Training: Training Operators As Customer Service

April 14, 2017

Way back in the dark ages (about 10 years ago) when machine control was being introduced to the construction industry, the name of the game was hands-on, person-to-person training. A mainstay of the approach was to identify a champion of the new technology who would bring the rest of the folks onboard. A major hurdle was convincing seasoned operators that computers weren’t going to muscle them out. Manufacturers were tripping over themselves trying to get a hearing. Contractors complained about having to take people off the job to learn computer-assisted grading, and for a while getting machine control into the market was a long, slow slog.

One of the complicating variables was the murky dichotomy between customer service—which smacked of sales—and training—which suggested a more in-depth approach to bringing people up to speed, but required a not-always-comfortable commitment of time and money.

It seems, however, that things are changing. Actually, a better description would be modification based on a more sophisticated view of training that melds manufacturer and customer interests.

We’ve talked about the gray area between customer service/support and training previously in this column. Ken Vlasman, customer service manager at Terex Corporation and maker of cranes and such, puts it in perspective.

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“You’ve got a man 50 to 125 feet in the air, and you want to be sure he’s up there in a safe position,” he says.

You being the company that owns the equipment, the dealer who sold it, and the manufacturer (not to mention the operator). Viewed this way, maybe it isn’t so much of a stretch to think of training as servant to customer service, or vice versa.

“It’s a matter of perspective,” says Vlasman.

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The initial introduction of machine control followed existing industry models: cursory introduction to the equipment via dealers, telephone support, in-person onsite training if the customer wanted it (and was willing to pay), and specialized classroom training at manufacturer sites. Looking at it from the perspective of 10 years hence, the model was neither insightful nor very efficient. Online webinars were added, as well as self-paced learning modules, to the point that it looked almost like manufacturers were throwing whatever they had at the problem to see what stuck. There was a lot of talk about the different ways that people learn and under what circumstances, speculation that actually got closer to the crux of the problem.

What it boiled down to is: getting operators up to speed on machine control and then making them experts in maximizing the capabilities of these systems requires not only an understanding of the different ways people learn (some by rote, some by hands-on, and such), but also the relative complexity of the material. Could basic information about how a system works be thought of as customer support, something that customers could count on when they purchased a piece of equipment? And would that make training an expansion on the basics that, in combination with on-the-job experience, would help operators develop additional skills?

“At the end of the day, we’re really trying to accomplish the same thing with training and customer support,” says Ron Oberlander at Topcon Positioning Systems.

Which is? I’ll finish the sentence for him: that customers feel they get what they paid for, that their experience with the manufacturer begins on a positive note, and continues thereafter with efficiency and cost effectiveness on both sides.

Consider also that the construction industry workforce is changing. They’ve emerged from a digital-centric world.

“It’s not so much that we’re removing the human from the job site, or from doing the work,” says Oberlander. “We’re removing the manual process of paper and USB sticks, and going to a website. Think about how you do things in your daily life. When you want to find out how to do something, you Google it. You don’t call the manufacturer. You’ve got your smartphone, and you want to be self-sufficient. We’re finding that more and more often our customers want to do things, like upgrading their software or familiarizing new employees with equipment, on their own.”

Acting on this premise, Topcon has merged its customer support and training into one entity that it calls Professional Services, with Oberlander in the lead. The project’s most immediate manifestation is myTopcon, its dedicated online site.

Oberlander says the goal is to provide a complete end-to-end training solution, first for customers who want to know the basics of how to use a product. “This is the beginning of the curve,” he says. “The information we offer at myTopcon is basically one size fits all. You don’t need anyone to come onsite; you don’t have to send anyone anywhere. myTopcon is available to everyone, whether they’ve purchased a piece of Topcon equipment or not. All you need is a user name and password.”

Then, six months down the road, when a contractor has the basics down and wants to learn how to become efficient with this product they’ve invested a lot of dollars in, they slip back into the classical industry training model of person-to-person based instruction.

“You realize you’re only using 10% of the software functions, and you want to know how to get to the other 90%.” To do this, you either bring in the trainers to your site, or you attend one of the manufacturer’s specialized courses.

Topcon hasn’t gone so far as to organize the material it offers on myTopcon into modules or learning packages. Rather, it’s up to site users to hen peck their way through the opportunities the site provides. Oberlander envisions that contractors will create their own in-house libraries from product-specific articles, videos, etc., that resonate with their organizations.

“Create a library, and then share it within the organization,” says Oberlander. “Maybe a supervisor, or perhaps an operator, goes through, sees that the information is useful, and shares it with everyone on the team.” He also projects that dealers will be creating libraries specific to their particular customers’ interests and needs, and that such libraries will become a core of dealer support. (It’s known as everyone being on the same page.)

Obviously, there are challenges with this model. You send an operator to a fee-based training program, you know they’ve been there and that they’ve been exposed to a certain type and level of information. You can’t, of course, assess how much they paid attention, etc., but you are at least sure they’re familiar with the material. Whereas, exposure and, hopefully, assimilation of information at the early end of the customer support-training continuum is via the honor system—here’s the library, go to it.

Another challenge with self-paced learning for organizational freaks like myself is the potential for people in your operation to be at different levels of learning and competence at any given point in time. One solution might be to combine self-based learning with some kind of hands-on experience, even early in the game, as an opportunity to apply what’s been learned online and develop psychomotor skills.

All that being said, a library of introductory product-specific information would definitely be a resource for an organization. No print copies to file and lose, etc., and employees can go back for refreshers whenever they feel the need. Which brings us to another anticipated benefit of myTopcon: troubleshooting. The material will be catalogued with keywords so it can be searched real time on the job site using a smartphone, just the way you initiate a Google search on your computer.

myTopcon launched in November 2016 and of mid-January 2017 totaled 2,000 logins. Although a complete analysis of respondents hasn’t been undertaken, Oberlander reports that most of the early adopters were looking for product updates, which is OK by him.

“When they log in, they find their product, then download the most recent firmware or software. They’ve never had this kind of access before. We want them to be fully in control of their own product. When they log in, they also have the opportunity to register the serial number of their equipment. Once they do that, we can communicate with them everything about their product. Just like your refrigerator, or washer and dryer.”