If you only have a few support representatives, it’s difficult for staff to take time off for training. It’s a catch-22: Staffs need training to be productive, but leaving for training impairs customer service. Training in this situation can be done, but it requires planning and commitment from management in order to work.

In this article, I’ll discuss ways to keep the phones covered and provide the training that your staff needs. Three areas will be discussed, including:

  1. General training approaches.
  2. Tips for formal, off-duty training time.
  3. On-the-job training tactics.

General training approaches
Bringing in a new employee can be daunting when you are trying to juggle other employees and the quality of your customer service. But by looking ahead, organizing, and finding ways to get your new employees on the fast track to productivity, you’ll be benefiting both your staff and your customers.

Plan your employee orientation
The key to getting new employees off the ground quickly is to plan for their arrival before they are at the door. Training your staff by saying, “Go watch Joe” isn’t enough. Create a checklist of items to cover in the first week. Create another list for week two, and so on. Each item should include specific objectives and identify a method for learning. Start with the comfort basics: their space, supplies, introductions, and important locations. Look at your call handling procedures: tracking software, greetings, and other caveats of customer service. My organization also includes one of our FAQ skills in the first day to create an early feeling of productivity. Whatever route you plan, the important part is to plan it.

“Chunks” of learning
You’ve probably got at least a month’s worth of material that a consultant has to learn before they can start taking calls, right? Wrong! Sitting in class for a month without real-life practice can actually slow down the learning process. You can reduce the amount of time to productivity if you approach training in “chunks.” Look at the skills your staff needs to know. Which items are asked most frequently? Which items build on one another? Which items should be taught first? Use this information to complete a task analysis for the job. Teach only one to three chunks at a time. Let them handle calls on those chunks. A great deal of confidence is built when success comes quickly.

For each chunk of learning, you will need to create a specific training plan. List each chunk’s objectives and skills; plan methods to teach them, ways to practice them, and assessment points for them.

Formal, off-duty training time
Some training must come during off-duty times from the phones. Creating a formal rotation schedule as suggested in part one of this series should allow you to find time for this type of training. But what else can be done to make use of this time?

Offer comp time for after-hours learning
If there are two hours of material to present but no time for two hours of training in the day, offer compensatory time to come in before or after the shift. When your techs decide to take their two hours of comp time, you’ll have to juggle a little to cover the phones. But to alleviate that strain, you can schedule the comp time so that only one person at a time is off.

Brown bag sessions
Staffs often enjoy a “brown bag.” Have everyone bring a lunch or buy it yourself as a “payoff” for the session. Since lunches are usually staggered, you’ll likely need to repeat the session, but the time is already built into the schedule.

Training meetings
In a one-hour meeting at my organization, we have a brief open discussion of issues, do soft skill training, and present information on a technical topic. Sound impossible? Not really. Discussion of issues is reduced through the use of an online forum (see the On-the-job section below), and there are lots of great customer service and soft skill activities that only take 15 minutes. The schedule looks like this:

  • Announcements: 5 minutes
  • Discussion: 10 minutes
  • Soft Skill Activity: 15 minutes
  • Tech Training: 30 minutes

Even small help desks may find it necessary to repeat the session for two groups. Videotapes can work well for people who must miss the session. Look for slow points of the day to schedule these meetings.

Assessment learning
Individually, staff members can undergo formal training through “assessment learning.” During one of their off-duty times, techs take a prepared assessment. For Microsoft Office skills, we’ve recently started using DDC Testing Center from DDC Publishing, a company that provides training and assessment products on technical topics. I create custom exams on a few objectives that take about 30 to 60 minutes to complete. During the assessment process, most techs find they are actually learning (it allows them to use Help or other resources), and those topics that are troublesome become fodder for our training meetings.

New consultants also take a self-assessment test ranking their proficiency on the general desktop support topics we cover. This assessment is used to create their formal training plan.

We have also done assessment learning on soft skills with fun quizzes on customer service or other topics. To make sure that wrong answers teach just as much as correct answers, each question features a full explanation.

On-the-job tactics
Intranet/training Web site
For on-going training and reference material, an intranet site works well. In my organization, we took information that was gathering dust in a three-ring binder and placed it onto an intranet. Our intranet includes the following features:

  • Discussion forum: Every day, we discuss issues in our virtual meeting.
  • Training section: Materials from training sessions are posted here. This section also features follow-up activities, assessments, and interactive training created with Dreamweaver and CourseBuilder from Macromedia.
  • Procedural and Informational Index: In this section, we can quickly look up procedures and common solutions online. A hot link section takes users right to frequently used items.
  • Online Tutorials: ViewletBuilder 2 from Qarbon.com allows us to demonstrate tasks or create interactive learning.

Coaching checklists
Organize your on-the-job training and coaching with a checklist. The checklist details each step or behavior required for each task or skill that is assessed. Then, during observation of a live situation, we rank each step from 1 to 3, with 1 being the lowest. This has been a great reminder of skills for all staff and has led to some excellent opportunities for training.

Train the next person
Training one person at a time is not very efficient, but it does provide a good method for relaying information without much downtime. To do this, we follow this method:

  1. A person is assigned a new skill or item to learn or research. This is done in his or her “off” time according to the schedule. This person is also responsible for creating any documentation that might be needed and for adding resource links to the intranet.
  2. This person trains one person on the material, including an explanation of the resources he or she has compiled.
  3. Person #2 practices, reviews a bit, and then trains the next person in line.
  4. Person #3 trains person #4 and so on.
  5. In the end, the last person reports back to the initial researcher or management. This verifies that the information was consistent down the line.
  6. Online review and discussion about the topic are added to the intranet.

Once the first person compiles the material, the “chain” of training for seven representatives takes about seven days. It decreases the overall downtime per person, and training someone else increases retention and learning. You’ll need small chunks of material for this plan to work effectively.

Phone training: I talk, you log
The best $35 we ever spent was on a “Y” training cord for our headset system. When first starting, a new representative listens in on a conversation with a more experienced staff member, and later they switch rolls.

You can also use a shadow system to handle calls and train new representatives at the same time. For this system to work well, you need to have two computers next to each other. Here’s how it works: While a lead consultant handles the call, a trainee logs the call into the tracking system. This system allows trainees to practice the call tracking software, and taking notes increases their retention of what they hear. The extra time needed to teach the trainee in the shadow situation is partially made up for by administrative work being completed. Keep in mind, however, that while this works well for many kinesthetic and visual learners, some people may have learning styles where this system would be distracting.

The bottom line
None of these ideas is a cure-all, and not all of these will work for every help desk. A solid training program should be a mainstay for any job. Nonetheless, these approaches can help to significantly reduce the time your staff has to spend away from the help desk and your customers.

What’s your training strategy?

Do you have other ideas for reducing training time or organizing coverage for training in your organization? Share them with your fellow TechRepublic members by posting a comment or writing to Janice Ward.