ACHRNEWS

In-House Technician Training Opportunities

January 22, 2003
There’s a lot of talk in the industry about developing more qualified technicians. Schools and technical campuses need to do more to ensure that up-and-coming techs have the skills they need before entering the workforce. But training doesn’t stop the moment your technicians graduate from their HVACR program.

Many contractors provide in-house training for all of their employees, to make sure that they stay on top of technical skills and have the soft skills necessary to promote the company. If you are not one of these contractors, you may be missing out on a valuable tool for keeping and developing qualified technicians.

If you are one of these contractors, you might need some tips on how to make sure your in-house training program is the best it can be.

Continuing Education Is Essential

Several organizations in the industry offer ongoing training opportunities. One such organization is Contractors 2000. The main focus of this group is to provide training to contractors with the goal of boosting their business and their profitability.

Contractors 2000 believes that a successful business takes its technicians into account and provides them with the training they need for continued success. The contractor organization can teach contractors and service managers how to develop and conduct in-house training.

“I think it’s vital that contractors have training in-house and they have to do it on a consistent basis,” said Sheri Bennefeld, training specialist for Contractors 2000.

Bennefeld is responsible for managing the group’s training events and helping to initiate educational programs that will benefit members. She has also had a great deal of experience training employees. In fact, she helps instruct Contractors 2000 programs, including a session called Gold Star Management Academy. The program is tailored specifically for the managers of residential service providers, and takes an in-depth look at issues that affect contractors, including recruiting, hiring, and retaining employees. The academy also provides participants with advice on how to assume a coaching role with employees.

Bill Raymond of Frank & Lindy Plumbing & Heating Service (Peekskill, N.Y.) and Jeff Meehan of Cabrillo Plumbing & Heating (San Francisco) have also instructed the Gold Star Management Academy. Raymond and Meehan agree that in-house training is vital, but many contractors are not doing it.

Meehan believes that about 70 percent of Contractors 2000 members conduct an in-house training program for employees. Industry-wide, Meehan believes that number is less than 20 percent. He said that some contractors do not understand the advantages of an in-house training program; others do not have the financial means to put together a training program.

“Some contractors think they should just do the bare minimum for a customer and get out,” said Meehan.

Fixing Mistakes, Selling More

Meehan and Raymond both conduct in-house training. Meehan said all new employees must go through the “University of Cabrillo,” as he calls it. The training, exclusively for new hires, lasts three weeks. It aims to teach employees the fundamentals, what is expected of them, and how the company works. Meehan also sends his technicians to training events through Contractors 2000, including the Contractors 2000 Boot Camp.

For existing employees, Meehan conducts two separate training programs: one that is purely technical and another that focuses on dealing with customers and how to sell upgrades.

Meehan’s warehouse manager is in charge of the weekly technical sessions. These introduce the techs to new product lines, their features, and how they work. More importantly, Meehan said that the sessions are meant to correct earlier mistakes.

If there were callbacks during the week, the warehouse manager will go over that callback with the rest of the service technicians and explain what went wrong and how the job can be performed differently in the future.

Meehan leads the sales portion of his company’s training, but he likes to refer to his sales sessions as “presentation training.” He said that when technicians hear the word sell, they “freak out.”

According to Meehan, the presentation training is not about pressuring customers to buy products. He instructs his technicians to be more open-minded with customers. This means asking questions and finding out what customers want and need.

“We train to ask questions,” said Meehan, “not to make assumptions.” He explained that some technicians assume that customers do not want to hear about extra accessories or higher end products, whereas in reality they just need to be asked.

He said that when technicians ask questions, they not only have the opportunity to sell better products, they also can begin to gain customers’ trust.

“Customers are apprehensive about someone coming into their home,” said Meehan. He explained that when a technician begins to inquire into customers’ needs, this shows a desire to help and gives the customer a feeling of trust.

“If you don’t have the trust of the customer, they won’t buy,” said Meehan.

He instructs his technicians to “observe and recommend.” After diagnosing the problem on an HVAC system, Meehan said that his technicians should begin to make recommendations to the customer, and not just one. He tells his technicians to provide a maximum of three recommendations on how to fix the problem, if possible. This gives the customer choices and opens the door for upgrades.

Using The Force

Raymond also offers a course designed just for selling and another focusing on technical issues. But Raymond takes a different approach. His weekly programs have a “Star Wars” theme. At the beginning of the week, the company’s lead technician runs the “Obi-Wan” meeting.

“These meetings are completely focused on the technical side,” said Raymond. Like Meehan’s technical session, the course reviews recent callbacks. “Everyone gets the benefit of others’ mistakes.”

On Thursdays, Raymond instructs his sales training, called the “Yoda Meeting.” The premise is to take a look at sales and customer service. Raymond said that in these meetings, “Yoda” is an acronym for “You Ought to Do Add-ons.”

He said that the mantra for this meeting comes from the character of Yoda; when it comes to sales, there is either “Do or do not; there is no try.”

Raymond said his technicians must ask questions and offer a variety of solutions. During the Yoda meeting, he gives techs a general overview on selling and instructs them on how to work well with customers.

He said the techs have to ask a series of broad, open-ended questions. The answers will lead the tech to offer customers what they need. He said it also begins to build a one-on-one relationship between the techs and the customers.

The Basics Of Training

Many contractors may see the need for training their technicians on a regular basis, but may be reluctant to do so. The contractor could be a technical genius, but standing in front of a room full of employees and educating them is a different story.

Raymond believes there are three basic ideas contractors and service managers must grasp if they are going to take on the responsibility of training technicians.

1. Contractors must believe in what they are teaching. They must decide what they expect from their employees and make sure that they communicate this.

2. The contractor needs to know the material he is presenting. For example, if he or she is using instructional videos as part of the training, the contractor should have watched the videos beforehand.

3. The technicians must know why the training is necessary. “You have to tell them what’s in it for them and why it is a benefit,” said Raymond.

When he first started holding weekly training sessions, Raymond said some of his students didn’t see the need. After telling them why the course was so important, technicians started to come around.

Raymond explained the image customers have about service technicians and that their goal was to change that image. He said that many customers assume the technician will be dirty, will track dirt through their home, and will rip them off.

That is why Raymond teaches his technicians on how to present themselves. He also tells his technicians that when they learn how to put on a more professional image and learn to sell higher end equipment, the company makes more money and they, in turn, will make more money.

Bennefeld agrees with Raymond, and has a couple more rules designed to help contractors develop successful training programs. She said that when starting any new training, contractors or trainers must start at the beginning. This includes laying down the ground rules.

“The contractor needs to look at his non-negotiable standards,” said Bennefeld. “What do you expect from all your employees and where are they in comparison to those standards?”

She said that the contractor should also be upfront about the curriculum. Before beginning the program, tell them what they will learn, the steps they will go through to learn it, and why it is important.

“Training is not going to happen all in one shot,” she said. “Build a curriculum and share it up front. Structure it in a logical sequence. Begin at the start of the service call until the end and take it one step at a time.”

Training Resources

Meehan and Raymond have made a commitment to continuing education for their employees, but they admit that they didn’t do it alone.

Raymond said that Contractors 2000 not only provides training, but also resources and tools that contractors can implement into their companies. These resources include guides on how to set up a training program. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” said Raymond.

The organization has outlines for developing in-house training programs, as well as teaching aids, such as a video series on selling to customers. These resources have come from the suggestions of members.

“The greatest thing about Contractors 2000 is the willingness of its members to share what works for them,” Bennefeld said. “This gives our members the opportunity to have real partners.”

For more information, visit www.contractors2000.com.

Sidebar: Developing In-House Training Techniques

Once the trainer has grasped the fundamentals of beginning a training program, he or she can start to think about techniques that will make up each educational session.

Sheri Bennefeld, training specialist for Contractors 2000, suggests that each training session use a variety of teaching methods. She said that the trainer could speak for about 15 minutes, then lead into a 20-minute video, and then maybe another 20 minutes of group discussion.

Bennefeld said that in adult training programs, the maximum amount of time most adults can focus on one thing is about 20 minutes. After that, students begin to stop listening unless there is a change in the classroom. For this reason, Bennefeld said students need to be involved as much as possible. The instructor must ask questions and make sure that each tech is involved in the learning process.

Another way of getting them involved includes role playing.

Bill Raymond of Frank & Lindy Plumbing & Heating Service, an instructor at the Gold Star Management Academy, uses role-playing techniques with his technicians. Raymond said that he often has one person play the part of the customer as one of the technicians rehearses a regular visit and provides the customer with sales options. He said that the technicians may feel a bit awkward about role-playing at first, but he asserts the exercise is beneficial. Raymond said it gives the technician practice and lets other technicians see techniques they can use.

“If they can’t do it in a controlled environment, they won’t be able to do it in the real world,” said Raymond.

Bennefeld also suggests setting up games, which not only gets the students involved but also helps break the monotony. One example is to set up a game where the technicians earn points for answering questions correctly. Technicians can also work together in teams to come up with answers.

“I’m an advocate of rewarding people for their dedication to learning,” said Bennefeld. “Have an employee compensated when they complete a training session.” The most obvious prize would be bonuses, but contractors can also provide rewards that everyone in the company can share.

— James J. Siegel

Publication date: 01/27/2003