If you’re a rocker of a certain age, you know — and have probably played very loudly (on a turntable, no less) — the music of The Clash.

The album “London Calling” by The Clash was released in early 1980 and, according to Rolling Stone, was the best album of the decade. Granted, there wasn’t a ton of competition but it’s still a pretty good record.

One of the band’s big hits was “Train In Vain,” the first Clash song to hit the Top 30 in the United States. As Dick Clark would have said, “It has a beat and you can dance to it.”

What does any of this have to do with hydronics? Well, when it comes to screening the training opportunities that come your way, you have much to consider in hopes that you don’t — ahem — “train in vain.”


Balance is key

For a training class to really work for you, both sides of the training equation have to have equal responsibilities.

First, it’s incumbent upon the entity putting on the training to share with you useful material presented in an interesting manner. That sounds obvious, but it’s harder to do than you might think.

Ever sat in a class and had the instructor read his PowerPoint slides to you? Did he sound like Ferris Bueller’s economics teacher? Were you waiting for a meteor to hit the classroom to release you from the mind-numbing boredom?

 When evaluating a training program, look for something application-based rather than product-based. Product-based training is usually a not-so-well-disguised sales pitch to get you to buy that product. You get all the features and benefits, as well some installation specifics — pretty much the same stuff you’d get from reading the brochure and installation instructions.

In other words, it tends to be a snooze-fest.

Application-based training, on the other hand, doesn’t tell you what you can read for yourself. It isn’t a big sales pitch. It examines real-world problems and challenges you face every day, and shares with you real-world solutions. Will the manufacturer tell you about the product? Heck yes, but only in the context of how it can help solve your problem and help you install your jobs more quickly, more efficiently and more profitably.

Application-based training also recognizes that you are in business, you have customers and you are a professional. You don’t have time to waste and you want information that directly relates to your job. Understanding a company’s position in the global marketplace is nice if you’re thinking of investing, but the fact that the company has offices in East Berzerkistan does you very little good in Mrs. Johnson’s basement.

And since you’re a pro, the program does need to share with you compelling reasons for using a particular product beyond a free hat and T-shirt. Again, this goes back to the very basics:

  • What problems does this product or concept solve?
  • How does it help you make your installations better?
  • How does it benefit your customer?
  • How does it help you make more money?

If the only reason you hear is that their stuff is cheaper or the other guy’s stuff is junk, walk away.


Getting the best return

Product aside, a good, sound, application-based training program will provide you with good, sound information you can use the next day in someone’s basement no matter whose product you use.

And if you’re lucky, it’ll inspire you to learn more.

These are just a few of the responsibilities a manufacturer, rep or wholesaler has when offering you a training program. You, as the attendee, have considerable responsibilities as well.

Think of training as an investment. To maximize your return on investment, start with these five tips:

1. Show up on time. If the program starts at 8 a.m., be there by 7:30. You’ll get a good seat, get the Danish you want and meet the instructor. Good instructors like it when attendees arrive early to say “Hi” and let them know what’s on their minds.

2. Show up prepared. Yes, bring a pen and paper, but being prepared also means showing up with two or three specific things you want to learn or questions you want answered. I often ask attendees what they’d like to learn from the course and too often they shrug and say “everything.” News flash: We trainers don’t know everything! We don’t have ESP, either.

Put some thought into why you’re going to that training class and what you’d like to learn. Have a training plan.

3. Sit up front. I had a conversation with my parish priest a few years ago. He said the folks who habitually sit in back during mass are the ones who really ought to be sitting up front.

“I notice, John, you always sit in the back. Do we need to talk?”

Are you in the class to learn something or not to be noticed?

4. Leave preconceived notions at the door. No one knows it all (not even the instructor) and you may hear things in class that go against the way you’ve always done stuff. That’s OK. Keep an open mind and remember why you’re there — to learn new and better ways of doing things.

5. Ask questions and take notes! These are two nonnegotiables. Asking questions and participating in discussions are powerful tools to help you stay focused. Face it, it’s been a few years since we’ve been in school. Sitting still is hard; focusing your attention for a full day is harder still. Asking questions and participating keep you engaged.

Taking notes is the most beneficial thing you can do in a training class. Studies show if you do nothing more than listen, you’ll forget about 95% of the material within three days. If training is an investment, that’s a pretty low return.

If you actively participate — by asking questions, joining discussions and, yes, taking notes — the retention rate hits the mid-50% range. Better, but still not a great return.

Here’s where it gets interesting: The same studies show that studying your notes twice a week for six to eight weeks boosts the retention rate to the mid-90% range.

At that point, it’s no longer something you heard some yutz say at a seminar. It’s knowledge. It’s part of your skill set, something you can use in the field to help your customers and your business.

And that’s why you go to training in the first place, isn’t it?


Analyze information

Showing up on time and prepared, sitting up front, having an open mind, and taking notes and studying them are critical to making any seminar work for you. But here are a few more tips that can make the program sing and dance for you:

1. Don’t play “stump the instructor.” I heard this on an old George Carlin record back in the day and thought I’d try it out on Sister Mary Celine in Sunday school.

“Hey Sister, if God is all powerful, can He make a rock so big that He Himself can’t lift it?”

Sister Mary Celine was not pleased. Neither were my parents.

Every so often someone in the class wants to play “Gotcha!” He comes up with scenarios that may never occur in the real world but contradict the lesson of the day.

Look, I get being cynical and suspicious of sales-pitch-type training, but “Gotcha” tends to waste valuable class time not only for you, but for everyone else in the class.

2. Help control the “smartest guy in the room.Anyone who’s been in a training class knows there’s often one guy who wants everyone to know he’s the smartest guy in the group, including the instructor. If you’re in class to learn, that guy really gets in the way.

It’s the instructor’s job to keep things moving and a good instructor is usually very good at controlling the smartest guy in the room. However, I’ve learned over the years the best groups police themselves, based on this conversation overheard during a break several years ago:

Guy 1: Whaddya think so far?

Guy 2: It’s kinda hard to tell with you talking all the time!

Guy 1: What’s that supposed to mean?

Guy 2: It means I came here to learn something, not listen to you yap all day. There’s about 20 guys behind you ready to lock you in a closet if you don’t shut up. We came to listen to him, not you!

Guy 2 was one of my favorite students of all-time!

3. Critically analyze all information. Application-based training gives you information you can use right away. If some of that info doesn’t compute, ask. Good instructors want you to understand and apply the information.

However, in product-based sales-pitch training, the “instructor” not only makes claims about the superiority of his stuff but also about the inferiority of his competitor’s junk.

I think it’s absolutely fair for manufacturers to compare how their product better fits particular applications than their competitor’s product. If they feel they have a better product, they have a right — and a responsibility — to explain why. You should, however, watch out for false, outrageous or irresponsible claims, manipulation of statistics or outright competitor-bashing.

Your job is to seriously analyze what you hear in these situations and basically “seek the truth.”

Boy, this going to training thing sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? Well, for it to really be worth your time, effort and overhead dollars, it does require a lot of work.

Seminars shouldn’t be thought of as a day off.

If you choose the seminars you attend wisely, prepare properly and participate actively, you’ll find that your investment of time, energy and money will come back to you tenfold. Not only will you have some new and useful information, but a good seminar will help you to start thinking more about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

And thinking is always a good thing.


Author bio: John Barba is the contractor training and trade program manager for hydronic circulator and controls manufacturer Taco. He has been in the heating industry most of his life, growing up in his family’s plumbing and heating business outside of Boston. Since 1995, Barba has trained more than 15,000 contractors on the fine art and subtle science of hydronic heating design and installation through highly interactive, entertaining and informative seminars.