BNSF Railway Is On Board With Topnotch Training

A focus on enhanced sales and safety training helps BNSF travel on the fast track in preparing employees to excel.

Railroads were first established in the 19th century, but the systems that make rail transportation more efficient, safe, and state-of-the-art are ever-evolving—posing new workforce management challenges. BNSF Railway Company has successfully primed its people to serve customers by training them to take advantage of each new innovation in the industry.

BNSF categorizes annual initiatives into three areas: Enduring, Emerging, and Exploring. Knowing that training is more than having technical understanding of systems, the Learning team has prepared employees to sell to and work with customers more effectively, examining how those employees are recruited, retained, and engaged. This enduring attention to detail builds a company that better serves both customers and employees.

Sharpening Sales Skills

In 2016, the railway industry was challenged with lower volumes and continues to work within an increasingly competitive supply chain environment, says Debra Ross, assistant vice president, Learning and Development. To meet that challenge, the company’s chief marketing officer and high-level marketing executives partnered with the Training team.

“Our goal is to institutionalize a sales training program —creating a common BNSF sales platform with business-unit-specific approaches,” Ross explains. The objectives of this new initiative are to:

  • Enhance customer relationships and strengthen the company's reputation as a trusted business partner.
  • Develop new employees while providing consistency in customer interactions.
  • Equip sales teams with knowledge and skills to manage complex business situations.
  • Proactively adjust sales approaches to market and business realities.

To meet those goals, two programs were created: Consultative Selling Skills Training and Developmental Sales Coaching. The two courses prepare salespeople and leaders for their roles by creating a comprehensive training and support system for their learning.

Consultative Sales Training prepares salespeople over the course of two days to facilitate the sales meeting with planning and intention. The Consultative Sales framework teaches preparation, connecting with customers, understanding the business need, recommending the solution, asking for a commitment, and implementing action steps. Supporting the framework are critical skills, including presence, relating, questioning, listening, positioning, and checking.

“Our goal was to make this initiative become a new way of life, not just a one-time event,” says Travis DeVault, director, Customer Support. The CMO is a visible sponsor with written communication, in-person support at marketing town halls, and a video message shown in every class. He also created a video message to be shown in every class. Marketing vice presidents opened and closed each class to engage in dialogue about the program, share their own training experience, and explain the company’s plans to implement. Post-training assessments and reinforcement, in a competitive gamification format, continued the learning.

“Developmental Sales Coaching supports sales managers in achieving results through their team, while encouraging accountability for their own development. The approach shifts the manager’s focus from boss to coach, using developmental versus evaluative coaching,” DeVault points out. “Leaders coach by asking questions, instead of being prescriptive and directive. Specifically, sales managers coach in a way that is consistent with the sales approach taught in the Consultative Selling Skills program—essentially modeling the same skills.”

In 2016, 315 employees participated in these programs across all business units. Participants attended a tailored session with examples and sales situations relevant to the sales challenges they face. The results have been impressive:

  • In 2015, 92 percent of customers surveyed said they had an overall positive experience with BNSF salespeople. From 2016 to present, this statistic improved to 98.6 percent.
  • Proficiency assessments showed a 24-point improvement, representing a 40 percent increase between immediate post-classroom retention and 90-day post-training mastery.
  • Salespeople with stronger proficiencies in key skill areas achieved 2.3 percent higher revenue performance in 2016 than those who scored lower on the proficiency assessment (i.e., pre- and post-training).
  • In 2016, BNSF achieved a milestone in capturing more than half of the total Western freight market at 51 percent.

“With these significant results,” says DeVault, “the marketing leadership expanded the sales and marketing training with the same employees and added additional employees in both 2017 and 2018—a true indicator of a successful training initiative.”

Supporting a Safer Industry

BNSF also has been an industry leader in the development of Positive Train Control (PTC) technology, and is training employees to meet the Federal mandate that PTC be used on all railroad routes that carry passengers and/or toxic-by-inhalation cargo. This technology overrides the train crew and stops a locomotive when necessary to prevent an incident. In support of the company’s $2 billion investment to install PTC equipment on more than 5,000 locomotives and nearly 12,000 miles of track, BNSF already has trained more than 22,000 employees to operate, inspect, and maintain the new systems, meeting the FRA requirement.

The company’s Technical Training Center (TTC) team worked collaboratively with the business to formulate an innovative and efficient training plan. The plan included:

Simulations: BNSF obtained a waiver from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to use its fleet of 48 Networked Locomotive Engineer Simulators (NETSIMs), and purchased an additional 22 NETSIMs for this implementation. The company developed custom software for the NETSIMs to simulate train operations under PTC.

“Our investment in simulations eliminated the need to use actual locomotives for the training, drastically reducing the number of trainers required, increasing efficiency, and avoiding the removal of business-critical locomotives from service,” says Scott Schafer, general director, Railroad Training.

The NETSIMs also improved the quality of the training. Training performed on board an operational train does not allow the training of “unusual conditions,” or afford an opportunity to stop to answer questions or address different learning levels. Courseware was designed with unusual conditions built in, allowing instructors to reset scenarios, or stop and discuss topics during training.

Just-in-time training: Federal requirements dictated that the PTC-equipped locomotives be incrementally activated as each subdivision segment was completed. BNSF’s plan included a four-year implementation that progressively activated along stretches of track as the network installation was completed. With this, transportation employees needed to be trained in close proximity to the activation of their particular subdivision to ensure their training was quickly reinforced with performance.

Mobility: In an effort to continuously reinforce training, a mobile app was developed to help employees remain proficient in the complex PTC control screen commands, and also to release incremental software changes to the PTC display system. To support this training and other communication needs, mobile tablets were deployed to all transportation employees.

The results show that this multifaceted approach worked:

  • BNSF has trained more than 22,000 employees on PTC technology, meeting the FRA's requirement.
  • The PTC training passing rate is 100 percent.
  • In late 2016, the company-worked agreements to sell 175 BNSF PTC licenses to two other railroads, which began participation in BNSF's PTC training in 2017.

BNSF achieved a .98 injury frequency ratio, while other rail transportation had a 1.8 injury frequency ratio, according to Federal Railroad Administration 2016 year-end data. BNSF also reduced its reportable equipment incidents by 11.7 percent, and reduced employee injuries by 15 percent in 2016.

Strengthening Recruitment and Retention

Recruiting employees with the right skills and a strong safety mindset can be challenging in some locations, given the vast geographic area in which the railroad operates. Most of BNSF’s recruitment is for union-represented jobs located in remote, sparsely populated areas with small talent pools.

“Because we are competing with local employers within these small pools of potential employees, we have taken steps to make it easier for applicants to apply for our open positions,” says Ross, who notes the following improvements:

  • Streamlined hiring process with a new Applicant Tracking System, which modernized the job application, replacing paper-and-pencil testing at hiring events with online testing.
  • Online forms to simplify onboarding of new hires.
  • Posting job openings on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn), reaching out to military venues, optimizing employee referral incentives, and using targeted print and digital advertising.
  • State-of-the-art video interviewing (559 HireVue OnDemand and 61 live video interviews in 2016). Live video interviewing allows potential candidates to interview live with the recruiter and hiring manager from remote locations. In OnDemand interviewing, a potential candidate can record and send in his or her interview at a relaxed pace and convenient time.

To make sure recruited employees are engaged, the Learning team developed a comprehensive onboarding program. All exempt employees attend three days of orientation to align new employees with the company’s strategic objectives. BNSF’s CEO welcomes all exempt new hires with a one-hour interactive session during their orientation.

All new field operations employees receive additional orientation at their work location and at BNSF's Technical Training Center (TTC). Upon completion of the eight-week program, employees are enrolled in an extensive onboarding program, led by onsite safety coordinators who are dispersed across the organization to ensure on-the-job training is completed.

BNSF’s approach to onboarding seems to be working. In 2016:

  • 201 employees participated in the orientation.
  • 96 percent said the training “was a useful and valuable investment of my time,” a 4 percent improvement over 2015.
  • New hire regrettable attrition was 6 percent, compared to 11.9 percent for total exempt attrition.

Laying Tracks for the Future

In order to maintain employee engagement beyond training and orientation, an initiative titled Next Gen Communications was created to improve the reach and effectiveness of employee communication. The Learning team created a two-hour “Know the Business” module to be included in the company's annual People Leader Training program held for 5,400 company leaders. The module covers three topics:

  • Business Units
  • Operations
  • Customers

Each topic includes a variety of facilitation, videos, table activities, and group discussion.

“We have piloted the module three times, and the response has been overwhelmingly favorable,” says Ross. “We see this approach as adding considerable value to the overall challenge of creating an informed and engaged workforce.”

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training Top 100 and Emerging Training Leaders.