Training Day

Sept. 1, 2005
A new employee walks in the door full of potential, full of promise, and excited to take on new challenges. If a rental center doesn't have a set training

A new employee walks in the door full of potential, full of promise, and excited to take on new challenges. If a rental center doesn't have a set training program in place, it can be easy for that promising employee to get thrown to the sharks in the sink-or-swim business of rental. They may swim, but they may also sink — and run the other direction, causing the rental company to start the hiring process all over again. There is no cookie cutter approach to training that works for everyone. Different rental companies, and even different employees, may find that various training options work best for their needs. All people learn differently: Some learn by doing, some grasp ideas better through reading, and some absorb more when in a classroom setting. The best training solution seems to be repeating and reinforcing the message in different formats. While no single approach works for everyone, one thing is for sure: Throwing a new employee to the sharks is not an option.

First things first

We all remember those first days at a new job: new environment, new people, new tasks. We also remember that feeling of the unknown, and the feeling that we might never remember all there is to know to be successful in the position. Starting a job at a rental center can be overwhelming, with so many customers and co-workers to get to know, extensive product lines, and intimidating new computer software. When a new employee — inexperienced or not — walks in the door for his or her first day on the job, think back to those feelings of the unknown and try to alleviate any concerns the new employee may have.

The first step to take in training a new employee seems obvious: introductions and tour. Make sure to introduce him or her to all other employees in the operation. It's hard for employees to feel comfortable or know who to ask for help if they don't know the team.

“This also gives employers the opportunity to compliment existing personnel,” says Dick Detmer, president of Detmer Consulting in Geneseo, Ill.

Every good employee deserves a pat on the back, and introductions are a great opportunity to let the new employee know that Joe Smith has been with the company for 25 years and has moved up the ranks, or that Tom Jones is the best mechanic anywhere. Telling employee success stories shows the employee that there is opportunity with the company and that it's a good place to work.

Gary Stansberry, a rental industry consultant with Hageman, Stansberry & Associates in Arlington, Texas, says employers on the first day need to make new employees feel comfortable, at home, and assured that they made the right decision. They left another job for a reason, so they need to know they made the right decision in switching so they don't have “buyer's remorse.”

“That first week is probably the biggest chance you have to lose them,” Stansberry says.

Making the employee feel like part of the team is key. Stansberry recommends not starting a new employee on a Monday at 8 a.m., which can be a hectic time for a rental center. “You need to start somebody when you have time for the employee,” he says. “You need to set aside some time when you have time for them.”

Greg Michael, a former national sales training manager for Neff Rental, recommends removing the new employee from the hectic environment of the rental center to begin training in a classroom setting.

“Branches are far too busy to focus on a new hire,” Michael says. He also says that a learning environment will increase the odds of an employee being successful. It also ensures that all employees are exposed to the same information and that they can practice and hone skills in an environment where there's no money on the table, with less risk than dealing with live customers.

Product knowledge is also an important factor in an employee's success. Jim Franke, president of The Edge Consulting Services, Euless, Texas, which offers an interactive computer-based training program for equipment, recommends getting employees product knowledge right away. “Get them up to speed on products,” he says. “You might say ‘Go load a backhoe’ and the employee might look at you and say, ‘What's a backhoe?’”

The Edge's interactive learning programs are focused on product knowledge, to enable employees to quickly become consultants to customers. The programs can be customized to specific product lines the company carries. The software has essential information on the product, and includes safety tips and questions to ask the customer. Online training allows for introduction of a lot of product material, 24/7 availability, and learning at a comfortable pace. Though Franke obviously believes in the value of technology and online training courses, he supports many different methods of training. “You want to use as many methods as possible,” he says. Because everyone learns differently, it will benefit employees to use a combination of all methods.

During the past three years, Greenwich, Conn.-based United Rentals has developed a blended learning approach to provide employees a variety of training topics and multiple ways to access training, such as eLearning courses, online Webex instructor-led courses, classroom training and a library of training videos, CD-ROMS, reference and developmental training aids.

“The key to employee training is ‘ease of access,’” says Bayne McDowell, program director of training strategies at United Rentals. “Each training topic is offered in multiple delivery formats to give employees learning choices so the employee can choose both the time and the training delivery method that best fits their individual development needs.”

Safety is another important topic to tackle immediately with new employees. New employees need to understand the risks involved in rental and the dangers of equipment.

Although it depends on skill levels that employees bring to the job, it can take anywhere from months to a year for a new employee to feel that they have truly mastered the job. There is a lot to learn, and that takes time, but Detmer says that employees need to feel confident that the job is one they can do in just a matter of weeks. “You better have employees feeling that or they'll jump ship if they don't feel comfortable,” he says.

Stansberry agrees with this short time frame. “If the employee is not comfortable by the end of the first week, you probably haven't done your job,” he says.

Different training

The options are endless when it comes to training, from classroom and online training to seminars and training manuals. There is no one correct training method, but getting the training message out in various ways is the best way to get the message across. As different people operate and learn in different ways, repeating training messages in various formats and settings can be helpful. Franke firmly believes in the importance of online and software training programs, but supports all training.

“Classroom training is still very strongly needed,” he says.

He says that sometimes it's necessary to get an employee out of their work environment to get the message across, for topics such as safety where comprehension is absolutely necessary. The Edge programs are built for getting product knowledge through to employees, where there could be too much information to even scratch the surface in a classroom setting.

Once an employee has been introduced to information in a classroom setting, it's necessary to do hands-on training, in the real job environment, getting them up to speed as quickly as possible. Following up on skills learned in the classroom setting should also be done immediately. If employees see skills learned taking place in the real-world setting, they will do them.

“Make sure training transitions from the classroom to how it's utilized in the real world,” Franke says.

“As much as you can, practice,” Franke says. “It helps them feel comfortable.”

In the rental world, a counterperson or salesperson needs to become a consultant to the customer as soon as possible. They need to be made aware of questions customers will ask, so demonstrating, practicing, and role playing will help them feel more comfortable with the job.

Mentoring and on-the-job training are great — if the mentor is a good teacher. One concern with employees training other employees, many training experts say, is that training can get watered down. It's not always effective to have the best employee train.

“On the surface, this seems like a great way to replicate the best behaviors and perhaps lead to a clone,” Michael says. “It won't. The individual nuances that allow a salesperson to achieve great success do not translate into the success of others. You can watch a pro golfer all day and your game will not get better. Now, take a lesson from a pro golf instructor who is skilled in transferring knowledge and coaching methods and your score will improve.”

Detmer agrees. “Even if you're an expert, you can be really good at something, but be no good at being a good teacher,” he says.

Dan Kaplan, CEO of Daniel Kaplan & Associates, Morristown, N.J., advocates introducing the message via online training, classroom training, and finally, on-the-job training.

“As much training as you can give before on-the-job training, the better,” he says.

Detmer, who believes that all rental employees' job titles should be “director of first impressions,” says that waiting too long to get an employee involved in the daily operations of the rental center can have an adverse effect. Have employees observe answering the telephone, and teach them telephone techniques — what to say, what questions may be asked. Have them observe, but then have them do it themselves, with an experienced employee standing by to field any questions. Often, companies won't let new employees answer the phone for fear that they won't know the answer to a question. Then, months later they're wondering why employees are scared to answer the phone.

“Getting involved early on is really important,” Detmer says.

United Rentals uses online training as a starting point that can help build an individual's confidence. McDowell says online training is a time-efficient way to deliver a large amount of information. “It is a nice foundation that complements classroom training,” McDowell says. “The most effective and efficient training occurs on the job. There is no better place to hone your skills than on the job.”

According to Michael, online training is a good tool, but it has its drawbacks “You've really got to get people to interact to get it to sink in, to get it to stick,” he says.

Detmer agrees.

“Online training is possible, but there's absolutely no doubt in my mind that it's nowhere near as effective as having instruction there in person,” Detmer says.

During classroom training, instructors can read people's faces and go back to a point if they see that people aren't getting it. Online instruction also allows employees to learn at their own pace and repeat topics, but the human interaction element is missing.

Thompson Pump has a Pumpology School to train employees and distributors in the fundamentals of pumping. The three-day training session combines both hands-on and classroom instruction to teach the fundamentals of pumping.

“We push understanding the product so we can make customers more efficient, and cost them less when it comes down to a job,” says Gentry Baumline, marketing director for Thompson Pump.

With any training though, it depends on the students' willingness to take responsibility for his own learning process. Their success, she says, depends on how much they want to learn.

While the goal of training is to teach the employee how to do his job, it may be effective and helpful to teach him other people's jobs as well.

“I really have a holistic-type of approach,” Detmer says. “Everybody should cross train.”

Getting employees together at one time to train for customer service, for example, ensures that non-sales staff can see what other employees are doing. When Thompson Pump hires a new manager, he or she generally goes directly to the corporate office and spends several days learning how various departments do their jobs, Baumline says. United Rentals also advocates this team approach to learning.

“Traditional training programs tend to focus on a specific job function,” says McDowell. “United Rentals stresses the importance of understanding every part of the rental process for every branch employee, regardless of their job function.”

Stansberry agrees with the cross training idea. He says that sometimes outside sales staff can have an “us versus them” mentality with those employees back at the rental center. They are the first to get a complaint and the first to deal with an angry customer, and they will blame the service person for not having equipment working, or blame a driver for not getting a machine to the jobsite on time. But Stansberry says that everyone in the organization needs to understand that it's a team effort, and everyone is working toward the same goals. Having employees shadow those in various positions can open their eyes to exactly what mechanics, or drivers, or salesmen are dealing with on a daily basis.

So go crazy with all of the possibilities. Go at them with an instructed classroom setting, go to a seminar, practice in a hands-on environment, hit them with the written word. Something is bound to stick.

The reward

The benefits of having well-trained employees spread to all aspects of the rental business, but especially employee retention and customer satisfaction. Training leads to a safer working environment, and a well-run business that customers are happy to do business with.

“Exceeding expectations is what's going to bring them back every time,” Franke says.

Detmer says that well-trained employees lead to repeat business that builds customer loyalty. “If you want to achieve great results, you've got to train,” he says.

Employees see training as an investment in them, so not only will they better serve the customer, but are more likely to stay with the job. Customers are confident in a company where they can always go to the same person for help. It can be disconcerting if they call for Joe and he's no longer there, and Bob was only around a few months. High turnover doesn't help the customer's confidence in the company.

“Turnover generates doubts in the customer's mind,” Stansberry says.

NationsRent's Leslie Fisher, director of employee development and training, says that the better trained the employees are, the better the customer service, and revenues will increase as a result.

“You get employees that are prepared to take on additional responsibility, and additional talent who can step up to the plate,” Fisher says.

Safety training can also protect a company from a liability standpoint, according to Stansberry. It should be documented, and occur from day one. In the event of an accident, the company can go back and say, “On day one we gave him a safety orientation.”

Nobody wants to invest money in an employee just to lose him six months down the road. The risk of losing an employee always exists, but the dangers of a lack of training, especially in safety, can be prevented.

“It is more dangerous to have an employee who is not trained, than to train that employee and have them leave,” says Barry Himmel, senior vice president of Signature Worldwide, which specializes in customer service and sales training.

Follow up

Training shouldn't stop after the first 90-day period, or after employees step out of training classrooms or away from computer training programs. Training should be an ongoing process, and this includes periodic formal training, along with day-to-day feedback and formal performance reviews.

Recommendations vary regarding how often performance evaluations or reviews should occur. Some recommend once a year, some twice a year, some three times in the first 90 days, some every other full moon when it's raining. But one thing all the experts agree on is that giving employees feedback should be constant, and there should be no surprises when it comes time for a formal performance review. Employers should be able to recount previous conversations with that employee and pointers he's been given all along the way between reviews.

“We miss so many opportunities to sit down with employees,” Franke says.

Sitting down with an employee and giving constructive feedback tells the employee that the management cares about that employee. Most employees want to be successful in their jobs, so don't just go through the motions of a review.

“Performance reviews should have some meat to them,” Franke says. “Not just, ‘This is something I have to do, let's get it over with.’”

Give feedback as situations come along. Employees shouldn't feel in an evaluation that they've been doing something wrong all along, and no one bothered to tell them. Give feedback all along the way, and don't forget positive reinforcement. A company that wants to keep employee skills current and provide opportunities for growth should strive for continuous learning and training, even on an informal basis, Fisher says.

Small companies

Small companies may find it harder to find money in the budget to put toward training. But, training experts say, rental owners who say they can't afford training are wrong — they can't afford not to train their employees.

“So many rental companies just don't budget enough money for one of the best returns on one's investment,” Detmer says.

Trainers say that with such a wealth of information available these days, there is no excuse for not training. If a rental company can't send five employees to a training event because it's too expensive it might be able to send one employee who can bring the knowledge back and share it with the group. Franke suggests buying generic software, rather than one designed specific to a company's product line. For safety training — a must — online training could be a potential resource. Bring in manufacturers and equipment vendors who are willing to come talk about their products at little or no cost. Insurance companies offer safety training as a service, and will conduct safety evaluations at the store. Books, such as Detmer's “A Practical Guide to Working in an Equipment Rental Business,” can be used as reference tools to supplement other forms of training. Sources such as the American Rental Association can also be a good starting point.

“You can find ways to adapt and fit your model,” Franke says.

“So many people look at it as an expense and training should be looked at as an investment,” Stansberry adds.

While rental specific training is great, training from outside of the rental industry, such as general customer service courses, can also be an option. An attorney can come out for an hour and go over sexual harassment training, and the hiring/firing process. A certified public accountant could walk employees through financial training for an hour. Keep brochures from the ARA show and contact speakers for more information. Think outside of the box if funds are limited.

“A lot of training can be the owner or manager observing certain situations and offering guidance,” Stansberry says.

“A lot of knowledge is always in hand, it's just not always being properly communicated or properly carried out,” he adds.

And don't forget to get feedback from employees once a training class is over. They will be willing to comment on whether a training class was a waste of time or whether they thought a software program was a helpful tool.

Retain employees

So once an employee is sufficiently trained and capable of handing the tough demands of rental and the crucial customer element, how does a rental company go about retaining that stellar employee? There are a few key points to know.

Michael insists on promoting a work culture of ongoing learning and investing in the employee. If an employee doesn't feel valued, he is not going to be inclined to stay, and may also let his performance suffer. Employees learn by example, so managers need to be polished and maintain a professional environment.

Another reason employees leave is that they feel like there is no opportunity for advancement. Kaplan insists that the best way to retain employees is to offer them not just a job, but a career. “People are motivated by career opportunities,” he says.

Thompson Pumps' Baumline says that once you get a good employee, you don't want to give them up. Although many factors play a role in employee retention, wage is one factor rental companies shouldn't overlook. “You need a competitive wage because you get what you pay for,” she says.

Stansberry agrees that it's difficult to find and maintain good employees. He promotes the philosophy of putting the employee first and the customer second. “If your employees are happy, the customer service will take care of itself,” he says.

Happy employees, happy customers, increased revenues — a winning combination, thanks to proper training.

Training Resources

Signature Worldwide

Specializes in customer service and sales training.

Detmer Consulting

Dick Detmer, president and rental industry veteran with more than 35 years experience, has written two books, “The Guide to Great Customer Service” and “A Practical Guide to Working in an Equipment Rental Business.”


An electronic publishing, Web hosting and e-learning company, with an emphasis on the equipment rental industry.

Vista Training

Offers training solutions for heavy equipment used in construction and mining. Videos, books, instructor kits and more.

American Rental Association

Click on Training & Education