Business Strategies: Smart Training Programs

In many regions of the country, decorative concrete is still relatively new and little understood by contractors and their customers. That's why there's such a need for well planned and professionally executed training programs that advance both the craft and the business of decorative concrete.

The advantages of offering regular or periodic training can include:

  • Valuable networking opportunities with current and prospective customers.
  • Stronger ties with vendors.
  • Enhanced status within your local decorative concrete community.
  • Possibly even another profit center within your retail operation.

We picked the brains of several decorative concrete suppliers and trainers across North America. From them, we learned what to do (or not to do) in offering regular or sporadic training that will draw the interest of customers and enhance your position within the industry.

Be prepared
Have an agenda, so your students - and trainers, for that matter - will have a sense of what's coming next. "You have to keep things moving," points out Ryan McCreery of Jobsite Supply in Indianapolis. "If your agenda's not set and you're not organized, you'll lose your audience."

Zachary Coletti of Coletti Concrete Studio, in the Fort Pierce/Vero Beach region of Florida, goes a step further and provides students with a syllabus for follow-up study.

Preparation also extends to comfort. Make sure your people are comfortable, that food, beverages and break times are available, and that the material comfortably fits the time allotted - whether it's a couple of hours or several days.

Corey Granger, president of Decorative Construction Supply, in Mesquite, Texas, offers in-depth classes that run from two to five days and draw attendees from out of state. "You really have to know your curriculum if you're going to maintain the interest of people for that long and from that far away."

Make sure you have adequate space and the right venue for learning. Gary Weisman, regional sales manager for Extech Building Materials, which operates five locations in the New York/New Jersey region, says his company's training sessions are held at different branch locations, depending on the subject. "We'll pour concrete outdoors, but other presentations are held in showrooms where our salespeople and other customers can drop by and see and hear what's going on. It creates a buzz for everyone."

The changing face of America can also impact your preparation. Tim Tuohy, owner of Concrete Coatings of Georgia, provides Spanish interpretation if his audience requires it.

If you hire an experienced trainer, he or she will know how to present the information and productively fill time. Make sure you discuss ahead of time what's expected of you in terms of equipment, setup and other logistics. (See the sidebar.)

Get the word out
There are abundant free and low-cost means of promoting your schedule of training events. Make fliers available at your POP locations, mention upcoming classes within your regular customer mailings and electronic communications, and don't forget to prominently display your schedule on your company Web site. That's a no-brainer.

If vendors or outside trainers are leading the class, find out how they're promoting the event, and try to coordinate your own advertising activities with theirs.

Know your audience
Says Jobsite Supply's McCreery: "Our students have at least a basic understanding of decorative concrete and many are experienced concrete contractors."

Contrast that statement with this from Tuohy in Georgia: "Our sessions might draw construction or landscaping contractors. Typically, they don't know anything about decorative concrete. Some of our best students lay tile."

Weisman of Extech says: "Some people are always interested in new products and techniques, and in this economy, you're getting people who are looking for new revenue opportunities."

Add do-it-yourselfers and those in job transitions to the possible mix and you can see the importance of knowing whether you're addressing seasoned concrete pros, those exploring new career options, or curious homeowners thinking of remodeling. Find out your audience's level of knowledge and experience in order to gear your presentation to their needs, tastes and abilities.

Also, make sure they know what's in store by describing the class in detail on promotional literature. That way, you won't be talking over your audience's head or boring anyone to tears.

And yes, you could find yourself training a future competitor. "When that happens," says Rob Bryant of Toronto's Concrete Countertops Canada, "I say that's all right. Let's raise the bar (for decorative concrete craftsmanship) in Canada. It ultimately helps your own cause when you raise the standards for the industry."

Provide education, not infomercials
Many professional trainers represent product manufacturers or wholesalers. There's nothing wrong with that, since these industry insiders have a career's worth of know-how to share. Just make sure you maintain your own credibility by providing customers with a maximum of information and a minimum of sales pitch.

"Yes, that's a concern," says Granger. He admits that, while successful, his earlier vendor-led classes were sometimes overly promotional. Today, most of his training classes are led by in-house trainers or local artisans. If vendors get involved, it's understood that the sell is confined to the samples tables they're allowed to set up and which can be accessed during breaks or after sessions.

Learn by doing
"Hands-on is crucial," says Granger of the importance of letting spectators become doers. "If you're sitting back watching, you're not going to retain. We might start with a PowerPoint presentation as an introduction, but it won't go longer than 15 minutes."

After the classroom intro, make sure that pouring, stamping, stenciling, staining or whatever is on the agenda is tried - not just demonstrated or described.
"For anyone considering getting into the business, hands-on is so much better than getting the information from a book," insists Tuohy. "You see the challenges you're up against and learn how to deal with them."

"The best way to learn anything is by making mistakes," Coletti points out.
Students are eager to delve in. As Bryant, also an authorized Buddy Rhodes trainer, sees it, "Artisan countertop work is sexy. That's why people want to do it."

So let 'em. Be sure to have tools, supplies and a physical environment that's conducive to learning by doing.

Go ahead - put a price on education
There's little that's more valuable than a quality education - especially if it immediately improves skills and leads to the possibility of new business. So don't be shy about charging for your training sessions. Many prospective students expect it.

"If you don't put a price on something, it has no value," Bryant says.
"There's a higher perceived value and we get a better turnout for paid sessions," Weisman of Extech adds.

In charging between about $100 and $200 per session, Weisman has also noticed that the not-insignificant fee has the added benefit of ensuring that those who've preregistered and prepaid for a session actually show up.

Tuohy of Concrete Coatings of Georgia typically charges $100 per company, but multiple employees can attend for the same flat rate. He also deducts the sign-up cost from the contractor's next order.

Chuck Brunner Jr. of manufacturer Smith Paint Products sometimes sees fees of about $50 being set for his two- to three-hour training sessions, aimed at concrete contractors and other customers of his distributors. But more frequently, the demos of his company's environmentally friendly water-based stains, surface preparers and sealers are free. "My thought is, if I can give you knowledge you can use, I win because you'll become a customer."

It is possible for distributors to turn a profit from a well-conceived training seminar. "Even if you have to subsidize attendance, it's money well spent. Your investment pays off with with increased product sales," advises Bryant.

Get feedback
How are you doing so far? The best way to find out what you're doing right in training - and what needs a little more tinkering - is simply to ask. McCreery encourages all participants to fill out an anonymous questionnaire post-session.

"The worst criticism we've ever received was that the class should have been a two-day session," he says.

If you must field complaints, that's the kind to have.