For your customer service staff to effectively meet customers' needs, they need to learn key skills such as communicating professionally, handling difficult customers, analyzing customer needs and managing time and stress. You have numerous online and in-person training options to consider, and they come with different pros and cons involving convenience, cost, effectiveness, comprehensiveness and learning needs.

Before choosing how to train your customer service employees, it's important to analyze the advantages and limitations of different learning and development methods to see what they can offer you and your staff.

Traditional Instructor-Led Training

A very popular method for training customer service employees is to have an instructor give structured lessons on the topic to your employees as a group. This training might last several days or weeks and may focus on a specific topic each day. For example, one day may have several hours of instruction about basic communication skills, while another might cover how to handle difficult customers effectively.

One of the benefits of this training method is that it's widely available and can be easy to implement whether you have your existing staff lead the training or you hire an outside instructor. Another advantage is the ability for employees to interact with the instructor and easily ask questions. The structured nature of this type of employee training can also help learners who find it difficult to focus.

Two of the biggest disadvantages of using instructor-led customer service training are the costs and time involved. Not only will your employees have to take time away from their work for the classes, but you can incur costs for a training facility, instructor, travel, meals and materials. If you're working with an outside instructor, you'll also have to work out a schedule for the training that may be less than convenient for your company and employees.

Interactive Training Workshops

Customer service training workshops are often shorter than traditional classroom training programs – sometimes as little as a single half-day session – and focus on a specialized topic, such as call center customer service or customer service excellence. These training programs are available in both online and in-person formats and are often interactive so that employees can participate in the lessons. While they can be used for initial customer service training, workshops are also good for refresher training or ongoing professional development.

Since workshops tend to be short, they can be cheaper and more convenient for your company and employees. Not only is it easier to take only a half day off work to train, but you have the option to choose an online workshop that employees can do in their downtime. These workshops are usually also expert led, so they can provide high-quality, specialized training.

Since these workshops are not as comprehensive as classroom training programs, a downside is that they may not be thorough enough for your company's needs. As a result, you may need to start with more extensive training and then give opportunities for employees to attend specific workshops as needed. Another potential disadvantage is that your employees may not have enough time to absorb all the important information since these workshops can cover a lot in a few hours.

Hands-On Learning Opportunities

Another way to teach your employees some vital customer service skills is to use hands-on activities such as customer service simulation games and role-playing exercises to give them practice handling common situations they'll face with customers. One example of a training game is GameLearn's 2100, which teaches customer service concepts while requiring players to effectively handle customer service situations to gain the title of a fictional company's CEO. If you'd rather avoid paying for computer simulations, you can easily have your existing customer service staff and managers create scenarios for new hires based on prior experiences.

Using hands-on learning gives your trainees the benefit of receiving immediate feedback based on their responses and allows them to apply their knowledge to situations similar to what they'll face on the job. It also helps them hone their decision-making skills in a way that traditional learning might not.

However, there is the drawback that your customer service employees will still face situations for which this kind of training won't prepare them. At the same time, when in-person role-playing exercises are used, this method may not appeal to anxious employees who don't feel confident acting out the situations in front of others. There's also the risk that employees won't take such exercises seriously if they feel it's just a game.

Computer-Based Training Courses

Your company also can choose from numerous computer-based courses that cover customer service in depth and engage learners with videos, games and quizzes to make learning more enjoyable. Some of these programs lead to a certificate of completion or a diploma and can feature help from a live instructor. Many of these programs are available through online training providers such as Alison and Skillsoft, although traditional training centers now offer both self-paced and live online courses for your employees to consider.

Online training has become popular due to the flexibility it provides both companies and staff, as you can often fit these courses into your own schedule, take breaks as needed and even work on them on the go. They also tend to be cheaper than in-person training methods, allow learners to easily track their progress and even help employees better retain what they learn.

A major downside is that some of your employees will learn best working in a regular classroom format and might need more support than online customer service training courses offer. Depending on the course, there may be a considerable amount of reading required, and this can be a disadvantage for learners who learn best through interactive content or video. Also, the amount of scenario-based training for handling customer service situations can vary for these courses, so supplemental role-playing exercises or mentoring may still be needed.

Hands-On Job Shadowing

If you'd prefer to get your employees experiencing what customer service work is like right away, you can consider using job shadowing as a training option. With this method, you'd have your trainee watch an experienced customer service professional work for a short time and then provide opportunities for hands-on experience. Your experienced worker can provide guidance at any time, and management can provide individualized mentoring and coaching based on the results.

Major benefits of this training method are that it exposes learners to the work environment, encourages interaction and teaches through observing real-world scenarios. Learners can use their observations to predict how to react to future scenarios, and the opportunity also helps employees ensure the position is right for them early on. Managers can also get feedback from the trainers to learn about trainees' strengths and weaknesses so that individualized mentoring is offered as soon as is necessary.

A few disadvantages of this method include stress and issues with proper preparation. For example, if you have a new employee shadow a call center worker for only an hour and then expect the trainee to take a call alone, this pressure can lead to performance stress and a possible bad outcome for the call. If employees don't get some initial training of the basics of customer service before job shadowing, this can hinder how effective the training will be since employees will be missing some key gaps in their learning. Therefore, combining job shadowing with another type of training and providing individualized mentoring is essential.