A Time To Train
Training takes priority at Hurley & David, Inc., in Springfield, MA, reports Gary Woodruff, residential manager. “Every week, we have a training meeting in the morning for all of the residential service technicians that focus predominately on conducting service calls and communicating with homeowners,” he explains. “We have another technician training meeting each week that focuses on technical skills and knowledge about how to operate out in the field.”
According to Woodruff, weekly training meetings usually last an hour. “We’ll take a look at results out in the field to see what we’re doing with service agreement conversions, sales lead conversions, and average tickets for about 10 to 15 minutes,” he says, “and then we spend the rest of the time on whichever training topic we’re going to work on that day.”
With 35 employees, Hurley & David handles commercial new construction, service, and replacement work, residential service and replacement work, plumbing, and building weatherization. Total sales volume averages about $6 million annually, about half of which is residential.
Training topics are typically selected based on the performance of employees in the field. “We want to reinforce and develop the right skills, follow the right procedures, and set everybody up for success. Training for the sake of training doesn’t work,” Woodruff insists. “People get bored.”
Robert Wilkos, business leader, Roussos Air Conditioning, Panama City, FL, takes a similar approach to choosing subjects. “Training topics are sometimes selected based on a recent incident,” he says. “I’ve been in this industry for 42 years, and I can assure you that everything that happens in a service organization offers grounds for training.”
He adds that financial reports can also pinpoint areas where a department or a group of field or office employees might need assistance. Although Roussos provides weekly and bimonthly meetings with safety and incident-specific training for technicians, Wilkos believes that targeted training to individual needs can be the most beneficial.
For example, he says, if a technician finds conversing with customers difficult, he might offer a mix of communication and sales, or if a new technician doesn’t feel totally grounded in a specific troubleshooting area, he might zero in on that deficiency for follow-up instruction. “If one individual needs help, there is no sense involving the whole staff.”
However, if the issue deserves company wide attention, Wilkos might address the situation in the company’s weekly newsletter. “Let’s say there is a customer relations incident that could have been avoided if we had handled it differently,” he says. We might bring it to the attention of the entire staff in the newsletter or even call a company meeting.”
The company employs 16 people and generates total revenues of $2.2 million annually, of which service accounts for 35 percent.
Getting Out and About
Although he has noticed its increasing popularity, Woodruff doubts whether online training will replace classroom instruction any time soon.
“One of the big advantages of classroom training is you get your guys in a room with other guys from across the country who are doing the same work,” he says. “They can interact, share, and get positive feedback about what they do. The online training we’ve done is one presenter talking to everybody else. There’s not that component of getting the energy and working with other people.”
Dan Ramirez, director of marketing and development, National Coalition of Certification Centers (NC3), Pleasant Prairie, WI, agrees. “Training in a classroom with your peers allows employees to develop a network of colleagues they can turn to for a resource,” he says. “They come together, and during the course of a handful of days, they can form lifelong professional support networks. Even after the training takes place, they can continue to improve each other.”
Although he concedes that in-house and online training can be convenient, Ramirez points out that “training often improves when you get out of your normal environment because you can open up your brain and get away from distractions.”
He believes that a critical component of any technical training is a facility that allows participants to put theories into practice. “If you’re teaching welding, you probably don’t want to be in a regular classroom that doesn’t offer the opportunity to weld,” he says. “The training that is least effective is training from a power point presentation. Wherever you train, it’s really vital to have the capability to practice the new skill so you actually come away knowing how to do it.”
For effective training of HVAC employees, Wilkos offers simple advice: Develop a training schedule, commit to it, and set aside money for it. He estimates training expenditures at his company averages from 2 to 3 percent of total revenues, depending on the year.
Other training tips include:
Emphasize ongoing training. “You should basically train year round,” says Wilkos, although his company typically limits offsite training during the selling months, which run April through September.
He adds that when hiring an apprentice, the company gives priority to candidates who have successfully completed an HVAC course at a vo-tech school. “If not available, then we would then select the most qualified applicants without this credential who are mechanically inclined and possess good aptitude, attitude, and people skills. It is also a plus if they have any sales experience prior to interviewing with us. We tell them all that in order to grow and stay with us that they will be required to become NATE-certified at some point in time and we will pay to prepare them for the test.”
Consider individual needs. Wilkos recommends that you combine training with timely performance reviews and coaching. “There has to be communication and guidance on how employees are performing and what they need to work on to reach the next level.”
Don’t overlook soft skills. “In our industry, there are people who fall prey to the belief that if you have a guy who can fix things, he can go out in his truck and be an effective technician,” Woodruff emphasizes. “So you train on technical stuff and don’t train him how to work with people. You end up with technician who charges a lot of service fees and doesn’t sell a lot of repairs.”
At his company, the ratio of communications training to technical skills training averages three to one. “We have guys who come from trade schools or move up from installer to service technicians so they have a technical skill set, but nobody teaches them how to interact with people.”
Encourage employees to share their knowledge. If one of your technicians is a superstar in a particular area, ask him or her to share tips and secrets with the staff. Woodruff believes this technique acknowledges your superstar’s proficiency and makes him or her feel empowered. It also gives the training credibility because employees think, “He’s out in the field. He knows what he’s doing.”
Wilkos does add one note of caution to this approach: “You have to watch that veteran techs don’t pass their bad habits to their apprentices.”
Offer a refresher on important subjects. Sometimes HVAC contractors brief employees about a topic once and then think, “OK, I told them that. Now they know it,” Woodruff says. “Training has to be an ongoing process. It can feel repetitive, but if we don’t talk about the process over and over, people forget.”
Wilcox concurs. “Don’t try to eat the elephant in one bite,” he says, which is his way of saying, “Don’t try to do too much at one sitting.”
Ask for feedback. Ramirez urges owners and managers to leave room for employees to propose their own training topics. “The best kind of learning is self-driven,” he says. “Employees often know best where they need to improve. You want learning to be meaningful and powerful for employees so they come back from training and say, “Wow. This is great. I can’t wait to implement this. It will make my life so much easier and the company more efficient.”
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