'We're Too Busy for Training'Written By Mary Sedor
Article Date: 08-01-2007
Copyright (C) 2007 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.
Sound familiar? Whether business is sizzlin' in the summertime or slumping off in a cyclical downturn, it's easy to bump employee training to the backburner - but you're the one who'll get cooked.
Two runners train for a marathon. One trains every day, building his strength and endurance; the other runs a few miles a week for a month, takes a three-month hiatus then hits the trail hard right before the big race.
Which runner makes it the full 26.2 miles? Without question the first runner is able to run the distance.
Unfortunately, some equipment dealers tend to behave like the second runner when it comes to employee training. Most are not consistent with their training efforts. Rather, employee training is typically sporadic during most of the year and put off entirely when business is hopping.
“What has been the trend with the construction equipment distribution industry is that in the middle of summer nobody trains,” said Don Buttrey, president of Sales Professional Training.
Consultant George Keen with Currie Management Associates agrees, and adds that it’s a combination of being busy and dealing with the seasonality of the industry.
“Especially in the Northern climate, where we have more seasonality, customers need technicians more,” said Keen. “You’ll find anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of a dealership is composed of service personnel. Add to that the more traditional approach of taking vacations in the summer and dealers don’t have as much staff available at that time as they do in the fall and spring.”
Too Busy to Train
That’s just the case at Diesel Machinery, a Komatsu dealer in Sioux Falls, S.D. Back in June, President Dan Healy rented Service Management 101, Parts Management 101 and Financial Management 101 from AED University, The AED Foundation’s training resource.
“We rented the programs with the understanding that we wouldn’t be training right now,” said Healy. “Originally I signed everyone up for programs; then the guys came to me and said, ‘Hey, I have to get through the summer.’ ”
Healy’s employees will complete the training on their own time – whether that’s during lunch or at home.
“I understand that right now is not the best time,” said Healy. “It’s the time to service our customers.”
Healy says they complete the bulk of their training in the winter. “We put training on the backburner in the heat of the season. We’re not overstaffed to the point where we can train now.”
But experts say the problem with training only when it’s convenient is that dealers aren’t getting the full impact of their training dollars.
“Employees who complete their training in the winter don’t tend to use the new information right away,” said Phil Belnap, consultant with Three Twins Seminars. “During their peak times is actually the best time to train because employees can actually use the things they’ve learned right away. The key is to make the courses short and to the point.”
In Good Times and Bad
Peak season isn’t the only time dealers stop training – when business is doing particularly well and, conversely, when the economy slows are also periods dealers tend to let training lapse or discard it altogether.
“When training is really lacking is when everything is going great,” said Buttrey. “While the season has an impact, training is less likely to happen when dealers are busiest.”
During the busy season, since business is good and their employees are busy, dealers don’t want to interrupt their employees to train.
“What happens is they get lazy and start thinking they are really good because their sales are good, when in fact their people may not have the skills they need,” said Buttrey. “They spend more time reacting instead of proactively going after accounts and that’s even more deadly than not training during their seasonal high.”
Whenever their peak season is, like everything else in life, dealers have a tendency to get caught up in what’s right in front of them.
“I call this ‘Tyranny of the Urgent,’” said Buttrey. “The ‘urgent’ robs us from doing what’s important. It applies in family life – you’re a hardworking dad and before you know it your kids are in college because you didn’t have time to stop and do the important things. It’s the same thing with training. Dealers must look at it objectively and realize it has to be done. Consider whether your people need constant development, training and practice – then you have to make a conscious decision to do it.”
The Best Time to Train
The construction equipment industry is cyclical – that’s not new information. Dealers can expect that the industry will cycle back, and times will eventually be much slower than they are today. What’s surprising is that most dealers, when faced with changing economic times, immediately take training out of the budget.
“Dealers have a tendency to not look at training as an investment in their employees,” said Keen. “Usually what happens in a downswing is dealers start saying that now it’s time to start controlling expenses and they view training as a controllable expense instead of viewing training as an investment in that person’s knowledge or productivity.”
In other words, when the economy slows, this may just be the ideal time to invest in employees with training.
“When things slow down, upper management has a tendency to tighten the purse strings,” continued Keen. “In reality, it might be an ideal time to pour into your people and develop them. You’ll differentiate your company. It’s during the slow times that relationships are built and major accounts are won, so when you do get busy they pay the bills. Making sure your employees have the fundamental people skills, relationship skills and ability to sell dealer value are really important.”
Buttrey recommends dealers take the approach of a professional sports team. No matter how great the professional sports teams are, they always have training camp on a yearly basis to cover the fundamentals; they have practices throughout the year.
“Training camp can be done in your off season,” said Buttrey. “It gets everyone on the same page, pumps them up and refocuses them.”
Create a week-long “training camp” for your employees held once a year, he advises. Cover the basic skills they need. And once that’s established, Buttrey recommends implementing an ongoing practice session held monthly. This practice should be continued throughout the year.
“During the busy season you should meet once a month for a few hours and revisit the skills learned at camp,” said Buttrey. “You play like you practice, and I believe our profession does not practice enough. You don’t necessarily have to stop when you’re busy, but you can’t stop having practice. You must view it as a progression.”
Put It in Perspective
Some dealers may consider training as a drain on the budget, especially in times of economic decline. However, when put into perspective, training really provides dealers with a bigger return than expense.
For instance, consider the fact that in an equipment dealership the rental inventory is typically the largest investment. If you were to send your rental manager to The AED Foundation’s “Improving Rental Results” seminar, he may come back with a new approach on rental fleet management that can yield a better return on the fleet investment. So, for example, an investment of a $995 registration fee that results in the manager returning with knowledge to increase profits by 1 percent on, say, the company’s $2 million rental assets, you’ve just realized a $20,000 return on a $995 investment.
Not bad, even if you build in an extra $1,000 for travel and lodging expenses.
“That one person coming to training got a 10-fold return on what the dealership spent only in one year,” said Keen. “You could do the same $20,000 on the second, third and fourth year. You must look into the investment you’re making on your employees to be trained and the return you’ll get on training.”
Consistency is Key
Whether it’s your slow season, peak season or the economy slows, it’s important to maintain consistency when training your employees.
"Consistency is important for the same reason practice is to any discipline,” said Belnap. “In our industry we give a young, energetic kid a pickup, a cell phone, a laptop and an expense account. We give them access to millions of dollars worth of inventory and say ‘go sell.’ In most cases they have had a week or two of training every year. At that rate it would take 20 years to get 40 weeks of training. How many dealerships would hire a CFO with one year of college experience? In order to build a professional and efficient sales force of high performers you have to have a consistent training program.”
There are dealerships in this industry that haven’t done formal training in 15 years, Buttrey observes. “They know it’s wrong – they admit it; but a lot of midsize and smaller dealers don’t feel like they have the resources to bring someone in, and so they keep deferring it.”
At the other extreme are the large dealers with up to 150 salespeople who commit to a minimum of 40 hours of training per year – per employee.
“Those dealers are committed to training, and they are highly successful,” said Buttrey. “That’s an indication of what all dealers should do, or they’ll fall by the wayside. To be competitive your people have to be on the cutting edge.”
Steve Stafki, parts and service operations manager for General Equipment & Supplies, a Komatsu dealer in Fargo, N.D., says they never drop training.
“If you don’t train you get left behind pretty quickly,” said Stafki. “Basically, the way our market has been, you’re always busy. You have to set aside time no matter what time of the year it is to keep addressing those needs.”
Stafki says they don’t ever shift out of training, even if it’s really busy or the economy slows.
“Even in the slow times your technicians and counter people may not be up to speed,” said Stafki. “Your customers might go elsewhere if your people aren’t well trained, and if it’s during a downturn you might be putting yourself in a bad spot.”
At General Equipment & Supplies, management fits training in by using AED University’s certification programs. Employees use online training and self-study modules. The coursework is completed during lunch breaks and at home.
“We set goals for each person so they want to complete the training to reach their own personal goal,” said Stafki.
When more people are training, Stafki says they plan months out in advance to ensure continuity of customer service.
“We’ve been planning since January for training this month,” said Stafki. “You have to have a plan in place and make a conscious effort to make time for the training.”
No matter the time of year or economic climate, planning is all it takes to cover the vacancy while employees are away for training.
"If you can afford to let your employees go on vacation, you can afford to let them train,” said Keen. “Plus, you’ll get more of a return on them if you train them than if they are on vacation for a week.”
Belnap agrees, adding that if you can’t afford to have your branch manager gone for a day or two then you’re the one to blame.
“You haven’t done a good job of hiring and training your people if you can’t be without them,” said Belnap.
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