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Training and Engaging Technical Talent

Four distributors discuss how they onboard technical talent
By Steve Guglielmo

When an employee joins a company, it can take a while before he or she is completely comfortable. Not only do new employees have to learn their responsibilities in their new position, but they also must learn the nuts and bolts of the company. What is its culture? What are the responsibilities of each department? Even remembering everybody’s names can be stressful. For technical employees, the challenges are doubly daunting. In addition to learning the ins and outs of the company, they must familiarize themselves with the ins and outs of dozens of pieces of complex equipment. The MHEDA Journal spoke with four distributors across different product lines to learn how they onboard technical talent and ensure the continued success that MHEDA distributors are known for.

Combining Sales and Engineering
Daryle OgburnAdvanced Equipment Company (Charlotte, NC) does not use the traditional integrator employee model. “Our model is still what a lot of people refer to as the ‘old business model,’” says President Daryle Ogburn. “Rather than have salespeople and engineers, we have technical sales engineers. The sales engineers handle a transaction from the prospecting stage all the way through the installation of a system. Every one of our employees is technical.” This model allows Advanced to keep overhead low, but makes the hiring and onboarding process even more important. “Training is very important to us, in good times and bad,” Ogburn says. “We may tighten the belt on other things, but never on training. My philosophy is that you should learn something new every day, because if you don’t you will be going backwards.”

Advanced hires an array of talent; some employees come to the company with a technical degree and some have learned the industry through indoctrination, but all must bring a passion and a willingness to learn. “The first thing we do with new sales engineers is send them to all of our manufacturer trainings,” says Ogburn. “We also have sales training like Sales Boot Camp and Gary Moore’s Objective Based Selling. In addition to those sessions, we never refuse training of any kind. If an employee sees a training class that may be beneficial, we will always send them to that.”

However, you can only learn so much in a classroom. That is why a large part of the distributor’s onboarding process is done in the field. “All of our new employees will go out on sales calls with experienced engineers,” says Ogburn. “They learn from each other. We don’t just push them out of the nest and expect them to fly. It is a learning process. We don’t hire anybody expecting them to fail, so we provide as much support as necessary while they learn the customers and learn our culture and our expectations. There is no set timetable.”

Personal Development
Duncan J. MurphyAt Riekes Equipment Company (Omaha, NE) the onboarding process starts during the interview phase. “We have an in-house test to make sure that the fundamentals are in place,” says Duncan Murphy, president of Riekes. “But we really hire for attitude and aptitude to learn. Having the right attitude is as important as anything and the ability to learn and adapt to the changing industry is a vital component to being a successful technician.”

Once a technician is hired, the company has a 90day probationary period where the technician is trained from the ground up, not only on the technical side, but also in effective communication skills, safety and company culture. “We have a requirement, even for industry veterans, that everybody goes through a 30module basic training program,” says Murphy. Riekes employs an on-staff trainer who is devoted fulltime to onboarding. “When technicians see that you have that kind of program, that you’re interested in that kind of development, it becomes a recruiting tool,” he says.

However, Riekes understands that onboarding is not a one-size-fits-all exercise. “Once a technician has had his background training and company orientation they may go on one of two tracks,” says Murphy. “Veteran technicians are ready to go to work, so we put them out on the street as soon as possible. But newer employees are very often assigned a mentor. That gives us a chance to evaluate their aptitude to learn and see their interpersonal interactions, which are as important as anything.”

After the initial 90 days, Riekes performs a “personal development plan (PDP)” for each technician. “It isn’t an employee review,” Murphy says. “It’s more of a state of the union. We sit down with each employee to dis cuss where they are. What do we want to change? What talents do they have lurking beneath the surface that we can tap into? And, most importantly, what training do we need to provide to allow that technician to achieve their personal goals and allow Riekes to reach its company goals?”

An Ongoing Process
David Cranston Jr.At Cranston Material Handling Equipment Corp. (McKees Rocks, PA), there isn’t a defined onboarding process. “We are a small organization. We have seven employees,” President David Cranston Jr. says. “We don’t have engineers or dedicated IT workers. However, because our product offering is so diverse, all of our employees wear many hats. They may not be technicians, but they have to have a deep technical understanding of our industry and products to be successful.”

Because it is a small distributor, Cranston relies heavily on its manufacturing partners to provide employees with technical training. “For product-specific training we send all of our employees to manufacturer schools,” says Cranston. While having a technical understanding of the products is very important, Cranston understands that successful onboarding goes beyond product knowledge.

“I spend the first week or two orienting new employees to our processes and explaining how I envision the business. I try to make my expectations very clear up front,” Cranston says. With Cranston culture in mind, new employees go out and meet customers right away. “For at least the first month new employees will shadow a more experienced employee or me,” he says. “But it is important for them to get that face-time with customers.”

Generally, after the first month, employees begin to go out on their own, albeit with close supervision. “I don’t expect them to be perfect right away,” Cranston says. “Because of our range of products, a salesperson may only see a certain situation once or twice per year. Because of that, I have found that it takes a couple of years to gain enough experience to be working at full capacity. So mistakes are expected, encouraged even – as long as they are failing forward. I always say that if you aren’t making mistakes, you probably aren’t learning anything new.”

One thing that new employees benefit from is the role-playing exercises that Cranston conducts to prepare them for meeting with customers. “Roleplaying helps me to understand how they might respond in certain situations,” he says. “That way I know what we need to work on.”

Culture and Technical Training
“At Badger ToyotaLift (New Berlin, WI), we place a heavy emphasis on teamwork and company culture,” says Pat Stemper, general manger. “Every employee goes through an orientation process where they walk around and spend time in each department. It’s important that they get an idea of how all of the departments interact.”

That orientation process gives the technician an idea of how Badger runs, and it also shows the company how well the technician interacts with the team. “One of the things that we look for is how well this person will fit in. They can be the greatest technician in the world, but if they don’t have people skills, we will be leery of hiring them.”

New technicians spend time working in the shop and also shad owing Badger’s field technicians. “After they have gone through all of Toyota’s e-training courses, depending on their level of experience we may send them for more hands-on plant training,” Stem per says. “We may make up some classes with our in-house trainer. Every technician will do a ride along with our field techs, but they will spend the majority of their probationary period working on pre delivery in the shop. This will help them learn the equipment and intricacies of the Toyota product and it will also give us a good indication of how they will adapt when given more responsibility.”

Badger uses the probationary period to determine if a technician will become a shop technician or a field technician. “While the typical probationary period is 90 days, there is really not a set time. It depends on the individual and how well they adapt,” says Stemper. The company also uses that time to indoctrinate the technician into Badger’s culture. “Our business is about exceeding the expectations of our customer,” Stemper says. “We make it clear that without the customer we wouldn’t be here. So, in addition to learning the technical side, we really try to teach them effective communication and customer service skills.”

After 90 days, Badger’s service manager will sit down with the technician to reflect. “We ask their feelings about the last 90 days and make sure that it is a good fit and that everything is working. It’s almost another interview,” Stemper says. “We might discuss a raise in pay or a change in responsibilities. We want to keep an open dialogue to make sure that the employee is happy and that we are happy. Communication is the key.”