Seth Godin Takes On The Cost Of Training With Learning Science

Written by Lenny DeFranco

“Training pays.”

Seth-Godin-2It sure does, Seth Godin! The marketing philosopher, legendary for delivering pithy and incisive ruminations to his email subscribers every morning, ran a great piece on retail training a few days ago. In the blog post, Godin applied sharp logic to a math problem facing every front-line manager in the world: how much employee training should I pay for? His answer—and his insight—was to look at the question in terms of investment, not cost.

Imagine a customer service rep. Fully costed out, it might cost $5 for this person to service a single customer by phone. An untrained rep doesn’t understand the product, or how to engage, or hasn’t been brought up to speed on your systems. As a result, the value delivered in the call is precisely zero (in fact it’s negative, because you’ve disappointed your customer).

On the other hand, the trained rep easily delivers $30 of brand value to the customer, at a cost, as stated, of $5. So, instead of zero value, there’s a profit to the brand of $25. A comparative ROI of infinity.

And of course, the untrained person doesn’t fall into this trap once. Instead, it happens over and over, many times a day. (Full blog post here.)

In other words, effective training pays huge dividends, both directly (as he lays out) and indirectly, in the form of better retention and happier employees. Best of all, Godin proved his point using a cognitive tactic that features prominently in learning science: he overcomes “functional fixedness.”

A famous problem of functional fixedness. See the full experiment here.

The strategy works like this: When we see a problem presented in a certain way, our brains tend to assume that the variables of the problem are cemented in place. This is a cognitive bias called fixedness. You experienced fixedness the last time you tried to solve a riddle—you knew you had to look at the problem’s clues in an unusual way, but you couldn’t quite picture them that way until you heard the answer. (Then, of course, it was obvious.)

Getting our brains to disorder a problem’s variables is a key step in creative problem solving and in learning. Instructional designers overcome fixedness by providing multiple contexts for practice, teaching principles rather than rote facts, and varying learning methods.

In his example about training, Godin cuts through the clutter by seeing training in an unusual way—as a positive. Usually, people tend to look at training in one fixed way: boring, unpleasant, and mandatory. But maybe it’s time to reimagine that. Not only because you’re better off seeing training as an investment, but also because if training isn’t boring and unpleasant, then it doesn’t even have to be mandatory in order to get more of that sweet, sweet return on investment.

Disorder and conquer, my customer-facing friends.

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