By Jamin Arvig, President of WaterFilters.net, Zumbrota, Minn.
We only had six employees when one of them decided to leave because he felt he didn't have the skills or product knowledge to do a good job. It was a big blow to our company, and it convinced me that I'd waited too long to bring in the kind of training that my employees needed.
We sell water filter products from all the major brands and most of the minor ones. It's a pretty technical industry: We're not just selling a few different refrigerator filters. We fulfill a lot of complicated orders for homes and businesses. That requires in-depth knowledge of product specifications as well as general water quality issues. Our sales and customer service people need to have the ability to diagnose problems and suggest the right kind of filter.
For example, somebody might call in looking for a specific brand. A well-trained employee won't just look for that product -- she will make sure it's the right one given the customer's needs, and if it isn't, she'll find a more appropriate product. This is a basic sales tactic but one that much of my staff couldn't perform.
It's never a good time
I knew the company would benefit from some in-depth product training, but there never seemed to be a good time. Who's going to answer the phone if both of your sales people are busy learning? So I kept putting off the training. Also, it costs a lot to bring in someone from the outside to train your staff, so I was happy to put off that expense. It seemed like we were doing OK with on-the-job training.
It turned out that the customer service rep who quit was just the tip of the iceberg. My other customer service and sales people were struggling and frustrated. They didn't say it in exactly these words, but they basically felt like I hadn't equipped them to succeed. They didn't feel empowered to do their jobs. The employee who left said he lacked confidence. It was a real eye opener. I felt really bad about the situation because it could have been avoided.
I realized things had to change, so I made training a priority. We were still pretty small back then, so we couldn't do it all at once. We had to bring in training programs bit by bit. I started with structured product training, where we brought in vendors to answer questions about their products.
Training pays dividends
It's been a couple of years now since we implemented the training programs. Now, we have a variety of approaches: vendor training, where suppliers come in and offer seminars on products; cross-training, where shipping people man the phones and sales people pack the products so employees get an idea of what other parts of the company are doing; video training, which educates both clients and staff on various aspects of the industry; and departmental training, where one or two employees become experts on some aspect of workflow and present the information to others.
We continue to revise and improve the content, but on the whole it's been a big success. The employees really do like the sessions -- it's not something they moan and groan about. They feel better about being equipped with the necessary tools to do their jobs. Employee morale has risen since we started the trainings -- and there are clear signs of improvement from a business side of things.
A perfect example is customer returns. When a customer calls to say he thinks he has the wrong product or wants to return a product, he's really calling to ask us to fix his problem. When we have people answering the phones who are equipped to problem solve -- to really find out the nature of the issue our customer is having -- we get better outcomes. As a result our return rates have plummeted by 80 percent since the training programs got underway in the past few years.
That saves us money in terms of administration and shipping. It also makes for a happy customer -- he's getting his problem solved the first time. As a result, he walks away satisfied and we get a repeat customer.
Educated sales and customer service staff can also foresee problems and help customers solve issues before they happen. The knowledge our reps now have about broader water quality issues means they can understand what else the customer might need to resolve the problem, rather than giving them only what they ask for. Since our training programs started, our upsales have risen close to 50 percent. We now have 20 employees, and last year pulled in $5.4 million in revenues.
Having an employee quit is a financial setback to any company -- especially when that employee represents a sixth of your workforce. But there are a million decisions that need to be made when you are growing a small company, and some of them will inevitably be wrong. It's just important to learn from those and move on.
-- As told to Peter McDougall