The value of roleplaying in customer service training

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Infosec 2007. Olympia.The typical customer training course teaches agents what a customer wants or doesn’t want and highlights the common mistakes committed by new and experienced agents. The course traditionally goes on to warn agents about the possible negative impact on the company and business. It highlights the need to smile, help fellow workers, delegate projects as a team player, and have a positive outlook. Many agents politely listen, but consider the training course just a supplement to common sense. How do we then make it more interesting and applicable?

Training needs to start with a clear objective, and role-playing places the service representative into the shoes of the customer, and helps to bring clarity to particular situations. Begin with the customer scenario and use detail to create a specific situation. Perhaps the customer is calling to ask for more information and is clearly in a hurry. What would a successful outcome then be for the company and for the customer? Start from the beginning, and take it through the question period, the emotional aspect of the hurried customer, and what to say and how to say it.

Keep the role-playing scenarios simple at the beginning. Customer service representatives who are not used to role-playing will need to get used to the heightened awareness of core issues and will actually be able to focus on skills they may have never thought of before the training session began. The role-playing should be fun; employees identify with positive attitudes. We often learn mistakes we are making by laughing at ourselves. None of us like to be lectured, but when we have the opportunity to reverse roles, we can get a clearer vision of our purpose.

Our role-playing then continues with more difficult tasks. Meet the needs and calm the angry customer. Focus and build skills that can handle the issues. What a perfect time to drive home behaviors that are not acceptable or non negotiable. Record and play back the practice scenarios and figure out collectively what could have been said or done to make the experience better. We’re all adults, and when everyone has the opportunity to participate, we all tend to be more interested and more engaged. As roleplaying continues, training becomes more effective as each person has the opportunity to keep trying to perfect an appropriate and satisfying result.

At the end of the training session, customer service representatives come away with existing approaches that work well and have had the opportunity to learn new points and share tips. The opportunity for more experienced employees to share techniques with new employees leads to more teamwork. All of it helps to build more confident, knowledgeable, and happier employees.

photo credit: jlcwalker

3 COMMENTS

  1. What you’ve outlined is the tried and true accepted approach, but if you apply learning theories to the issue, and push the envelope you’ll find that a lot of roleplaying is done so badly that it not only doesn’t promote learning; it gets in the way, or ends up with people getting good at the wrong things.

    For example, roleplaying unsupervised by the expert that relies on peer feedback results in the blind leading the blind, and generating false feedback. Usually roleplaying in training is done in groups, relatively unsupervised.

    Roleplaying without setting up the roleplaying for success, and proper expert feedback is worse than useless.

    There are other reasons why roleplaying is often a bad idea. We developed a better way, called structured script analysis that addresses some of the issues around roleplays.

    I’m not saying “don’t do it” but that the overwhelming majority of trainers and instructional designers lack the knowledge to do it properly, because they lack the understanding of how people learn, beyond the superficial.

  2. (My company is a service design and customer experience agency. Among other things, we develop training services for large companies all over Europe, with an emphasis on human factors at the customer front.)

    We don’t use “the R word”, although we do use a technique which is superficially similar – investigative rehearsal. I think you might get a kick out of it – the participants certainly do.

    The big differences between investigative rehearsal and roleplay:

    1. In investigative rehearsal, the scenarios are the participant’s own stories, not invented by us. This guarantees relevance. (By the way, try starting with the “hard” stuff sometimes. I would argue that a ravingly angry customer is easier to read and steer than a gently dissatisfied one.)

    2. Investigative rehearsal is NOT there as an adjunct to “discussion” or “teaching” – it is the whole thing. There is a strict rule of “doing, not talking” – or, as we often say, “don’t show me, tell me”. Participants try different variations over and over again, distilling their own unique strategies throughout the day. The leaders never say anything is right or wrong, good or bad – that is the participants’ decision and they are perfectly capable of making it, alone or as a group. And they soon discover that what is right for one person, might not be right for another.

    3. We make a major investment in Safe Space, guiding the participants through hours of build-up activities before we begin any scenic work at all. This is massively important – to get honest, realistic results the participants must forget that they are in any way in the limelight. It seems to work well – they tell us “I have always refused to do that stuff. At 4 this afternoon, I noticed I had been doing it all day.”
    (To help people relax, workshop leaders never use words like roleplay (“the R word”) or talk about acting… Instead, they say “show me”, or “what does that look like?”.)

    We have written an extensive article on investigative rehearsal in issue 3.3 of Touchpoint magazine – it’s available from the Service Design Network or we can help you to a copy. Give it a try!

    All the best,

    Adam
    Customer Experience Director
    WorkPlayExperience

  3. Robert,

    I would, with all respect, strongly challenge your statement, “roleplaying… that relies on peer feedback results in the blind leading the blind, and generating false feedback.”

    This is not my experience at all. We find that there is always more than enough expertise in the room to develop fantastic strategies. Forgive me, but to suggest that even an experienced trainer knows more about a job than the people who do it all day, all year strikes me as illogical, if not a little arrogant. And even if participants are new to the job, they are all experts at being customers…

    When people are allowed to develop their own strategies and principles, the buy-in is much bigger then when they are expected to swallow the opinions of some “expert” whom they have never seen before and will never see again.

    The role of the workshop leader must be that of the wise guide, not the prophet. I’d encourage you to trust your participants more!

    All the best,

    Adam
    WorkPlayExperience

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