Monday, August 25, 2008

Using Storytelling to Supercharge Your Customer Service Training

Think back to when you were nine years old, and your mother told you to behave better. Did you listen with rapt attention? Did you run off full of enthusiasm to improve yourself? Perhaps most important, did you actually change your behavior?

The reason that you answered "no" to all of these questions holds the key for how to breathe new life into your customer service training. When you stop telling people how to behave and start stirring their creative juices instead, there is no limit on how far they will lead you.

Most of us immediately get defensive and self protective when someone tells *us* to improve – no matter how quote-unquote correct the other person is – because this is a basic survival instinct we all share. But when we hear a story about someone else's foibles, we listen and learn from it. This is because of a well-known principle of behavioral psychology known as "modeling," which holds that we primarily learn by observing other people.

This principle lies at the root of how we started telling stories. Over 2500 years ago, Aesop's fables were created to teach people life lessons, in the form of funny stories about animals and people. A generation ago, Popeye cartoons helped children to want to eat their spinach. And today, approaches such as narrative psychotherapy help people examine their own life stories and make positive changes.

So how does this apply to your own customer contact team? Simple. Stop telling them what to do better, and get them to work scripting stories about how other people handle customer situations. You'll be amazed at how much energy and creativity they will have in doing something all of us do extremely well: stick our nose in other people's problems and try to solve them.

Nowadays, when I teach a customer skills course, I often follow a three-step process. I share a humorous fable about a customer situation, teach some of the skills that these characters could use to make the situation better, and then turn everyone loose to complete stories of their own. Here are some examples:

1) Once upon a time, there was a fire-breathing dragon who was rude, demanding, and angry– and if anyone ever dared to stand up to him, tongues of fire would shoot from his mouth! But this dragon was also very sad and lonely. No one ever wanted to talk with a fire-breathing dragon, and people would cower behind their desks and counters whenever he came in to buy anything. So one day, you came to the village and said, "I have a great idea for how to deal with this dragon in the future! My idea is ______________"

2) You and your business partners have just pooled your life savings to create your dream job: starting a new garbage dump. But not just any garbage dump. Your goal is to give people the very best garbage dump service experience possible! What can you do to create an excellent service experience for people dumping their garbage?

3) Take the worst customer experience you have ever had. Turn the person who waited on you into a fictional character, and then write your own fable about how this character learned to do things better. Have fun!

This last exercise is particularly important, because no one wants to hear about improving their own attitude or courtesy, but when they start examining bad experiences from the other side of the counter – and put their problem-solving skills to work – a valuable learning moment takes place. So try using stories yourself to put the creativity of your own team front and center in your training. Soon you will find that story time isn't just for grade school anymore, and more important, you will watch your performance soar.

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