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Stephanie Sparrow

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Good Samaritans


Samaritans, experts in listening skills training, has reported a surge in business as companies tap into charities' expertise. Stephanie Sparrow reports.

The change of mood in UK business is bringing a new area of training expertise into the limelight. As organisations face the dual challenge of beating the recession while embracing an ethical agenda, they are hunting for new ways of doing business and of refreshing their employees’ skills set at the same time. And so a new style of training provider is making its mark.
Commercial companies are increasingly tapping into the expertise of charitable organisations in order to make the most of their specialist knowledge or to refresh their development offering. For example, Public Concern at Work - which aims to safeguard the public interest by empowering individuals to speak up about wrongdoing in the workplace - is finding that it is called upon to advise organisations on creating greater transparency. Disability charity Leonard Cheshire has advised on, and tested access arrangements for transport companies, while children’s charity Hands Around the World has helped financial services companies send their staff to build classrooms in deprived parts of the globe.
"Samaritans are best known for their listening skills in difficult circumstances. And over the past year a lot more organisations have been saying that they need our expertise"
Some mainstream training providers, such as Impact International, even broker relationships between commercial organisations and charities or social enterprise agencies, with the aim of encouraging the organisation to develop and deploy its skills differently. Impact’s community action learning manager Jo Appleby explains. “Community partners come away with something that helps them become more effective, while those in business have used their skills set in a different way. They feel inspired by the passion and enthusiasm of the social enterprise which re- energises them,” she says.
A virtuous circle
Roy White, vice-president of HR at Sony Europe, agrees. “It’s a win-win,” he says. Sony Europe has sent high potentials from its European Leadership Programme to work on projects with third sector specialists the Community Action Network. Sony’s employees developed pricing models for members of the social enterprise and benefited from applying their skills in a different environment. “It’s a virtuous circle,” says White.
The charity making the biggest inroads into commercial training though is Samaritans, which has seen its training business increase by more than a third in the past year. The charity - which has been offering confidential, emotional support to anyone who phones or writes to them, for the past 56 years - has a commercial training arm. This has seen a 36 per cent increase in the number of courses it has delivered to companies, charities, and public sector organisations in 2008/09 compared to 2007/2008.
Samaritans offers advice in all aspects of workplace relationships, such as effective communication through listening and questioning skills and in tackling stress (which was the subject of a CD-ROM package distributed by Video Arts).
Samritans: Gold standard in listening skills training
“Samaritans is best known for its listening skills in difficult circumstances,” says Steve Tollerton, workplace training manager. “And over the past year a lot more organisations have been saying that they need our expertise. This is partly because of referred business and also because of the effects of the recession which is seeing more organisations receiving difficult contacts.”
Samaritans' courses have a common model of improving listening skills but are designed around the organisation’s needs. Most frequently these are to give employees the techniques to de-escalate emotional situations and end contact with the caller in a sensitive manner, whilst helping the caller to feel valued. This is the approach at Legal & General, where training manager Leanne Amicucci- Brown explains that the insurer has used Samaritans to help with sensitive phone calls, used the Handling Difficult Contacts training course.
“Our customers contact us to make a claim and can be suffering the loss of a loved one, they have become unemployed or they may have had a complete alteration to their life as a result of coping with an illness,” she says. “It helps us connect with our customers and to understand what they are going through.”
"Know when to shut up. Sometimes listening is shutting up, not speaking" Steve Tollerton, Samaritans
Amicucci-Brown says that the course is used for its phone team and also for claims assessors. Over the past two years, 45 people have attended the one day sessions, at an average cost of £100 each, and another 15 are expected to take the course in early Autumn.
One of the particular strengths of the course, she says,  is that it helps staff to visualise the customer’s emotional state. “The course tells delegates about the emotional scale, which is described as a line marked from 1-10,” she says. Assessors have to imagine where the customer is on the scale and to understand that even if they are at five, then a mis-handled call could cause them more stress and to move up the scale. It also includes role play and how to conclude these types of phone calls in the most positive way.
Feedback from the assessors is overwhelmingly positive, says Amiccuci-Brown, as they have appreciated the opportunity to learn techniques which diffuse difficult situations and which acknowledge the problems.“ For example, they learn not to say ‘I understand what you are going through’ but to acknowledge the customer’s difficulty or frustration and use phrases such as ‘this must be very difficult for you.’”
She points out that Legal & General is not trying to make its assessors into counsellors. “We are trying to equip them so that they can build rapport with the customer and create a positive and stress-free experience at what is a very difficult time for them,” she says.
Ask the experts: tips on listening skills from Samaritans
Samaritans workplace training manager Steve Tollerton says that there has been a significant increase in requests for training in handling difficult conversations. He aims to break “the anxiety barrier” of both the caller and call-handler and says this can be achieved by better listening.
Here are his top tips to developing great listening skills.  
  • The overarching principle of good listening should be: I listened, I heard and I understood what you told me .
  • Know when to shut up. “ Sometimes listening is shutting up, not speaking,” he says.
  • Acknowledge the caller’s difficulties with an appropriate response. “I’m so sorry to hear that” but not “I know how you feel”
  • Respond appropriately to the situation before moving on to the business in hand. For example if the caller says my mother has just died”, do not reply with “and what was her address?”
  • Confirm what the caller has said. A summary of what both parties have to do next will prevent misunderstanding and confusion, says Tollerton.
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