I have a family member who doesn’t blink an eye about going to corporate on the rare occasions that “let me talk to your manager” doesn’t resolve a poor customer service experience. She’ll get the address to the restaurant’s or store’s headquarters, sit down at her computer and draft the most senior leader at the company a letter. Then she’ll mail it — not by e-mail mind you — by way the United States Postal Service. If she’s really perturbed about the matter, the Better Business Bureau might hear about it, too.
Sometimes the company responds. Actually, most times they do. There’s a response letter or maybe a call. Some gentle-voiced person tasked with handling customer complaints asks what exactly happened and what they can do to help. Maybe a refund or gift certificate for the future is extended, and my family member’s faith in humanity — and the company doing right by its customers — is restored. And the company itself? Having weighed the low risk of her sharing her experience with friends, they choose to quietly handle the situation and continue with business as usual.
More often, however, quiet resolutions are the exception rather than the rule. Thanks to camera phones and live social media feeds, review and rating sites like Yelp and Glassdoor, the company complaint vacuum no longer exists. The technological advances that enable companies to interact with and better understand their customers have also left them vulnerable to cybersecurity issues and the increased chance of a brand crisis.
At the tap of a screen and with seconds to spare, a customer service misstep that might have faded into obscurity in the past, today reaches millions rapidly. That’s all the better for consumers. Not so much for companies like United, Uber and others who are learning the hard way that a company’s culture and value — or lack thereof — for continuous learning and development have very public ramifications.
Discussions around soft skills training are circulating again and understandably so, but I would argue that companies can’t afford to be sometime-y about employee learning and development. They can’t ramp it up when its trending, and then shift focus from it when it’s not.
Learning and development has internal and external company value. Leveraged strategically, it isn’t just a vital talent management tool to help attract, engage and retain great people and foster a robust leadership pipeline. Learning and development has a protective function for a company’s brand.
When employees are in the right positions and doing their work skillfully, they’re helping drive business results. When employees are trained and empowered to confidently deal with ambiguity and complexity in ways that consider the customer and the company, they’re helping drive the business forward.
When leaders are driving a culture of transparency, trust, resilience and innovation — aware that change and behavioral examples come from the top — they’re propelling the business forward. When leaders champion systems and resources that successfully communicate and operationalize that culture at every level of the organization, they’re investing in a stronger business. When employees see this, feel this and can speak on this from personal experience — that their company cares about their development and progress — they’re helping their company’s employer brand.
To be clear, learning and development isn’t a cure-all for a company’s image problems, nor is it an impenetrable wall away from disaster. But when company executives and learning leaders deeply understand and appreciate L&D’s wrap-around value, they can use it to make one heck of a protective coating.
Blogs and social media aren’t going anywhere. Learning and development can’t stop what people do and do not capture and share; it can’t keep an honest foible from being blown into catastrophe. It can’t take back stories that call a company’s practices and policies into review. But the learning function can help prepare its company’s people to create competitive customer experiences and drive better results.
And in the event things go awry, learning can help there, too. By weaving skills like resilience, empathy and agility into the company culture, learning leaders can equip people to recover as best they can.
Bravetta Hassell is a former Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.