Fundamentals of Excellent Customer Service



Fundamentals of Excellent Customer Service is an online course design intended to teach the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that are necessary in order to provide the best customer service possible. This means that upon completing the course, a learner will not only be able to complete his or her duties as a customer service employee, but will be able to provide that “Wow!” factor that separates good customer service from excellent customer service.


A poster summarizing the goals, instruction, and assessments in Fundamentals of Excellent Customer Service.

While this information is especially useful for high school and college aged students who will be working in the service industry, learning dispositions such as flexibility and empathy can be valuable for any position which requires a lot of social interaction.



Course Project for E-Learning Design Principles, and Educational Goals, Instruction, and Assessment during the fall semester of 2014 – Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA


My Role

Instructional Designer

  • Conducted subject matter research with customer service managers and teachers of professional development
  • Conducted a cognitive task analysis to refine learning goals and identify target instruction
  • Created assessments and instructional sequence which are aligned with the learning goals
  • Designed the instructional interface and learning activity sequence based on cognitive learning principles


The Course

Fundamentals of Excellent Customer Service is a 16 week online course supplement to a core undergraduate business class, Human Resources Management. As a course supplement, students who will be working in the service industry have the option to complete the course for an additional credit. Since the course is offered online, the students could complete it in the context of additional homework, or an activity in a weekly lab on campus.

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The allocation of learning goals across the course schedule.

The course is split into four major units, each 3-5 weeks long. The units are structured so that the learners are first exposed to knowledge and procedural tasks that are necessary to simply fulfill the duties of a customer service employee. The learners are then progressively exposed to the softer skills such as flexibility and empathy that prepare them to fulfill customer wants and needs, while leaving the customer with a sense of satisfaction.

The challenge in teaching dispositions like flexibility and empathy is that while student might understand what they are, and might be able to recognize them being practiced by others; simply assessing a learner’s understanding of the concepts does not guarantee they would be able to incorporate them into actual practice. To overcome this obstacle, the major assessment in the course is a simulation environment, in which the learner plays the role of a customer service manager and must respond to customer prompts, requests, or complaints while applying the concepts and skills that they’ve learned in previous lessons.

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A mockup of the simulation environment.

Each unit ends with an end of unit simulation, in which the learner must respond to problems and opportunities in the customer service environment that are relevant to the specific learning goals of that unit. The final unit includes only simulations, in which the learner reviews the goals from the previous three units and takes a final simulation, which is an aggregation of all course goals. The simulation environment is set up so that the score of the learner’s most recent engagement is the final score for the simulation, so the learner can keep completing the simulation until they’ve mastered the concepts.

The design of the instructional sequence in each lesson is heavily based on instructional design principles that are informed by cognitive learning science. This includes segmented lessons, graphics and explanations which are contiguous in both space and time, and a sense of learner control through providing the learner with some options for navigating the interface.



The process of identifying the learning goals for the course involved a combination of conducting subject matter research, analyzing existing courses that teach related concepts, and conducting a cognitive task analysis of a benchmark task to further refine the goals.


Subject Matter Research

In order to teach the knowledge, skills, and dispositions required for excellent customer service, it was necessary to talk to experts in the field who could make suggestions about revising the major learning goals of the course. These experts were consulted in the beginning of the project to help formulate the initial learning goals, and throughout the design process to validate the decisions being made in regards to the goals, and the assessment and instruction aligned with those goals. Some of the experts who were consulted throughout the process:

  • Owner and hiring manager of three fast food franchises
  • Store manager of a custom apparel printing business
  • Instructional designer of a graduate professional development program


Cognitive Task Analysis

When designing the instructional sequence of a course, the learning goals serve a significant purpose as the foundation of the design. Since the assessments must validate whether a learner has truly reached the learning goals, and the instruction is built so that the learners can successfully complete the assessment, defining accurate learning goals is crucial in the process of designing a course.


To ensure the learning goals of the course are properly defined, conducting a cognitive task analysis of a benchmark task can help in identifying the specific steps in completing a task, and further inform an instructional designer of the common mistakes made and misconceptions held by novices completing the task. The common errors that are prevalent highlight problem areas for learners trying to learn a task, and can therefore be targeted as significant learning goals in a course.

In Fundamentals of Excellent Customer Service, the procedural task of creating a schedule was chosen as a benchmark task, since this is a regular obligation of employees in customer service management positions. The process included comparing the way an expert completed the task with the way novices complete the task, and identifying where they differ.


  • Task 1 – Scheduling and Employee Communication. You work in a food service store and you start your shift at 4:00pm. There are 3 employees working including you. Mark works from 4:00pm to 9:00 pm, you work from 4:00pm to 9:00pm, and Joan works from 4:00pm to 8:00pm. The store closes at 9:00pm. The tasks that must be completed are finishing the prep, which takes 2.5 hours, cleaning two ovens, which takes 1 hour each, stocking the cooler with frozen meat, which takes 1 hour, cleaning the dining area, which takes 1 hour, and cleaning up the kitchen, including the dishes, which takes 1 hour. Additionally, each of you must take a 0.5 hour break during your shift. Since it is a food service store, somebody must be at the register at all times. This means that you can have up to two people taking a break at once, and you can split the tasks between two employees (i.e., the tasks don’t need to be done all at once). Create an optimal schedule for each employee outlining what they will be doing throughout their shift. Keep in mind that each one of the employees working, including you, tends to become irritable when working in one position for the entire shift.
  • Task 2 – Reorganization and Assessment of Employee Strengths and Weaknesses. Assume the same situation as before, and this was the schedule you chose:

Mark: 4:00 – 6:30 Prep; 6:30 – 7:30 Oven; 7:30 – 8:00 break; 8:00 – 9:00 Dining

Joan: 4:00 – 5:00 Cooler; 5:00 – 6:00 Kitchen; 6:00 – 7:00 Oven; 7:00 – 7:30 break; 7:30– 8:00 Register

You: 4:00 – 7:30 Register; 7:30 – 8:00 break; 8:00 – 9:00 Register

After the first two hours, Mark realizes he cut all of onions wrong and the prepped onions had woody cores mixed in with them. Since you’ve been there the longest, you are good at cutting the onions and could probably finish that along with the rest of the prep for the day in an hour and a half. Additionally, Mark has worked in a kitchen for a long time and it will only take him a half an hour to clean each oven. Reorganize the schedule based on this information.


  • Store manager of a custom apparel printing business – served as an expert completing the task, modeled ideal process of creating a schedule
  • Retail pharmacist – served as a novice completing the task
  • Assistant curator of a local gallery – served as a novice completing the task


The major finding of the analysis was that while experts broke each task that needed to be completed into equal chunks of time, and filled in the schedule with the each equal time unit of the task, novices tended to fill the schedule with the tasks in the time units in which they were originally presented. While at first this doesn’t seem like a major error, it becomes evident that a cognitive load is added when trying to fit each task into the schedule while simultaneously thinking about whether there is enough time to complete each task.

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The resulting cognitive model of completing a schedule, showing both novice and expert paths.

The process of the novice is comparable to completing a puzzle, where each task is a puzzle piece and the schedule is a puzzle. When trying to plug the pieces in the puzzle, certain pieces would not fit into certain places when the pieces are varying sizes. The expert process, however, ensures that each space in the schedule is the same “size” as the task unit being plugged into it. Although this may not be the only way to complete a schedule, it certainly proved to be an easier procedure that reduced cognitive load in comparison to the normal novice approach.


Interface Design

The design of the interface is heavily based on instructional design principles that are informed by cognitive learning science.

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A sample lesson segment with design principles in practice.

Segmentation: The lessons are separated into digestible chunks, with the consideration that learners have a limited cognitive capacity when taking in new information. By limiting the information to small chunks on separate pages, this ensures the learner will not be overwhelmed by the information presented and will have the opportunity to internalize it before moving on to more information.


Multimedia and Contiguity: The lessons also include a number of graphics, animations, and videos that support the learning of the concepts. Using multiple forms of media in a lesson not only increases learner engagement, but helps the learner process information through both visual and auditory channels, strengthening associations and further aiding the learning of a concept. When including multiple forms of media, however, it is important that their explanations and relevant information are presented as close together in space and time as possible, so to accommodate the limited cognitive capacity of the learner.


Learner Control: The learners have a sense of control over their lesson since there is a “Continue” button at the bottom of each lesson segment. This ensures the learner can review material at their own pace, and even go back to information which they would like to review.

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