consistency and perceives a lack of consistency as reflective of a training unit that brings little professional value to the organization.

The value model also requires that training units think about their business from all aspects of the training cycle: before, during, and after the training event. Prior to the training event, the value model demands an easy-to-find, easy-to-use application process (note that it is not necessary to invest in an elaborate LMS to achieve this); clear and concise course listings and descriptions; contact information; periodic marketing of courses and offerings (again, there's no need to spend a great deal of money on this); and timely training confirmations and reminders.

A pre-event audience analysis is an excellent tool to determine whether the right people are in the right class for the right reasons. This is all in addition to the aforementioned design and delivery standards to which the unit adheres. However, training units seem to spend a majority of their time on the actual training event and precious little time after the event. The training event, then, becomes both the means and the end itself, and training concludes once the class does.

But any training unit that purports to bring value to its customers should spend more time after the event, if not equal time at each juncture of the cycle. It's no secret that training effectiveness is more successfully measured postevent; however, training units tend to disappear after the event. This is an abandonment of customer service principles and a very obvious remnant of the profit model: "Here's the product. Let me know if you have any problems with it."

If I have a bias toward the action (or inaction) taken by the training unit after the training event, it's because I believe it to be where the value model has its greatest impact. To this end, a practice I have adopted is to send - in addition to the certificate of completion - a thank you message to each learner, which, by itself, is pure profit model because it places no stake in the learner's actual learning. Instead, it is more along the lines of, "Thank you for trying our product. Come back and see us again real soon."

With a value model perspective, the customer-friendly "thank you" is enhanced by an organizationally important listing of the course objectives that serve as a reminder of what learners should have gotten out of the course. And for those learners (or their supervisors) who say that the learning objectives were not met, post-training support in the form of labs or other interventionist strategies should be used, notwithstanding the imminent possibility that more training is not the answer. The training unit should be prepared to explain why and to offer alternatives, even if the alternative is no training at all.

What in the profit model would be seen as turning away business, is instead in the value model a sensible decision based on the needs of the organizational partners. The formulation of a post-training retention strategy that involves learners and their supervisors, is based on the learning objectives of the course, and has additional training as one option is a genuine value model customer service feature.

Find your customer service stride

Training units should strive to own the discipline of training, and the value model is a sure way to achieve this goal. It proposes a customer-friendly strategy that redefines "customer" more realistically and with much less of an economic focus. It attempts to secure a more prominent place in the organization for training - one where training might find itself more frequently at the executive table, crafting business decisions and not being considered an appendix to the organization that can be reduced or removed when finances get tight.

It is this reclamation of the necessity and indispensability of the training unit that the value model attempts to accomplish through customer service. It ensures that training units are not in a position to feel that unless they provide customer service the profit model way, they are not providing customer service at all. T+D