A common issue facing field service organizations: How to keep a huge, remote, and disparate workforce up to speed on new product updates, releases, and best practices?

Training remote techs can be challenging and expensive, especially when companies have to fly service teams to a training location. Not surprisingly, more and more companies are looking to online training programs as a low-cost way to keep service techs on the ball. Online training can have its limitations, however. By definition, it lacks the tactile, hands-on benefits that one-on-one, or instructor-led training offers. And it doesn’t always produce a high level of engagement — or retention. Used correctly, though, it can be an important and valuable part of an overall training regimen.

Here are a few ways to get the most out of training your remote technicians online.

1. Determine What Works Online

The first, and most important, element in developing a training program is to determine what training topics work best with what methods, whether it’s online, in a classroom, or straight out of a workbook.

“Some things just don’t lend themselves to online training,” says Mike Kay, the service training manager for STERIS Healthcare, which employs more than 1,000 field service techs worldwide. “But more knowledge-based training does. So if you’re showing how to dismantle or reassemble a mechanical component, even if you show the process, that doesn’t always translate from a learning standpoint online. You can’t really grasp that without having your hands on the device. But if it’s something like, ‘Here’s Step 1, Step 2, Step 3,’ or push this button, switch this level — more knowledge-based information — that’s certainly easier for someone to do online.”

Kay says his company posts 30 to 35 online training sessions per year to deal with product updates or new product lines. But STERIS also does in-person training for other types of work.

Amos Schneller, the director of customer service for Medivators, a medical endoscope reprocessor, says his company has found that its certification training programs — which are essentially just written and multiple-choice tests — are a good candidate for online training. In the past, the company would gather its 50 nationwide remote techs at Medivators’ HQ in Minneapolis to get certified. Now, however, they’re moving the entire process online through a learning management system.

2. Choose Your Setting

Once you’ve figured out what to offer as online training, it’s important to differentiate between synchronous training — people sitting at their computers remotely, but all at the same time — and asynchronous training, which is on-demand.

Synchronous learning definitely has its benefits. By mimicking a live classroom, it allows for real-time interaction between the instructor and the student. But it also means taking all your techs off the job at the same time, which may be a non-starter for some companies. In that case, consider on-demand training — which not only allows techs to get to the training on their own schedule, but also has the added benefit of being something techs can come back to for a refresher course, either during down-time in the shop, or even when confronted with a tricky fix in the field.

Donna Wells, CEO of Mindflash, a learning management system that allows companies to develop customized online training courses, said that on-demand refreshers often end up being one of the most important element of a training program. “My experience is that a lot of training is more like, ‘I’m going out to the field to work on a product I personally haven’t worked on before — let me get ready access to this asynchronous training,'” Wells says.

On-demand training also means that your new hires can get caught up to speed on all the new product updates without having to wait for the next company-wide training session to roll around.

3. Use Video, Video, Video

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, a video can pretty much replace an entire lecture. When choosing an learning management system, be sure to find one that allows for integration with video files — particulately HD video, if you’re dealing with very fine complicated or mechanical repairs. Schneller, of Medivators, says his company has been producing lots of short online tutorial videos for product releases — most of which are produced in-house. “They’re easy to share with everybody,” he says.

Training video tutorials don’t need to be Scorcese-level, either. They should be short, to-the-point, and simple, says Mike Moore, the director of training for HVAC Learning Solutions. Videos should be no longer than two minutes a pop, he says. And don’t go overboard on transitions or graphics — you want to make them as easy to follow as possible.

4. Support the Learners

Online learning is a fantastic part of any training program, but it’s just one. Organizations should make sure they’re supporting service techs in other ways, too. Mark DiGregorio, vice president of business development for Tolt Service Group, told The SmartVan earlier that his company produces a huge guide, or service manual, that covers every product his technicians work on. The guide is updated monthly and pushed automatically to technicians’ laptops.

But Tolt also taps into its technicians’ existing knowledge-base: The company uses internal social networks that allow techs to pose questions and get replies from their own peers, in real-time. The best questions and replies from that message board are then included in the next month’s master guide update.

More: Training Techs Is Tough — Is There a Better Way?

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ABOUT Ian Stewart

Ian is a veteran journalist who has covered sports for various news outlets. Previously, he was managing editor for an electronic-book publishing company and a public relations writer.