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How VR is innovating customer de-escalation training

Customer experience
Case studies
Soft skills
min read
Close up of a woman's hands gesturing presumably while speaking

Soft skills are becoming more important across all industries, particularly as automation becomes more prevalent in the workplace. People will be called upon to resolve issues for customers or their fellow co-workers. De-escalation is a type of soft skill that requires both good judgment and collaboration skills.

How do you train your front-facing customer service employees to handle challenging conversations? Unfortunately, most employees learn how to handle a disgruntled customer while on the job. That’s why many learning and development professionals are starting to get a better idea of how VR can enhance the customer service and call center training experience.

Using VR, it’s possible to offer employees the de-escalation training they need to face an unhappy customer with confidence before they ever have to do it in real life.

De-escalation training helped Walmart associates be more empathetic

The biggest challenge with teaching retail employees soft skills like de-escalation is that it can’t be effectively learned via traditional training methods like reading books or e-learning. Additionally, companies don’t want employees to make mistakes with real customers.

Walmart adopted a VR training component to its beKIND model to support their frontline associates in learning how to handle challenging conversations with customers. The immersive customer service training actually allows Walmart associates to encounter a frustrated customer in their VR headset and are given multiple opportunities to practice active listening, nonverbal communication, and a measured empathetic response.

During the de-escalation training program, associates practice introducing themselves in a calm and friendly demeanor. They receive visual prompts as they ask questions that help them to discover the customer’s needs.

The research on learning in VR shows that the brain treats these simulated customer encounters as if they were real. Heather Durtschi, Senior Director of Learning at Walmart, says that offering their associates training in VR is about authenticity.

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How do we give our associates the experience of working on Black Friday — the busiest shopping day of the year? How does that associate handle a customer who wants to return an item? Or how about giving them the experience of working in the pharmacy if they can’t go behind the counter?
Heather Durtschi
Senior Director of Learning, Walmart

Training with a VR platform allows Walmart to create a safe and practical learning environment where associates are able to explore their responses to customers and improve their de-escalation skills. For Walmart, associates can learn these skills without the risk of losing customers and revenue.

Verizon learned that VR-based de-escalation training even helps call center employees

Verizon has positioned the use of VR in their de-escalation training for their call center employees. Cleo Scott, Verizon’s Global Director of L&D, says that VR goes way beyond just role-playing.

Prior to implementing VR, the company used 4-hour in-person workshops that relied on role-playing as their lead teaching technique. Cleo found that role-playing sometimes fell short because it failed to replicate the emotion in an actual call with a customer.

During a VR experience, the call center employee actually sits across from a disgruntled customer avatar rather than just hearing them talk on the phone. The employee gets to see the emotion on the customer’s face and experience the customer’s pain. This is how call center employees can start to build empathy with the customers they interact with every day.

Once empathy has been established, the employee can now use language that de-escalates the emotion and can provide the customer with a viable solution. Trainees found that their interaction with the avatar helped them to become invested in their training experience and were more eager to improve.

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Our employees walked out of their first VR session with eye-opening awareness around their blind spots.
Cleo Scott
Global Director of Learning & Development, Verizon

When it came down to the amount of training time per employee, Verizon’s learning & development leaders found that they were spending 10 hours per employee using the in-person method. This ate away at employee productivity and came at a high cost for Verizon. The VR training required only 30 minutes of immersion on the same topic and provided even stronger results in terms of building empathy.

In other words, call center employees’ time to proficiency was significantly reduced.

De-escalation training for human resources leaders

A 2021 study conducted by SHRM examined the impact of using VR to train new managers across 12 U.S. locations in the area of inclusive leadership skills. The managers were broken up into groups and trained using three different modalities: classroom, e-learning, and VR training. Trainees took a pre- and post-training assessments along with a final assessment 30 days later to see how much information they were able to retain.

The experiment concluded that the VR training group found that the performance feedback during simulations helped them to learn faster and retain more information. This was attributed to the impact virtual reality makes on the trainee’s senses. This is particularly important when training managers to build empathy in sensitive situations such as diversity, equity, and inclusion training. Learning how to de-escalate conversations before they have a chance to get out of control is an important soft skill for new managers to learn.

Does your company need de-escalation training in VR?

Improving your customer and employee experience is a great place to invest training dollars, especially as so many industries now compete on service as much as price and products. Talk to one our immersive learning experts today to see what VR-based de-escalation training could look like at your company.

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