The title of a recent training report says it all. "Learning in Tough Economic Times: How Corporate Learning Is Meeting the Challenges" describes the current economic climate (dismal), the result (shrinking resources for learning initiatives), and the response (looking for ways to do more while spending less). Training professionals all over America will find none of this surprising, as they convert to e-learning, compress training time, and look for efficiencies in delivery.
But those are defensive measures for a time of retrenching. What about going on the offensive? What about communicating the value of training so well that it becomes a competitive advantage in the marketplace?
Chances are you’ve seen one of the commercials Orkin currently is airing nationwide. A woman answers the door to find a giant, drippy cockroach holding a pizza. "Here's your pizza," the roach says. Nonplussed, the woman says, "We didn't order any pizzas." "Well, how about I just...put it on your table?" the roach asks. Just then, an Orkin truck drives up, and the roach skedaddles. "Don't just hire an exterminator," the voice-over says, as the Orkin man talks to the customer and inspects areas of the house with a flashlight. "Hire an expert."
That subtle but explicit message has been part of Orkin's advertising for a long time. The previous ad campaign, which ran for several years through different commercials, revolved around the slogan, "Knowledge is our best weapon." The ads showed pest control employees talking to customers and telling them little-known facts about the pests they were having trouble with. The message: Our employees know what they're doing because they're better trained than anyone in the business.
"Training is the biggest investment we make in our employees," says David Lamb, vice president of learning and media services for Orkin. "We're a service industry, so what we're selling is expertise and the outcome of our service."
Granted, you won't find many companies that don't say the equivalent of "Our people are our most important resource." But you will find many for which that statement is no more than superficial. Not so Orkin, which has been touting the training of its employees explicitly to customers for years. "Our senior executives get that training is key to our business, and we've never had to talk our way into a marketing message," says Martha Craft, vice president of public relations and corporate communications. "Our CEO talks about it every time he has an investor conference call, and we talk about it in our annual report every year. It's part of the culture, part of who we are, and we never have to fight to get it in."
How does that happen? How does training become not only a necessary function but a tactical advantage that leadership recognizes—and doesn't have to be convinced to support accordingly? The most obvious answer is, of course, that the training fits with corporate goals. But how does it do that? By actually helping employees do their jobs better than anyone else.
Orkin has a 28,000-square-foot corporate training center in Atlanta. It isn't a big auditorium; it's a series of simulated customer premises, including a hospital room; hotel room; restaurant; bar; warehouse; grocery store; and a 2,200-square-foot house. "It's a representation of the types of construction used across the U.S., so people can see the environments they'll be working in and the practical application of their knowledge in those environments," Lamb says.
Orkin uses that center as a sort of learning broadcast studio, in which training sessions are conducted and then broadcast live via satellite to the company's 400 locations. New employees go through a three-week sequence of initial training that includes Web-based, self-paced materials and interactive learning as part of those satellite broadcasts. "The student goes through a three-hour live segment with a master facilitator delivering the training in the center, and students can ask questions and take quick quizzes that show the facilitator how well they're learning," Lamb says.
After the Web-based and satellite training is completed, employees go out in the field with a certified field trainer, service manager, or branch manager to observe and perform under the observation of someone who knows the business. "They have to identify pests, such as seeing a cockroach and being asked, 'Is this a German cockroach or an American cockroach?'" Lamb says. "They also have to describe treatment protocols, points of entry, and conducive conditions, and they have to demonstrate how they explain all that to a customer."
Keeping Training Fresh
But even the best training won't be a competitive advantage for long if it's allowed to go stale. Any company that's going to put its training front and center had better know it really works and that it isn't out of date. That's especially true in the field of pest control. Pests are good at adapting to new conditions; like bacteria, they develop a resistance over time to the chemicals used to prevent or kill them. And while it's rare for new pests to emerge, critters that had nearly vanished sometimes make a comeback. "Bedbugs made a big comeback a few years ago, and nobody had much training in how to deal with them because they hadn't been a problem for so long," Lamb says. "We have to always be looking at the biology of our field, including the trends we see and the reactions to treatment, and then we have to keep updating the training we deliver to match what's going on."
To do that, Orkin partners with universities, such as the entomology programs at Texas A&M University, Purdue, and the University of Florida. Many staff members at the Orkin training center are graduates of those programs, and Orkin invites the professors to an annual technical forum where they present new trends and techniques to the company's executives. The forum is always videotaped so employees in the field can benefit, as well.
Orkin staff also worked on a self-paced training program, developed by Texas A&M and funded by Orkin, in termite biology and treatment. This program is made available to employees.
Train-the-trainer sessions with the Centers for Disease Control help trainers to convey the necessary information about pests and public health to employees. "We want to be sure the message gets to the consumer that, as our employees find pest problems, they're also preventing health problems," Lamb says. "The cockroach in your kitchen could transmit salmonella, for example, and there are other diseases the consumer needs to know about. Once we educate employees, employees can educate the customers."
Lamb's department always confirms the value of the training provided. Staffers regularly visit field locations to ask whether the training matches what employees actually are doing, and to document the differences that crop up around business processes, tools, and methods.
Not Everyone Has to Like It
That kind of vigilance makes for training employees can use and customers can appreciate. But the best training can be watered down for the wrong reasons, diluting its competitive advantage. Training professionals may have to guard against well-meant but ultimately destructive meddling.
"Training devolves easily into corporate drivel," says Chris Majer, CEO of the Human Potential Project, a leadership and management training company in Spokane, WA. "If you want to keep an edge in your marketing program for your training, you also have to keep an edge in your training."
Majer has been in the training business since 1982, when he got his start training athletes. His company moved from athletics to teams in the U.S. Army to corporate training. A few years ago, the company was training new analysts for Capital One's consulting division, which competed with Booz Allen and McKinsey at the time. "We put them through leadership development and skills development programs, and they had to apply to get in," Majer says. "And we told them: 'You can't design this training so everyone is going to be happy with it. A training program has to be edgy in that it challenges participants, and there are always going to be some people who don't like the rigor and quit.' If you try to structure a training program so everybody likes it, there won't be any esprit de corps, and there ultimately won't be anything to it."
Majer recommends that any company that wants its training to be a competitive advantage should expect some participants not to like it or enjoy it. On the contrary, the difficulty of training —or at least, the challenge of it—creates the excitement or cachet that will lead employees to give the testimonials you need to market it to others.
"Capital One's learning and development became part of its recruiting package; recruiters were armed with videos of current training and testimonials from existing employees who talked up the training," Majer says. "They were able to land smart new recruits by promising to develop them, and the recruits got that message from people who had experienced such development."
• Make sure the training fits with corporate goals.
• Make sure the training helps employees do their jobs better than anyone else.
• Keep the training fresh and the content up to date, and hold regular train-the-trainer sessions.
• Consider partnering with universities on training.
• Verify that the training matches what employees actually are doing in the field, and document the differences that crop up around business processes, tools, and methods.
• Don't let training content degenerate into corporate drivel.
• Make sure the training program is edgy in that it challenges participants; there always should be some people who don't like the rigor and quit. The difficulty of training—or at least, the challenge of it—creates the excitement or cachet that will lead employees to give the testimonials you need to market it to others.