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Holding Up a Mirror


ReflectionsSoft skills corporate training company Sold-Out Trainers has developed a training and coaching technique using professional actors and facilitators which allows staff to see for themselves how their actions affect others.

Based on an acting process called “Forum Theatre”, Sold-Out Trainers tailor their workshops to mimic specific real life situations, with actors playing the parts of customers or staff members. Delegates then have the chance to ‘direct’ the scene, ‘pausing’ and ‘rewinding’ the live action and dictating how the actor responds.

“People can see for themselves how just one simple word or gesture can change a situation for better or worse,” says Debra Stevens, Sold-Out Trainers’ director. “Forum Theatre involves and engages delegates in the scenario so they learn for themselves in a very practical way how they can increase their influence with customers and team members by changing the way they act and communicate.

“We call the moment of truth a ‘light bulb moment’ when people see for themselves how they act in certain situations and realise the effect their actions have. It’s like holding up a mirror, and can be a real eye-opener. It’s something they don’t forget.”

Since developing the training technique with husband and business partner Peter Rice after setting up the Milton Keynes-based company 11 years ago, Stevens has run courses all over the world for clients including BT, Capita, and Pearson Education.

She believes the dynamic nature of the training makes it far more effective than other models. “ The right training improves staff confidence, morale, and team working, and ultimately leads to increases in a company’s bottom line. But the ‘show and tell’ style of training just doesn’t deliver – people learn best by being practically involved and adding their own input, a method which ensures they retain the skills and knowledge they learn.”

One of the most useful elements to the Forum Theatre training and coaching technique is its approach to feedback. The team of actors, who all have extensive business experience, take part in what is known as “hot seating”, where they remain in character after the scenarios, so delegates can quiz them on how they felt during the scene, what affected them, and why they acted in a certain way.

“This is an opportunity you hardly ever get in real life – the chance to talk to a ‘real’ customer or colleague in detail about a situation that’s gone wrong – and find out how it could be put right,” says Stevens.

“Relevancy is key. As soon as someone thinks the training doesn’t apply to them, then you’ve lost them. That’s why our case studies and our feedback are written and acted in the language of the particular industry and reflect the culture of the company. Our actors convincingly bring real life examples to life, and adapt their delivery to meet the needs raised by delegates.”

Sold-Out actor Lloyd Campbell says the ability to react and adapt is vital for everyone involved in the training process. “As actors we need good improvisational skills because we have to be reactive to the input we get from delegates. But the focus isn’t on our performance – it’s on people being trained. We have to recreate situations, emotions and behaviour, but its all about the way the delegates get to experiment by directing us into doing things in different ways. This way of training is hands-on and enjoyable, which makes it very effective.”

One company which benefited from this bespoke training was Stena Line ferries, which approached Sold-Out for help in improving its customer experience.

Sold-Out Trainers spoke to managers and staff, travelled as mystery passengers on the Stranraer to Belfast ferry line, and also visited a customer call centre and a vehicle check-in area in order to get a clear picture of what areas needed improvement.

“While Stena staff were good at responding to customers, they were less good at proactively questioning people’s needs and providing solutions,” Stevens explains.

“We devised a programme which would create a wow factor with their customers. The aim was to move the service culture and behaviours from reactive to proactive, and to allow staff to be more aware of how customers felt about their whole travelling experience. We also helped Stena set Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), which helped staff measure their performance and improvement and gave managers a basis for recognising and rewarding outstanding staff accomplishments.”

During a series of half-day sessions with a total of 250 of Stena Line’s onboard and offshore staff, a team of Sold-Out actors recreated nine different ‘moments of truth’ scenarios, based on real-life situations. The practical, realistic demonstrations showed how staff responses or actions directly affected passengers’ experiences, included being served in a restaurant, and the ‘check back’ process where Stena staff hand out customer comment cards.

“The delegates had to get involved, ask questions, rate the actors for their behaviour in particular situations, and pick scenarios which they could ‘re-direct’ the action to achieve a more positive outcome,” says Stevens.

The full Wow! factor programme has now been implemented on the Stranraer to Belfast line. Stena’s Training Officer Jim Gaffney says: “The training was excellent – very hands on and different to what we deliver ourselves. It’s innovative and certainly provided a major boost to the staff. They all felt were very positive about it and enjoyed it. It was a true realisation for them; they felt they were able to look at their own delivery and the customer experience and then take on board what they saw. The fact that they could stop and ‘rewind’ the experience was a great way for them to see how improvements can be made.

He adds: “We felt Sold Out had really done their homework and provided some very good examples of daily situations that employees would come across. The training created the atmosphere we wanted and delivered exactly what we wanted. I can definitely say that as a result staff are more positive in their jobs and customer feedback has improved.”


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