COVID Customer Service Career Acceleration Programs: Why Your Region Should Offer Them

Jill Monte - Content Specialist ·

EDSI Program Spotlight, Montgomery County, PA Q&A Interview

Workforce Development has been challenged with providing more accessible services throughout the COVID pandemic, and while it’s true that onsite programming is more personal, there’s a lot to be said for the convenience of remote services. For example, In Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, a new virtual COVID Customer Service Career Acceleration Program (CAP) was established to help front-line customer service workers receive more in-depth training on issues such as de-escalation and conflict resolution that go beyond the traditional scope.

In the Q&A interview below, EDSI's Andre Hardy gives us incredible insight into the COVID Customer Service CAP and what makes it so successful.

Andre Hardy, Regional Director of Operations

Q1: Tell me how EDSI came up with the idea to offer a COVID Customer Service CAP, who it’s targeted at and why it works so well.

A1: We see the virtual COVID Customer Service CAP as an innovative vision to “meet people where they are.” This particular CAP is designed to prepare front-line workers for the unique challenges being faced in the workplace during the pandemic and beyond. Customer service is embedded into everything we do. It applies to every industry and position, whether you work in a warehouse or as a front-line grocery store cashier – it’s broad-based and highly applicable. In our research, we found that many of the Montgomery County occupational sectors – particularly retail and hospitality – were in need of deeper training to learn how to handle the unique challenges in the workplace during the pandemic.

With employee shortages due to layoffs and unemployment comes stress and burnout for the employer and the employee, so we found a way to provide enhanced support by offering an accelerated, virtual training opportunity through the CAP. When reflecting on the struggles of service-related workers having to enforce COVID protocols such as mask wearing, we found that businesses were not capable or did not have the time to invest that type of training into their existing workforce. When you’re in a retail or hospitality position, it’s very difficult to take people away from their core job and train them beyond the traditional customer service tenets.

Q2: Please explain what a CAP is and who can participate.

A2: A CAP is a career acceleration program that aims to introduce contextualized skills training based off local high-priority occupations. We also consider the CAP to be a gateway into showing participants different career-related options within the American Job Centers, our government-sponsored hub for job-search services and workforce training, that will help them get the training or support they need in their career journey.

The CAP was established to serve a wide array of customer populations, including adult and dislocated workers, who have experienced job loss or are entering or re-entering the workforce. We don’t turn anyone away who needs help!

Note: Before being renamed for clarity, Career Acceleration Programs were known as boot camps or fast-track learning programs. For more background on these innovative training opportunities, read this blog.

Q3: What does the COVID Customer Service CAP involve?

A3: EDSI’s COVID Customer Service CAP prepares front-line customer service workers with the knowledge, tools and techniques to handle real-life situations through relevant and realistic simulations and role-play that allows participants to practice de-escalation skills in a safe learning environment. Participants attend a 4-week virtual training program and earn a stackable “COVID Customer Service Professional” Certificate at the end.

Q4: The COVID Customer Service CAP is being offered virtually right now. Are there plans to offer it in person when it is safer to do so?

A4: The idea for this innovative program was launched as a way to serve more people in a virtual format, and since there was available funding, our team created this customized curriculum through the lens of COVID-19. Providing this virtual CAP has enabled us to reach many more jobseekers who live in rural areas and lack transportation. We will continue offering this CAP as long as there is interest and funding is available. There’s also a possibility for hybrid programming, which would include some of the coursework offered in person and some done remotely. For those who prefer onsite learning, we do offer a traditional in-person Customer Service CAP that was offered pre-pandemic and will likely continue in the future.

Kevin leaders pic 2020
EDSI Chief Servant Leader, Kevin Schnieders

Speaking of pandemic-inspired programming, I asked EDSI Chief Servant Leader, Kevin Schnieders for his thoughts on the COVID Customer Service CAP, and here is what he said.

“In workforce development, it is always our mission to meet customers where they are. This COVID-19 Customer Service CAP is a great example of our ability to lean in and listen, and anticipate the training needs in our regions by offering accessible, relevant and innovative programming. Two of EDSI’s Daily Ways – “I Treat My Colleagues Like Customers” and “I Am Part of the Solution” are built into the foundation of this curriculum and so many others. I’m very proud of the many team members who are dedicated to sharing customer service best practices and having a positive impact on the workforce.”

Q5: The curriculum and program content is quite comprehensive. How was it developed and how much work is involved?

A5: Our incredible curriculum development team developed the curriculum internally. It was based on industry research and labor market insights, while vetted by local employers. We asked employers whom we have relationships with if the curriculum covered the knowledge and skills they were looking for in employees, and they gave us a thumbs-up. We enjoyed collaborating with employers to ensure the curriculum was as relevant and insightful as possible. Employers have told us that soft skills training is often lacking in job candidates and that it should take priority over hard skills training. As a result of this valuable employer feedback, we strive to help jobseekers strengthen their soft skills over hard skills, because hard skills are easier to learn on the job.

With the virtual COVID Customer Service CAP, our curriculum developers took our existing customer service CAP and infused it with COVID-19-related learning. Included below are a sampling of topics offered in the CAP that are designed to ensure jobseekers are prepared for many new and unprecedented customer service challenges.

  • Customer Service During Covid-19
  • Internal Customer Service – Creating a Positive Experience
  • Conflict Resolution in Customer Service and Dealing With Difficult Customers
  • Problem Solving and Critical Thinking in Customer Service
  • In-Person, Phone-Based and Web-Based Customer Service
  • Communication Skills – Active Listening Toolbox & Written Communication
  • Handling Customer Objections & Persuasive Sales Techniques
  • Customer Service Scripts & Effective Speaking Strategies

Participants enrolled in the Customer Service CAP spend 16 hours a week working within EDSI’s Keywe Learning Management System, which breaks down to 4 hours a day for 4 days, including a 1-hour live lesson taught by an instructor. See the graphic under Q10 for an update on our CAP cohorts.

Q6: In the future, will other industry-specific CAPs be offered – such as healthcare, hospitality, etc. ?

A6: Yes, as the labor market changes, our curriculum team is getting requests from different regions who want to see certain industries, timeframes and targeted audiences highlighted. The list below shows some of the different variations of CAPS we currently offer.

*More information on our manufacturing training program can be found here

Q7: Were there any needs-based payments given to participants throughout the CAP?

A7: Participants were able to earn weekly monetary needs-based payments for their participation at the end of the successful completion of the CAP. As a surprise at the end of the program, participants were offered electronic-related items lent to them at the beginning of the CAP as a supportive service. As a result of the training and its related services, participants often complete the course better equipped to continue their job search or other associated career services activities.

Q8: What do participants walk away with once they are done with the program? Do they earn a certificate? Is there a graduation ceremony? Employer connections, etc.?

A8: For those who successfully complete all the required hours and assignments in the CAP, there is a graduation ceremony and certificate of completion to celebrate their hard work. For the most recent COVID Customer Service CAP cohort, the graduation ceremony was virtual and each person presented a Capstone project. They had to invent their own business and come up with a customer service philosophy based on what they learned. Each CAP offers employer connections, and for the first cohort, Chick-fil-A was the featured employer who came in and talked about customer service from a national and local perspective. There was also an interview/pre-screening day (in lieu of a job fair) where all participants’ resumes and cover letters were reviewed and revised (if needed) by the local Business Services Team (BST). After working with the CAP graduates, the BST is then able to recommend the cohort graduates when matching job opportunities come up with employers they have relationships with.

CAP cohort image from Andre
Pictured above are some of our CAP graduates.

For EARN participants in Pennsylvania, this CAP counts toward their credentialing benchmark. Some CAP’s offer OSHA 10 certification or CPR/First Aid certification and other industry-recognized credentials. On the WIOA side, participating in the CAP does also count toward common measures for measurable skills gains. As you can see, the workforce system gets a great return on the investment of running the CAPs.

Q9: What are some example paths participants may take after the CAP?

A9: As a result of the CAP, some participants realize they are interested in a different job than what they are currently doing, so additional training is often a next step. Others may lack the confidence or knowledge about workplace etiquette, so role-playing, job shadowing or soft skills workshops may be the route to take. Still others may simply need assistance in making connections with employers, setting up OJT’s (On-the-Job Trainings) or even internships. Whatever the participant’s need is, the AJC’s are equipped to help guide them to the resources and next steps they need to succeed.

Q10: What success metrics can you share for the 1st COVID Customer Service cohort?

A10: We are very proud of our participants’ positive progress in their journey toward employment.

We have an 82% graduation/completion rate (23/28) and 22% of graduates have gained employment within 30 days after completion. The remaining graduates are actively job searching and/or exploring additional vocational training options which will lead to long-term career success.

Below is a progress report for our COVIDCustomer Service cohorts.

Q11: You mentioned this CAP was unique in comparison to others you’ve been involved with – can you explain how?

A11: The participant pool was very diverse as the ages of people ranged from 18-55, which created a very unique generational sharing opportunity. Older workers were able to reflect on their years of experience in the workforce and share scenarios that happened to them, while younger jobseekers offered new perspectives and ideas, with both parties benefiting from a depth of knowledge not often available in a classroom setting. Often, traditional programs and classes are targeted by age, so having this broad range of generational participants was a great advantage.

Q12: You also mentioned this program had a profound impact on participants and that you yourself were affected by witnessing these participants’ struggles and successes. Can you share more about that?

A12: For many participants, finances are very tight. We weren’t anticipating how important the needs based payments would be for our participants. When they shared some of the ways they used the payments, it had a big impact on our team as we realized we were delivering more than just training; we were delivering hope. Several individuals said this helped them with essential life needs like buying groceries, paying a bill, or paying for a home maintenance repair.

I also witnessed many non-monetary program benefits. One particular participant said she didn’t have confidence around technology, but after completing the CAP, said she grew both her confidence and her technical aptitude in a safe, low-risk environment. She credits the program with giving her the self-esteem to apply for a position she would have never considered applying for before the CAP and she was later hired to start at that job as a Medical Receptionist.

Two participants who had completed English as a Second Language (ESL) training prior to the CAP came away with a significant benefit that surprised the curriculum developers and me. They shared that their biggest impact was learning the social and professional norms of American workplaces that they had not learned in their culture. As a result of the CAP, they felt more prepared to go into a new work environment in a new country with a base of relevant and useful knowledge as expressed in their testimonials below:

Q13: What advice would you give to other WDBs looking to replicate a CAP in their region?

A13: I would urge other WDBs to consider the benefits of the end-users in these situations – in this case, the customers. For a variety of reasons, I think we, as workforce professionals, need to understand that the experience now with the workforce system happens before someone comes in the door of the AJC. To be able to offer virtual programs like this really helps fill the gaps with participants who may not otherwise consider reaching out to us. The virtual CAP option also prevents you from having to budget for things like transportation. Think of it from this perspective: It’s a win-win-win: for the workforce system, the participant and the employer. You just have to figure out how it could work for you locally.

To learn more about our career acceleration programs and how to start one in your region, please fill out the form below and one of our workforce development experts will reach out to you.