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Embedding Behavior for Improved Training


Before Captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III taxied US Airways Flight 1549 to take-off on January 15, 2009, he and his co-pilot took out the pre-flight checklist for the Airbus A320 and went through it meticulously, calling out each step, confirming each item. They did it the same way they had done it hundreds of times before, no matter whether they were running late, had just done it a few hours before on the same plane or knew it by heart and could have done it mentally. In Captain Sully’s 19,000-plus hours of flying time, performing the pre-flight checklist was not just a requirement and not just a habit. It was embedded behavior that was as much a part of his job as his uniform.

Later, in an interview about how he successfully ditched the craft in the Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 aboard, he explained, “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

That is embedded behavior, which can be applied to other jobs besides flying. It’s certainly critical for retail banking, where success depends on consistent, prescribed front-line interactions with customers.

Embedding trained behaviors isn’t easy. When newly trained employees try to put these behaviors into practice, nerves can intrude and tempt them to revert to what was comfortable before. The same is true if new behaviors take more time and make employees fall behind. They may omit what feels awkward. Or they may see a disconnect between the trained behaviors and what actually gets rewarded.

But no matter how difficult, behavioral embedding is essential since it creates a culture of reliable, predictable performance. There’s no need to wonder if the customer who just walked in will be taken care of properly. Without behavioral embedding, on the other hand, employees and managers are constantly improvising– a poor use of precious time.

Remind, Model, Observe and Correct

To embed behaviors, managers must constantly remind, model, observe, and correct the trained behaviors. They have to make sure the old behaviors don’t reappear. And when they see problems, they need to coach to those specific gaps. Good embedding goes on with every employee – not just the star players, not just the problem employees, but all of them, day after day.

Managers have to be proactive with embedding efforts, taking employees aside when necessary and asking, “Did you do x, y, and z?”  Then, “Give me some examples, how long did it take, what did the customer say, how did it turn out?” They need to monitor and coach the behavior in real-time, because by the time deficiencies emerge, it is hard to go back and trace the behavior or skill failings.

When managers are trying to embed difficult behaviors, they can’t just repeat the training; they need to come up with creative, even inspirational, purpose-specific tools. Fortunately, for every behavioral deficit we have ever discovered, there is a specific tool that has been deployed to tremendous success in the banking industry.

For example, if you see performance begin to plateau, the right tool is a “hot house.” You identify a specific behavior that you believe would reinvigorate performance and choose a test group of employees. You have them focus on employing that behavior in customer interactions for a specified period of time, say, a month or so. You observe them closely and manage the behavior closely with weekly assessment calls and track their results against those of the non-participating control group. We have seen this tool increase call center conversion rates by 12%, a full 50% greater than goal. We knew it was working when other call center employees started asking if they could do it too.

In another situation, a manager might find it hard to observe enough people frequently enough to be positive where the behavioral gaps are and where the role models are. The right tool there is to strive for a “perfect” hour, during which every employee in the branch or call center is asked to focus on that particular behavior and do it 100% correctly in 100% of interactions for the full hour. Management learns who is having trouble doing it – a team, or just an individual – and in what situations. They also learn who does it perfectly already. They learn what to work on and with whom. One bank that used this embedding tool saw its mystery shop scores go from 4% perfect shops to 40%, and their “outstanding” and “very good” customer service ratings rise from 65% to 81%.

Sometimes the embedding deficiency involves a particular skill that has been well-trained but is not producing results, for example, if coaching isn’t being performed consistently, or if the team is not doing a good job of identifying customer needs. The tool here is an intense behavioral campaign on that skill, focusing full management and leadership attention on it for a specified period of time – two weeks to a month is usual. One lending organization used this tool to focus on three skills: calling the right target, answering objections and asking for the business. In just one month of this behavioral campaign, loans booked went up 62% and approved loans rose 33% (versus 4.5% for lenders not taking part in the campaign).

If you have employees who you believe could be stellar performers but are not, you might choose the embedding tool that actually certifies employees who achieve a prescribed skill level. Well beyond ordinary training, this tool requires that the employee demonstrate to an already accredited team that he or she can perform the skill with great proficiency, be observed performing it in a live setting, and then demonstrate the ability to coach the skill. Only when all three – know it, do it, coach it – are achieved is the employee deemed to have mastered the skill. In a recent bank deployment of this tool, focused on the skill of needs assessment, the managers who were part of the certification process completed 42% more customer needs assessments and identified 149% more opportunities than previously.

For desired behaviors to take root, management has to nurture them. The good news is that embedding isn’t a notion but a process with proven behavioral embedding tools. These tools can amplify good training beyond all expectations.

Mr. Brown is president, co-chairman, and co-founder, and Mr. Bywater is senior vice president, and managing director of global consulting solutions, at Los Angeles-based Cohen Brown Management Group Inc. Mr. Brown can be reached at [email protected] and Mr. Bywater at [email protected].