ILT – Conducting Ethnographic Research in a Bank

If you have not read this post – Ethnography in Learning – please take some time to read the basics of ethnography and its application as a research methodology in ‘needs analysis’.


A client from the banking industry approached us with a learning request that called for creating materials for an instructor-led training session. The target audience were Relationship Professionals (RPs) working for the bank who engaged with their customers on a regular basis. We were quite surprised when the client raised this request, because the banking client habitually favoured e-learning solutions over other modalities, to solve performance issues or create awareness among their employees. Because the issues they had witnessed was due to lack of interpersonal skills (not just technical), they wanted a classroom training where the trainer and the senior stakeholders of the bank also can be a part of the training and contribute from their vast knowledge.


The RPs interact with their customers on a daily basis to provide clarification, offer consultation and validate customers’ knowledge on the product. Lately, the stakeholders were receiving several complaints from customers and also within the bank, regarding how the RPs failed to close deals with customers successfully. Although this business problem seemed to have occurred largely in just one location, the bank’s employees in other locations have also faced similar problems, if not all.


The senior stakeholders at the bank had shared a selected transcript of the recorded conversations that occurred between the RMs and customers (which was not sufficient to identify their needs) with me. They also shared a list of topics and some reference content that they want the training to cover. In addition to the content the stakeholders provided, they asked me to create scenarios that would set the context. A marathon call was scheduled to discuss the stakeholders’ concerns and at the end of the call, the Academy Lead declared that he wants the training session to be “a roaring success”.

So, how would you measure “roaring success”?

  1. The session should impact the learners positively and motivate them to
    • hone their interpersonal and communication skills
    • increase their commitment to delivering admirable customer service
    • reduce the number of complaints, immediately and considerably, and gradually bring the number of complaints to “zero”
  1. The success of this training session would also determine whether similar sessions might be planned for employees in other locations across the country.

Needs Analysis and Ethnography:

At the end of the marathon call, I realised I should listen to the actual calls. I wanted to investigate the other aspects of the conversations that weren’t too evident or clear in the transcript. We were merely scratching the surface with the recorded transcript. While the SMEs were figuring out the best time to schedule a face-to-face session, I made a brief list of things I should make note of.

I decided to conduct short ethnographic research, in order to obtain more information. I was granted permission to visit the bank facility to listen to some of the conversations, as the client was not allowed to share the audio files digitally, with us.

Observing, Recording and Reporting

I visited the facility and met with a coordinator who was assigned to support me. I started observing as much as can, while I was within the facility and tried to interact with him. I wanted to get his perspective on the issues related to the calls. He was reluctant to share any information and was a tad apprehensive when I asked a couple of questions. Later, I came to know that even the calls he placed, were among the ones that were being scrutinised.

As we settled into a meeting room with his laptop to listen to the audio files, I also started observing his behaviour. (non participant observation)

From a Customer POV:

I was wondering, if I were his customer at that point, how he would support me in getting what I want; both of us were aware that he was tasked to support me.

He started accessing Facebook (with the videos in auto-play mode) causing the audio to play and halt frequently. I looked at him a couple of time to subtly convey that his behaviour was annoying. He didn’t heed to it and simply continued doing that. He went on to even attend his phone calls within the meeting room as I tried to listen to the audio recordings. As I noted my understanding from the audio clips, I was also wondering how observant he would have been when he was placing calls with the customers, especially with the customers whom he didn’t even have to meet face to face.

I started listening to the audio calls, paying attention to the tone of voice, clarity, responses to critical statements or queries from the customer. Many a time, it was only evident that the client was anxious and in distress, but the RPs offered no solace or assurance. The RPs were not observing or responding to the open/subtle signs that reflected their customers’ concerns. I made note of all these aspects, which affected the quality of their conversations.


I reported my observations which were well-appreciated by the stakeholders; they were able to look closely into the issues. Some of my observations also surprised them, because of the specific nature of issues that were recurring in most of the calls.

In the discussion that ensued with the stakeholder and trainer later, ‘Listening‘ become one of the important topics of discussion (In order to articulate one’s thoughts well, one also needs to be a good listener and observer). I suggested adding a few more topics that dealt with empathy, listening one of voice, acknowledging the clients’ current state of mind, identifying potentially vulnerable customers etc. I worked along with the trainer, who listened to the calls as well and she seconded my opinion about adding new topics.

Curating Content:

We had to tailor content specifically for this target audience. The source content provided by the SMEs was relevant only for the introduction session. Initially, it was planned to be a 3-hour session, but then turned into a full-day of training.

I built a few role-play scenarios that were reflective of the actual issues/incidents, and then designed the session to kick-start with one of those scenarios, enabling the audience to identify the problems in those conversations. This allowed the audience to retrospect on the conversation, at the end of the training, and reflect on the steps to communicate better with the audience.

As I curated the content, I also included role-plays and sample conversations (successful and ineffective calls). I brought more content on the below topics:

  • Effective communication
  • Personal branding message and signposting
  • Building conversations
  • Listening skills
  • Effective probing
  • Empathy via tone, language and expression
  • Potential Vulnerable Customer

I conducted a “train-the-trainer” session where I explained why I had added certain topics at specific points in the course. As the trainer also shared some valuable feedback, we enhanced the role-play scenarios and included a lot of open-ended questions to understand why they do things a certain way.


The trainer and one of the SME offered their feedback on the success of the training session, stating it was an enlightening experience for the audience as well as the SMEs. Since the examples and the scenarios we offered for role-plays were very specific and similar to their real-life conversations, they (via individual and group activities) were able to identify the concerns in their conversations and fix them. The audience acknowledged the various facets of a conversation that they need to be wary of and how a simple “hmmm” and “oh” could affect the customer and make them anxious. As I learned from the trainer, she and the manager started diving into similar issues in other work locations to identify the skill gap.


Next Post

Previous Post

© 2024 Muralidharan

Theme by Anders Norén