Your employees are salespeople first, technicians second -- so train them that way.

When you invest in training -- and that is what it is, an investment -- you expect a return for what you spent. That's why it is easy for any service and repair business owner to justify spending some of their profits on training technicians to be better technicians.

It is important for them to be familiar with the latest technology, as well as the newest and most sophisticated equipment that any of your customers may have. Trained technicians do a better job, avoid callbacks and can accomplish the work faster than untrained people. It's a no-brainer to spend the money. Customers are happier and you can generate more revenue with fewer headaches than having less professional technicians.

In this competitive environment, I believe it is important to not only have people trained in the latest technology but also in the skills that: 1) will produce the largest payoff; and 2) are the most lacking in companies I see all over the country. By now, most contractors have recognized that the people who represent your company in the customer's home are much more than just technicians with labels like plumbers or HVAC repairmen. In fact, if you are going to run a successful business today, those ambassadors from your business to your customers are, in reality, salespeople first, then mechanics, technicians or repairmen.

It is unfair to expect any employee to competently complete tasks without having the necessary skills to do so. Yet, if we send technicians into a customer's home and we expect them to sell our service and repair work, we are doing just that -- placing them in a position of being responsible for sales, often without the necessary skills. Unless they have had adequate training to effectively sell the services your company offers, they can't do the job.

The sooner we recognize that we have a sales team out there contacting customers, the quicker we will be able to maximize the profits we can generate from our businesses. I became convinced of the value of this fundamental change in the way we look at technicians several years ago when I decided to try to deal with the relative shortage of good, qualified technicians.

We tried a new approach, a different philosophy, in hiring people. We targeted a whole new group of individuals in the pool of potential employees. Instead of seeking technicians or potential technicians that we would have to train to mold them into the professionals we wanted working for us, we actually advertised for salespeople. Isn't that what we need, salespeople? If we want to increase the revenue we generate for our business, we do.

Train The Nontechnical

The results were rewarding. We found that it was easier to supplement a people-oriented person's technical skills than to convince experienced technicians, without those skills or desire to learn them, to follow our professional standards in contacting and dealing with customers. Approaching the problem of developing a team of customer-focused technicians to be sent on the street to serve customers (in trucks with your business' name on them) from that perspective -- salespeople first, then skilled technicians -- enabled us to significantly increase our revenues. The average invoice was higher and customer satisfaction increased. There were fewer callbacks, too.

The challenge with training has always been, how much do you do? And how do you fund it? Companies of all types face that challenge. They want to send well-trained technicians to their customers, but how much training is enough? Certainly, you can overrun your budget by spending money for training that is not reasonable for your business. Too much of a good thing doesn't make it better. So where do you draw the line? Like most good management decisions, you need an organized plan.

One of the first requirements is some standard. You want a consistent policy for technicians. And it would be desirable to have an incentive for them to attend the training. Maybe include them in the decision as to what classes they can attend (within limits).

If you put all these ingredients together, you would discover a way to accomplish the job. Here's what we set up:

  • Technicians must attend 14 days (eight hours a day) of training.
  • They had to select from the approved training courses (Dale Carnegie people-oriented courses, sales training programs, seminars geared toward increasing customer satisfaction and sales).
  • The company paid for the training.
  • All approved courses were posted on bulletin boards with upcoming dates and locations.
This system gave the technicians some flexibility, let them attend the courses they selected, plus it provided them with better people skills. Training was integrated into part of their jobs. Everyone had to take some of the courses, so it was accepted. And it was paid for.

Let The Customer Pay For It

Service and repair businesses often handle the training issue in somewhat of an arbitrary fashion. For example, the boss may decide, "We had a good month, so two of the technicians can take a training class in sales techniques."Using such a hit-or-miss basis for decisions on how to allocate resources for training produces the same type of results: it may work or it may not. Fortunately, we discovered a better way.

A simple but very effective way of funding training is to let the customer pay for it.We established a built-in surcharge on each job that was transparent to the customer. By allocating about $2 per task completed to a separate educational account for each technician (what we called the Educational Account program), funds were accumulated for training. Any technician could attend any approved training course as long as funds were available in his or her EA account. (Though it may be obvious, I should mention that the allocation of funds toward an educational account for a technician never appears on a customer's invoice; it is an accounting function, built in to the price of the job.)

What is particularly beneficial about this system is that it actually provides an incentive for technicians to sell more jobs (legitimately, of course). They know that the more revenue they generate for the company, the more paid-for training courses they can attend.

So I don't mislead you, I must share the fact that, by law, the obligation to pay the technician, including travel and lodging, remains the responsibility of the employer. However, it seems like a small price to pay for a consistent training program and the related benefits. The benefits return to your business in the form of better customer service and a greater number of jobs sold, resulting in more profits.

Most of us have discovered that it can be difficult to keep trained, skilled technicians working for our companies. Although it is not a cure-all, there is another part of the Maio EA Program that helps provide one more incentive for a technician to stay with a company. As part of the program, the account balance in a technician's EA may only be used for training and only while the company employs the technician. We made it clear at the outset of the program, and you should too, that the money is not part of the technician's pay. If they leave, they forfeit the amount in the EA account in their name. Consequently, they have, at least, one more incentive to stay with the company -- more training, and it's paid for.

Which Courses?

So your company doesn't waste money on nonproductive training courses and seminars, look at the courses closely. One check system is to attend a course yourself or have a manager attend. That way, you can confirm the value of the course before you spend money sending a bunch of technicians who either won't like or benefit from the training. Nothing sours the image of training like a bad, unproductive seminar. One poorly designed or delivered training program can discourage technicians from attending any other programs in the future -- and, naturally, word will spread throughout the company.

Another part of the check system is to get feedback from the participants who attend from your company. Knowing they will have to give some feedback will also provide an incentive for the employees to pay attention and take some notes. You set the standard for their behavior when they are off the job or out of town. The events are for learning, not vacations.

Work with your technicians to put into practice what others have learned the hard way. That's why we share the information we do -- so you can profit from it.

The next time you are thinking of ways to increase your long-term profitability, include in your plan the kind of training that produces revenue. Make your technicians better technicians with the sale skills they need.

Maurice Maio At ISH NA

Maurice Maio will be presenting a seminar titled "Successful Contractor Business Practices" twice on Friday, Nov. 1, at the ISH North America trade show in Toronto. The first session is from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. The next session is from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Register for this program and others at, or by calling Wendy Preston at 770/984-8016.