On The Job Training: 3 Low-Cost But Powerful Strategies for Employee Development

Training your employees can be expensive!

The 2014 State of the Industry Report by the Association of Talent Development found that businesses spent $1,208 in learning expenses per employee. For small organization with less than 500 workers, however, the cost balloons up to $1,888 per employee annually.

And with cash flow problems being the reason for failure of 29% of SMBs and startups, you may feel tempted to bin the idea of developing the talent of your workforce to reduce costs.

But don’t give in!

The benefits of training employees are simply too good to miss.

For starters, professional development is one of the few perks that directly give back to the company. As employees get better at their roles and expand their expertise, the entire organization becomes more efficient in handling problems while producing better output.

Growth and development also top the list of a job-seeker’s must-haves when assessing whether to submit an application, beating culture, brand, and even compensation and benefits.

And last but not the least:

Mastery is one of the three pillars of employee productivity and motivation (the other two being purpose and autonomy), and a sound professional development plan can put your staff on track for higher proficiency.

Convinced? Then you will want to read on.

In this guide, we’ll look at three strategies for advancing the skills of your workforce with on the job training. And the best part? These ideas don’t come with a four-figure price tag. However, they do require time, effort, and commitment from you, the business leader.

Let’s get started!


Strategy #1: Shadowing Clients

Your best customers can be a force-multiplier for your business.

Not only do they bring revenue, they can also double as word-of-mouth marketers who recommend your products and services to their network. But did you know that your raving fans are also a valuable training and development resource?

Shadowing clients may not be a staple part of most professional development plans. But this practice is a must-have in your management toolkit for many reasons.

First on the list is increased motivation.

Employees become inspired when they see how real people (not just company names and titles) use your product or service.

Sure, a survey showing that 95% of your clients love and would recommend you to their friends is nice. But nothing comes close to the morale boost an employee gains from seeing the company they represent have a positive effect on the lives of other people.

Next, visiting customers and seeing them at work can help your organization identify issues and gaps in your offering you wouldn’t discover otherwise.

For example:

Let’s say you sent one of your developers to see how your number one customer, a call center, uses your workforce management tools. During the visit, the dev found that users have a hard time navigating the homepage of the tool.

Upon return, the shadowing employee forwarded his findings to fellow developers, and the entire team overhauled the clunky homepage. Customers were happy after seeing the changes, while your team just learned how to build a better and user-friendlier UI.

A win-win indeed!

If you’re convinced of the benefits of shadowing customers, the following ideas will help you get started.

Get The Client’s Permission

Before you can shadow a client for a day or two, you need to ask approval from the owner or CEO. You will have to lay down the why’s behind the initiative during your meeting, highlighting service or product improvements in particular.

Assure the client that the shadowing will proceed in a manner as unobtrusive as possible while closely observing relevant work processes.

Note, too, that while you may initially meet with the CEO to gain their approval, the shadowing employee will and should spend more time working with the person managing the team that uses your product or service.

Help The Shadowing Employee Prepare

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe,” said  Abraham Lincoln.

Sharpen the proverbial axe by sitting down with your employee and brainstorming discovery questions. The questions and insights you look to gain will, of course, differ depending on your product and the industry. But you want to start with general or broad inquiries like:

  • What are the client’s goals?
  • How are they using your product or service?
  • What do they love or hate about it?
  • What features are you missing?
  • What bottlenecks does your product create in their process?

In simpler terms, you want to find pain points. Referrals and testimonials are welcome, of course. But your product and employees will improve only if they know where they’re lagging behind.

Document And Analyze Observations

An aptitude for note-taking is just as important as good observation skills when shadowing customers. You can use good ol’ pen and paper for the job, or create a shared document which you can review as your employee adds his or her observations.

But however you take notes, be sure to review and analyze the document.

The goal is to bridge the gap between the product or service offering of your business and your customer’s needs. In particular, you want to brainstorm how to reduce mistakes, waste, and effort invested by customer by making changes from your end.


Strategy #2: Provide Frequent Informal Coaching

The age-old annual performance review is problematic for many reasons.

First, the process is too formal, preventing an honest conversation.

The managers mince their words, sandwiching negative comments with praises while giving half-hearted recommendations for improvement. Employees, on the other hand, don’t get any actionable feedback and also hold back from providing any insight.

Moreover, this trend of staying tight-lipped is likely to continue all year long since both parties were not open to each other when they had their only chance.

Yearly reviews are also tied to money, further complicating matters.

A manager may feel bad about giving a low score if doing so jeopardizes the employee’s salary and raise. From the other side, an employee may also start arguing with the manager about the negative comments since a bad rating means a lower income for the upcoming year.

And perhaps the biggest problem:

Annual performance reviews happen only once a year!

One year is too long of a feedback loop to expect any improvement. Employees face challenges and miss inefficiencies with the way they work every day. Waiting for 365 days to uncover these issues isn’t doing your business any favor!

Companies like Adobe, Dell, SAP, and many more got rid of these once-a-year reviews.

Adobe even published a study detailing the wastage left in the wake of performance appraisals. Managers spend 17 hours per employee in preparation for the review, but more than half don’t feel or see its effects in their work. Worse, many are left feeling stressed!

But what do we replace it with?

The answer: frequent informal coaching.

Priorities, goals, and responsibilities can change often, and a once-a-year review isn’t enough to keep up. Weekly or monthly coaching, on the other hand, can help an employee adjust.

Moreover, coaching moves the conversation away from one’s salary and raise, zeroing on enriching the employee and improving their marketable skills instead. This switch in focus gives the employee and manager every incentive to come to the coaching session with an honest and open mind.

And last but not the least:

Staff members boost their expertise at their respective roles and responsibilities over time.

When a thorough analysis and review follows an event, people learn quickly as the experience is still fresh in their minds while managers can better reinforce effective performance. And with informal reviews and coaching offered freely, workers are more likely to ask for help.

Want to integrate frequent and informal coaching to your workplace? Follow the steps below.

Most Important Of All: Set A Good Example

To lead means to “show someone the way to destination by going in front or of beside them.” A workplace with a strong coaching culture is the goal. And to get the entire organization to the destination, you must show the entire company how it’s done.

Not only should you give feedback, you must also receive them.

Show that no one, not even you, is above coaching. When people under your wing give constructive criticisms, be careful not to get defensive nor direct blame to others. Listen to the feedback and search for valuable takeaways.

Next, stay on the lookout for events in the workplace that warrant feedback, such as:

  • When an employee does something out of the ordinary (good or bad)
  • Inefficiencies in the way a staff member works
  • When performance increases or decreases
  • Missed deadlines
  • And many more

Exhibit the behavior you want your workers to adopt, and they will follow suit.

Be Specific When Providing Feedback

Not all feedback sessions are equal.

Some will call for appreciation and reinforcement of a positive behavior, while others need you to bring up unacceptable actions and provide actionable steps for improvement. Whatever the type of feedback session, however, you want to take good note of the following:

  • The situation the employee was in
  • The action or behavior of the employee while in the situation
  • The impact of the employee’s actions – positive or negative

When you focus on the three things above, providing feedback that’s to the point, free from personal opinion, and helpful for all parties involved becomes way easier.

Let’s check out a few examples.

Scenario 1: Lowell, one of your customer service representatives, went an extra mile in assisting a client. The issue was not in the playbook so Lowell had to coordinate with teammates for the best course of action and even stayed an hour longer than his shift. At the end of the day, however, the problem was solved and the client walked away happy as a clam.

The case above clearly calls for positive feedback.

Start on the right foot by thanking Lowell for going beyond the call of duty and the impact of his actions. You also want to provide an impetus for continuing the behavior by stating how the organization and the employee himself can benefit from such actions.

Example Feedback: “Thank you, Lowell, for helping one of our best clients with an unusual problem earlier today. In doing so, not only did Mr. Customer walk away satisfied. But you also uncovered a technical issue. Our dev team can now work towards fixing so it doesn’t happen again. I hope that, as you continue helping our clients, you will keep up the same behavior and set a fine example for the whole team.”

Scenario 2: Julie sent an email to a client. But the message wasn’t clear and had spelling errors all over the place. Not only does this affect the team’s productivity as the initial email spurred further exchanges for clarification. But it also affects the company’s professional image.

Unlike the first scenario, the case above requires a development feedback. You will want to clearly state the unacceptable behavior, the impact it brought, and most important of all, what Julie should do to avoid such errors.

Example Feedback: “Julie, I’ve noticed that the last few emails you sent out are unclear and have spelling errors. Vague messages can rob us of productivity as they require further clarifications, and I also worry that spelling errors can impact our image negatively. We want to send emails that are free from such mistakes, especially to clients. So before hitting “send,” please spend a minute or two double-checking the entire message.”

Listen More, Speak Less

Rarely does a feedback session end after you have acknowledge an someone’s actions and its impact. More often than not, the employee will speak up and give his or her opinion on the feedback.

When an employee starts talking, you want to listen – genuinely. Don’t simply bob your head as you try to think of a comeback to shut down their argument or end the conversation.

Instead, pay attention to the issues the other party is raising. You may discover that the person has legitimate concerns outside of their control. And sometimes, people just need to vent out so they can feel better and perform at work as they should. Whichever the case, listening closely and without any judgments is time well-spent.

And one last reminder:

Embrace silence.

Not talking can be a powerful tool for solving real problems at work. You may find that, as you stay silent, an employee speaks their mind out and uncover hiccups you might have missed if you were too quick to talk.

Strategy #3: Cross-Train Employees

Cross-training (noun): The process of training in more than skill or role.

In sports, the practice helps athletes boost their fitness and performance in their main field. In the business world, however, cross-training increases the workforce’s competence and productivity – plus more.

When employees learn and master new skills, your organization reduces the need to recruit capable candidates outside of the company. Doing so also shortens or even eliminates the onboarding process as employees are already familiar with your processes and how the new skill fits in.

Increased awareness of the responsibilities of co-workers is another perk worth mentioning. Putting oneself in the shoes of a fellow employee not only increases technical knowledge,  but also develops one’s empathy for his or her teammates. Both of which are qualities you want from a future manager.

And let’s not forget:

Cross-training or multi-skilling also enables the organization to maintain high levels of productivity even if an employee is out of the office for a day or two.

On the other hand, cross-training entails risks you must be aware of and avoid.

Sending the wrong message is perhaps the biggest issue you’ll come across.

Here’s an example:

You want to cross-train a technician in customer service to help develop his empathy for customers and representatives alike. But without the right message and delivery, the employee may miss the noble cause behind the initiative.

Worse, he may even assume he’s not doing a good enough job in his current role and may lose employment if he doesn’t perform well enough as a customer service rep. A terrible way to start any project!

Staff may also view cross-training as a gimmick by the company to add more responsibilities without any reward or increase in pay. Such a perception can lead to resentment – and when left unchecked, even resignation!

Overdoing cross-departmental training is also possible.

When employees hop from one department to another, they hone their understanding and competence in different tasks and processes of your business. However, spreading their training too thinly will “water down” their specialized skills and knowledge.

So bottom line:

You want to cross-train employees. But to reap its benefits, you must approach the practice correctly. Here’s how.

Create A Skills Inventory

Typical work records showcases the accomplishments of an employee.

A skills inventory, on the other hand, shows you the education, skills, and work experience which made the achievements possible. With a skills inventory on hand, you can:

  • Identify the skills gap in your workforce so you can patch them up
  • Uncover any hidden talent of your employees
  • And discover which skills are cross-trainable

You can use different formats and tools in creating the inventory.

If you’re already using a commercial software and database, you can customize it to suit the purpose. But worry not if you don’t have an enterprise-grade tool. A paper-based system or even a free spreadsheet tool like Google Sheets will do just fine.

All is well as long as the inventory is accurate and lists only the skills with strategic and administrative importance to your business.

Inform Your Team Of The Initiative

We looked at how employees may develop a negative perception of cross-training. This step helps prevent that from happening!

Meet with the crew to let them know of your plans. While you’re at it, lay down how the multi-skilling campaign will benefit, not just the organization, but the individuals, too.

Explain how learning new skills opens promotion and career growth opportunities. For the would-be trainer, teaching co-workers will make for an excellent review of the basics, reinforcing their knowledge and boosting their confidence.

And lest we forget:

Emphasize how cross-training means they can take guilt-free vacations since cross-trained employees can cover up for them. 🙂

Even with the perks laid down in clear view, however, some people might still resist the proposed change. You don’t want to force these employees. Instead, recruit those who are interested in participating.


Map Out A Training Plan

You have a skills inventory ready and the workforce is aware of the upcoming changes. Now you need to set the specifics of the training. You will need to answer many questions at this stage including:

  • What set of skills should you focus on?
  • Who will be the trainers and the trainees?
  • How, when, and for how long will they train?
  • How will you manage the schedule so both trainee and trainer benefit?
  • And more

A few considerations before we move to the final step.

When deciding the training format, be sure to mix classroom-style lectures with an on-the-job approach. The former works best when introducing new material, while the latter helps important information stick by putting theory into practice.

You will also want to plan how to reduce the workload of both trainer and trainee, so both can focus on the training.

Execute And Invite Input From Your Staff

With the preparatory steps out of the way, it’s time to put the plan into motion.

But while you have the final say, keep the doors open for feedback.

Employees hesitant about participating may voice out their concerns, while others may have ideas for improvement. You may have also missed issues, like scheduling conflicts, which may set the training off track.



More and more companies (including your competitors) are realizing the business advantages of investing in their employees. And many are willing to spend a lot. No wonder employee training and development has now grown into a $300-billion industry.

On the other hand, we just looked at professional development strategies that won’t suck your finances dry. The list is by no means exhaustive. But the three ideas we discussed are more than enough to get you on the right track.

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