A case study of Story-Strategy in action: Customer Service Training

The Beginning

Here is a real life example of how we structured the beginning of a Customer Service Training workshop. The customer service training was part of a change intervention of a large-scale South African wine farm providing a variety of tourism and hospitality services. The intervention was planned as consisting of training in three half-day modules: (1) customer service training, (2) knowledge training and (3) sales training. By the end of the planning stage all three modules were integrated into a single Story-Strategy, even though we were only responcible for the customer service section of the training. Here I will sketch how we outlined the beginning part of the training.

Story Strategy was chosen as a methodology to underpin the  design of the workshop so that participants could journey from customer conflict to customer connection, from seeing the contradictions between themselves and their customers to seeing themselves as partners to their customers.

The first stages of Story-Strategy is especially focussed on captivating Attention by drawing participants into the ‘story in the room’. In our case serving customers. A story does that in three specific stages:

1. Sketching a picture of the current reality (Once upon a time there was someone in a certain fix)

2. Issuing a Call to Adventure  (then one day something unusual happened)

3. Making room for debate and doubts (But there are obstacles and questions)

What we have illustrated, though, is that  there are two cycles of these steps because there is a ‘double journey’ at stake. First people must be drawn from outside the room to inside: not just physically, but also with their attention and emotion. Secondly, once willing to be ‘here’ they must be drawn from their current understanding of the issue in the room (customer service) to a new understanding.

At Spier Wine Farm we did it as follows:

1.  We did a presenceing exercise to help people bring their attention inside the room –a pair discussion relating to what is in the front of their minds right now? (current reality)

We also organised that the knowledge segment of the training precede the customer service section. This meant  that staff members had a heightened understanding of their current reality i.e. the Wine Farm they work for. This took the form of a knowledge quest where they were taken on a tour through the entire farm and given information by various managers on all the features and offerings.

Our presencing question was therefore:  What about the knowledge quest is in the forefront of your mind right now?

2. Next we explain how the training will work and in what way it will be unusual and different from other trainings. We also give the programme for the day. (Call to Adventure)

3.  Finally, we allow  a conversation about doubts and reservations along with easy first exercises to build confidence (Debate and doubts))

The ‘easy’ exercises consist mostly of continuum, not related to customer service, though. Rather these continuums relate to who you are and how you fit into the group e.g. Who traveled the furthest to get here vs. who traveled the shortest distance and everything in between. When is your birthday?Arrange yourselves from Jan to Dec. etc. These bring an immediate illustration of what we mean by participation, as well as help people to relate to each other.This is because to succeed, people must move their bodies and talk to each other.

Now they are present and attentive to the training space. Next we repeat the cycle with the customer service story:

1. We have  them introduce themselves and share: What are your current customer service challenges? (current reality) This was especially important for us because the staff were from many different departments in the company and needed to connect with one another on what they share and how their experiences differ. They also needed to introduce themselves to ehlp with relatedness.

Building on this we explore the consequences of bad service to customers, the organisation, staff and their families and the wider South Africa. This is done through theatrical tableaux where participants show scenes from lived experiences using their bodies to build statues. (Click here for more detail on the exercise.)

2. To help create the gap between this painful picture and new possibilities, we let them share in pairs stories of success where they had experienced delivering good service in the past and they list the skills they employed to achieve the success. We then ask: How would you like to repeat this success more often? (Call to adventure)

3. We do an example exercise to illustrate how we intend to teach these sckills and have them reflect on its workability. (Debate and doubt) We repeat this for every exercise that introduces a new idea even as we ease into the actual body, or journey of the workshop.

Watch this space for a continuation of this case study.

Introduction exercises for Speakers and facilitators

Marius, the sales manager, spoke  again:

Now you have introduced everyone, you have oriented them, but you still have not explained the topic or started with the actual material all this was just introduction, now the speaker too has his or her introduction. This is taking very long.

True, you have only crossed the first threshold from their outside world into the learning space, now they still need to cross from their current understanding to a new understanding of the topic.  Yet it does not take long.  The only thing we added was this idea of asking them to air reservations or express feelings. This takes five minutes maximum compared to  the alternative : people remain distant and never really engage with the learning wasting their whole day and all your own effort..

Also, if you know that you need to do all three these things before continuing, you may find ways to condense your processes and combine some of them. The BBYB exercise for instance, both introduce the participants’ current reality regarding the topic in the room (step one of the second threshold) as well as present an invitation to participate (step 2 of the first threshold)

After you completed the first cycle with the agenda, and explanation of the working method and an opportunity for attendees to air their mixed responses, you introduce the speaker.

The speaker now tackles the next cycle of the double journey by building on the BBYB exercise showing how the perspective of the audience is mirrored in the world.  The speaker can do this by talking, letting people talk, or creating a whole brain participative experience.


Your bio of the speaker has set him/her up as expert, so the audience believes the, when they now paint a picture of the current reality from a global perspective. They also show the problems that arise from this perspective and its consequences., back it up with graphs, statistics, research and events that are in the news. All the time you are further building out the current reality of the topic be it leadership, sales , marketing or wellness.

Letting them talk

You may also choose more experiential and participative methods by inviting the CEO of the company to give an overview of the situation with financial reports, staff statistics, stories  and so on. You can also let people share stories of their experience relating to the issue with one another.


In a customer service training programme we designed for Spier Wine Farm, we used theatre images to really help participants feel the pain of the current reality. In four groups they had to create   theatrical tableaux where participants show scenes from lived experiences using their bodies to build statues. Each group showed a different set of consequences of bad customer service: the effect on 1. customers, 2.  the organisation, 3.  staff and their families and 4.  the wider South African community. People play out characters like a  disgruntled customer telling their friends not to go to this hotel (group 1), or perhaps the CEO needing to lay off staff because of cost cutting (group 2), or the husband telling his wife he had lost his job(group 3),, or children begging in the street because tourists are not here to support our economy (group 4). Playing out these scenes drive the message home using  Attention, Generation and Emotion (AGES model).

With the stage neatly set and the current pain identified and empathised with, you can now move to creating new possibilities again.