In an age when a customer’s unhappy experience with a company can go viral mere minutes after it occurred—and when customers regularly take to the Internet to publicize their great and not-so-great experiences—you understand the importance of superior customer service. Of course you do. That’s why you budget hundreds of thousands of dollars for customer service initiatives and put new and old employees through regular training. So why are the results only average?

Sure, criminal levels of customer service involving your company are few and far between. Unfortunately, reports of exceptional service are just as scarce. You just can’t seem to move the needle significantly in a positive direction. The problem is that you’re trying to train your employees in customer service when you should be educating them.

Training teaches someone what actions to take in a specific situation. Education teaches him or her how to think about service in any situation and then choose the best actions to take.

The differences between training and educating result in two distinctly different types of service. “Trained” employees will provide you with basic service. They’ll do just enough to get you out of their hair, but they won’t make you feel very good about their company in the process. In fact, sometimes they’ll make you feel bad—but you’re not sure exactly why.

Most of us have had this experience. The service person doesn’t do anything overtly rude or offensive. You probably won’t complain because you can’t put your finger on anything he did or said that was wrong—but all the same you may walk away with the unsettled feeling that he doesn’t want to be there, doesn’t care about you, and may even secretly resent serving you.

Educated service providers understand that sticking to the script and providing the service isn’t enough. Great service is not just about following a procedure or a sequence of steps. It’s about applying your service mindset to proven service principles. Taking the right actions at the right time to provide uplifting service so your customers and colleagues feel great about your organization. Service education allows you to make that important distinction.

The best way to see the important differences between training and education is in practice. Let’s take a look at two possible customer service scenarios:

Scenario 1: A customer calls your company regarding a problem he’s having with your product. He’s placed on hold and passed from representative to representative until he reaches the appropriate department. When he’s finally able to tell a customer service representative about his problem, the representative follows her training to the letter. She reads from the customer problem script just as she was taught in training. She successfully solves the customer’s problem but doesn’t do much to develop a real relationship with the customer.

When that customer raises a question about another of the company’s products, the representative tells him that she can’t help him but that she’s happy to direct him to someone else who can. Facing what he assumes will be several more minutes on hold, he says, “No, thank you,” and hangs up.

Scenario 2: A customer calls your company with a problem and is greeted by the first person he talks to like this: “Don’t worry. I understand your problem completely and I’m going to help you.” The representative not only leads the customer through fixing the problem but she also takes the time to find out more about how the customer uses the product. With that information, the representative can also give the customer a helpful tip on how to use the product more efficiently, and reassures the customer that any of her colleagues will also be glad to help if any other questions or problems pop up in the future. Then, when she asks the customer if he is interested in learning about any of the company’s other products and services, the customer will be glad to learn more and will already enjoy a feeling of relationship and trust with the representative’s organization.

See how the educated employee added value at every level of the call? When employees are trained, there can be a fragmented understanding of what service means for different customers, and at different times. Process training often leaves employees uncertain of what to do in situations they have not been trained to handle.

Real service education means that people learn to think and act differently in service so that their actions always create value for someone else. Service education is more than teaching employees to deliver predictable service or handle customer complaints. It’s a foundation for creating a culture of uplifting service throughout the organization.

Infusing service education into your company’s culture is a vital process, requiring dedication from the top down and action from the bottom up. Here are a few important points to consider as you learn more about service education:

Carefully select your service education leaders. These individuals should be carefully selected for their understanding, attitude, and orientation to new action. This role calls for patience, clarity of thinking, commitment to uplifting service, and boundless generosity in the encouragement of others. This unique role is course leader, educator, facilitator, coach, encourager, problem solver, consultant, and provocateur all in one.

Focus on long-term results. Short-term thinking is another common reason why so many customer service training programs don’t produce substantial or sustainable results. Your goal is more than short-term improvements in a few problem service areas. You want to build an organization with an internal capability to solve problems today and create great successes in the future.

Engage everyone. Remember, uplifting service means creating a culture shift at your organization, and that means everyone has to be on board. Service education will not take root unless everyone at your company has dedicated themselves to this change. Your board of directors, C-level executives, managers, supervisors, warehouse staff, janitorial staff, new hires—everyone must be involved and dedicated to this ongoing learning adventure. The ultimate goal is to create a culture that earns and retains many loyal customers, while building pride and problem-solving passion in every service provider. When team members are confident that everyone is committed to this cause, they will work enthusiastically to deliver uplifting service.

Don’t expect instant change in the culture. You will see new ideas and new actions to improve service right away. However, these new desired behaviors need to be supported & reinforced in the culture by committed leadership from the top, and ongoing improvement and alignment in the 12 Building Blocks. Service education must be frequent, repeated, reviewed, and renewed for everyone on a continuous and uplifting basis.

New learning happens when principles are put into action, new insights are discovered, new skills are developed, and new understanding and competencies are secured. Just reading a book won’t uplift your service performance or build your service culture. It takes new action to uplift your service and delight the people around you.

Be sure to incorporate all aspects of your service culture into your service education. Real-time data, current customer comments, compliments, complaints, and competitive information can all play vital roles. Keep fresh information flowing into your service education process. Keep new ideas for action flowing out. Keep the energy for improvement moving and growing in all directions.

7 replies
  1. Hans Mudde
    Hans Mudde says:

    Hi Ron, with this article you are hitting the nail on exactly the right spot. Even this is applicable for internal service providing. I am really in favor of your metafor with the video you made in the Metro station in New York. Brgds, Hans

  2. David
    David says:

    Excellent insight as ever, Ron. Your comments on selecting the right service education leaders are on the mark…..and I think it also brings us back to the old thing about the employees, too – “Hire for attitude”. That will inevitably make the education process so much easier.

  3. Dave Young
    Dave Young says:

    Thanks – enjoyed the article Many years ago I was told the ‘Education’ was about preparing people for life and implies ‘knowledge’ whereas ‘Training’ is about providing people with specific skills to do a specific job. People in the service industry – and anywhere else for that matter – require both. They need to have specific service skills but they also need to be able to think for themselves in difficult or awkward situations. To be able to think is not necessarily about ‘education’ but it is about being able to learn from different situations. The problem very often with ‘training’ is that people attend courses, learn the theory of customer service/whatever but don’t always put it into practice and thus fail to learn from mistakes and successes. In other words, they fail to ‘think’. I like to talk about ‘learning’ and people who have had ‘training’ continue to learn after the event. To do this we ask our people to complete a ‘Learning Log’ in which they are asked what they have put into practice from their training, then to further describe experiences after learning and to question them (the experiences) in terms of their value to the job, what was learned from the experience, how useful it was to their work, what else they could have done and would or could do in the future. The key issue is to ensure service staff know that ‘learning’ is ongoing. It doesn’t end with ‘Training’. Learning is lifelong. Someone once said you can be sure of two things in life – death and taxes. But you can add another. Tomorrow you will learn something that you did not know today. The question is – will you recognise that new event/experience for what it is and will it affect you and change your actions/attitude? Every day can be a learning experience. Can it be of value? Only if we recognise it and deal with it.

  4. James Crockett
    James Crockett says:

    What springs to mind for me here is the challenge of evolving/changing deeply engrained cultures of mediocrity and rigid job descriptions. Working in the tourism industry there is often non-existent creativity in problem solving and service excellence is the exception not the norm. I can imagine the Service Education Leaders must be adept at “one on one coaching for service excellence” which includes challenging the status quo in an upliftng and exciting rather than combative manner with individuals who are stuck in their rut and do not want to change behaviour as requires effort!

  5. Sunil Jacob
    Sunil Jacob says:

    Education seems to be the driver and top down commitment (walking the talk) would be the Key. Very good read. Thanks

  6. Pascal Demarchi
    Pascal Demarchi says:

    I can train (well I think I can) but not sure I can educate…

  7. Lyn Mathur
    Lyn Mathur says:

    Thank you for your insights about the “service education leaders”.

    Bad service often isn´t a consequence of bad training (or education) but of a lack of engagement within the working force. And this is a managerial problem! To blame only the employees – as often done – is quite short-sided since employees will only be engaged when you let them. This is a process which needs time and resources. And it needs the courage to let go: of old habits, certain structures and boundaries within the company.

    Good training (yes, I still call it that way!) doesn´t consist of scripts. It consists of engaged and informed workshop leaders who enable learning. This should always be done in an active way. A reason why the ´”Learning Log”, mentioned by David Young, shouldn´t be missed out on. This is a great way to support learning.


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