9 Steps to Better Distributor Training Programs
In an ever-evolving world, where the knowledge landscape constantly shifts, jan/san distributors are relentlessly pursuing a path toward greater industry knowledge by offering training experiences for their customers. The training and education programs offered as a value-added service cover a range of topics — from product usage and safety, to cleaning techniques and regulatory compliance. However, many programs miss the mark because distributors fail to evaluate them for currency and effectiveness.
All too often, jan/san distributors ignore the importance of training oversight — and according to Mike Sawchuk, owner of Sawchuk Consulting, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, this is a mistake.
“A lot of training programs are self-serving. The distributor has a new widget that they promote, hoping to make a sale,” he says. “Some have never taken the time to ask their customers what kinds of training they need or to evaluate their training for its effectiveness. Just because you offer a training program doesn’t mean it has any value.”
To Sawchuk, great programs come together when distributors make the effort to understand customer needs and track training effectiveness.
“Distributors need to collect data,” he says. “The more data they have, the clearer the picture of what kinds of training most benefits their customers.”
To that end, here are nine factors distributors should consider when evaluating their training program.
1. Know the Why
Distributors who question whether to supply training should instead ask “why not?” Not only is training a valuable service to customers that will keep them coming back, but it’s also one way for distributors to contribute to the improvement of the industry.
Ron Segura, a 57-year industry expert and owner of San Franscisco-based Segura & Associates, stresses this last point. For a decade, he managed the cleaning of over 4.5 million square feet for The Walt Disney Company. Throughout his career, Segura has seen the benefits of distributor training programs from a broad point of view.
“I always encourage end users to develop a partnership with their distributors because distributors have access to valuable information and training that will help improve cleaning programs,” he says.
Distributor training checks a box that many end users struggle to check off on their own. Managers in these operations, according to Segura, typically train staff haphazardly, which leads to inconsistent work. Meanwhile, distributors are ideally positioned to educate staff on the correct use of the products they provide.
2. Establish KPIs
Supplying training for all customers isn’t always advantageous, Sawchuk adds. Instead, he suggests the focus of training programs should be for the distributors' top and largest clients; it may not be cost effective to offer training for everyone.
It is crucial to consider the return on investment (ROI) of training programs before offering them.
“A training program cannot cost a distributor money. You cannot just say, ‘I’m a distributor, I need not offer free training.’ A distributor still needs an ROI on their efforts,” Sawchuk explains. “Establishing key performance indicators (KPIs), calculating costs, and assessing payback is necessary before providing training. A training program should also benefit the distributor.”
3. Identify Training Needs
Sawchuk explains that determining the necessary training and target audience begins with comprehending the significant challenges, frustrations, and concerns of clients. The training is then developed to tackle those specific issues. For example, if a client says their major obstacle is finding and retaining employees, their distributor should consider how they can assist and develop a training program addressing this concern.
“The biggest thing is to find out their pain points, frustrations and concerns, then see how you can help solve them with a training program,” he says. “The following step is to create an effective training program that adds value to their operation.
4. Decide How to Train
The pandemic ushered in a new era for jan/san training programs. When COVID-19 shut down businesses and facilities across the country, distributors had to quickly pivot and offer training online.
Videos and webinars became a great way to deliver certain information. Distributors also found it easier to gather feedback from end users, and workers could attend training more easily because of on-demand availability.
However, online education also has limitations, experts warn. The lack of frequent updates and one-on-one interaction between trainers and participants proved a major drawback for online training and webinars. Hands-on learning became impossible, and “people got Zoomed out,” Segura says.
In-person training is still recommended for these reasons.
“Training in person builds a deeper, wider, stronger relationship with the customer,” says Sawchuk. “The distributor gets to see the customer’s operation and deliver hands-on training to custodians.”
Segura concurs, noting that in-person training is always best.
“You can give trainees an opportunity to participate and be part of the program,” he says. “The industry is constantly introducing new equipment, chemicals and cleaning processes. To remain current, one must receive proper training.”
Still, blending online learning with in-person classes can be a benefit, says Sawchuk. For example, a course on electrostatic sprayers might start online with an explanation of the equipment, how it functions and what its advantages are. A test to evaluate participants' knowledge would precede in-person, hands-on learning. Once students pass the test, they would move to in-person training.
5. Determine Class Size
Class size is always a consideration, whether meeting in person or online. For example, large classes can make it difficult to engage with all the participants. Distributors need to meet with clients to identify training topics, establish the correct number of participants per class and to develop a training plan that guarantees all technicians receive optimal training.
Class size can be influenced by the type of education provided, adds Sawchuk. Thirty people might easily attend a class on cleaning for a specific illness, such as COVID-19. However, a maximum of 10 people might only be possible for a class on using a rotary (swing) floor machine.
“You don’t want one instructor with 30 people trying to use the machine,” says Sawchuk. “Determine the objective of the training program, the skill set of the people in the class, and the subject matter being covered, then decide on class size.”
6. Set a Training Schedule
Training frequency can range from once a month to once per quarter; it depends on the operation.
“You might run a program four times a year because the operation has 40 employees and you cannot train all 40 at once,” says Sawchuk. “Or training might be less frequent for operations with fewer technicians.”
Segura proposes meeting with customers to set up an ideal training schedule.
“It’s good if they can meet monthly about a different topic every time,” he says. “But meet with your customer’s management to develop a program.”
7. Select the Right Instructors
Distributors often task a successful salesperson with training responsibilities. That’s not always the best approach, according to Sawchuk. A person can have a strong sales instinct, but they may not have the patience to communicate knowledge effectively or to empathize with their audience's frustrations.
“If a salesperson doesn’t get a bonus or other benefits from their efforts, then it’s not in their best interest,” he adds.
It’s best to search for a trainer who possesses the right personality, skills and expertise to provide training. In some cases, it’s smart to partner with a manufacturer who can send out a subject matter expert to provide training.
Excellent collateral material, like handouts or PowerPoint presentations, is crucial. If using collateral, Sawchuk emphasizes that it must be professionally put together, or people will just tune out.
Good trainers also have practical knowledge of what they teach. They understand the challenges that their clients encounter.
During his time with Disney, Segura witnessed a major distributor sending out untrained sales staff for training. The only knowledge they had came from their sales book.
“Your clients need someone who brings something of value — someone who can share the product, demonstrate how it works and explain how it will impact them,” he says.
8. Making Training Meaningful
What do technicians get for taking the training? It has to be meaningful for them too, according to Sawchuk.
“A little certificate might not mean much to you, but it typically does to frontline staff. There is pride in receiving that certificate,” he says. “What does it cost you to print a certificate that says, Technician A passed the ‘How to Strip a Floor’ course? Put it in a frame and make a big deal of it.”
Stress the why behind the training as well. For instance, a general course on cleaning might emphasize that cleaning for health helps save lives.
“They are keeping people healthier and safer, just like doctors, nurses and paramedics. You might get a few laughs when saying that, but it’s true,” adds Sawchuk. “You’ve given them motivation to serve and do their jobs well. You have taught them that their job is important.”
Monetary rewards in the form of small gift cards also work. Or operations can tie incentives into completing a program.
“When all these little pieces come together consistently, it sends a message that they are important, what they do is important, and because of that, we are investing in you,” says Sawchuk.
Segura agrees, noting that providing opportunities for growth will also stress the importance of training.
“Not everyone who applies for a janitorial job wants to be a janitor for the rest of their lives,” he says. “These training programs should lead them into other services where they can earn more money and more responsibility. They can move from a janitor to a lead person, to a supervisor or even a manager.”
9. Evaluate Effectiveness
For training to be worthwhile, it needs to be effective. Sawchuk emphasizes four steps to evaluate a program’s effectiveness.
Ask for Feedback. Have participants answer four or five specific questions about the training immediately afterward. Ask things like: Did you find the program of value? If so, why? What information was most valuable? Did the instructor do a good job? Take that information and follow-up, asking specific questions that drive qualitative data. Did you learn what you expected? Did the course address your biggest program challenge? What can the instructor do differently? What information could be added to make the program more effective?
Evaluate Students. Assess the students' knowledge at the end of the day. “The test doesn’t have to be long, but you want something that reflects if they captured the important information and to see if there were questions that were wrong,” says Sawchuk. If many students missed the same question, go over that topic again before dismissing them.
Track Company Participation. Follow participants and see if they return for future training, or if the company sends other attendees. “If a customer sent five of their 20 custodians to the training, but never sends anyone again, that’s a good sign they didn’t find value in the training. Maybe it was the content. Maybe it was the delivery. Maybe it was the cost or the timing,” says Sawchuk. “Meanwhile, if an operation sends technicians for additional education, they are buying in to the training you’re offering.”
Measure Training Against Company KPIs. Distributors are advised to define their own training objectives and assess their performance against those objectives. Did the sales training achieve the goal of increasing sales for that product or to that customer? If the goal was to meet customers' needs, did they return for additional training? “That’s a win-win. We met our business objectives and met the customers' needs,” says Sawchuk.
Providing training is an investment in customers’ operations. Effective training programs can enhance product knowledge, increase sales, and improve customer support, thus giving distributors a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
Ronnie Wendt is a freelance writer and owner of In Good Company Communications in Waukesha, Wisconsin.