Terry Lim

Taking Training Seriously

September 06, 2005

Case categories include: Human Resources   Leadership   Operations   

By Robert Sher
I remember the pain so vividly when, many years ago, I was listening in my car to a tape of a telemarketer missing one close opportunity after another.  I couldn’t stop myself from hollering at my tape deck, “Go for the close!”  It hurts when training is neglected.

As I drove to meet with Terry Lim, COO of Pet Food Express, I wondered how he keeps 24 locations running smoothly and achieving their high standards for product knowledge and customer intimacy.  You see, every one of their 300 employees are expected to be able to accurately recommend the best foods for each pet, based on breed, age, health, gender, and activity level.  That’s a tall order for retail help, but Pet Food Express succeeds. They know they do because they measure it.

Top of the line training
Here’s their system.  Every month, new hires are sent to a five-day orientation after having worked in the stores for a few weeks.  A half day is spent teaching the corporate value set and the top brass are personally involved.  The remaining time is for reviewing product knowledge and other operating matters.  Once back in the store, in order for the employee to be eligible for the weekly bonus plan plan, they must study daily, and turn in a worksheet verifying what they learned. 

Every quarter, an optional unpaid after-hours workshop is held, and 70% attend.  There are monthly in-store training sessions, led by two full time trainers.  Managers return to headquarters monthly for half day training sessions.  In addition to the two full-time trainers, Terry spends about 25 hours per month on the training activities as well.  Plus, the senior management team splits up and visits every store every weekend to stay in touch with the customers and employees and to make sure that the stores are performing up to company standards!  

Bad CEO?
Sitting there during my meeting I was feeling like a bad, under-training CEO.  Then he said that his warehouse employees got just the corporate values training, then the rest was done on the job.  Whew, I felt better.

Honestly, running a chain store operation that prides itself on its knowledgeable employees is an extreme case, requiring a very comprehensive training program.   But what about the rest of us?

Taking the time to orient new employees to your corporate culture is really important, and is the most common type of organized training that I see.  Just do it.

Identifying job categories with high head counts and lots of new hires is a ripe area for a formal, tightly run training program.  Complex job categories may justify a journeyman/apprentice training process, where a veteran is teamed with a new recruit, and goes through a reviewed process of on the job training.

Just hire a trainer?
Many positions in many companies don’t fit these categories.  A hired trainer can’t know everything about every position.  And how the work gets done changes often nowadays, so a written “manual” for every position just doesn’t work well either. 

Ever send your team off to classes or seminars and find that nothing changed?  It happens all the time.  Classes can be good, and should be evaluated.  But they must be the right classes, and what is taught must be immediately usable back at the office.  If it’s not, you are throwing money and time away.  Classes are also better used to accelerate knowledge.  Rank beginners come back without the confidence to really try it on the job, and most don’t.

Training is every manager’s job.
The answer lies in the manager.  A big part of every manager’s job must be to insure that the manager trains their staff regularly.  One technique is an orderly rotational review of the tasks that each employee does.  Do they know and remember how to do it right?  Is there any better way to do the job?  Have any knowledge gaps been identified, and how will they be bridged?  If the team isn’t doing anything to improve their knowledge, or the process of getting the work done, then you have a training problem.  Nothing stands still anymore.

If you’re finding yourself aggravated that your team is making too many mistakes, or missing too many opportunities, you may have a training problem.  And if you’re hollering at tape decks, you most certainly do.  Your managers must be your trainers.

• For each new hire, you must have a process that helps them understand your values and culture.
• With business changing all the time, training is an ongoing process – it should be happening all the time. 
• Each manager should be responsible for an ongoing training program in their department.

Robert Sher is principal of CEO to CEO, specializing in assisting CEOs and business leaders as they navigate critical passages.  He is the author of The Feel of the Deal; How I Built a Business through Acquisitions.  He may be reached at Robert@ceotoceo.biz.

Company and Case Facts:

Company: Pet Food Express
Person: Terry Lim, COO
Alliance Member since: 2001
Business Founded: 1986
Annual Sales Volume: Over $40 million (projected, FY2005)
Growth Rate: 30% (2004 to 2005)
Head Count: 300
Product: Holistic and premium pet food, pet accessories and supplies
Typical Customer: Pet lovers who want the best in pet nutrition and knowledge from people who really care
Written: September, 2005
Address: Pet Food Express, 2131 Williams St., San Leandro, CA 94577
E-mail: tlim@petfoodexpress.com
Phone: 510-346-7777