Excerpt from “Getting There and Staying There” Overcoming the obstacles to sustained operational excellence

When someone doesn’t know how to do a particular task, the obvious strategy is to provide the person some type of training or instruction for the necessary skill.

That being said, here’s the tricky part – sometimes people are sent to training not because they don’t know how to do something, but rather because they are not doing it.

In other words, they are being sent to training because there is a will deficit. Not a skill deficit.

As someone who spent 4 years as a corporate trainer, I saw evidence of this all the time. There were people who were being sent to training not because they didn’t know how to do something, but because they weren’t doing it.

More recently I did a consult with a prospective client who’d been referred to me by one of my current clients.

The person I was consulting with was the director of a 400-person call center that provided customer service for a major satellite service provider.

Here’s how the conversation went:

Me: “How can I be of service?”
Them: “We need you to teach our customer service representatives how to properly greet customers who call”
Me: “Do they not know how to properly greet callers?”
Them: “Oh no. They know how they are supposed to greet callers!”
Me: “So how do you think I might be able to help?”
Them: “We need you to get them to the point where they greet customers properly who call?”
* awkward silence *
Me: “So they really don’t know how to greet callers?”
Them: “Oh, they know exactly what they are supposed to be doing when they answer the phone!”

This back and forth went on for a few moments before I informed the prospective client that I was pretty certain that my training their employees how to answer the phones properly was not going to get the results they were looking for.

The response I got was “Listen, we hear you’re good at this kind of thing, and since you have call center experience, we’d like you to do this for us”.

Note: For those of you that don’t know, a 24-hour call center with 400 employees who can’t all be off the phones for training at the same translates into a sizable body of work for my company.

I told the director that it didn’t seem to me that they were dealing with a training issue for the customer service reps. Rather it sounded like the management team might need to spend some time investigating what really is going on, and that I could help them with that.

She responded that training the customer service reps was the path they wanted to take at this point.

I respectfully declined the work.


Because I knew that while my training class might put some wind in the sails of their employees for a while, that their behavior would probably soon revert back to where it was before and that the impression left would be that my company didn’t deliver.

It can be very problematic for any organization if it becomes the cultural norm for individuals to be sent to training or instructional classes because of a will deficit vs. a skill deficit. The result usually is that training, which should be seen as a positive developmental and growth opportunity, will soon begin to be seen by the members of the organization as punishment.

You’ll know whether this may be happening in your organization if when you tell people they will be attending training, they respond by saying, “What did I do?!”

The point here is that training/instruction is exactly the right strategy when there is a skill deficit. Not when there is a will deficit.