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Most people get appraised once a year. However, just as an actor or a sports-person is appraised each time they take to the stage or field, as a trainer, I am appraised every time I deliver a training course, a workshop or an event.

In days gone by I would hand out paper-based feedback forms (commonly known as “smile sheets”) at the end of the training course. The advantage of this is the immediacy – the course has just finished and “in the heat of the moment”, delegates are more likely to be honest, especially if they have a complaint.

The reality is somewhat different…”it’s 4:30 and I want to beat the traffic, so I’ll just whizz through the feedback form, answering Excellent to each question, leave no comments, hand my form to the trainer and go.”

At one stage we were giving delegates a stamped addressed envelope so that they could take the form away, complete it at their leisure and post it back to us. The idea was that they’d be more inclined to be truthful if they had time to really consider their answers and if they thought that the envelope was going to be opened by the Training Manager (to whom it was addressed). This initiative didn’t last very long though – I think the bean counters became envelope counters!

The other problem with a paper-based system is that it…generates a lot of paper, both for the training company and the individual. Most trainers like to keep a copy of their (good) feedback for future reference. At one stage I had a box full of feedback forms in my loft, although in my attempt to go paperless, these were scanned and shredded a couple of years ago.

The team that I currently work for is an in-house training team. When I joined the team, the process for collecting course feedback was to send an email “form” to each delegate. This form was simply a custom-built Outlook template. The delegate completed the form and clicked Send and the email was stored in the Team mailbox. Unfortunately, it is not an easy process to extract the data from these emails so they became nothing more than electronic forms.

When I joined the team 3 years ago, although I was taken on as a Trainer, I took it upon myself to build a complete web-based, database-driven Customer Management System. This included automating the feedback capturing process. With the click of a button all attendees are sent an email with a link to a web-based feedback form. They complete the form, click Submit and their “scores” and comments are automatically stored in a database.

Not only does this save paper but it means that my colleagues and my Manager can check the feedback at any time without searching for pieces of paper. It also means that reports and stats can be generated very quickly.

You might think that as the system owner, I would be tempted to delete any poor feedback that I receive – of course that pre-supposes that I get poor feedback! On the whole, my feedback, like the feedback of my colleagues, is excellent – and if anyone wants to argue that point I can back it up with delegate’s comments!

Occasionally somebody gives poor feedback but they usually back it up with a comment and most of the time it’s down to the delegate being on the wrong course or inappropriate event, or misunderstanding the objectives, despite the fact we quite clearly state the course/event objectives on our website and re-state them at the start of the course.

By the way, if you’re wondering about these “events” that I keep mentioning, in addition to formal training courses we run 1-hour bite-sized events. Some of the subjects covered include pre-Vista migration information, PST and best practice email management and productivity tips for laptop users.

So now we have an easy way to capture, store and report on the feedback, but what do we actually do with it?

A few months ago, at our monthly team meeting, I “presented” the feedback. I picked out the 6 best comments from the previous month’s feedback and built a Powerpoint presentation with one comment on each slide. Did I include my own feedback? Of course!! This went down really well and has now become a regular feature of team meetings. We also have a large noticeboard in the office which has printouts of the slides on it, serving as a reminder of what we can achieve.

So how do I react to good feedback? On the one hand, I’m only doing my job, but I must admit that getting a nice comment gives me a feeling of a job well done. Good feedback often finds it’s way to the boss’s boss’s boss, which serves to remind them that both the team and I are doing a great job (now where’s that bonus? LOL). However, I don’t sit back and get complacent. There’s a saying in sport that you’re only as good as your last game. Well in training, you’re only as good as your last course.

What about negative feedback? Earlier this week I ran 4 x 1 hour “Get productive with your laptop” sessions. The course outline had been clearly advertised on the website (where attendees go to book a place on the session). However, some people turned up hoping to get answers to technical questions, primarily relating to issues that they have with connecting to the company network from home. Not being familiar with the peculiarities of our VPN, I was unable to answer some of their questions (a fact that was commented on by some attendees). Although 90% of my feedback was excellent and some people even said it ‘hit the mark’ as far as their requirements were concerned, it’s the negative feedback that I remember more than the positive – which is probably what prompted me to write this blog post in the first place.

How valuable is feedback? One the one hand, it’s personal and subjective. Questions like “Please rate the pace of the course. How knowledgeable was the trainer? How do you rate the course overall?” are open to interpretation.

I know of actors who won’t read theatre reviews until the run is over and Sir Matt Busby, the legendary Manchester United manager, is reported to have told Sir Alex Ferguson not to read newspapers. At the start of this year I did consider not reading my feedback, but curiosity got the better of me! Not only that, but as a professional, I feel that it is in my and my delegates interests to read the feedback. Every cloud has a silver lining and out of every negative can come something positive.