Article > Feature Story

Finding the 'Best' Training

By Tom Easton

Training is among the most important aspects of the parts and service business. This four-part training series examines the ins and outs of world-class store training.

Recently, I had a wonderful opportunity for some firsthand on-the-job observations of our industry at work. Our firm's research engagement gave me a chance to visit a number of areas in the U.S. and travel with our client's manufacturing sales representatives as they made WD and jobber sales calls. It also provided me with the opportunity to "tag along" on a number of service-dealer sales calls made by the sales reps and local jobber outside sales people.

One morning, a sales rep arrived to pick me up at my hotel with the announcement, "I have a snake in my laundry room!" He went on to explain that earlier that morning, when he opened the door to the laundry room, a brown snake quite rudely slithered across the floor and underneath some shelves. He screamed and his wife responded in kind. After some frantic discussion, they began to consider realistic steps they might take to make their home a "snake-free zone." Selling out and moving away did not seem a viable option.

They discarded the idea of propping open the exterior backdoor in hopes the snake would vacate on his own. Composing a strike force armed with garden hoes, hatchets and seven-irons or perhaps shooting the prey with a 12-gauge shotgun were summarily dismissed as impractical. Our morning proceeded with sales calls, and at lunchtime, the rep called his mother-in-law, who lived on a farm in West Virginia. She told him to buy a rat-trap and bait it with that popular lunch meat, baloney. That evening after dropping me off at my hotel, he took immediate action and went to Home Depot to purchase the rat-trap, a device similar to a mousetrap, but super-sized with a high performance spring. He did not mention plans to purchase the "baloney," so I assumed it was already part of his culinary stock pile in his refrigerator.

The next morning, the news was good. Success! "The snake is gone," he said, "and, on the very first try!" He had, he said, baited the trap with the baloney, set the trap, placed it close to the shelves and, before he had even left the laundry room, the trap engaged and the snake was history. He said, "Can you believe it? In less than two minutes I caught the snake." He had, it seems, found just the right method for removing the reptilian intruder from his house.

Why am I telling you this? Simple. While there are undoubtedly many ways to remove a snake from your house, there might actually be only one that is preferable over all the others - one best way. Concurrently, there are a number of ways to train employees but there just might be "one" best way.

In the first article of this series, we discussed the difference between education and training. Education is about "knowing" and training is about "doing." Selecting the "one" best way for improving the performance of an employee lies in determining what needs to be learned.

Last month's article focused on gap analysis. It addressed why one counterperson can average 60 invoices per day, while another only averages 34 per day. Once you have identified the gap between employee performances, it is your responsibility to determine what is contributing to or causing the gap. Is it caused by a lack of knowledge, lack of skills or improper attitude?

Economic Guideposts
In today's learning organizations, two vital economic guideposts for auto parts stores are productivity and innovation. Productivity per employee is the universal yardstick for measuring and managing every employee job classification within your store. With payroll expenses as the largest operating expense in every auto parts store model, productivity is key to monthly and short-term profitability.

Innovation is the key to long-term profitability and increased market share. Innovation is the key to long-term profitability and increased market share. In learning organizations, employees contribute ideas for serving customers faster and better. Find and suggest ways to sell more. As the employees learn to do their job tasks better and grow in their job skills, they seek new and better ways to improve accuracy and efficiency. Innovation is not management's responsibility. Innovation and continuous improvement of routine tasks such as checking in the stock order, putting the stock order on the shelves, testing electrical components, handling battery adjustments, pulling stock orders, invoicing special orders and sequencing deliveries are improved at the front line. Innovation is a team activity and thrives in a store that fosters learning and open communication.

Peter Drucker in his book The Age of Discontinuity suggested that you measure or assess your organization's performance on these two economic guideposts. He believes that if a company continues to improve productivity of all key resources and improves its innovative standing, it will be profitable. In other words, improve your people, and their productivity improves. Encourage innovation and you receive increases in productivity, customer service and sales.

What is the best way to improve your people and encourage innovation? Here are a few methods to help your store to become a learning organization.


On-the-Job Training

On-the-Job-Training (OJT) program materials must be organized, provide for documentation and stress the importance of the role of "trainer" (current skilled employee) in training the new employee.

Develop and list performance-based objectives that describe what the new employee will be able to do after participating in this stage of on-the-job training.

You need to develop brief checklists used to conduct task-specific OJT. A good counter sales person may not necessarily be a good teacher of a new hire. He/she might not understand how people learn and perhaps have forgotten his/her own sense of confusion with the parts business when he or she was a newcomer. The OJT checklist will assist your skilled counterperson in training the newcomer and ensure what is being taught is accurate, uniform and organized.

Take the time to teach the people in your store who are responsible for training newcomers about how adults learn and how they, as OJT trainers, can smooth the progress of the newcomers' learning.

The five-step process for developing your own in-store OJT program for delivery drivers or counter sales people must include:

1. Preparation (a checklist for each task);
2. Information presentation (what will be learned and why);
3. Demonstration (tell and show);
4. Practice (newcomer/trainee can show and tell the trainer);
5. Conclusion (feedback, praise and recognition).

The practice phase starts when your experienced employee (OJT trainer) guides and prompts newcomers and corrects them before they get into trouble or create problems.


Electronic Learning

Electronic Learning is anything delivered, enabled or mediated by electronic technology for the explicit purpose of learning. This can be a web-based program, interactive CD computer-based programs or DVD/VHS formatted "watch-and-learn" programs.

The advantage of electronic learning formats is the ability to provide constant access to efficient and effective training that can provide just what the employees need, when and where they need it. This format reduces financial, travel and human-resource requirements. As vehicles became increasingly high-tech and parts proliferation explodes, more and more auto parts stores have become networked and "connected." It is a natural evolution for technical education and training of store employees to be delivered through distance learning formats available through electronic learning systems.


Seminar, Classes & Clinics

Instructor-led learning sessions allow participants to learn from the facilitator and the other participants. This is perhaps the most expensive method of learning because of the travel time and the duration of most of these interventions. However, the return on investment and the transfer of knowledge and skills continue to remain high.


Self-Paced Study Guides

Similar to the benefits of electronic learning, self-paced study guides provide the employee control, self-directed, easy access, flexibility in scheduling learning, no travel time requirements and the ability to review particularly difficult information. Customarily, these guides are meant to be read and used from beginning to end. They are designed with sub-topics that allow the employee to move logically through the entire topic. Most study guides provide the employee with self-scoring tests after each sub-topic or chapter.


Job Aids

Job Aids are quick visual references designed to help employees with job tasks that are performed infrequently. They should be short and include only the most critical, need-to-know information. Job aids are very effective when the sequence of steps is critical to safety and/or performance outcomes (example: testing an alternator). Job aids are also useful when the specific job task performance is acceptable and possible without a practice session or feedback.



Mentoring is similar to OJT - only with more structure. To be an effective mentor, we encourage the development of a "Mentor's Guide." The design and detail level of this mentor's guide will depend on the complexity and financial implications of the tasks being taught. The following five elements are essential for an effective mentoring relationship.


  1. Learning Objectives
    Let your employee know what is expected of him/her. Your employee also needs to understand how each task and sub-task of his/her job relates to the overall position and to the monthly performance of the store. This will help motivate your employee and increase the desire to learn.


  2. Needs of the Employee
    Helping your employee learn is more important than demonstrating how well you know how to do the task or job. Employees need to understand how this new knowledge will help them do their jobs better, faster or easier; and how this new knowledge contributes to their personal skill package and career growth.


  3. Tell and Show
    Just as "timing" is important to the performance of an engine, your timing is important. You must synchronize what you say with what you show an employee. Some employees learn better by hearing; others by seeing. However, research confirms that all employees learn more when the methods are combined. You need to make sure your employees can see what you are explaining and demonstrating, and encourage them to "think out loud," to confirm, question and explain what you are doing during your demonstration and explanation.


  4. Active Involvement
    Involve your employees as active partners in the learning process. Provide them with opportunities to practice the new skills with your supervision. Retention and knowledge of the new tasks increases with them "doing" the tasks. Remember, "telling isn't training." During their practice of a new task, never make fun of an employee's mistakes.


  5. Reinforcement
    Reinforce their learning by telling employees when they are "on target" and learning what they need to know. You can also reinforce their learning with recognition or public praise.

What is the "One" Best Way?
This is a good question. And after 30 years in this field, I still don't know the answer. I do know that the jobs or positions within an auto parts store are each made up of tasks and sub-tasks. Each sub-task is made up of steps. To determine the appropriate training method or delivery system for teaching the steps, we encourage our clients to prioritize the job tasks. You can do this by determining these four aspects. Frequency: how frequently does this employee perform the task? Importance: how important is the task to overall job effectiveness? and Learning Difficulty: how difficult is it to learn to perform this task? Job Experience: What job/task experience does the employee bring with him or her?Answering these four questions will help you determine if the training can be accomplished with on-the-job training, by having the employee complete an on-line course or one of the other methods of improving his/her knowledge and skills.

This is my criterion of establishing the quality requirements for effective employee training programs and materials. Regardless of the delivery method, your store employee training offerings should:


  • Increase employee efficiency

  • Be job centered

  • Be performance centered and measurable

  • Be valuable to the employee

  • Be employee/self paced

  • Be delivered at an appropriate time for the employee

  • Provide timely feedback to the employee

  • Provide time for and foster open communications

  • Be instructionally sound

  • Be interactive

  • Be cost effective

  • Assist in meeting your business goals

  • Encourage innovation


If you ever face the unlikely but possible situation of having an unwanted snake in your house or store, what device would you use to kill the snake? What product would you use as bait on the device? Learning happens! Learning even happens while reading articles in trade magazines.

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