by Jeff Toister
Date Published February 13, 2020 - Last Updated November 9, 2020

Do you remember when you learned to drive?

There was probably a moment when you were so nervous and unsure that you momentarily doubted your ability. It might have been when you merged onto a fast-moving highway or had to slam on your brakes when a car cut in front of you.

My nervous moment came when I shifted my mom's manual transmission Nissan into first gear and immediately stalled the car. It could have been worse—a friend of mine panicked when he encountered an oncoming car on a country road and swerved into an orange grove.

Service desk analysts sometimes feel that way when they're learning something new. As a certified trainer, I've learned you can dramatically improve training by identifying where your analyst is on the learning curve and adapting to their needs.

Jeff will explore the analyst learning curve and more in The Secrets to Effective Onboarding at SupportWorld Live.
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The Four Stages of the Learning Curve

There are four stages along the learning curve. Each stage is characterized by different levels of competence or skill and learners' awareness of their abilities.

This model, often called the Four Stages of Competency, is credited to Gordon Training's Noel Burch. There are two primary benefits to using the model:

  1. Training can be adjusted to meet each individual's needs.
  2. You can more effectively evaluate whether someone has been fully trained.

You can apply this model to any learning situation. Here are just a few common examples for a service desk environment:

  • New hire training
  • Up-skilling (e.g., training a Tier 1 agent to handle Tier 2 contacts)
  • New systems, services, or processes

Let's take a closer look at the model, starting with the first stage.

Four Stages of Competency, training, service desk

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

Learners at this stage don't know what they don't know. Trainers sometimes call it the "bliss" stage because people can be overconfident about how easily they can learn a new skill.

People can be overconfident about how easily they can learn a new skill.
Tweet: People can be overconfident about how easily they can learn a new skill. @toister @ThinkHDI #servicedesk #techsupport #training

When you learned to drive, the unconscious incompetent stage occurred before you got behind the wheel. You were unable to drive (technically, incompetent), and you were unaware of exactly how to do it. It was probably a pretty exciting time as you imagined yourself enjoying newfound freedom as you effortlessly cruised down the road.

Analysts are often in a similar stage when a new system is announced. They might be excited about the new technology and excited to explore the latest bells and whistles.

Learners at this stage on the learning curve don't need much encouragement. They're excited already. What they do need is clear direction to begin the training, such as a specific learning activity.

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

People in this next stage are keenly aware of what they don't know. You've realized you can't do the new task, and you might be freaking out a bit.

I definitely felt consciously incompetent when I stalled my mom's car.

Analysts might get this same feeling when they realize the new system is more complicated than they thought. Or perhaps they struggle to follow a new sequence when the old workflow is burned into their memory.

Learners at this stage need clear direction to discover how to do the task correctly. They also need encouragement so they don't give up or give in to self-doubt.

Many trainers are afraid of this stage. They struggle to preserve a person's self-esteem by telling them they're doing well, even when that person is clearly not grasping the content.

Keep in mind you won't learn unless you become aware of what you can and cannot do. A better approach is to offer realistic feedback, along with words of encouragement and clear advice on working through the new challenge.

Stage 3: Conscious Competence

People are starting to get it at this stage. They can do the task at a minimally acceptable level, but they're hyper-aware of the process. This can be an uncomfortable feeling.

The best example of this stage for a new driver is when you take your driving test. You have to demonstrate the right skills to pass, but you are extremely conscious of the person sitting next to you evaluating every move you make.

An analyst at this learning stage might be able to use a new system, but they have to really think it through. They might even need to consult a job aid or knowledge base article and the process can feel unnaturally slow.

Learner's at this stage don't need much direction. They already know what to do. But they do need encouragement to continue developing their skills since it often takes practice for a new skill to feel more natural.

Analysts can be considered trained when they reach this stage as long as they can successfully demonstrate the new skill on their own.

Stage 4: Unconscious Competence

Skills become so natural at this stage that we can use them without even thinking.

Driving is probably like that for you now. There's a good chance you drove to work today without thinking about how to operate a vehicle or even the route you should drive.

Analysts eventually get to this stage with the systems they support. They know it inside and out and can offer support without giving it much thought.

People at this learning stage don't need much. Often, it's best to check in periodically to make sure they're still on track and otherwise just stay out of their way.

Take Action

Try to determine where your analysts are on the learning curve the next time you have to deliver some training. Two questions will help you:

  1. Are they aware of their abilities? (Unconscious or Conscious)
  2. Can they do it? (Incompetent or Competent)

Here's a quick cheat-sheet:

  • Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetent, needs direction.
  • Stage 2: Conscious Incompetent, needs encouragement and direction.
  • Stage 3: Conscious Competent, needs encouragement.
  • Stage 4: Unconscious Competent, doesn't need much.

Jeff Toister helps organizations get their employees obsessed with customer service. He is a best-selling author who has written three customer service books, including The Service Culture Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Your Employees Obsessed with Customer Service. Feedspot has named his Inside Customer Service blog one of the Top 50 customer service blogs on the planet. Jeff has been recognized as a top customer service thought leader by Global Gurus, ICMI, and Comm100. Thousands of people from around the world, including many service desk professionals, subscribe to Jeff's Customer Service Tip of the Week email. More than 140,000 people on six continents have taken his video-based training courses on LinkedIn Learning (a.k.a., Jeff's training videos include Customer Service Foundations and Leading a Customer-Centric Culture. Follow Jeff on Twitter @toister.

Tag(s): supportworld, workforce enablement, workforce enablement, training


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