Real Issues. Real Answers. Training Programs

company training chart

company training

Conversations about employee training raise all kinds of questions: “What if we train them and they leave?” “What if we don’t and they stay?” Richard Branson had the ultimate answer to those questions when he said, “Train people well enough so they can leave. Treat them well enough so they don’t want to.” The fact that these questions and quotes exist at all is because training has always been, and will likely always be, a relevant Real Issue. This month, LBM industry pros from across the U.S. weigh in with insights on training methods and strategies at their companies.

This month’s question came from an LBM pro in the Midwest who wrote: “Our company has grown quite a bit, and we need to implement consistent and comprehensive training to make sure things are done correctly. Suggestions on how to develop and implement training programs for store managers, yard foremen, outside sales, drivers, etc. would be greatly appreciated. Did you do it inhouse or with help from consultants, does it include leadership training, etc.?”

- Sponsor -

As we do each month, we used that as the core of a very brief survey emailed to the subscribers who’ve opted in to receive our email communications. A big thank you to the nearly 200 readers who took time to share their experience on this issue. If you’d like to be added to our list to receive future surveys, drop me a line at, and I’ll make sure you’re added.

company training chart

Question 1

First, we wanted to get a feel for how many LBM Journal readers’ companies provide training, so we asked, “Does your company provide training for its employees?” As graph 1 shows, the vast majority of respondents’ companies, just over 90%, do provide some kind of training.

Question 2

Next, we asked this question of the 90.1% who said yes: “Which positions does your company provide training for? Check all that apply.” As graph 2 shows, inside sales led the seven positions identified with 94.1%. Forklift drivers and delivery drivers came in second and third, with 88.9% and 80.0%, respectively. Outside sales came in a strong fourth at 70.4%.

Not surprisingly, the bottom three spots were all taken by people in supervisory and leadership positions, with store managers at 57.0%, yard foremen at 54.1%, and leaders/executives at 47.4%. What was something of a surprise was that nearly 50% of respondents’ companies—a very healthy number—provide training for the position on the bottom of the scale. Representative comments to this question included:

“Every position has a training program.”

“We also train builder customers, building officials and architects.”

“All positions when necessary.”

“We try to train in all departments within our company; however it is challenging sometimes to make sure everyone is trained long enough, and that they comprehend everything that have learned.”

Question 3

“Our company has grown quite a bit, and we need to implement consistent and comprehensive training to make sure things are done correctly. Suggestions on how to develop and implement training programs for store managers, yard foreman, outside sales, drivers, etc. would be greatly appreciated. Did you do it in-house or with help from consultants, does it include leadership training, etc.?”

A sample of representative comments to this question include:

“We are not training enough. Our office clerks are trained extensively in house. The yard crews get very little training and or supervision. Trying to establish a mentorship type of training. Outside sales folks are sent to Association training programs.”

“I need the same advice.”

“It’s best to have a good human resources person who’s willing and knowledgeable enough to know what’s needed.”

“We do a lot of computer training modules and e-courses, then hands-on validation of the training.”

“For us, 20- to 30-minute training sessions work well. We use a variety of resources including in-store department managers who discuss new products and features.”

“We use the Northwestern Lumbermen’s Association for a lot of our training needs. They provide training seminars on all phases of the business.”

“We use a combination of sources to train our associates on company procedures, which have evolved as our company has grown. Many of our processes come from recommendations by our co-op and our industry association, so the training programs come from them as well. Other company procedures which have been created in-house are generally demonstrated one-on-one or in small groups by supervisors or long-term associates, backed up by documentation kept in procedure manuals for the respective departments.”

“We do both in-house and product training from vendor reps. Training time suffers greatly in busy times of the year.”

“Mostly in-house with our best and most-experienced staff. We did source some training through our payroll HR department.”

“We offer on-the-job shadow training for all employees. For additional training we have NLBMDA videos; our insurance company offers trainings; we offer employees to attend our local builders’ association trainings; we are open to other outside training opportunities that will allow employees to better themselves.”

“Must have a vision of the big picture to begin. You can then start at the top or the bottom (would not recommend starting at the mid-level) and document exactly what each position should know and/or need (this should really be the job description). Next perform a review of the list with the person in that position, identify the needs and train specifically for them. This should apply to each position within the company. Should also include general group training—customer service 101, sales training, leadership training, etc.”

“I advise that new hires or people who want to move up work side-byside with the most senior person in their department. The experience and knowledge possessed by senior people needs to be passed on to the next generation of employee in any position. They are the people who have gotten your company to where it is today, so it is important to leverage their knowledge and expertise. After all, when they are gone, where will you get the same knowledge and expertise? This is applicable to any position.”

“Basically, you have two options. One: Develop all the training materials yourself which allows you to customize the training to your exact desires. Two: Use existing programs, either in-house or by a third party. Be advised you have to begin the training at the top and work your way down. Store manager first, then yard foreman, and so on.”

“We currently train in-house, but that leaves a lot to be desired.”

“In-house with experienced people mentoring. Learning and performance are increased and skills sharpened to enhance their job and earn additional income. We work in a team atmosphere and share our successes—both personally and financially.”

“All training is done in-house; does not include leadership training. How we have chosen to handle training is by having the trainee shadow a seasoned employee. In doing so, the seasoned employee will stress company fundamental procedures. The trainee is placed with several different people.”

“Depending on the type of training needed, it is done in-house by fellow employees or reps from the supplier. We work with our associations (LMC, NKBA, and NELA) and take advantage of whatever training they have available.”

“Most of these suggestions are efforts from the past. Today’s hire has less ambition and drive. You don’t train someone to be a manager. It is a rare talent that comes from within. Outside sales becomes less of a need than it used to be. You have to stop thinking ‘old school.’ Help from consultants is a waste of money. Basically, you’re telling them you don’t know how to run a business. Ask yourself first, are you in the right occupation? What qualifies you? I’ve done this for 45 years and I’m always learning something. I shudder at the lack of ability of many contractors today. At some point they didn’t apprentice with a competent builder to get experience. I’d look for employees in trade schools. This shows an interest by them. A college grad wants a job, alright. He wants yours.”

“We developed our own training for our marketplace and being a contractor yard. We found most of the training through online courses and training advisers. Our insurance company was more than willing to provide safety training information and some hands-on training. Equipment manufacturers also contributed with forklift and driver training.”

“In-house training with a mix of vendor reps and manufacturing reps specifically for product knowledge training. Marketing and Human Resources are currently working on a more definitive in-house training plan.”

“We are currently launching programs for on-boarding training for new employees and training for existing employees. We recognize that our growing company needs to take an active role with industry education, uniform processes and procedures within our company, and a strong investment in the growth of our people. This is important for us to reduce turnover and continue to develop future employees for our company. We have put our plan together with a lot of internal effort from leadership teams, as well as the use of industry consultants. We have a director of training who is leading this initiative, and our branch managers are tasked with the execution and follow-through.”

“We have a new employee partner with a more seasoned employee for a given amount of time. Some of our vendors and distributors also offer training on their specific product with comprehensive information regarding the market in general. We partner with some of our larger vendors and manufacturers to set up classes and training sessions for our staff and contractors.”

“I have had a taste of the three extremes for LBM retailers throughout my career. 84 Lumber—one of the industry’s best for formal training programs. Lowe’s—aside from wiki links for optional training, a program just isn’t in place for box stores. And last, a small independent chain in the Do it Best network, informal but experience-based from their ability to retain seasoned staff members. There is something to be learned from each of these.

“Formal programs such as comprehensive blueprint training for sales positions are best for contractor-focused suppliers, however this also makes your staff attractive targets for other employers with lesser training methods to lure your well-trained staff away. Lower-level staff can accomplish your desired results within these parameters, however this involves a lot of ‘micro-managing’ and overhead support. Seasoned staffing being able to pass along their trade is an informal but invaluable process, however this involves some trial-and-error by learning over the years, and also an ability to retain these life-lesson employees with pay and more importantly a company ‘family’ culture of appreciation of them as team contributors.

“My earnest suggestion would be to take a highlighted note from these polar opposites in our business. Gauge your current customer base and future goals for increase of base customers, take note of what your local competitors do well and don’t do well, then take an overall approach to ensure you have the right mix of training, business model, and ability to retain seasoned staff. Every market varies to an extent, so you will have to decide the right mix for your stores and branding.”

“In-house training exclusively. We teach them as we would like it done for our operations.”

“It is done both in-house and externally, for all employees. Well-trained employees may leave, but a poorly trained employee is not worth having, in most cases.”

“Our training is in-house. For those perceived to possess leadership potential, we do provide leadership training.”

“In-house training with a leadership component. We use recorded training on the systems and classroom training on leadership issues.”

“In-house by the existing experienced employees, and outside through lumbermens’ organizations. Leadership training, not so much.”

“Definitely hire outside professionals whenever possible.”

“Ask the managers of your bestperforming yards to submit their sales techniques, bookkeeping management practices, order-tracking methods, and any other tips you can think of. Then, go to the Division Managers and ask them to do the same thing—only on a macromanagement (so to speak) level. Once you have all of that information—it will be a lot to sort through—create a training manual and a best practices/ procedure manual. Consider creating an executive committee made up of corporate office personnel, division managers, store managers, yard foremen, and maybe a couple of outstanding sales associates. Appoint one or two people who would be willing to travel so they can both train new employees, and give refresher courses to the established personnel.”

“Training is generally a complete waste of money and time, unless there is a ‘thirdday culture’ in place for trainees when they complete the seminar and return to the real-world environment of their job. The term ‘third-day culture’ comes from the idea that many seminars take people away from their regular job for two days of classroom training. The ‘third day’ refers to all the days following the class. In order for training to be effective, the culture in the work environment must reinforce the concepts taught in the classroom. Leadership must make the commitment to model, facilitate and practice the concepts all the time and then hold the new training graduates accountable. Absent the leadership doing these things, training is a waste of time and money.”

“In terms of developing a program, I suggest consulting with industry peers who have done this successfully. You may also want to reach out to your local lumber dealer association, as they are typically an excellent source of information, either directly or through recommendations. We are fortunate to be able to do most of our training in-house for sales and operational employees. Management/leadership training is most often done outside of the company.”

“I believe creating a learning culture and environment within your company is the first essential step. From there, you establish SOP’s and job responsibilities for each part of your operation. Train everyone to the SOP’s and responsibilities hold employees accountable for doing their job. Second: Product knowledge training can be continuously trained with your various supplier’s help (under your sales manager’s oversight or after vetting of the training materials). Third: Construction knowledge and training is most easily gained through online training modules that have already been developed. Fourth: Sales training is best with a combination of in-house experts and online training or other courses. And Finally: Any leadership training is only as effective as the company’s leadership allows.”

A reader shares four steps for training success

Step 1: Create a cultural training, defining a mission statement and a vision statement. Having a clear understanding of what company leaders expect the customer experience to be.

  • This is what we want
  • This is what we need to do to get it
  • A willingness to make changes as we progress

Step 2: Procedural training. Make sure we have the tools in place for everyone to succeed, again with the customer experience in mind.

  • Take ownership of a situation
  • Never use policy as a solution to customer dissatisfaction
  • Give people, without reprimand, the authority to satisfy the customer
  • Change what doesn’t work, in the customer’s best interest
  • Recognize and reward the behavior you want to see

Step 3: Each team member needs to understand that they are responsible for their own career. Provide the tools, venue and time for learning. Reward learning.

  • Be sure people know that none of us knows everything
  • Learning teaches us that we don’t know, what we don’t know
  • Many times we learn that we don’t know what we thought we knew

Step 4: Product education can be, and should be, a relationship-building marketing tool. Have your people invite builder customers, architects and building officials to attend product seminars together with them. Use your vendors to assist. What better way is there to network, build relationships and learn, all at the same time? The educational program, once put into place will determine whether or not professional help is needed. I tend to say yes, get outside help, we are LBM savvy, hire leadership help to guide you along the way.

“We believe the ‘best’ training is from the principal owners/managers responsible for that business. Each business is different, and you don’t want an outsider ‘clouding’ your employees or trying to ‘fancy dance’ them with jargon/ esoteric ‘rareified air’ pronouncements or concepts. But be aware: Manager’s minds, through repetition, can go from A to Z in a moment due to their experiences/backgrounds/expertise. When you train someone new to a concept, you must teach, in sequence, the specifics in going from A to B, from B to C, etc. Also, give the reasons why each step in the process is important; these reasons provide ‘mental hooks’ to the little ‘grasshoppers.’”

“Develop an extensive onboarding/ training guide. Keep it current and use it!”

“We created the training ourselves over time.”

“We’ve used an HR consultant to help develop training procedures. Developing and implementing, however, are two different issues. Trying to get long-time staff to take the time to adequately commit to training new staff has been challenging.”

“First, identify what your goals are for training (e.g., improved safety awareness, product knowledge, efficiency, interpersonal skills), then select training relevant to the position. All employees should receive annual training on areas of potential legal exposure, such as harassment and substance-abuse awareness and prevention. Effective training can take place via a variety of delivery methods: seminars, webinars, classroom, on-the-job, self-study, and so on. Be sure to have systems in place to track participation and outcomes relative to job performance.”

“We use multiple resources: the safety side is coming from our insurance company, our buying group sponsors university education, and our local community colleges are working with us on leadership training and work processes. We have used Rick Davis for several sales training sessions, forklift training is done in-house, millwork training is coming from WMA (world millwork alliance), etc.”

Hundreds of readers share their insights for this every-issue feature. Have a Real Issue? Contact me at

The reader who suggested the “Real Issues” topic will receive an LBM Journal executive prize pack. Includes: a polo shirt, cap, mug, and pen.

Stay Updated

Get LBM industry trends, data, new products, and best practices delivered to your inbox.