Tim Spencer asked for a quick show of hands around the table during a recent discussion: “What’s the key to giving a tech a tactile learning experience, even though he’s out in Timbuktu someplace?”

No one offered up a solution.

“I don’t know,” said one colleague.

“It’s really hard,” offered another.

“We’ve tried almost everything …”

Creating a proper, efficient way to train service technicians is crucial to field service organizations. Unfortunately, the prospect of flying techs from every corner of the country to one place for a training seminar — or figuring out a technology to train techs remotely — can be daunting, and a serious pain point for these organizations.

Spencer, the vice president of customer experience for WMS, a Chicago-area manufacturer of lottery and arcade machines, has been trying to figure this problem out his whole career. Every time a part gets introduced or upgraded, or whenever a technology system is introduced, replaced or upgraded, the techs need to know how to work with it. And when you’re training on something small or extremely complex, that often requires being in the same room with an instructor who can give techs a hands-on training experience.

Earl Halls, the vice president of commercial services for retail security specialist CSS, says it’s a common problem.

“I’m always looking for a more efficient way [to train techs] than flying guys somewhere and sticking them in hotel rooms for a couple of days,” Halls said.

Logistics and expense

The training problem is essentially one of logistics and expense: Flying people in to do hands-on training is expensive and creates huge headaches for companies that need to have their techs on duty. Taking a few out of the rotation can mean serious overtime or, even worse, a lack of manpower if a customer needs an emergency fix.

For Mark DiGregorio, vice president of business development for Tolt Service Group, that second problem is all too familiar.

“We’re 24/7, so we always have to have people on duty,” he said. “If we train large groups of people we have to shift people around markets, then bring them in to train, then shift teams around to essentially be smoke jumpers if anything happens.”

Spencer recommends taking a pragmatic approach to training by working out the ROI of different types of training. How much will it cost if fewer techs can handle problems with a certain machine? How often do parts break? Does it makes sense to concentrate on those parts instead of the more sturdy ones?

Innovative approaches

WMS also takes a innovative approach to training by actually embedding someone from the service department within the design team. This person goes through all the phases of product development, from concept to design to finally rolling it out.

“He’s in meetings saying, ‘Hey, last time we used a red wire here. Can’t we keep it the same?’ Or, ‘A tech’s hand used to be able to fit behind here and that needs to happen.'”

Dane Taival, vice president of building services and solutions for HVAC manufacturer TRANE, assigns some of the company’s techs to be “subject matter experts” who get extra training on new parts, and who then can act as resources for other techs who get stuck out on a call. This relieves some of the pressure to make sure every tech is an expert on new parts and technologies when they leave training. With this system, every tech has a safety valve they can call to walk them through a fix.

Technology solutions

Tolt’s DiGregorio doesn’t have that same luxury. As a service contractor, his company services a larger variety of parts and products than OEMs do, so he doesn’t have the manpower to cover for him during a big training session. Instead, his company uses technology to create experts on demand. Tolt has an internal guide — a bible of sorts — that contains everything a tech would need to know about the machines they service. An updated guide is uploaded automatically to every tech’s laptop once per month, so they always have a reference point to work with. The company also has an internal messaging system that techs can post problems to and get responses from their peers in real-time. A member of the engineering team also combs through the message board every month to grab tips that work and add them to the master guide.

Companies are definitely experimenting with video and video conferencing as well. Tolt makes a guide video for every product as well as using an online training tool, and both Trane and CSS had experimented with using Skype or other enterprise video conferencing solutions. But due to the limitations of technology, that only works for certain products or parts.

“The video (on live conferences) can be choppy and it’s hard to show detail,” Halls said. “As a product becomes more complex or deviates too far from existing technology, the return goes down. There’s less of a baseline for the techs trying to learn remotely to work with.”

The solution is that there is no solution; training problems are going to persist. Technology is definitely relieving some of the pressure, but companies are going to have to wait for the silver bullet.

More: Why Field Service Needs to Embrace Mobile Video.

Click here to download a free whitepaper, “Five Steps to Make Field Service Profitable.”

ABOUT Corey Lewis

Avatar photoCorey Lewis is an experienced writer, editor, PR pro and marketer with a deep background in technology, social media, and internet tools and culture.