Strategy & Leadership

Mentoring: The Forgotten Side of Training

Editor’s note: Donald Stephens, a veteran field service engineer at Xerox, explains why your service organization’s reputation hinges on proper training.

Training is as integral to field service as parts, travel and customer relations. Send ill-prepared service reps into the field and you might as well give them a roll of duct tape and clothing hangers to do their repairs. Customers expect (and deserve) well-trained professionals to arrive when they place a service call. Because a field service business’ reputation is on the line when a technician is dispatched to a call, companies go to great lengths to ensure their techs receive the proper training before they enter the field.

Certifications exist to prove knowledge and apprenticeship programs to verify experience, but is that enough? Could more be done to strengthen the skills of those who interface with a business’ customers daily? Here are a few points to consider.

We Learn by Doing What Others Show Us

In nearly all businesses, on-the-job training is the norm. It is also expected that seasoned workers will provide a guiding hand to new employees. We’ve all experienced a bank teller trainee with someone sitting over their shoulder or a new retail check-out clerk who calls someone over to help with a transaction.

Field service is no exception. No matter what skills a new hire brings to field service, someone will need to show them the ropes. When I transferred from the West Coast to the East Coast, working for the same company in the same job, it was still important for me to ride along with someone during that first couple of weeks. I learned a lot about how the techs in the area worked and what my new boss expected of me. While it wasn’t an official mentoring program, it helped me adjust to new customers and find my way around a new city.

Choose a Mentor Wisely

Since we all understand that new service reps require some sort of guidance, wouldn’t it make sense to pair them up with the right tech for the job? Often very little thought goes into choosing a mentor for a new hire beyond asking, Who’s the easiest tech to dump this newbie on? If you’ve taken this attitude with new hires in the past, now you might want to consider these four questions instead:

Does the mentor have the right attitude? 

One of the worst ways to break in a new team member is to pair them with someone who has a negative attitude or with a chip on their shoulders. Likewise, avoid saddling her or him with a mentor who likes to take shortcuts or ignore proper procedures. Some may see this as a greater worry for an experienced new hire, thinking that a seasoned veteran from another company will already come equipped with a good attitude and work ethic. However, it’s human nature to mimic a trainer if they present new procedures as “the way we do it here,” especially if the shortcut is easier.

What are my expectations of the mentor (and have I made them clear)? 

Setting clear expectations is perhaps the most neglected part of the mentoring process. It is certainly the most important. Managers may carefully choose the best tech as a mentor for a new hire — one who represents the company’s values and vision, and who is ethical and hard-working — but they can’t assume those qualities will just rub off onto the new hire. Managers need to set clearly defined expectations for anyone who they put in charge of ‘showing the new guy the ropes.’ Service techs are experts at servicing machines, but they may lack mentoring skills. If your company is experiencing a lot of growth, you may want to consider a mentor training program

Does the mentor really want to be a mentor? 

When asked this question, 99 percent of your techs will reply, Not on your life. No one really wants to be bothered with training a rookie. But it’s still an important question to ask because it shows respect for the tech who you are asking to perform a difficult, uncomfortable task. Still, most managers never bother to ask it.I had a manager (the best manager ever!) who used to ask it like this: Hey, we have a new guy joining the team next week. I know it’s a pain, but can he ride along with you for a week or two so you can show him how we do things around here? I’ll owe you one. Thanks! I don’t know of anyone who ever turned him down.

Can I afford to slow down the mentor? 

Sometimes managers will pair a new hire with the most productive member on the team and expect no impact on their productivity. If that’s your expectation, you may end up with a new hire who hasn’t learned anything or a drop in quality as the newbie messes things up. Learning can be a slow process, and teaching can be even slower. If you don’t want to slow down the quick guy, choose someone else.

Mentorships differ from apprenticeships in two critical ways: One, they are most often unofficial; and two, they need to happen whether or not a business plans for them. Like it or not, your new hires are going to have to learn from your more experienced employees. Isn’t it better to guide the learning rather than leave it to chance?

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