What do our clients expect from us? Are we living up to those expectations? Are we adding value for our clients in every class?
Clear your mind. Now think of the key characteristics that you would expect of an external trainer coming into your company to have. Among others, you probably came up with: content knowledge and expertise, professional qualifications and experience, up to date knowledge, punctuality, preparation and good presentation. Is this the impression and perception our clients are getting every time a teacher enters the classroom? Is this the profile of each and every one of the teachers in your organisation? As a manager, how can we be sure that we are adding value?
In this article I will argue that in order to consistently deliver the quality of training which our clients expect we need to look beyond the language teaching profession for an appropriate best-practice paradigm.
Faced with increasing demand for in-company training and a limited supply of appropriately experienced and qualified teachers , it is becoming increasingly necessary for us to adopt a professional model which allows us to employ our teaching methodologies in a manner which better matches the expectations of clients more generally used to business training. This means adapting the way we present our product or service (teaching) to give our clients (students) a crystal clear idea of the why and what of what we do in class.
To illustrate this I will first consider the real value of our product as established by the client’s perception of its value.
Perceived Value & Satisfaction
“Customers determine value based on what they perceive. Perceived value is the gift wrap on the package – the promise that builds anticipation. And it’s the customer’s perception of value that ultimately counts.” (Reilly, 1996:20)
The value of our product is only as high as what our clients perceive it to be. In other words they will pay according to what they expect to get in return (ROI). Their level of satisfaction is a measure of how closely their expectations (pre-course) and perceptions (during/post course) match – or exceed – the reality of the service delivery. Remember your expectations as a client and how they influence what you perceive to be the success of the service you receive. As teachers, our role is to demonstrate the effectiveness of the training imparted in terms of improvement and impact on the client’s job performance.
“Performance value is the impact your solution makes on the customer’s business” (Reilly, 1996:20)
In business language training (BLT), I would define impact as the client’s increased ability to add value to his employer through improved ability to transact and negotiate with his suppliers or customers. In Heskett, Sasser and Schlesinger’s (1994, 1997) terms this is the “External Service Value”. In essence, this is the teacher’s job. Pinning down the definition of the teacher’s job in this way helps us to measure the extent to which the teacher is accountable for his performance.
But this is only half the story. The full impact of matching expectations with delivery and thereby creating satisfied customers can be exponential when considered from a Service Profit Chain (SPC) management perspective.
The SPC was described by Heskett, Sasser and Schlesinger in their 1997 book The Service Profit Chain and earlier articles in the HBR especially Putting the Service Profit Chain to Work (1994). We’ve seen what – the how comes later – we need to do to create satisfied customers and the SPC shows us how this fits within the business context of ELT: satisfaction is the driver of loyalty which in turn drives growth (through retention, referrals and related sales) and profitability.
Look after the pennies, the pounds will look after themselves.
Ivy Morgan, my grandmother (very often)
Later in this article I will set out a framework for consistently demonstrating the results or ROI. In other words, how to create “External Service Value”: the point at which the teacher intervenes directly with the client. Implicit in the SPC management paradigm is that we spend too much time worrying about and trying to influence the wrong end of the chain i.e. profits rather than focusing our investments and efforts on the driver of it all: Internal Service Quality. Measure this, argue Heskett, Sasser and Schlesinger, not profit and growth. If the internal service quality conditions are served, profit and growth will look after themselves.
Remember that the perceived value of business language training is low and so it’s cheap. Business training, on the other hand, is expensive. Yet at the end of the day, both have the same aim: to improve the client’s performance in his job, adding value to his employer.
We give our learners the skills and the knowledge to do their jobs better. This mismatch of perceived values is a significant problem for our market positioning and, of course, contributes to the overall lack of esteem of the language training profession.
If we are to change the perceived value – and thus increase our margins and consequently the salaries of teachers – we have to deliver performance value that hikes the perceived value up to the level of business training. We can only hope to achieve this by consistently providing demonstrable External Service Value: Results.
“Ultimately any organization is judged by its performance in the market place. In this context perception is the key word. The image of an organization is predominately shaped by the behaviour of staff.” (Pearson & Thomas, 1991:133)
Of course, part of the perception of value is the profile of the trainer himself. Here business training tends to have the edge as consultants often come from a strong business or academic (or both) background (e.g. MBA). On the other hand, and rather tongue in cheek, Rimmer (2007) compares teachers with prostitutes in terms of barriers to entry to their chosen profession.
In any case, clients have a right to know that their trainer is suitably qualified to be carrying out that training – professional qualifications, academic qualifications, experience and membership of professional organisations will all play their part in this. Look at the range of articles in this (or any) journal; all of them have some biographical details about the author. This is not showing off but rather establishing the author’s credentials and authority to propose and defend the arguments he puts forward. This is the same for teachers and their courses – what is it that makes us qualified to train these clients? Just CELTA or something more? Farmer (2006) argues that “In addition to teaching qualifications and skills, effective ESOL teachers may need to possess a service orientation.”
The 4 Rs: Delivering added-value
Business people are used to business training and so when we muscle in with our communicative approach and inductive grammar presentations we are not necessarily conforming to our clients’ expectation of what professional training is, regardless of the soundness of the pedagogical methodology behind it. Simply put: it is not business training.
In order to fit business language training into a business training context we need to employ a model which works and is flexible enough to incorporate our ELT methods and approaches. For this reason, I have designed the 4 Rs model [figure 2]
Rank is somewhat of a misnomer, but why spoil a good pithy title because one of the premises doesn’t fit (after all I am in good company, remember “reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmatic”). “Rank” refers to a list of content items in order which the class will cover. This could include your planned stages, aims or both. In essence it is your micro planning, your “menu” or “agenda”. By establishing and sharing your aims and stages at the outset of the class you are not only allowing clients to understand the context and flow of the class but also influencing their expectations. The important thing is to draw clients’ attention to this plan and refer to it throughout the class (see the 2nd R below).
Having carried out the ranking stage, ask your clients for their expectation of the class. The clients’ expectations should be congruous with the content of your class – but may not be! If they feel comfortable, encourage them to share their expectations with you and their colleagues, you should then write them down and refer to them throughout the class.
Reference is the next R. This stage has 4 sub-stages: (a) refer to the micro planning or ranking, (b) refer to the macro planning, (c) refer to a real-world (e.g. business) use and; (d) refer to the client’s expectations.
(a) Having laid out the micro planning of your class, you will now want to refer to it demonstrating the planning and logical progression of your class. This is an essential step in providing structure to the class. It also allows you to tick off what you have covered (crossing out is very negative and leaves the word unclear so you can’t recap at stage 3). Ticking is very positive as it has clear connotations of correctness. You will also want to refer to the way in which you have achieved each point, clearly identifying this and asking clients if they agree. This stage also gives clients time to digest the input they have received and process it as learning.
(b) Every step of the ranking should also be referred to in the syllabus. This situates the class and its stages/aims within a wider or macro context. This could be a course book, negotiated course plan or a plan established by the client’s HR or training department. The last case is especially important as there can be a conflict between what the Client (the person ultimately paying for the training) and the actual students in your class want, expect and perceive.
(c) All language in a BLT context should be referred back to a real-world use. For example, you can teach the first conditional in any way you wish within the framework of the 4 R’s. In other words a PPP presentation may be appropriate. However, until it is referred to a real-world use it is of only abstract use. Refer clients to the fact that the first conditional is the key language for negotiation: if you lower the price, I’ll buy 2000.
(d) Refer to client expectations. Where you have established expectations with your clients you should always refer to where and how you have fulfilled these. Never miss the opportunity to highlight achievement of your aims and client’s expectations.
Stages 1 and 2 need recapping throughout the class, it’s like referring to your programme in the theatre to check who Duncan is again (and how often he’s been seen as an extra on The Bill). Recapping maintains the flow of the class, insisting on the success of your training, developing your professionalism.
This is the key stage in demonstrating the External Service Value. What is the result of stages 1-3? What learning has resulted from stages 1-3? Ask your clients to think about and write down what they have learned and will take away from the class. This may not always be what you expect them to have learned but remember, it is not your opinion that counts but your clients’. This is the stage to demonstrate that you have achieved what you set out to achieve and fulfilled your client’s expectations along the way.
“If acquiring skills does not make individuals more valuable, training is not worth it.”
As the quote from Michael Schrage above suggests, creating value for our clients is the only way to ensure that our business succeeds. The only way to do this is to consistently demonstrate it. Farmer (2006) criticizes that “Clients, both institutions and students, have to take on trust much of the service provider’s good intentions and competence.” But this shouldn’t be the case, we must not rely on the blind faith of the client in the teacher: this is unsustainable.
The 4 Rs model allows us to explicitly demonstrate the added value of our services. In turn, this increases its performance value and the client satisfaction achieved will increase the subsequent perceived value with both the clients in the class and the client allowing (eventually) us to increase our fees.
Now the result! Take some time to reflect on what you’ve learned or will take away after having read this article.
Farmer, Accountable Professional Practice in ELT, ELTJ 60/2 April 2006
Heskett, Jones, Loveman, Sasser & Schlesinger, Putting the Service Profit Chain to Work, Harvard Business Review, 1994
Heskett, Sasser & Schlesinger, The Service Profit Chain, The Free Press, 1997
Reilly, Value-Added Customer Service, Contemporary Books, 1996
Rimmer, Professionalism, IHJ 23, 2007
Schrage, Adult Workers have a lot to learn online, Financial Times, 22 April 2008
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