Context Clues are Essential in Training

A context clue is a trigger, that when recognized, compels an employee down a path. Context clues vary by the work, the role, and the context or situation. Some clues are easy to recognize, while others aren’t at all, some can be misinterpreted or are red herrings, and a few are dangerous traps.

Examples of context clues include:

  • Statements a customer or team member makes

  • Keywords or phrases a customer or team member uses

  • The tone or subtext a customer or team member uses

  • Body language

  • Data or information (on a computer, or in a document, or report)

  • The state of the work environment

  • And more . . .

Context clues matter because the learner must recognize it, interpret its meaning, and determine what to do next. They must also learn that they can pop up at various times. For example, a bank manager in a branch lobby uses context clues when deciding how to work with a customer. The manager greets a customer to guide that person to the optimal place in the branch – that’s the goal. A manager may consider a variety of context clues:

  • Time of day, the current volume of traffic, and whether historical patterns suggest that the traffic will change within 15 or 30 minutes

  • The number of customers in the branch, where they are, and who they are working with

  • Which employees are working at that moment and 1) how busy each one is, 2) the strengths and weaknesses of each (what they know and can do), and 3) their temperament

  • Who will go on break in the next 15 or 30 minutes

  • Known issues with the physical environment – computers that are down, for example

  • What the customer wants to accomplish

  • The mood and demeanor of the customer

High-performing managers quickly assess the situation, work through the stack of considerations in a sort of decision tree, and decide how to proceed – all within a short conversation with the customer. They know that at different moments, priorities can change, rearranging the decision tree. In effect, one clue may be more or less important than others. That means that if a new clue comes to light, the situation can change.

These managers have mental models (schemas) that help them quickly assess a situation and decide how to act. Training of this nature intends to help managers build their mental models.

In a call center, agents listen for clues in what the customer says, the tone, and noises in the caller’s background. They review and assess information about the customer shown on the screen, such as prompts that suggest additional products or services or outages associated with the customer’s location. They consider the variants of the call-flow to determine which one makes the best chance for success.

To design practice that mirrors reality, start with an analysis that brings considerations or context clues to the surface. Talk with top performers and ask them to slow down to make their thought processes explicit – look for those considerations.

The next step is to figure out the best way to practice. In the call center agent example, build whole-task practice scenarios that expose the triggers that present themselves most often, put the considerations in authentic combinations, include consequences that accurately reflect what would happen while taking real calls, and give time for reflection and self-assessment.

Building your Best Employee: Learning Strategies that Drive Results