Savvy distributors know that well-designed training programs help engage employees, reduce employee turnover and build successful and high-performing organizations.
Below, several IMARK distributors nationwide with a strong history of success in the employee training arena discuss factors that contribute to a strong training curriculum, common obstacles they face when rolling out a training program and how manufacturers can help support their training efforts.
Employee Training and Development Responsibilities
Jim Dunn, Warshauer Electric (Tinton Falls, New Jersey): I’ve been with Warshauer Electric for 28 years and am responsible for everything across all locations and all employees. I personally created and developed our employee training and customer training programs in 1999.
Juliet Latham, United Electric (New Castle, Delaware): I’ve been with United Electric for three years and am responsible for our internal talent development strategy and programs as well as for helping our employee-owners reach their professional and organizational goals. My background includes creating and implementing learning and development programs primarily for companies in the retail energy industry as well as consulting in compliance training and certification programs.
Josh Rowley, Blazer Electric (Colorado Springs/Pueblo, Colorado): I’ve been with Blazer Electric since 2009 and was part of the original team that relaunched the company as Blazer Electric Supply 2.0. that year. In 2019, after serving as warehouse manager and counter/inside sales manager, I was appointed human resources manager, where my responsibilities include recruiting, onboarding and both overseeing current training programs and creating new ones. Our objective is to hire candidates who are searching for career opportunities and are eager to work their way up the ranks. We establish a training curriculum for new hires on Day 1 and continue to customize training curriculums to help guide them to long-term success.
The Benefits and ROI of a Structured Training Program
Latham: Investing in a structured training program pays off in two crucial ways. First, for our employee- owners, training and development programs that focus on interpersonal and professional growth can transform “just a job” into an entire career. Training paths help our people understand how they’re part of the bigger picture and that what they’re learning right now contributes to our future as a company. The second benefit of a structured training program is that it helps ensure that our customers have consistent and high-quality experiences with our people and processes, because not only are our employee-owners well-informed and competent, but they’re continuously getting better at what they do.
Dunn: On the employee side, training is the true “value add” that any electrical wholesaler can provide, but it absolutely needs to be structured and accountable. We all sell the same brown boxes, so wholesalers can choose to sell on price or value, and we all know that selling on price will just be a race to the bottom. However, if your staff is highly educated and that education process never ends, that expertise can add true value to the customer by enabling employees to answer customer questions immediately (because time is money), help customers solve problems in the field (because labor is very expensive) and/or potentially show customers a more efficient and cost-effective way to cross the finish line on the project at hand. All of these things can save contractors a tremendous amount of money in time and labor, so the actual cost of the brown box becomes less significant. Education and training are the foundations of this entire philosophy.
Rowley: Here at Blazer, training programs are absolutely vital to our long-term success and we’re very willing to invest in them. We’re an electrical distributor that sells parts and pieces just like anybody else, so we differentiate ourselves by offering solutions to our customers. Providing structured training programs to our staff so that they can offer value-added solutions to our customers is how we keep the doors open.
Establishing a Culture of Training and Employee Engagement
Rowley: Blazer has a philosophy that all levels, from the owner on down, firmly believe in “the success of our company and ultimately the success of our associates depends on customer service, associate relations, vendor relations and community relations.” All employees have a voice and our leadership team encourages them to use it. Our company culture embodies all of those values and is why employees are engaged in our training programs and asking for more.
Latham: Leadership support for learning and growth is immeasurable. It starts with our leaders modeling a commitment to developing themselves no matter what level they’ve reached in the organization. When a manager is open to new learning opportunities and honest about how they’re growing, mistakes they’ve made and learned from, books they’re reading and what they’re curious and passionate about, they’re showing everyone how valuable
and endless the process of development really is. We talk about the concept of “lifelong learning” a lot at United, because in today’s rapidly changing world, curiosity and learning is what keeps us evolving and allows us to be relevant and essential to our customers. Lifelong learning is a core component of our company culture.
Dunn: Executive-level support for training is critical and why I personally created our programs from the top down—if training isn’t made accountable from the top level, it will never succeed.
Dunn: You have to give employees some skin in the game but also know when to establish boundaries. We require our employees to complete 12 online training classes per quarter; a few relevant ones are assigned (and for new employees, all are assigned), but the employee can choose most of them. If the employee chooses quality classes that are relevant and topical, they continue to be allowed to choose their own path, as we recognize that employees have various strengths, interests and degrees of experience and we support them in pursuing their path of expertise across certain product categories. If employees choose the easiest and/or shortest path, however, they’ll be assigned classes until they get back on track.
Latham: The challenge is to create an environment that’s not only encouraging, but where employees feel safe to fail while learning. Research tells us that adult learners are most successful in programs that offer some autonomy around when and how they learn, training on concepts that have a clear connection to life experiences and the opportunity to directly apply what they’ve learned to their day-to-day work. If a program can supply these experiences, it can be successful in reaching a wide variety of employees and job types. In my experience, most people are open to learning if they feel that the content is accessible and relevant and that they have a clear sense of what they might gain from training. It’s important to explain the “why” behind a learning opportunity because learners won’t engage if they don’t see how the content contributes to their own path in some way. If they know that their learning efforts will result in better conversations and increased credibility with customers, or that acquiring a new skill will help make them the obvious choice for a new or desired role, then they feel we’ve offered something valuable.
Rowley: One major challenge is learner retention. Every individual learns differently, so you need to find a way to engage as many of the individual’s five senses as you can. Virtual learning seems to be the most popular and can be assigned and taught in mass, but you lose the touch and feel aspect, so certain individuals may not retain as much information as others might. Classroom and one-on-one type settings still carry weight and have the potential to generate the most impact by providing a more hands-on approach, especially with regards to product and computer training, but this type of training is also the most challenging to implement and remains an ongoing struggle here at Blazer. Another challenge is the obstacle of “day-to-day operations” that can interrupt training activities and scheduled courses, whether because of staff shortages within departments, customer order discrepancies or heavier staff workloads. As an example, we’ve been in the process of scheduling roundtable group discussions with all staff members and have had to reschedule these group sessions quite a few times already because of the interference of “day-to-day” activities. There’s also the challenge of “teaching an old dog new tricks” among our well-seasoned staff. They already have the product knowledge and training can be somewhat redundant unless it involves new or upcoming products. In those cases, we assign our seasoned associates to mentor one or two newer employees with a primary focus on product training and application. Our Mentor Program has been well-received by both our “old timers” and mentees alike.
Recommended Tactics for Success
Latham: At United, employees at every level of the organization are asked to reach an annual lifelong learning-hours goal as part of their contribution to the company. This expectation is so embedded in our company DNA that we have employee-owners making sure their hours are completed literally weeks before retirement! But the fun thing is that the hours they report don’t all have to involve work-related topics. In addition to required job training, we also value personal development—for instance, reading a book of choice on a topic that facilitates learning, listening to a podcast or taking a course to develop a hobby or interest. We believe that a culture of learning starts with curiosity and passion and we want to bring that level of energy to our interactions with customers. Outreach to employees about what learning opportunities are available and managerial attention to the development needs and desires of their employees are essential. Sometimes employees tell us that they want to move forward in their career but aren’t sure “what’s out there,” so we connect them to other departments, roles and functions and offer shadowing opportunities, time with department leads and live and virtual training courses to help them reach their goals.
Dunn: Make training a priority. As previously noted, training is so important at Warshauer Electric that our classes are mandatory—not meeting your quarterly/yearly training requirements will mean no annual performance review.
Rowley: Find ways to keep employees engaged and make training fun by offering incentives, such as by creating an award system, offering a cash bonus upon completion and/or making it a competition within each department or branch. While making it fun, training also needs to be made interactive; ask questions back to the trainee or come up with other ways to make it hands-on. When reps/vendors come in and offer “lunch and learn” events, ask them to come prepared to offer a quiz or test to make sure that the employees aren’t just there for a free lunch.
Effective Training Platforms
Rowley: It’s important to cater the training programs to your audience. Virtual and online platforms seem to be the most popular; they’re also easier to create, manage and assign to employees. One of the biggest benefits of virtual and online learning platforms is their flexibility—employees can simply log on and begin training anytime they want with little interference from their daily duties and responsibilities. Tracking and reporting become a breeze, adding and changing content is simple and then you have the gamification features to develop incentives and awards. At the same time, however, you can’t help but question the learning retention with this format—e.g., is the employee actually learning much by staring at a computer? You need to supplement virtual and online programs with more hands-on learning programs in a classroom or a one-on-one setting tailored towards seeing and doing, but allocating time at the workplace is the biggest obstacle when implementing a more in-person training format.
Latham: Using a combination of different platforms for training can satisfy a wider range of learning goals and increase learning outcomes. The pandemic really underscored the importance of having flexible, virtual options for learning, but distancing also highlighted how impactful in-person training or peer-to-peer experiences can be to an employee’s development. E-learning is very convenient and allows learners to absorb information at their own pace, so it’s great for developing a baseline knowledge of products or skills. In-person learning opportunities can build on this knowledge by adding the human elements of storytelling and experience, sharing best practices, exploring challenges and asking questions. Experiential learning opportunities such as shadowing, role-play and supervised practice with new skills provide the practical application learners need to make the content come alive in their day-to-day work. All of these types of learning platforms are valuable and necessary for real growth and the best training programs incorporate all of them.
Dunn: I think that for most products, online training is the best and easiest way to get to the finish line. There are some product categories that are best taught in person if they lend themselves to a hands-on component, which some products do. This also helps break up the monotony of all online classes, but we find that online is still generally the most productive format, especially after hours because it’s interruption-free. So a blended approach is best with a heavy tilt towards online content.
What Manufacturers Can Do to Help
Latham: Of all the training we offer at United, manufacturer-sponsored product training continues to be the most favorite and independently-sought-out option by our employees. The more we know about a customer’s business and the products they need and use, the more helpful we can be to them. Manufacturers can continue to support our training and development efforts with ongoing communication around new courses, support when it comes to incentivizing our training efforts (BlueBucks rewards are definitely valued by our people) and the continuous offering of live, interactive training opportunities. We love the ability to add product courses into our own Learning Management System (LMS) so that we can easily create learning campaigns, assign courses and track completion.
Dunn: Manufacturers need to do a better job of providing quality online training content for their products. They need to keep them up-to-date relative to new codes and standards and they should go hand-in-hand with new product introductions.
Rowley: Manufacturers and their reps consistently offer training and support, visit our branches and provide “lunch and learn”-type training programs to promote their products. On most occasions, they’re basically advertising and promoting their newer products, which is great, but I’d like to see them also arrive with some training offerings that target our newer employees—for instance, a basic 101 course on products that discusses applications and associated products within their line. I would encourage manufacturers and reps to plan a “back to basics” course twice a year to help employees really hone in and create a strong foundation moving forward. IMARK University is well-used here at Blazer and we take full advantage of this platform by adding in our own training programs for current and new employees. We also ask that manufacturers keep their content fresh and informative—e.g., what’s the application, why is it used, how is it installed and what information is required to sell the correct product? At the end of the day, a simple cut sheet and brief description isn’t really putting their best foot forward or helping the distributor personnel who are going to be selling it.
Dunn: Get 100% support from the top, make training accountable and fun and reward employees who “get it,” especially those who go above and beyond. Nothing makes us happier than to announce a promotion from within when the employee takes training and education to another level to help better his/her career and skyrocket their career path accordingly.
Latham: I think that one of the most important components of a successful development program is to continuously improve it by asking for and receiving feedback from the learners;
if your programs aren’t hitting the mark, they’ll tell you. I try to track every suggestion I receive from our learners because it helps me identify gaps and trends, respond to a wider range of learning styles and create a roadmap for future improvement.
Rowley: There’s no such thing as too much training, so become flexible and adaptive with your training programs—e.g., break the barriers of traditional training, invest in your future by offering a variety of training formats to your staff, give your employees a voice when it comes to training and then listen to, learn from and work alongside your staff to develop or change training programs as needed. Having a successful training program will never have an ending, as there’s always more to add and change. Find ways to keep it interactive, fun and informative, commit yourself to the training as leaders and hold yourselves and your team accountable for it. Here at Blazer, we’ve made tremendous progress with our training programs and curriculums over the years. While we still have a long way to go, the good news is that the support and investment at the ownership level are there.