The Rise and Fall of Employee Skill Development
Management
Terry McDonough
3.24.2017
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Frontline sales and customer service employees are the faces of their organizations. Customers base their opinions of a company largely on the interactions they have with these frontline employees, so their abilities and skill development are key to delivering a standout customer experience.

LumeWorks has spent hundreds of hours observing and assessing the skills of individuals in these high impact roles. One insight holds true across our engagements:  At predictable points in employees’ tenure, skill levels begin to plateau. While this insight may seem intuitive, skill plateaus often occur even when there is plenty of room to grow in existing roles. Pushing past these development plateaus and fostering a continuous development mindset are critical to maximizing the potential of your most visible assets – your frontline employees.

 

Why does this happen and when should you expect it? Let’s explore the three stages of development we have found in entry-level frontline employees: Ramp-Up, Peak, and Plateau.

1.      Ramp-Up

The first stage of skill development is the ramp-up period, which we define as the period of time until a new employee feels comfortable in a role. In frontline roles, ramp-up begins with onboarding and typically extends through the first 6 to 9 months on the job. This period is characterized by rapid development as employees learn the everyday responsibilities of the job and gain product and company specific knowledge. Speed to ramp-up, however, varies from person to person and is often a leading indicator of high performance. Those able to ramp-up more rapidly are eager to take on role responsibilities, demonstrate initiative, and utilize their team as learning resources.

2.      Peak

As employees benefit from more experience in the role and gain more product- and company- specific knowledge, their performance will continue to increase post ramp-up. At around 10-12 months in the role, however, a typical sales or customer service employee will reach peak development. During peak development, most employees will be able to handle all the day-to-day responsibilities required and can handle common customer issues. Top performers will also have gained expertise in at least one particular product or aspect of the role. Less advanced team members rely on these employees to share information or problem-solve around challenges and roadblocks to accomplishing core job responsibilities.

3.      Plateau

After 13-16 months in a sales or support role, development begins to plateau, or, in some cases, even erodes as tenure increases. In the best case scenario, employees maintain their peak performance and continue to demonstrate intermediate to advanced proficiency in all role responsibilities. While there are a few outliers who plateau because they have learned all there is to know for their job, the vast majority of employees plateau when they are only at an intermediate level of proficiency in role-specific skills. Without deliberate action to address this occurrence, even top performers will start to find fewer ways to take on additional responsibility and improve the way they perform tasks.

So why does plateau happen and why do we care? We found two main causes behind skill development plateaus:  

1.      Top performers leaving role

Top performers are most likely to exit a role at or shortly after peak development as they get promoted off the team to a new role or leave the organization entirely. For their former teams, not only do they lose a key contributor to achieving metrics, but they also lose a positive influence and role model.

Throughout the three stages of development, top performers typically exhibit advanced skills earlier than middle and lower performers. These behaviors become best practices that top performers help instill in the rest of the team, aiding in the development of the team as a whole. The loss of a top performer can also impact the team’s mindset. Along with more advanced skills, top performers usually exhibit a growth mindset. As top performers exit the team, middle and lower performing employees at similar tenures will tend toward routine and fixed mindsets, two characteristics detrimental to continued development.  

2.      Employee burn out

Entry-level roles often include a high number of routine and predictable tasks and responsibilities. During the initial ramp-up period, exposure to similar questions and situations help employees quickly adapt to new responsibilities and environments. At peak development, employees have a strong ability to fulfill their responsibilities and feel pride in their competence in various tasks. After the 10-12 month mark, however, employees begin to feel there is little more to learn, and even the top performers begin to shift from a growth mindset to a fixed mindset. Job fatigue and boredom can begin to set in, causing both skill development and performance to plateau.

How well do your sales and support employees fit the skill development curve? How do you address these two obstacles to continued skill development? Stay tuned for the second part of our Tenure Analysis spotlight where we discuss interventions and solutions for overcoming this common human capital challenge.