The PHCP-PVF and HVACR industries are at the forefront of technology and innovation when it comes to product development. With so many new innovations hitting the market daily — along with virtual education options — training fatigue is always a risk. Supply House Times asked a few questions to contractors, reps and manufacturers to gain a quick pulse for what’s most effective today in terms of product training.

According to Jeff Heger, president of Ohio-based Nixco Plumbing and former chair of PHCC’s Quality Service Contractors, simplicity and time-savings are key.

“One of the greatest challenges contractors face today is engaging our team to be receptive to new product and retain the information given to them,” he says. “Contractors are busier than ever with tons of projects to get to a day, so taking the time to learn something new, plus the time to practice and retain it, continues to be a hurdle when it comes to new product training.”

Heger says there’s no shortage of people who want to come in and introduce and sell new product, the challenge is getting the field workers to retain the information.

Manufacturers are aware that time is money. “Contractors are so busy that it is difficult to carve training time out of their workday. This has made eLearning more popular, but despite the time challenges, live hands-on training is taking place,” explains Dustin Bowman, senior director of field services for Bradford White. “Often these on-site sessions are at contractor and supplier locations before their regular workday begins.”

Caleffi training Caleffi training Caleffi training
Excellence in Education is one of the guiding principles at Caleffi. On any  given day, 25% of Caleffi staff may be conducting training.

In person or online?

When balancing on-site training with the flexibilities online options offer, Max Rohr, training and education manager at Caleffi says flexibility is key. “Between the gradual shift back to normal and the desire to ‘play catch up’ on training topics manufacturers might not have discussed in-person in two years, you have to pay attention to what the contractor or distributor needs that day,” he says. “A drop-by visit to go over your catalog for an hour isn’t a good fit for anyone’s schedule right now. You have to start with a ‘how can I help you the most today’ approach, and start by covering only that topic. “

John Altepeter, principal of Tennessee-based rep firm A6 sales says his team is focused on transitioning from two-dimensional on-line curriculum to something more tangible and tactile. “We are aiming for a more conversational training experience with samples and cut outs of product,” he says. “Continuing to avail ourselves to contractors and distributors for jobsite and shop training is keeping us full of training appointments.”

Manufacturers say customers seem to be hungry for training and education.

“We’ve seen an extremely high demand for classes so much that our entire 2022 training schedule booked up within one month of it being available to customers. Once we have people in the door of our training facilities, we’ve found that it’s critical to tailor our training to each individual audience,” says Charles Phillips, technical training manager, Lochinvar. “We know contractors are most interested in installing and servicing units, as well as how to utilize new technologies. Meanwhile, our distributor trainees want to learn about the product functionality, but they also want a sales-focused presentation so that they can properly speak to product benefits with their customers.”

Phillips ads that with such a high demand for training, it’s been difficult to keep up with in person options. “We have limited availability of resources, including our trainers. In order to provide high-quality training to as many people as possible, we will continue to develop additional on-demand resources, such as Lochinvar U which is available 24/7 at no charge to anyone interested.”

It’s no secret that hands-on training has unmatched benefits, but with the high demand falling on both contractors and distributors today, multi-day trips to training facilities aren’t as feasible as they used to be. Jason Leonard, marketing and technology training manager at A. O. Smith says the company is always working toward providing the benefits of both types of training. “The biggest challenge we’ve had to work through is how we provide the shared experience and hands-on opportunities that are found in a traditional in-person learning environment. We know that interaction is a key part of the educational experience within our industry, so we’ve chosen to cap our virtual classes to ensure that attendees have ample opportunity for discussion and questions,” he says. “We also utilize our state-of-the-art training facility to provide real-time demonstrations of our products during classes, allowing attendees to see how the units function.”

Heger says his team still prefers in-person training, and the sweet spot is a 30 to 45-minute demonstration. “In our experience, webinars don’t work,” he says. “We need someone here at the office in front of the installer that truly understands the product and how it’s installed in great detail. The person doing the training can really make all of the difference.”

A.O. Smith training facility A.O. Smith training facility
A. O. Smith’s training facility in Nashville, Tennessee is set up for live streaming training classes along with in-person, hands on visits.

Distributors make the difference

With so many different training options available to contractors, the wholesale-distributor’s duty is to reinforce that knowledge at the counter.

“Distributors need to know that their people are the difference. The products get largely amalgamated over time, so the traditional features and benefits are not the key. The key is getting distributor employees to desire to be more of a resource for their contractors, and better than their competitors,” Altepeter says. “This is true from the warehouse order-pullers who desire to understand what the items actually do that they are pulling, to the counter people who want to ask provocative open-ended questions of their contractors in front of them, to inside sales personnel who can quickly and effectively navigate factory websites while on the phone with customers to offer them answers without the call back. As reps, we will bend over backward for people who really desire to learn.”

Bowman agrees, stating that as big box retailers continue to infringe on the wholesale market, in depth product knowledge is key. “Distributors need to be trained on the products they sell to remain a valuable resource to their contractor customers. The big box stores are chipping away at traditional wholesaler market share so plumbing and HVAC suppliers must continue to bring more value, including product knowledge resources for the customers.”

Rohr points out that to understand contractor needs, it’s important to be watching what they’re doing. “You have to always be looking around at what contractors are doing. Even if that is on social media,” he says. “Let’s say you see a product installed improperly. You may immediately think, ‘that’s wrong,’ but you also need to take a step back and try to figure out why that happened. That can help you determine if a training or product change is needed. Some of the best products enable contractors to be more creative in their installs.”

Phillips adds that distributors tent to be the first call a customer makes, so being knowledgeable on product boosts customer service.

“Distributors tend to be the first call a customer makes, whether it’s about purchasing a new product or seeking advice on a product they already own,” he says. “Having distributors that are well-equipped to both sell and service a unit builds trust and better long-term relationships between the distributors and their customers.”

Manufacturers agree that the highest level of product knowledge means stronger relationships with contractor customers.

“Training is the best way for distributors to exemplify value to their customers,” Leonard says. “When distributors are properly educated on product technology, benefits and features, they are able to provide that information to their customers and build a stronger, more dependable relationship with them by becoming a trusted resource.”