Teaching users to be resources for their coworkers

If you are short-staffed but still have to provide a lot of training, consider using subject matter experts from your company to help. You can teach employees to be resources for their colleagues with a little encouragement and role-playing exercises.

One-on-one coaching is great if time and scheduling allow. Usually, this kind of mentoring rarely gets the priority it deserves. But I have come across a training solution that succeeds in this area by training people on how to be resources for each other. When you get people into this habit, it creates almost unlimited opportunities for one-on-one training without adding a single new paid trainer or assigning more work to any existing staff members.

Here’s my method for using a client’s staff as the ultimate training resource.

Necessity is the mother of invention
In my third year of training professionally, I accepted a contract for training several hundred technical support personnel. The client was unhappy with the previous training results, but was unspecific about improvements. The client was, however, specific about the technical content to be covered in the class. The technicians had to know how to support the client’s product, which was a nation-wide communications service. While not a difficult assignment on the surface, it became a logistical nightmare.

The original training schedule was two months of eight-hour classes five days a week, with classes of no more than 15-17 people. In reality, the classes averaged 55 people, twice a day. Even several assistant trainers could not help keep up with the schedule. By the second month, the client was complaining bitterly about the poor performance and low morale of the technicians. Exhausted by 16-hour training days, I pulled the trainers together for a conference.

Our problem, we thought, revolved around a shortage of resources, but the client had made it clear there was no more room to increase budget.

We decided a departure from the curriculum content was necessary and I spoke to the client, explaining what we wanted to try. Our solution was to bring in subject matter experts (SMEs) from the client's own departments to share hands-on expertise. Although additional trainers were not an option under our existing budget agreement, the client was pleased to make departmental employees available for the classes. Using these additional resources helped us strategically in scheduling the rest of the training, which took another three months.

Every department participated, bringing to the class a real sense of the enterprise itself. Developing cohesive presentations on the fly caused some mishaps, but they were soon ironed out. As trainers, we took a role as lead resources, guiding and supporting the presentations, while the technicians responded positively to the “whole company as a resource” concept of our approach.

Role-playing benefited everyone and got results
We began to include role-playing in class sessions, with client supervisors and managers practicing right along with trainees. The supervisors and managers benefited by improving their own soft skills (human interaction skills), and the trainees became familiar with higher-level technical communication skills. The client was happy for the first time, as morale and productivity in the company soared.

As it turned out, the most effective use of the client’s managers and supervisors was their participation in role-playing exercises. They brought personal examples of customer situations, which we used to prepare the technicians for their everyday work.

In a worst-case scenario, what everyone is afraid of is the distraught customer, the one that will not be helped. In one role-play, we had a client supervisor, a client manager, and a trainee technician all working together to resolve an angry customer's issue. While working through the situation, the manager learned what the technician and sometimes, the supervisor, have to go through when working with this type of call.

At the end of the session, the manager pledged—right then and there—to always be supportive of the supervisors and technicians. He had learned, by participation, how being totally professional and correct at all times can still result in failure, as far as the customer is concerned. This manager reported his findings to the client executives, resulting in a new policy directive: No more employee terminations based on one customer’s complaint.

This was an important lesson for me, and I have since included, whenever possible, the client’s own personnel in my training classes. I now always tell my classes that nothing is free. Never mind that the company may be paying for their new knowledge; there is a personal price each of them must pay: They are resources for their coworkers. They just need to know how to do it effectively. In fact, I make it part of the contract with each class. They learn how to be resources for others, and in return they receive both professional success and personal fulfillment.

Advantages and disadvantages
For the trainer, the concept of using a client’s staff as a training resource has several upsides and very few downsides. The benefits are:
  • It relieves the sole-responsibility mantle from the trainer and allows the client to attend classes and to express opinions and thoughts.
  • It motivates the students to be interested in learning.
  • It sanctions camaraderie, which in turn promotes team building among coworkers.
  • It provides a level, nonthreatening arena for total participation across the company.
  • It promotes a soft-skills standard throughout the client’s enterprise and offers guided practice.

In fairness, the downsides to this style of training are:
  • It takes class time—the trainer may need to plan for adjustments in content to remain on schedule.
  • It takes a little more preparation time.

But the results are always worth the effort. A quick conference with the client to set an acceptable standard for interpersonal skills provides the basis for the client’s understanding of the concept and for content training.

Role-playing is key
I believe the secret weapon, if there is one, is the role-play. When new employees, particularly technicians, participate in and witness client supervisors and executives actively practicing a standard of behavior, it magically seals their acceptance of the standard.

The trainees doing the role-play work very hard because they are interacting with their employer and want to make a favorable impression. The client resources work equally hard because, as managers, they are role models. The role-play actually provides measurable benefits:
  1. Real content knowledge and comprehension issues can be resolved.
  2. Interpersonal skills can be practiced and improved.

Besides being fun and enabling welcome relief from sometimes dry, repetitive presentations, the role-play can open the door to more resources. Once during a class role-play I conducted at a legal firm, a senior partner of the firm could not explain a quirk of the firm’s billing software effectively to a trainee.

I slipped him a note, suggesting that perhaps someone else in the firm could help. He called in the firm’s controller, who was very pleased to share his expertise of a workaround solution he had developed to resolve the software’s quirk. The partner personally thanked me after the session. In truth, he had been embarrassed to let people in the firm think he didn’t know something, but was greatly relieved to realize they were resources for him, too.

Treating everyone as a resource has enriched my abilities as a trainer. Because I was lucky to learn this early in my career, not a day goes by without learning something new and exciting that I can share with others. It keeps me fresh, on my toes, and happy—to be a resource.
Do your coworkers feel comfortable asking their neighbor for technical advice? Do you have a small group of power users who serve as go-to trainers and provide quick help or advice? Tell us how you’ve trained people to be resources for each other, and we’ll use the information in a follow-up article.

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