How Sears Home Services Trained 8,000 Techs to Smile

The difference between a great customer interaction and a bad one was, in many cases, as simple as a smile.

That's what Sears Home Services, the $2.7 billion arm of the nationwide retail chain responsible for customers' in-home installations and repairs, found after a full performance analysis of its field service technicians. In fact, the things customers truly cared about when someone came to fix their dishwasher weren't necessarily their repairman's technical abilities, or how fast he could fix something. It was whether he made eye contact with them. It was whether he called them to say he was en route. It was whether he explained what the repair entailed. Simple stuff.

So that was the good news. But with so many service techs in the field, spread all around the country, a new dilemma appeared: How do you train 8,000 workers to smile? The answer, quite simply, is that training alone wasn't going to be enough:

"In any initiative, when you've got changing behaviors, the training is just one piece of a very complex puzzle," says Stella Cannon, the director of learning and development for Sears' Home Services. "You've got to put performance levers in place on the job to support that behavior — from the manager to the tools to the resources to the incentives and recognition — all those performance levels you need to pull. If we'd gone with just training, this wouldn't be a sustainable initiative."

So Sears set out to do just that. Cannon's department first identified the vital behaviors and crucial moments during a customer interaction that either make or break a visit. Those included some tactile steps, like calling the customer to tell them when a tech would arrive, or wearing plastic boot covers indoors. But it also included more intangible, soft skills like showing courteousness, respect, and patience with customers.

From there, the training department came up with six sources of influence that could change that behavior — the performance levers — and set about delivering this initiative, called the "Pro-Advocacy Model," to the technician staff.

First, the training people identified managers and other internal employees who could serve as experts to deliver training, and got them up to speed through train-the-trainer sessions. Then, a wider rollout to management associates on ways to handle and promote this "change management."

"Management needed to not only understand [the new model], but also their role in providing rewards, reinforcement, coaching, and on-the-job support to hold everyone accountable," Cannon said. Once the higher-ups were on board with the plan coached up on the new behavior model, trainers hit the road for a nearly year-long training road show, where they traveled to different regional Sears centers to do classroom-style training with the on-the-ground service techs.

"It was very interactive," says Cannon. "[The training] included materials we handed out, as well as role plays and case studies. People were very excited about understanding what the customers want. Everyone wants to do the right thing for the customer; everyone wants to delight the customer, so having the data to support that this really is what our customers want, everyone was engaged in figuring out what their role is in executing that."

Again, though, Cannon cautioned that simply delivering training was never going to be enough — the behavior had to be supported throughout the entire organization. "As in all training, the most difficult thing is reinforcing these behaviors on the job," Cannon said. "When the tech goes back to work, what are we doing to provide them the resources and the tools, the coaching?"

So managers went out on service calls with technicians to observe their behavior in the field — watching and coaching in real time. Technicians offered customers a satisfaction survey at the end of each visit, and carried a literal checklist of the core behavioral keys.

Thus far, the results have been encouraging — one indication is the so-called "Blue Ribbon" program. In "blue ribbon" cases, a customer interaction has been horribly botched. In that case, a special team of techs is assigned to do anything in their power to right the situation, without interference from management. So far, 96 percent of these customers are retained.

Talk about service with a smile.

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