Serious Fun and Games for Customer Service Training

You’re the manager of a Hilton Garden Inn, and it’s the height of family vacation season. The lobby is abuzz with kids toting skateboards and moms pushing strollers; your front desk agents are overloaded with check-ins. In the middle of all this, a harried business traveler calls to the front desk for extra towels. Quick, what do you do?

This isn’t a real situation — it’s a scenario from an online training game being developed for Hilton by Digitalmill. If you’re a manager trainee using the game to learn the tricks of your trade, you had better know that your first move is to send extra towels to the business traveler with the lucrative frequent guest account. In addition, you need to make a note in his online profile to always have extra towels on hand when he checks into a Hilton facility.

Details, Details

Building such a scenario into a video game takes technical skill, Digitalmill President Ben Sawyer told CRM Buyer. Perhaps more importantly, it takes an inside-out understanding of an enterprise’s customer service philosophy and the processes that support it.

For example, Hilton places high value on how its managers interact with customers. The game, therefore, assesses whether or not a trainee makes eye contact with customers at key points in conversations. This will earn you points — and we all know that high scores are the be-all and end-all of video games. The High Score rules.

To elicit these kinds of nuances about exactly how employees who engage with customers should behave, Sawyer’s team spent lots of time poring over Hilton’s more traditional video and print training materials, and picking the brains of key trainers and employees. The first step in building such a game, then, involves combing through all possible sources of information — documented or not — about how a company sees its customers and what it does to attract and keep them.

Once a specification document is created for a game, Sawyer continued, the development team and the client go over it in granular detail to make sure even the most subtle aspects of service philosophy — eye contact, for instance — are included. Only then is the game-to-be ready for the real fun, which is coding the actual user interface, complete with graphics and sound effects.

C2E Trajectory

While companies like Digitalmill are indeed developing games that include modules for addressing customer service concerns, the field is in its infancy, Sawyer readily acknowledged. That’s why he helped to found the Serious Games Initiative, a trade organization that, in its own words, is seeking to”forge productive links between the electronic game industry and projects involving the use of games in education, training, health and public policy.”

This marriage of consumer technologies with enterprise human resource functions represents part of a larger trend of businesses putting tools that first gain popularity among individuals to work for their own purposes, Yankee Group Senior Analyst Christopher Collins told CRM Buyer.

In fact, it is the companies specializing in recruitment and development that likely will lead the way, he noted.

“Companies whose livelihoods depend on the acquisition and development of talent are routinely using these tools throughout the employment lifecycle,” Collins explained. Those tools might include functions we have come to associate with Web 2.0, such as social networking or wikis, or more specialized applications, such as gaming.

In fact, task-specific applications are the future of virtual world technology in workforce applications, Charles Handler, CEO of employee assessment firm Rocket-Hire.com, told CRM Buyer.

Forward-looking companies already are using simulated worlds such as Second Life to interview and screen candidates, he noted. Before long, they will be expecting to train their new hires using the same tools, and the application programming interfaces (APIs) being rolled out by Web 2.0 sites are beginning to accommodate add-on applications, such as training modules.

The challenge, then, is to figure out how disparate arms of the technology world can join hands. Training, development, and recruiting specialists know what tasks must be accomplished from the company’s point of view. Only hard-core gaming developers, though, understand what makes a good game.

Respect the User

Accomplishing effective customer service training through gaming — whether online or stand-alone — will require much more than animating a clunky, robotic customer whining about a broken MP3 player, stressed Sawyer.

“We have to be thinking of the end user very fervently,” he explained, “and I don’t see this exemplified in a lot of other work in software design.”

The reason for the end-user emphasis is that video games are oriented almost purely toward the experience of simply using them. Thus, the people who are good at developing consumer-oriented video games are exactly those people being recruited for projects such as Digitalmill’s Hilton manager training tool.

“If game developers build a bad game, they might survive to the next one. But if they build a couple of bad ones, they’re not going to be around,” Sawyer said.

The good ones, he noted, include lots of polish — like professional voice talent, excellent scripting (all the better if it’s clever or funny), and strong artistry and production values.

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