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Here are two things you can count on when scheduling customer service training. 

  1. Employees will be worried that the training includes role-playing.
  2. Managers will be worried that the training doesn’t include role-playing. 

Employees don’t like role-playing because it feels awkward and uncomfortable. Managers like role-playing because it provides hands-on practice. Many are convinced that role-playing helps their employees learn new skills inside and out. The bad news is it doesn’t work. The good news is there is an alternative training technique that does build skills through hands-on practice. And, unlike role-playing, employees actually enjoy it.

More on the alternative technique in just a moment. Let’s start with role-playing’s limitations.

Why role playing doesn't work

Role-playing falls short as a training tool because it works against the way our brains acquire new knowledge and skills. One challenge is multitasking.

Role-playing requires participants to focus on two tasks simultaneously. They must concentrate on playing their assigned role while also concentrating on applying a new skill. Unfortunately, our brains aren’t built for multitasking. We can only focus our conscious attention on one thought at a time. Researchers have discovered that multitasking actually slows us down and hurts performance. The net effect is role-playing makes it harder to learn new skills, not easier.

There’s a second reason why role-playing doesn’t work.

Learning a new skill requires a certain amount of discomfort. It’s that feeling you get when you realize you aren’t very good at something. This is healthy in small doses because it helps you understand that you still have some learning to do. Role-playing amplifies this feeling of discomfort to the point where it disrupts the learning process. Many training participants feel awkward when they have to pretend to be someone else.

An alternative that works

Experiential learning is an alternative training technique to role-playing that’s highly effective. Like role-playing, participants get hands-on practice applying new skills in a realistic fashion. Unlike role-playing, participants don’t have to pretend to be someone else. They get to be themselves.

I like to use David Kolb’s experiential learning model to create highly effective customer service training activities. There are four steps in Kolb’s model:

  1. Concrete experience
  2. Reflective observation
  3. Abstract conceptualization
  4. Active experimentation

One of my favorite experiential learning activities trains customer service reps to work fast on a busy day while still providing attentive service to each individual customer.

Step 1: Ensure participants have concrete experience in this situation

This helps employees understand what they do well and what they need to improve upon. They can draw from their actual work experiences, but I prefer to incorporate this into the activity. To do this, I give participants three minutes to learn three pieces of information from three other people in the room: the person’s name, a hobby, and their customer service strength. Sounds easy, right? It’s more challenging than it seems. On average, only 10 percent of participants are able to successfully complete the activity.

Step 2: Reflective observation

I do a short debriefing session where I ask participants to think about two things:

  1. What were the challenges they faced in the activity?
  2. Do they encounter similar challenges in their daily work?

Step 3: Abstract conceptualization

This is where participants determine what they’d do differently the next time to improve their performance.

To do this, we discuss specific skills and techniques that could be used to improve our success. The best part is the participants usually contribute great ideas on their own. I usually only have to add one or two suggestions.

Step 4: Active experimentation

Participants get to try out their new ideas. I give participants another three minutes to talk to three new people. Nearly everyone succeeds this time. And, they now have a new concrete experience to start the continuous learning process all over again.

Don’t lose sight of the goal

The ultimate goal for training is to have employees learn new skills that will help them achieve better results. You can make your customer service training much more effective if you ditch unsuccessful methods like role-playing in favor of approaches that truly help employees perform.