Improving Business Results: 5 tips for effective staff training

One simple and easy way business owners can improve their business returns, customer retention and profits is by having a highly trained and efficient body of staff.

Here are five easy tips for running a successful internal staff training session whether its for new products, customer interaction training or a new bit of software.
1. Assess your staff’s learning needs and self assessed weaknesses before you run your training session.
In educational settings of any type knowing what your audience knows and what they don’t is exceptionally useful for planning and implementing best practice training and education. Knowing what your staff are confident doing and what they aren’t will save you time and by effect money in running your session. Understanding that each staff member will have his or her own prior knowledge and experience that will help them construct, categorise and understand new training material is critical to any type of training. In education this concept is known as the Constructivist Learning Approach which was heavily researched by psychologist Lev Vygotsky (Zones of Proximal Development). Basically this theory says that knowing what people know and constructing learning that builds off their knowledge or targets weak areas of knowledge will produce the best educational results. Here is one easy way with which you can capture this information so you can put it to use in creating your session:- Give your staff an anonymous survey to fill in that assesses their strengths, weaknesses or areas that they need help with. This can be done very easily by a simple yes or no check box form or by using tools such as (which is free for simple surveys). Alternatively this can be done at the start of a session but for planning purposes a short and targeted survey delivered before hand is best.

You might be asking but what do i write for this survey? The answer is simple. Write what you need to know. If you feel like your sales are low or you have an issue with stock systems or software use, frame the survey around your suspected problem areas. Surveys with multiple choice answers can easily show you where you have common areas of weakness that can be targeted within your training.
An example of a question might be:

Q: When dealing with a customer which of these do you find most difficult:

A) Dealing with complaints or anger
B) Product knowledge
C) Up-selling
D) Using the sales system
Seeing that the majority of your staff selected A or B would tell you that your staff need training surrounding your product lines and conflict resolution. Whereas seeing that no one at all selected D would inform you that in your staffs own assessment that is probably a strength within your business. This will save you time by preventing you from running redundant material in your training session and as a result help you to increase your staff and businesses efficiency.
2. Establish why the training session is useful and or important for your staff right at the start.
A major roadblock to any educational session is having your audience not seeing the direct benefit for them of the training. Right at the beginning of your training outline what they will be learning and why its important to them and the business.For example explaining to the staff that the training session about operating your new sales system will make their job easier and more stress free makes it clear there is a direct benefit or reward for their active participation. Within education using a benefit focused training session helps to boost the audiences participation and retention of content as they are self motivated to learn. Motivation is vital to any educational setting, your staff having higher levels of intrinsic (self) motivation is educationally proven to increase the effectiveness of learning.

3. Structure your training session with specific timing blocks and always have Contingency and or Question and Answer Time. 
When you are planning a training session two of the main schools of thought are Flexible Structure or Rigid Structure:Flexible Structures

are where a session plan will have 10-30 minute windows of education that are very flexible with non-specific goals. This is a evolutionary (Building Block) training method, where what you train and how you approach it will evolve out of the audiences participation and responses. This method is particularly great for Problem Based Learning approaches (discussed later) and for group learning formats. That being said it is also the most difficult to carry out effectively and usually requires an experienced instructor or facilitator as the sessions can often lose sight of objectives or run overly long.Alternatively the Rigid Structure consists of short and highly structured goals and or learning areas. This method is exceptionally useful for almost any educational setting as it allows facilitators or trainers ensure all the necessary content is covered and encourages the use of a variety of teaching approaches by creating clear partitioned ‘windows’ of learning (group, exposition, problem based) which is one of the most effective ways to educate staff. This method could also be described as a Check List based approach as you basically tick of each content area as you complete them in your time windows.

It should be noted that with both these methods you do need to leave some room for Murphy’s Law, which is where your Contingency Time or Question and Answer Time is introduced. Any effective training session for staff will incorporate small windows of extra time after every major activity or content area so that staff may ask questions to check their understanding or so that if a particular activity is very engaging and producing great results it can be continued longer without ballooning out your scheduling.

An example of these two structures within a session plan for ‘dealing with customers’ might look something like this:
Flexible Structure
1) Customers (20-35 minutes)
– Greeting
– Up-selling
– Complaints and negative feedback
– Making the sale
2) Contingency Time / Q&A (5 minutes)
Rigid Structure
1) Customers
– Greeting (5 minutes)
– Up-selling (15 minutes)
Questioning Cycle Brainstorm, Groups, Scenario / Role-Play
– Complaints and negative feedback (5 minutes)
Scenarios, Modelling, Communication Pipeline
– Making the sale (5 minutes)
Graphic Organisers, Check Lists, Discussion
– Contingency Time / Q&A (5 minutes)
As you can see they are very different in their approaches but either can be effective if they are executed correctly.
4. Construct your training session with Problem Based Learning (PBL) being the central method of learning. 
Problem Based Learning is a very popular school of thought within educational theory because of how effective it is, particularly in group formats. This type of learning approach places the emphasis completely upon the staff to problem solve using their skills and knowledge. It is best carried out in groups so that people can share and develop their knowledge and expertise together. The group approach will also help to foster positive communication between your staff that will ideally transition over into the workplace. Your role in this type of learning environment is as a facilitator not the source of the answer; in this manner you give tips and talking points to help the staff solve the problem or you provide additional conditions to increase the challenge level of the problem. Evolving the problem is a key role of the facilitator as the group progresses, what this means is that the problem should change to force the staff out of their comfort area, force them to engage their other areas of expertise or target their areas of weakness so they can be developed. Even introducing PBL at the end of a training session as a form of assessment can be very worthwhile.
An example of a PBL approach could be presenting your staff with situation like this:
A customer walks into the hardware store and needs to find a match for her bathroom walls paint colour. What do you do?
Evolution: He/She doesn’t have a colour sample or picture
Evolution: He/She does have a colour sample or picture
Evolution: He/She is angry and confused due to (insert reason)
Evolution: He/She has matched the paint but also needs a new lighting fixtureObviously this is a very simple example targeting just one situation but you can apply this method to any industry or problem you are finding within your business. Presenting staff with problems and making them solve them while playing an assisting role can significantly boost staffs skill levels and help to improve your businesses performance. It will also hopefully help to reduce staff reliance upon management as the source of all knowledge, helping to foster initiative.

Research by academics such as Dr. Cindy Hmelo-Silver supports the fact that PBL approaches to learning can boost flexible understanding of content/problems and also develop in participants the skills needed for further learning. For businesses this translates to increased staff efficiency, flexibility and easier to train staff cohorts which help to retain customers and boost your margins by lifting service standards.

5. Assesing your staff on the skills and content you have covered in your training session is vital to effective training. 
If you are running a training session it is very important that your staff know that what they are learning today will be assessed in some manner. Some of the ways you can assess the staffs learning from the training session are:
– Formal tests (Multiple choice, short answer)
– Scenario or Roleplay Testing
– Observational Assessment within the workplace
– Targeted Metric Assessment (Increase in Positive Customer feedback %, Increase in timber profits etc)
Whatever method you choose will largely be determined by what you wanted to get out of your training however ensuring that staff know their will be an assessment is vital to getting the best results from your training and by effect the best results for your company.