Soft skills include character traits like common sense, empathy, and a positive attitude, and interpersonal skills like the ability to communicate well with people. They have more to do with who we are than what we know. The soft skills required for a customer service or sales representative, for example, would be strategic questioning, active listening, empathy, a positive outlook, the ability to build rapport, and the ability to remain unflustered in the face of challenging customers.
Hard skills, or technical skills, can be learned and perfected over time. So can soft skills. But even with training, soft skills are more difficult to acquire and change because they have less to do with what we know, than who we are. Think about it. Your customer service agents have been communicating with other people their entire lives. So attending a half-day training class where they’re told to care about their customers, listen actively, acknowledge customers’ concerns, use positive language, etc. may inspire them, but without practice, they can’t be expected to change a lifetime habit.
- Practice Online. Much of soft skills is training offered online. However, asking employees to read pages of text online and take a quiz isn’t sufficient to change behavior. A different methodology is required than most online learning offers. Behavior change needs to begin during online training by having employees practice responding to situations through either writing or speaking their response.
- Practice During Class. While online training is a great method for teaching hard skills, it hasn’t been proven to be sufficient by itself in changing soft skill behavior. If you’re currently providing your employees only online training, create an after-class follow-up session that allows them to practice in customer-specific situations. Drill-and-practice activities, fish bowls, and one-on-one role plays give employees the practice they need to improve their soft skills—and the confidence that they can put their new skills into practice on the job.
- Practice After Class. Learning shouldn’t stop when class is over. In fact, that’s when behavior really starts to change. Without on-the-job activities to remind employees of newly learned skills, it’s easy for them to fall back into habitual patterns of communication. So it’s crucial to provide ongoing reminders and opportunities for employees to practice what they learned online, in class. Create on-the-job activities that review and focus on one skill each day. Have supervisors provide one-on-coaching. Schedule short meetings or brown-bag lunches where employees can share success stories. Remind employees to also practice these skills in their relationships outside of work. Once employees are able to consistently demonstrate basic skills, conduct additional training sessions to help them take their soft skills to a new level.
Telling employees they need to improve their soft skills isn’t sufficient. As that famous saying goes:
How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Practice. Practice. Practice!