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Blog : Reach Out - Hard times call for soft skills

Blog

Reach Out - Hard times call for soft skills


By Simon Martin, learnpurple, on behalf of Jessica Cain:

I'm developing a new office for learnpurple down here in Bristol ready for a January launch date (19th - if you're around let me know).

And so my colleagues and I have been getting out and about and spreading the 'purple' word amongst the movers and shakers of the service sectors in the South West of England and Wales.

Finding my way around a new region over the last couple of months has been a lot of fun for me; people down here in the South West are, on the whole, friendlier than the average Londoner and have excellent taste in cider; which is perhaps why everyone seems that way. I digress.

In my exploration of the South West service sectors before moving here, I ate and drank in numerous hostelries (branded and non-branded) all in the name of research! Many were great, most were pretty bearable, but in one particular high street restaurant chain, a common theme began to occur quite regularly. Their front line people (the waiters/ waitresses) were very sadly lacking communication / impact and influencing skills. This recurring theme was supported ten-fold when a bill query (I swear I asked for tap water) led me to having or attempting to have a conversation with their 'Duty Manager'. This 'convo' was so poorly 'managed' that I am in no doubt that not only did I not want to frequent this particular establishment ever again (shame as the food is reasonable) but that the companies management development programme (if there was one at all) was in need of being pestle and mortared into a paste and put in a little jar in the cleaning cupboard with the skull and crossbones adorned on the side.

It was then, of course, a joyful irony to encounter an HR Manager from said company at a networking thingy a few weeks ago. As you might expect, I turned the conversation to employee engagement and retention and in particular learning and development (a habit I have formed). He relayed the particularly consequential news, that their current development programme for front line staff climbing the ranks to supervisor status, consisted of 'doing' NVQs, as they wanted something 'accredited'. 'Ahhh accreditation', I sighed. Well that explained it all; so my customer service experience of grunting and general non-acknowledgement and the subsequent appalling interaction with the so called manager was down to a particularly badly assessed piece of coursework.

As the conversation continued it became apparent that the organisation put particular emphasis on 'accredited' development as it had been highlighted to them that this angle was effective at retaining their people. Now OK, I appreciate that accredited development certainly has an important part to play. And it's great for visibility of transferable skills on an individual's CV. There is certainly a very valid place for it in developing craft skills for both front and back of house.

However, if this it is at the expense of general service quality because a lack of 'soft skills' development is on offer to employees, surely (and especially in this climate) there will be no jobs left to be retained?

This 'my people want a certificate!' mentality (and actually our experience shows us that many of them are 'not that bothered'), rather than soft skills development being part of a on-going programme of advancement, reward and promotion, got me thinking about the emphasis of vocational qualifications within the service sectors: Do they prepare people for the everyday joys of working in industry?

Do they take advantage of naturally occurring personality traits and maximise them to ensure fantastic service and therefore repeat business?

Do they provide actual relevant skills for management? Impact and influencing skills, communication based customer interaction, with customers being both the external paying type and the internal fellow peers and managed staff?

People work for people, or not - as the case may be:

Is it possible to put a monetary amount on the damage that one middle manager who lacks soft skills can actually cost your bottom line?

Do people calculate the added recruitment costs when good team members leave, service levels drop due to lack of motivation and engagement, customers notice and move on?

Send it to the analyst in the Finance department; see what they come up with.

As the average consumer deals with this blip in economic conditions, he, as a result, becomes far choosier about when and where he spends his money. This translates to all service sector businesses as a call to arms; to raise standards of service quality to a level, where every service interaction assists 100% in convincing your customers to return to YOU the instance they have the available funds for the service YOU are offering; not your competitors within a 200m radius that are potentially offering the same or better.

Bottom line, customer loyalty pays in hard times. People work for people, buy from people, are made comfortable by people and come back for people.

So the skills that make a real difference in a hard world? The soft ones.

Can you think of three different people you have been served by lately that were lacking in basic soft skills? Ladbrokes wouldn't even give me odds on that one!

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