Effective Training for Small Businesses

A Quick and Dirty Guide to Home Energy Upgrade Training and Coaching

June 29, 2012
July/August 2012
A version of this article appears in the July/August 2012 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
Click here to read more articles about Training and Certification

Let’s be honest: Perfect training doesn’t lead to perfect results. That said, if you screw up your training, it could have a cascading effect, which could lead to losing money versus making a profit.

This is certainly true in the fiercely competitive home energy upgrade business, where building a successful company demands consistent job quality and great customer service, no matter which installer is on the jobsite. Ideally, you deliver comfort and cost savings to your customers and get referrals. You don’t want your crew using the customer’s door planter as an ashtray or pulling the tube out of a bicycle tire to stop a plumbing leak they created (a true story)—incidents that can lead to costly callbacks and negative word-of-mouth marketing by your customers. That makes training crucial. In fact, when a reputable company starts getting complaints about service or quality, it’s almost always because of a poorly trained new hire.

Training can be a daunting challenge for a small business. The obvious reasons are time and budget. “Time is the biggest constraint” and “It’s gotta be quick and effective” are what I hear time and again from home energy professionals.

This article addresses that challenge. It outlines a simple framework for creating a cost-effective training solution that actually works. It draws lessons from classroom techniques—instructional models used by companies like Microsoft—as well as from my own experience. I currently head the training department at Advanced Energy, an energy efficiency services company in Raleigh, North Carolina, a job that includes designing, developing, and providing training materials for home energy business owners, managers, and installers. My graduate degree is in teacher education, and I’ve spent more than 10,000 hours teaching and training.

The Model

A good small-business training approach lies somewhere between the Microsoft Learning Council and simply telling an employee to “go out and train the new guy,” without further explanation.

Corporations don’t say “go train the new guy” and walk away. Most corporate trainers use an instructional design model known as ADDIE:

Analysis – Identifying the training need and audience.

Design — Using the results to build a training program.

Development — Physically building training materials.

Implementation — Doing the actual training.

Evaluation — Figuring out what did and didn’t work and making changes.

There’s a wealth of information on ADDIE, but much of it is academic. For a small business, you can get the same results from a simple three-step model:

  • Planning (analysis, design and development);
  • Training (implementation); and
  • Coaching (evaluation).

Here’s how each of these steps works.


Planning consists of asking a few key questions and then using the results to design the actual training. The questions focus on whom you will be training (the audience) and what you will be training (the learning objectives).

Who is the audience? Get this wrong and it's over. Questions to ask include "What do they already know how to do?" and "Who hired them and why?" (Is this the boss’s son or daughter?) A total greenhorn needs a different training approach than someone who worked at the same job in another state. Assume they have knowledge they don't, and you will overwhelm them; assume they don't know something they do, and the risk is that they will feel patronized and tune you out.

What are your training goals? Your company and/or local standards usually predefine your training goals. These goals and standards will define the results of your training.

Make sure you know how the results of the training will be measured. If you have no plan to measure the training results internally, you have just, by default, hired your customers to measure your results—which they tend to do by calling your office to complain of a problem and to demand that you come back out and fix it. Using your customers to measure your company's effectiveness is a very expensive alternative to an internal inspection process. It should also leave you wondering how many other jobs were botched.

The training typically will include documented customer service standards, standardized tools, materials, and installation techniques. If it doesn't, stop reading and start finding a way to get your goals and specs documented. There are good reasons why most societies moved from the oral tradition to the written word. If you don’t have this documented, you are not alone—but you may not be in good company, either.

Design and development. Once you know where you are and where you’re going, it’s time to draw a map to bridge the gap. See the Design Document Template (Figure 1) as an example of how to document your audience, objectives, and needed tools and materials in each section of your training.

Job aids. One common mistake here is to omit key pieces of information. There are tragic examples of the consequences, including people dying on airplanes because the fire extinguisher training didn’t include locating the fire extinguisher. You can avoid such problems with job aids that help people apply the knowledge in an actual field setting. In the home energy business, these aids might include standardized lists of tools and materials needed for the job, checklists for new employees, and step-by-step illustrated field guides.

Employees have lie detector tests of their own. If you don’t care about their well-being or their success, they’ll know it.


Ideally during the actual training, you are constantly adapting to your audience's needs and checking for understanding as you go, so that you don’t leave your audience behind. Here are two of many instructional approaches that will assist you in meeting the broad range of learning styles that you’ll find in the installer population.

Tell, show, do, provide feedback. In it's simplest form, good training consists of Tell, Show, Do, and Feedback. Start by confirming what they know and don’t know. Then TELL what needs to be done, SHOW them how to do it, let them DO it themselves and then provide FEEDBACK until you know they get it.

In Advanced Energy’s hands-on Home Energy Upgrade courses, we typically introduce a topic like sealing small, medium, and large holes in metal duct with a discussion backed up with visuals, followed by a step-by-step walk-through of the tools, materials, and processes (Tell and Show). We then turn the participants loose on a simulated duct system with small, medium, and large holes (Do). Students receive feedback from instructors as well as from other students as they demonstrate their understanding or lack thereof.

The inquiry method. When training people with previous field experience, you can use a variation of the above approach, called the Inquiry Method. It consists of asking a series of questions that allow the trainees to demonstrate their knowledge, skills, and abilities. Using this method, you would show photos of a duct system and ask, “Where would you seal the holes shown here?”

Asking questions is far more effective than lecturing; studies show that people who discover answers to problems on their own remember the answers better than people who were simply told the answer to a problem. Instead of saying, “When we put on mastic, we use the term 'thick as a nickel' because it needs to be that thick to be effective,” ask, “When we put on mastic, we use the term ‘thick as a nickel.’ Why do you think we say that?”

What to watch out for: lying. It's common, especially for new hires, to nod their head and give you every clue that they get it when they really don’t.

Advice: Give them opportunities to take the “lie detector test” and demonstrate to you that they get it. Engage learners by providing opportunities to DO the thing they're trying to learn. It will make your checking for understanding a whole lot easier. Hold employees accountable by letting them know they do need to demonstrate understanding throughout the training, and hold yourself accountable by checking for understanding. This will allow you to report back to management with confidence what the employee actually knows.

Check for understanding. If you don’t check for understanding, you don’t know what you’re doing, literally. Important as it is, there is no magic formula for checking for understanding. You need to be able to read your audience and make a judgment call as to whether they get it and you can move on.

Something to watch out for: Providing too much information.

Information ideally should be provided in sets of three to four items. There's a reason your phone number isn't an uninterrupted string of seven numbers; the information is grouped in threes and fours to help people remember. Use the no-more-than-four rule when checking for understanding. If you just explained more than four steps before checking for understanding, that was at least one step too many.


Simply put, a coach is a trusted advisor who assists employees in meeting mutually beneficial goals. Like your training plan, your coaching plan needs to be documented. This allows for structured succession planning in an industry known for high turnover. Remember that without internal checks on your company's work, you literally don’t know what you’re doing.

Coaching is an opportunity for you to evaluate workers in the field and to inspect their work.

The most popular way to discuss the different levels of evaluation was designed by training expert Donald Kirkpatrick, past president of the American Society for Training and Development. The levels and the questions they address, from the simplest to the most complex, are as follows:

Level 1: Reaction. How did you feel? (Known as the smiley face evaluation and unfortunately the most common.)

Level 2: Learning. What did you learn in the training?

Level 3: Behavior. Are you applying the new knowledge, skills, and abilities in the field?

Level 4: Results. Is the training producing the results that the business desires in a measurable way?

The coach should be a real-time trusted advisor. A coach ideally will act as a trusted advisor by offering newly trained employees real-time assistance on complex issues in the field. In an ideal scenario, employees will know when they are stuck and in need of help. They need someone they can call and/or e-mail pictures to for assistance. They want a coach who understands that mistakes happen, collaborates on solutions, and teams up with them to make sure it’s done right moving forward. (Think opposite of a cop.)

The coach should use actionable future-focused feedback. This is where you decide whether you want to be a cop or a coach. Police officers offer a great example of what a coach should not do. Cops typically say, “Hey, I caught you speeding; this is bad; I’m punishing you with this ticket.” If coaches replaced them, it would be a different story. Instead of sirens, a whistle would blow, and the cops would approach you, let you know what you did wrong, and ask you some questions. After they got to know you a bit, they would provide you with a driver’s training plan with follow-up coaching. Any feedback would not dwell on the past, but would be future focused, of course. After training and coaching, if you demonstrated that you still didn’t get it, you would be quickly fired for the sake of the common good. (Think no driver’s license.)

Future-focused feedback helps the person to improve in the future, in contrast to berating the person for mistakes of the past. For example, if a duct sealer is painting on a thin layer of mastic to seal holes in metal, ask the duct sealer what he or she can do in the future to plug those holes instead of painting them. If need be, you can ask leading questions and give helpful answers. For example: “The mastic should always be as thick as a what?” (A nickel) “Is there anything that would help you remember this?” Let employees come up with their own solutions. (“Yes, you could tape a nickel to the back of your mastic hand. I never thought of that.”)

What to watch out for: Pretending to be a trusted advisor when you’re not. Employees have lie detector tests of their own. If you don’t care about their well-being or their success, they’ll know it.

learn more

For more information on Building Analyst Field Training Video, visit www.BuildingScienceTech.com.

You can also purchase the video at www.buildingsciencetech.com; through TruTechTools at www.trutechtools.com; and at www.greencollaredu.net. In addition, the video has been incorporated into GreenCollarEdu.net’s online Building Analyst courses.

For more information on Saturn Resource Management’s online training, visit www.srmi.biz.

Advice: If you truly don’t care, quit. Let someone else train who does care. If you find yourself just needing a little reminder of the importance of what you are doing, clearly define for yourself the benefits of being an excellent trainer. How does it benefit your company’s bottom line? The environment? The customer? The employee's training? How does it benefit you and your friends and family?

That said, I wish you best of luck in reaching your personal and companywide training goals. This guide is not a substitute for a standardized companywide training plan and a robust self-inspection policy, but I hope it gets you closer to making your company more competitive through better customer service and improved word-of-mouth marketing.

Let us know how it’s working or how you want to improve your training. The only caveat is that if you have constructive feedback, it has to be future focused. And if you are or ever have been a cop, you can’t contact me.

Bill Taylor is the director of training development at Advanced Energy, an energy efficiency services organization in Raleigh, North Carolina. Contact him at btaylor@advancedenergy.org.

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