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How Manufacturers are Addressing their Dealers’ Constant Quest for Technical Knowledge

The quest for knowledge has been around since the beginning of time. One caveman no doubt began training another on how to start a fire. Certainly in residential systems, the concept of "training," a word often used interchangeably with "education," has taken on increasing focus and importance throughout the industry.

The quest for knowledge has been around since the beginning of time. One caveman no doubt began training another on how to start a fire. Certainly in residential systems, the concept of “training,” a word often used interchangeably with “education,” has taken on increasing focus and importance throughout the industry.

More and more dealer/installers are relying on education to keep them current with technology, track industry trends and to simply avoid falling behind. In fact, in a recent survey by Residential Systems magazine, more than one-third of respondents said that they receive their technical knowledge from manufacturer training seminars. Company training was a mere 6.3 percent. Many education and training seminars deal with myriad ways to better run a custom business and, of course, make more money. And it all leads directly to getting new customers, retaining current ones, increasing business or all of the above.

But first, just what is the difference between education and training? Or is education merely a fancy way of describing training? Before asking the experts for their opinions, the dictionary defines education as “the imparting and acquiring of knowledge through teaching and learning.” Another one for education is “giving knowledge or information through systematic instruction.” Education is also described as a “formative experience” and “the development of character or mental powers.” Okay, let’s not push it! Perhaps one of the best ways education has been described is from Peter Ustinov: “Education is a process by which a person begins to learn how to learn.”

If education is about imparting “knowledge,” training on the other hand seems to be centered around learning a specific skill. The traditional definition of training is “teaching a specified skill, especially by practice” or “the process of teaching or learning a skill or a job.” Perhaps an analogy for our business would be that one could be trained on how to pull wire, while another would be educated on designing the system in which the wire is used.

Manufacturers and associations like CEDIA and PARA are playing an increasing role in education. What used to be one of the hats worn by a sales manager or marketing director, education or training is now a focused, dedicated role in many companies. One altruistic reason is to support the industry. By ensuring it has as many qualified designers and installers as needed to fulfill the growing demand, growth can continue. Of course, while the investment in education is good for the industry, it’s obviously good for business too.

Though there are countless numbers of educators and trainers worthy of mention, the following five were selected to offer their personal views on education–why it’s important to them and important to the future of the industry.

* Jeff Kussard, Harman’s Custom Central and CEDIA

Among the dozens (perhaps hundreds) of educators and trainers in the business, many are doing what they do thanks to Jeff Kussard. Kussard, one of the early pioneers of custom installation, began his audio career in the 1970s and’80s as a designer/installer in Minneapolis. He has worked in custom in almost every imaginable role. Kussard was also one of the initial driving forces behind education at CEDIA, having created and developed many of the courses, programs and certifications that became a distinguishing hallmark for the association and a benchmark for the custom industry. Today he serves as chair of the CEDIA Certification Task Force and is still active on the CEDIA Education Council. At Harman since 1999, Kussard is director of Custom Business Development and manages their website.

On the definition of education versus training Kussard said that he believes the differentiation lies in knowledge versus technical skills. “Some might offer that ‘training’ requires ‘hands on’ involvement on the student’s part,” he said. “I don’t agree. Technical skills can certainly be acquired in ways other than via experiential processes.”

Kussard said that he has seen education within the industry change significantly over the years in content and delivery as well as importance. “CEDIA has aggressively expanded its role in both education and training. Some manufacturers might think the impact of their role in training has diminished, but in fact the opposite is true. As technical advances continue at a rapid pace, the manufacturer is always in the best position to offer training.”

Kussard added that some manufacturers get confused in the distinction between CEDIA’s curriculum of technical training versus training that is clearly intended to promote the manufacturer’s product. “There is a place for both, but sessions always need to fit the right curriculum,” he explained.

Addressing the role of education and training for the good of the industry Kussard commented that it’s important to develop a workforce that is capable of meeting the current consumer demand, let alone achieving our real potential. “The participation of manufacturers in conjunction with associations like CEDIA is crucial,” he said. “But the efforts need to be coordinated. The creation of redundant or competitive programs is counter-productive. Everyone must pull together in the educational effort to a broader agenda and in the spirit of a rising tide.”

As for his secret to being a successful educator, Kussard concludes, “Being able to convey real world experiences in a way that demonstrates first-hand familiarity, or at least understanding, of the subject matter.”

* Jeff Myatt, Russound

Jeff Myatt returned to his Russound roots last summer to accept the challenge of a dedicated role in education. He had been with Russound for several years prior but training was just one of many positions he filled. The lure of focusing on education alone, along with having the opportunity to develop an all-new program, convinced him to rejoin the New Hampshire company. As Myatt’s job can be considered evangelical, he was “anointed” Minister of Education, by his employer. Myatt personally conducts about 50 seminars a year and supervises dozens of others. He is currently busy with developing an in-house training and certification program at Russound to be conducted in their newly built training facility. Myatt also is redesigning the company’s website, because he considers that the ultimate education tool and source of knowledge.

On the differentiation of education versus training Myatt pointed out, “Training is teaching the art of conditioning one to change their behavior and performance. Education, on the other hand, is more persuasive–adding the art of selling through promotion. [It is] preaching, if you will.” He went on to add, “Though education and training are related, and much of the education process is through training, trainers seldom evangelize. The sales process is typically over once the training process begins.”

Targeting a company’s education agenda to many different market channels can be difficult, Myatt noted.

“Russound has a complete product line as well as a wide diversity in their dealer base. So one immediate challenge is to offer education programs that are consistent but different in theways that meet the customer’s needs.” he explained. “We sell everything from volume controls to sophisticated multi-source controllers. So getting the message right is critical along with learning how to convey that message to different audiences.”

Myatt said that he has found the best way to convey that message is through hands-on experience. “I say loosen the tie or, better yet, get rid of it! When you’re teaching about installation products, you have to get into the mindset of an installer and that means physically connecting the product!” he said.

Beyond the hands on approach, Myatt also believes it is important to use humor and have fun. “We should approach what we do seriously, but we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. I always keep my sessions humorous and the mood light. We sell and install fun and exciting things. Why make it less enjoyable?”

* Dave Silberstein, Crestron

Crestron’s Dave Silberstein is one busy guy. As training manager, he coordinates all aspects of the company’s education curriculum formally known as the Crestron Technical Institute. In addition, he conducts or participates in about 150 classes per year. At a major trade show, such as CEDIA or InfoComm, Silberstein will typically have nine classes to instruct! With Crestron for nearly five years, his entire role there has focused on the education of the company’s dealers. While others at the company may get involved in or even conduct training classes, they also have other responsibilities. Despite having “training manager” as his title, Silberstein clearly considers what they do at Crestron as education. “Education is the concept of giving people information and skills about how and why things occur,” he said. “With information, we educate our students to make solid choices that will make them both efficient and effective in their assigned tasks. In our highest level programming classes, for example, we will have the software engineer in charge of that particular component teach the class.”

Like a growing number of companies with dedicated education personnel, it is a vital part of their company’s sales and marketing. “Dealer education is one of the most important departments here,” Silberstein explained. “Without an educated programmer, our products are nothing but black boxes. It is the dealer’s programmer that makes our system sing. In the 4 1/2 years of the Crestron Technical Institute, we have seen huge improvements in the company’s bottom line. We also use the number of technical-support calls, the level of technical questions and the time required on the phone to resolve an issue, as gauges for the success of our program.”

Silberstein has found that there is not just one way to teach someone, because different people learn in different ways. However, like many other educators, he has discovered that the hands-on approach is most effective in the systems integration industry. Beyond the practical aspect, the ultimate goal for Silberstein is to make the experience fun.

“People, by nature, will remember entertaining events,” he said. “They quote lines from movies, or talk about TV shows or sporting events around the water cooler. So by making my class entertaining, I feel people will learn more, not to mention keep their attention.”

* Ken Johnsen, Niles

Ken Johnsen has been in the audio industry since 1983, starting in specialty hifi retailers and eventually landing at Audio Concepts in Long Beach, California. Johnsen was at Audio Concepts for 10 years and it was there that the custom bug bit him before moving on to Niles in 1999. As the product specialist at Niles, he travels the country about 100 days out of the year, for education and training. In addition to conducting seminars, he also develops training manuals and does “whatever it takes” to educate his company’s dealers about all aspects of its products.

Johnsen considers himself both an educator and a trainer and feels they are different, yet related, tasks. “Education is the process by which someone becomes familiar with, say, Niles products. A salesman may want to be educated about our products, what they are and what they do but does not have or need the knowledge of how to program or install them. Training, on the other hand, is usually more structured with the knowledge of how the products are used and installed. So education and training are not one and the same but, in some cases, must be used together to achieve desired results.”

A common theme emerging among these educators is the use of hands-on training for maximum understanding and retention. “I want my students to get hands on training rather than just lecture them. Most people just don’t learn unless they experience for themselves the actual twisting of wires or the programming on a laptop.” Johnsen went on to add, “I also talk to people on their level using as many ‘experience’ stories as possible. I call these real world jokes- using humor from actual experiences to prove my point. My students love it and they understand the message.”

Just like his fellow “road warriors” hands-on training is what counts most to Johnsen. “I will do whatever is necessary to get the job accomplished. Why? Because it is a great feeling to see an expression on a student’s face as they learn in class,” he explained. “Sometimes they understand a new way of doing things; sometimes they even understand what they had been doing wrong! The bottom line is if customers leave my class with more understanding of the product and how it is used, then I’ve done my job.”

* Patrick Donnelly, OnQ Technologies Patrick Donnelly, of OnQ Technologies, has come a long way, literally, in his career since landing in the U.S. from his native Ireland. A master electrician by trade, he has worked in a variety of sales and technical roles before becoming the director of training for OnQ Technologies. Like many other educators, Donnelly is often asked to help in related areas such as product development and marketing projects. However, training is his main responsibility, and he conducts dozens of seminars and “boot camps” around the country every year.

Donnelly feels that education and training are two separate disciplines. “I define education as the ongoing process of delivering knowledge to the student, while training is constant instruction in installation practices essential to being a professional integrator. You know, one always learns things from training–not just the student but the instructor also.”

OnQ uses training as a primary tool in its marketing program. In fact, some at the company credit their training and customer support as the reason for their success in the structured wiring category. Donnelly explained it this way, “Our sales team is very focused on the ‘sell’ portion of their job,” he said. “My job with the training department is to wrap ourselves around the companies installing OnQ systems. Dealers love this attention, so our training program really is a focal point of our business, and I believe a key to our success.” Nonetheless, beyond his company’s own customers, Donnelly feels it is everyone’s responsibility to elevate their skills and professionalism for the good of the industry. “I find that the quality of manpower coming from our technical colleges to be pretty poor,” he said. “It is lacking in professionalism and what I call ‘plain old good technical craftsmen skills.’ Through our extensive training, we sometimes train installers who may wind up working on our competitors’ products. But that’s okay, because our industry needs skilled people.”

What works best for Donnelly is his straightforward, yet warm, friendly manner. “I really focus on my students and what they need to learn. I always make everyone at ease with my methods,” he said. Donnelly went on to explain what makes all the extra effort and hard work worthwhile. “It is always special to get a person coming up to you after a really good class and saying, ‘Hey I really learned a lot’. You know, that makes me feel great.”

Peter Hoagland is an industry marketing consultant based in Warrenton, Virginia.