For many firms, the word “training” falls into one of two categories, both of which tend to be internally focused. Companies that make and sell industrial equipment often exert a solid effort to teach sales people about the products they sell. Companies that use the equipment generally train or teach their personnel regarding company and regulatory policies, from maintenance program guidelines to OSHA safety rules.
In our experience, it’s often only the very largest industrial firms that expand the reach of training to their external network―third parties, such as vendors, customers and other business partners. At HIPOWER SYSTEMS, we have achieved great benefit by doing just that, and we recommend it as a great solution for companies of any size. In this article, I’ll explore our rationale―and share a few tips.
Why “Train Outside the Box”?
Expanding training (or teaching) to incorporate individuals outside the company structure may seem to many firms like an unnecessary effort. Developing training is expensive, and companies often feel they have neither the financial capital nor the spare personnel to develop and execute external training programs.
However, those that identify these resources and put them to work for external training can reap considerable value from the effort, not least of which is the respect and appreciation of customers for the company. Depending on the market, there are other benefits, as well.
Supply Chain Entities: Manufacturers, distributors and others involved in the supply chain can also increase longevity for and customer loyalty to the products they represent, which can drive sales. At HIPOWER SYSTEMS, for example, we offer a variety of training modules (in-person, video and web-based) to our resellers, distributors and major customers. Training includes HIPOWER SYSTEMS-specific training, from an introduction to our generators and the engines and controllers that run them to basic troubleshooting and maintenance routines that reduce outages and increase ROI.
Over the course of time, we have also developed more fundamental training, such as elementary power generation principles and functions. We offer this type of training not only to our immediate business partners, but also to peripheral entities with whom we work, such as consulting-specifying engineers, building managers and others who might benefit from it.
These are individuals that might understand electricity―or even be electricians or electrical engineers―but in some cases, they might not be sufficiently familiar with power generation and power distribution as it applies to generators, specifically. In other instances, they might have the knowledge, but appreciate a refresher course to ensure there are no holes in their knowledge.
Power Producers: Companies that generate power as their main line of business, rather than those that create or sell power production equipment, can also benefit from developing external training programs.
Here’s an example: An electrical power producer is deploying bi-directional metering and other technologies so that commercial and residential customers with solar panels not only can supply a portion of their own power; they can also sell excess power back to the provider.
Customarily, that producer might have sent out a leaflet in its power bills, or perhaps sent a separate mailer card, announcing the program and asking customers to call for more information. Let’s assume the firm schedules a one-day training program instead. Here, customers can come and really learn about their options―how the program works, what the limitations are, and how being connected to the grid bi-directionally may negatively impact them during grid outages.
Although the training program requires an investment, the result is the power producer will soon be working with more educated customers. Those for whom the program probably isn’t a good match won’t waste the power company’s time. Those who were undecided but are now comfortable with the setup will move forward more quickly. The net result will be cleaner execution of the program with a more stable adoption rate and a greater net power gain for the utility.
The Merits of Different Training Methods
As with so many learning opportunities, no single training method is the most effective for everyone. Equally importantly, some courses are better suited to in-person training, while others work well in a video or web-based (eLearning) model.
This type of training is best for situations where hands-on experience will help cement the instruction. For example, a manufacturer might offer training on power generation or distribution equipment at the site of the distributor or reseller that will be representing the products. While such training requires transportation of heavy equipment to another site, it enables attendees to have “hands-on” sessions with the equipment, which is one of the best mechanisms for mechanical training such as maintenance and troubleshooting.
Videos are valuable because they are permanent and available. Students can watch them again and again, or back them up and review certain segments in detail. However, we have found that video learning works best for detailed subject matter—such as starting and stopping procedures for a generator. Lengthy explanations of operating procedures and other ongoing functions are better saved for classroom-style (in-person or eLearning) instruction.
A third type of training with which we have had a great response is eLearning. Because such training can be paced to suit the learning speed of the participant more readily than can video or even in-person training, it is a great solution for in-depth explorations that don’t require physical access to equipment. An eLearning series also affords companies the opportunity to recognize participants with “certifications,” whether they are formally recognized or not. This approach not only demonstrates mastery of the topic; it also gives participants a sense of accomplishment when they are finished.
Discussions about the relative merits of in-person versus eLearning training are numerous, but in our experience, if the content is appropriate, retention is high. A recent survey conducted by the Research Institute of America found that eLearning can boost retention rates by up to 60%, at least in part because it reduces cognitive overload.
Best Practices for Training
As we mentioned earlier, training requires a dedication of both financial and human resources, and for supply chain companies whose work product is heavy equipment, it can also involve transportation issues. Following are a few tips based on HIPOWER SYSTEMS’ success in the training arena.
Get Vendors Involved: Rather than attempt to cover all topics through internal resources, work with the suppliers of your components and/or equipment, such as engines for generators, or solar cells for alternative power, to help with the training. Not only does this reduce the outlay for the training sponsor; it also can make coursework development easier and more accurate for less-familiar topics.
Don’t overlook the benefit of engaging your downstream partners, such as resellers and distributors. Their personnel can do more than take your training, themselves. They can also host classes and training sessions for their customers who purchase your products or use your services. If they host these classes in tandem with a scheduled delivery of your equipment, you’ll also save on transportation costs.
Offer a Variety of Learning Options: Although some companies may decide they cannot justify in-person, video and web-based training, we recommend offering as many options as possible to increase uptake and retention. If you must limit itself to one type of training, strive to ensure it meets the preferred format of the majority of your customers and/or partners.
Start with the Basics: A great training system won’t happen overnight, and it’s better to do a great job of a few topics than inadequately cover too many items. Pick one or more problems that frequently generate customer inquiries or service calls and address them, first.
Additionally, make sure the sessions are long enough to provide real value—especially with in-person training. For example, HIPOWER SYSTEMS has determined that our in-person training programs work best when they occur over a full two to three days. That leaves enough time for classroom instruction and hand-on training in a variety of topics. It also gives attendees the opportunity to digest the information of each day before starting on another topic.
Keep It Fresh: Plan from the outset to periodically update your training and introduce new modules. Sometimes this can be achieved through updating existing courses. New regulations, advances in technology and equipment refreshes are all good opportunities to update a training program.
Talk to Your Customers: As we mentioned above, it’s important to solicit the input of key customers for both your delivery mechanisms and your actual courses. It’s equally valuable to ask for feedback after the training and tweak the lessons accordingly. However, communication shouldn’t be one-sided. If you are expending the effort and money to develop an external training program, don’t forget to publicize it widely to customers and partners and encourage them to take advantage of it.
Go Public, Yet Stay Private: In addition to publicizing your training programs through your immediate circle, don’t hesitate to share the news of your program with the media. The resulting press will enhance your corporate reputation. When it comes to eLearning modules themselves, however, we believe in securing them behind a registration system. Not only does this ensure your competition won’t lift them wholesale from your site; it also helps you collect valuable information from customers and prospects and confers an air of exclusivity to the offering.
External product and service training is proven to increase customer satisfaction and, in the case of equipment, extend life and enhance ROI for the purchaser. It also offers the benefit of reducing customer assistance requests. Beyond these practical items, in our experience, well-designed, effective training also turns partners and customers into evangelists.
Most people understand that when a company takes the time to properly train those associated with its products or services, it means the firm cares about customer service and is committed to quality. No one likes being confused or uncertain about the products and services they use. Help your customers and partners become better educated and gain valuable allies, in the process.