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Employee customer service training a value proposition?
Main Aim: To study the value of soft skills training in terms of attracting repeat customers and increasing company profits
Brief Review of the Related Literature
Crosbie (2005) has produced one of the most recent studies on the value of soft skills training; challenging the role of training as a single methodology for the development of personal and interpersonal "soft skills" for leaders. A design/methodology approach is used to make a case for the importance of soft skills development for leaders and then to explore the role of training, along with other critical elements, in helping leaders develop these skills. This is done through an explanation of the complex process of learning, concluding that learning soft skills takes significant time, and the learning of the complex personal and interpersonal skills of leadership takes even more time. Statistical analysis is used to support the recommended methodology outlined in this paper, and the practical implications are also examined. Organizations undertaking a leadership development initiative are encouraged to look beyond simply evaluating training programs, with success depending not only on effective training but also on such important elements as expert facilitation, contextual awareness, formal and informal support, real-world application, self-study, self-awareness, stress and celebration.
This paper tends towards the view that soft skills training may be an unnecessary expenditure of capital and training time for many organizations, however this view is strongly refuted by Ramsoomair (2004), who claims that soft skills are ignored because of an obsession with tactics at the expense of strategy. A key part of his argument is that, when pressed with immediate needs, firms put their emphasis on individuals who excel at primary or core skills: While they may grudgingly admit to some belief in the value of soft skills, it is falsely felt that these non-core skills are a priority that can be deferred.Â However, he concludes that once caught in the deadly embrace of over reliance on short term priorities in goal delivery, the cycle of hard skill emphasis becomes internalized. The full potential of strategy is consequently never reached, primarily because of a workforce that is either not fully equipped to do the job, or is discouraged to do so because their 'other' qualities are not valued adequately.Â
Kelly (2004) attempts to balance these two arguments, claiming that businesses are increasingly looking for business-literate IT professionals who can add value at a strategic level, and that as such, IT staff need to move outside their comfort zones and acquire soft skills, such as people and project management, to be certain of a secure future. However, she focuses on the fact that many IT departments are still under pressure to do more with less, and thus wonders how already overstretched IT professionals will find the time to invest in training, in addition to their core job functions. The 2004 annual Technology for Financial Executives survey, carried out by Computer Sciences Corp. and Financial Executives International, found that in many corporations IT remains as isolated as ever from the boardroom and overall business strategy, with only 7% of respondents claiming to have an IT plan fully aligned with business objectives (Kelly, 2004). As such, the literature supports the view that acquiring these skills could be the key to elevating the status of IT and its staff within businesses. In addition, they will provide IT staff with the knowledge and the business language to translate their IT solutions into business solutions in order to deal effectively with board-level staff and customers. (Journal of European Industrial Training, 2003)
The focus on soft skills in the IT context is a fairly new development, spurred by the e-commerce explosion, but as early as 1997, Civelli observed that as traditional structures began to disappear at an ever-growing rate, new roles were developing and new professionalisms are required, not only by markets but from society too. Big differences are also noticeable in large and small organizations across a great many markets, with requirements in human resource development approaches becoming very different, so he claimed that different tools from those of the recent past would be required. He reported that human resource development professionals were engaging in new approaches where culture, soft skills, communication and competencies are key factors. The impact of new technologies on organizations needs a different approach to traditional concepts of timeÂ and spaceÂ.Â (Civelli, 1997)
The literature supports the view that, even in the commercial businesses in modern economies, where time pressures are everything, and new employees are often thrown in 'at the deep end', training and soft skills are increasingly important. Boomer (2005) explores the application of soft skills in the accounting profession, exploring some of the primary categories of soft skills, and steps that can be taken towards the proactive approach of changing the image of a firm, and differentiating it from other firms, both in the eyes of clients, and potential new recruits. Furthermore, Compensation & Benefits for Law Offices (2005) presents news briefs on law firm's training and professional development programs. Experts are quoted as believing that training raises the soft skills of employees, which, when added to computer and technical training, produce highly competent employees, and fills a gap by providing management training for law firms, which have seldom trained their managers and partners. Training is also claimed to raise productivity, which obviously results in greater profitability, as well as boosting morale and motivation, both of which create greater teamwork.
Buhler (2001) takes a slightly more basic, albeit useful, approach to the importance of soft skills, charting how the focus of management has been on hard skills for the previous few decades, with the emphasis centered on the technical skills necessary to effectively perform within the organization. The article claims that these skills tended to be more job-specific or more closely related to the actual task being performed, however as the world has changed, and the nature of work has changed, the skill set required of managers has changed. Thus, today, employers crave managers with the critical soft skills which tend to be more generic in nature, in other words, these are skills key to effective performance across all job categories. The skill categories are explored be the article, as are the reasons the soft skills have come to play an even more crucial role in management positions in today's environment, and how they fit into the complete packageÂ of the interdependent soft skill set vital to many modern managers.
Some of the most recent training developments are reported in a recent Computer Weekly (2005) article, which mentions that the BCS Young Professionals Group has recently run two events to help its members develop the communication skills they need to be successful in a modern business/IT environment. The first event was held at the group's annual general meeting in London on March 5, 2005, with another meeting, conducted on April 14, which was dedicated to honing negotiating skills to boost career development. Although this article was written before the events, and thus could not report on them, it claims that the event was just one of a series, aimed to build up the soft skills which are now in greater demand from employers, offering more practical evidence that soft skills are becoming an increasing concern throughout the economy.
Finally, Thilmany (2004) addresses the profession long believed to have the least use for soft skills when compared to the hard, technical skills: mechanical engineering. The article discusses about how engineers can learn to become good managers, reporting on how Steven Cerri, who heads STCerri International of San Rafael, California, teaches what he calls soft skills to engineers who want to make the transition to management. The initial class is for corporate engineers who are thinking about a transition to management, with a second class is aimed at engineers who definitely want to manage or who are already leading people. Importantly, Cerri claims that, although the gulf between engineer and manager is huge, though spoken of infrequently, a lack of people skills is not only understandable, but also eminently correctable.Â
Aims and Objectives of Research
There are three main objectives to this research, based around the overall aim of the dissertation, and what has been revealed by the literature review.
Firstly, it will be necessary to determine the extent to which training can improve the soft skills of employees and managers alike, both independently of practical experience, and combined with said experience. In terms of being combined with said experience, it may be useful to study whether training before extensive experience of dealing with customers is more effective than training employees who already have significant experience. In other words, does customer exposure make employees more eager to learn how to placate and address customers, or does it make them more 'set in their ways'?
The second objective will be to determine to what extent employee and managerial soft skills can influence the tendency of customers to become repeat, and potentially loyal, customers. Again, soft skills will only be one potential factor influencing customer choices, and it will be necessary to attempt to determine the impacts of the other aspects of the marketing mix: price, promotion, place and product. It is hypothesized that there will be certain combinations of the various aspects that will have the desired effect; however this may vary according to customer demographics.
The third objective will be to determine the extent to which soft skills can be converted to company profits, as a result of gaining more customers, and repeat customers, and how this is affected by company training policies and expenditure. In other words, the data will be used to attempt to discover if expenditure on soft skills training actually produces significant rewards for a company.
Sources and Acquisition of Data
For the first objective, it will be necessary to contact a great many companies that have invested in soft skills training programs, and attempt to determine the perceived improvement in the soft skills of their employees. Unfortunately, it will be necessary to do a large portion of this by survey, and these results may well be skewed by managerial regard for soft skills versus more traditional hard skills. It will also be necessary to attempt to determine any bias across industries.
The impact on customers will again have to be measured fairly indirectly, using market data, such as that found on the Euromonitor or Factiva databases to determine the importance customers place on the soft skills of company employees, and the potential for soft skills to create repeat customers. Surveys could also be used, however they may produce even more skewed results, as many customers are unsure of their personal cues to buy and make repeat purchases.
Finally, the third objective will require surveying companies to determine their expenditure on soft skill training, both in time and capital, together with the success of these training schemes. Information on the increase in profits can be obtained from company's annual reports, but care must be taken to ensure that other factors, such as new product development, are accounted for.
Methods of Data analysis
Multiple regression analysis will tend to be the best method for analyzing the data, once potential bias has been identified and removed. Several models will need to be tried, as the relationship may not be simple, and the model that is found to be most accurate would have implications for the analysis of the third objective, as there will potentially be an optimal level of soft skill training, above which the rewards will not match any further increase in expenditure.
Multiple regression will often be the most apt form of analysis, as it will offer information on the explanatory power of certain variables, which will be useful when concluding whether training or experience are most important for soft skill development, the relationship between training and experience, and any potential significance of which of the two is acquired first. Also, for the second objective, multiple regressions can be used for both employees and managers, to determine whether it is the soft skills of employees, or of managers, that have more impact on the number of repeat customers a company receives.
Additionally, Gaussian, or other relevant, probability distributions can be used, and may prove useful depending on the form of the data. For example, if it can be shown that the tendency of customers to become repeat customers resembles a Gaussian probability function, this could provide evidence that the soft skills have little impact, and that some customers would tend to be repeat customers regardless, whereas others would seldom become repeat customers. Equally, significance tests can be performed on each result that the regression shows to be an explanatory variable, in order to determine whether or not it has a statistically significant effect on the customer tendencies and company profits.
Form of Presentation
The majority of results will be presented in graphical form, using Excel or some other spreadsheet program to demonstrate the correlations, if any exist. Equally, the survey results will be made available in the appendices, and the data charts themselves will be presented, together with explanations for any anomalous results or unexplained trends. More detailed explanations of the methods used, potential sources of bias and other relevant information that has arisen from the survey data will be covered in the main body of the report.
The company financial data will also be made available, in its complete form, through the appendices of the report, and the relevant data will be identified and explained, together with any other possible explanatory data, in the main body of the report. The final conclusions will be presented in verbal form; however they will be supported, wherever possible, by the relevant extracts from the basic data and analysis. Any potential sources of error or bias that may affect the final conclusions for the three objectives will likewise be covered in a similar way.
1.Boomer, L. G. (2005) Soft skills can mean hard dollars for your firm. Accounting Today; Vol. 19 Issue 6, p. 22.
2.Buhler, P. M. (2001) The growing importance of soft skills in the workplace. Supervision; Vol. 62 Issue 6, p. 13.
3.Civelli, F. F. (1997) New competences, new organizations in a developing world. Industrial & Commercial Training; Vol. 29, Issue 7, p. 226.
4.Compensation & Benefits for Law Offices (2005) Here's Why Training Still Matters. Vol. 5 Issue 4, p. 8.
5.Computer Weekly (2005) Young IT professionals get advice on 'soft' skills. p. 36.
6.Crosbie, R. (2005) Learning the soft skills of leadership. Industrial & Commercial Training; Vol. 37, Issue 1, p. 45.
7.Journal of European Industrial Training (2003) IT managers need more soft skillsÂ. Vol. 27, Issue 2-4, p. 202.
8.Kelly, L. (2004) Soft skills are key for future IT managers. Computer Weekly; p. 37.
9.Ramsoomair, F (2004) The Hard Realities of Soft Skills. Problems & Perspectives in Management; Issue 4, p. 231.
10.Thilmany, J. (2004) Going Soft. Mechanical Engineering; Vol. 126 Issue 3, Special Section p. 4.