From the time the term “soft skills” was coined by the U.S. Army in 1972 as “important job-related skills that involved little to no interaction with machines,” to today’s workplace, soft skills have typically taken a back seat to hard skills in the workplace.

Fast forward 60 years and we find that the information technology (IT) community, along with training and business experts, revived the term to distinguish between the technical and interpersonal skills needed on the job. Today, the term soft skills is associated with a person’s ability to connect to others on a personal level. These skills include reading body language and understanding and honoring differences in personality types.

In the past, soft skills were considered an inherent quality rather than something that could be taught.  Today, training for soft skills is just as important as training for hard skills.

Why Soft Skills Matter

In today’s technology and data-driven world, children are taught hard skills almost from birth; how often have you’ve seen a toddler mesmerized by an iPad? Unfortunately, focusing solely on technology — which is intended to bring us closer together — often pushes us further apart. In today’s tech-enabled world, texting, emailing and browsing social media often replace face-to-face communications.

Soft skills are harder to come by when people rely on technology for communication at such an early age.  But, developing soft skills is worth the investment, as “someone with strong soft skills will earn up to 15% more over a lifetime,” according to research report “Backing Soft Skills.” So, while both types of skills are necessary, soft skills can more greatly affect an employee’s capabilities related to job performance.

Employers will often train new employees with the soft skills they want to see on the job, rather than expecting that a candidate automatically has the behaviors needed for optimal job performance. That’s where professional trainers can help: social skills, communication skills, time management and critical thinking skills are four types of soft skills training commonly requested by employers.

Organizations often seek employees who can effectively communicate, problem solve, work on a team, excel at time management and show flexibility in the workplace. These skills are in demand across industries, especially in sales and business development positions. These types of positions typically require a great deal of personal interaction with clients and, often, having strong communications skills can make or break a deal.

Time management and productivity are critical skills that still live in the curriculum for technology solutions training today.  The evolution from paper-based planners to cloud-based training solutions still relies on skills that emphasize the methodology and psychology behind time management.

Global organizations are investing in both soft skills research and training for employees. In 2015, McDonald’s U.K. initiated a campaign to encourage the investment in soft skills within its company and among other organizations in their nation. According to the campaign research, by this year “over half a million U.K. workers will be significantly held back by a lack of soft skills – an issue forecast to affect all sectors.”

Training and Gaining Soft Skills

The bad news is that soft skills are not necessarily inherent. The good news is that soft skills can be successfully trained.

One example of this is the following case study of a pharma company, which illustrates how using soft skills and interactive resources during training maximized participation and understanding of complex topics. The key learning objective – how to drive customer needs by understanding social and cultural makeups in their individual regions – was successfully taught using soft skill techniques.

Background: A pharma company has recently expanded its workforce worldwide. About 30 new sales and marketing managers have joined the company from different regions. While many had a background in marketing, they were still new to the organization and its products. The workshop’s goals included training the reps to identify social and behavioral patterns in their markets by using soft skills such as social dynamics, motivations, attitudes, emotions and desires.

At the end of the workshops, the reps were successfully trained to understand the persona of the physicians in their regions, differentiate between two physicians’ practice styles (patient or science-centered) and determine possible motivations to get them to try their new product(s).

The training program taught the following lessons for teaching and understanding soft skills:

Lesson #1 – Teach Critical and Strategic Thinking

Applying critical and strategic thinking is, well, critical. Despite their marketing background, this situation held some challenges – the reps would need to use their own judgment about how best to connect with their target audience based on cultural differences. Training exercises were provided for the reps to use when they were back home to gain a deeper understanding of their customer’s preferences.

The training also helped participants look at their physicians as real human beings in order to understand their individual motivations and needs. To do this, the program included short presentations followed by interactive workshops. The activity was structured to lead the sales reps through the critical thinking process to come to their own conclusions about who they were targeting.

This transformative training approach ensured that the reps understood the thought process that would lead them to apply their interpersonal communications skills to best serve their target markets. 

Lesson #2 – Consider Global Differences

When developing training for a global group, it’s important to consider cultural nuances. Recognizing that there were a variety of cultures present at the training, the recommended plan was to allow the reps to create their own customer “picture.” Called a “persona,” the idea was to identify and personify a typical type of doctor who they might reach out to in their specific country or region.

A customer persona is a research-based representation of a customer segment and is used to help understand what goals the customers is trying to achieve, his or her individual challenges and how to satisfy unmet needs.

Lesson #3: Keep it Simple

Rather than requiring reps to complete SWOT charts using an influx of words to describe a persona, a more creative and simple approach was recommended.

The reps were split into two groups and participated in workshops to develop two types of personas —the first represented a doctor who leaned toward a scientific approach and the second represented a doctor who was more patient-centric.

The learning activity was to create a poster of the persona, and the training process helped simplify the learning activity as much as possible, by letting participants select text and images from magazines that personified their customers.

As a result, the training program reinforced the learning objective: that while the interpersonal approach might be tailored for each region based on individual personalities, there proved two types of personas to target, and these types of people would react positively to a similar marketing process.

Lesson #4 – Build in Collaboration

Collaboration is a soft skill that requires practice. The learning activity taught these reps that what is more important than gaining new knowledge is understanding how to apply that knowledge in the field. By asking the reps to work collaboratively during the workshop, they learned about each other on a personal level and about specific challenges in their individual countries. The learning activity ultimately became a collaborative one that helped develop key critical thinking skills.

Lesson #5 – Engage the Senses

One of the most important aspects of this customer’s training experience was engaging learners by using as many senses as possible.

Hearing: Engaging in dialogue with others about a new topic is often the best way for individuals to learn a new skill or information. Encouraging conversations about how to identify personas gave the reps time to absorb more information than if they had been trained in a traditional format, with a trainer directing them through a lecture.

Sight: The process of discussing the persona, and then finding pictorial examples in magazines, engaged the reps’ visual and tactile senses. To guide their visual activities, the workshop’s groups were provided with cue cards as a training resource, in addition to a prepared list of questions to be discussed. In addition to the cue cards, attendees viewed videos that provided clues about the two different attitudinal profiles. 

Touch: Once the groups had agreed on the persona they wanted to exemplify, they created posters using the images they cut out from the magazines. The actions of flipping through the magazines, touching and cutting the paper was a tactile involvement that, while simple, provided stimulation to help the reps apply, understand and remember the details of the persona.

At the End of the Day – an “Amazing” Learning Experience

At the conclusion of the two-day workshop, attendees learned how to think critically when planning their marketing activities, how to understand customer personas and how to use those personas as a tool in building their value proposition and journey maps. Each group shared their posters and through discussion and dialogue helped the other group to understand the thought process that went into their personas.

Deemed “amazing” by our client, these workshops successfully taught their key learning objective – how to assess a customer’s needs by understanding the social and cultural makeups of individual regions by developing and utilizing individual and group dynamic soft skills.