Time spent now will pay off when things get busy again.

Right around now is when this recession is really starting to take its toll on everyone. Distributors have buckled down and taken necessary precautions to make sure the company is going to last through this downturn. But in many cases the phone calls still aren’t coming. Now what?

At a time like this we have to look everywhere to better ourselves, and one of the best ways to do that is through training. While your employees have a little down time, this is the best chance to teach them things they should’ve been learning for years - except they were always too busy tending to customers’ needs. Of course, it’s not completely on the company to provide this training. Every person should be trying to better themselves all the time. But sometimes you need to lead a horse to water in order for him to take a drink.

I’ve found that there are many different ways to do this. Rather than sitting at your desk checking your e-mail 100 times an hour when you’re only getting one an hour, it’s time to look for productive reading material - such as those massive catalogs. Most people are familiar with only a small percentage of their content, and even industry veterans can find a few surprises in them.

Other time fillers may take a little work, but it will be well worth it. First of all, contact your reps. Get them on the phone and set up some product training for salesmen, warehouse employees, and even refreshers for veteran personnel. New products come out all the time that need to be explained, and many old products undergo periodic updates and revisions. It’s their job to help you sell this product, and most reps are happy to help with training, especially if the sessions are well attended. We’ve had a great experience with our reps. It’s a chance for your people to break out of the daily grind, get a free lunch, and actually learn something useful. This is especially important for some of the younger guys, who gain confidence in selling a product when they get information about it right from the source, as well as the opportunity to ask questions.

In addition to or instead of rep training, in many cases you can go directly to manufacturers who offer intensive training classes. About a year ago I went to the Spence training class for three days of instruction on their heating specialties. It included some hands-on training and was one of the best experiences I’ve had when it comes to building confidence in selling someone’s products. The manufacturers have answers that other people don’t, and if they don’t know off-hand they’ll figure it out pretty quickly. There is nothing like a three-day seminar to really gain product knowledge.

In many cases, expertise is a lot closer at hand. Identify people in your organization who know something that no one else knows. In our company, for the past few weeks our General Manager Dave Constantine and our IT Manager Kevin Resendes have been giving classes to everyone on how to most effectively use Excel and Outlook. Basic stuff like that can improve productivity and eliminate mistakes. At Metropolitan Pipe we also have two people who are experts with boilers and burners and all things heating. Old pros like that know things off the top of their head that other people scurry around trying to find out from seven different catalogs. Have them teach a class!

It doesn’t have to be a formal class, and they don’t have to have teaching certificates.  Just have them tell everyone in their own words what they do every day, what customers tend to find mysterious, how to fix common problems, and so on. Using these in-house experts is a very easy way to get some extra training, without complicated scheduling.     

Finally, many people overlook how inexpensive and easy it is to obtain useful training tools from the American Supply Association and BNP Media Co. They both offer amazing training manuals for all types of employees. Visit the ASA Education Foundation at www.asaef.orgfor a complete list of their training tools and resources, and BNP Media’s AEC Store atwww.aecstore.com, where you’ll find hundreds of pertinent titles.

Buy some books and start handing them out. By the time you read this ASA may be up and running with its new ASA University (www.asauniversity.net), which will include the first of its 3-D Schematics training program. I haven’t yet explored it thoroughly, but have seen and heard enough to be heralding it to anyone who will listen. I have dreams of our counter guys having this computer generated house on their computer ready to break down any situation for a plumber coming in with a problem.

Also, for younger guys there isSupply House Times’ classic (College of Product Knowledge CDavailable at BNP’s AEC Store. That’s what I originally studied to gain product knowledge, although mine was a piecemeal version that one of our salespeople just happened to find. Now they have it on a disc and it couldn’t be easier to use.

Your people need to get the message that they can best secure their future by learning as much as they can and making themselves valuable to the company. And the more your employees know, the better and more efficient your company will run.

Don’t be afraid to change things up. If you have a set training program that is growing stale and people are losing interest, try some new things. Get your people out of the same old daily grind. The economy will turn around eventually and everyone needs to be prepared for it.