Getting the Most Out of Employee Training

How do you know if and when your employees need training, and whether you'll get a good return on your investment? These business owners and experts reveal their insights.
April 13, 2015

As a business owner, you play a lot of roles. You aren't just the president. You may have days where you play custodian or receptionist or delivery driver, depending on the size of your ego and workforce. You also may have taken on the role of teacher, training your employees how to do their jobs better.

But sometimes you're not the best person to train an employee. The subject matter—whether it's using software or improving customer service skills—may be out of your comfort zone. Or you may just want to bring in a fresh voice. As Adam Kruse, owner of Hermann London Group, a realty firm in St. Louis, puts it, when he first hired a strategic growth consultant, "it was nice for [employees] to hear this stuff coming from an outsider."

Adam Kruse, owner of Hermann London Group

Small-business owners may be encouraged to invest in their people by offering training, but how and when to do that isn't always so clearcut. After all, how do you know your employees need training? And once you've done the training, how can you quantify that your employees received what you paid for? Will you end up paying for a very expensive lesson or pep talk that will be short-lived, or will your employees receive lasting results?

Every business may have different parameters, but you should consider these guidelines to help determine whether your money is well spent.

When It's Time

"An organizational culture like Southwest Airlines isn't created by some magic elixir," says Karen Schmidt, managing director of Kaye/Bassman International, a recruiting and executive firm headquartered in Dallas. "They actually engage in best practices that are replicable. Training is one of those replicable best practices that give employees what they need before they know they need it."

But how do you know when your employees need training? Besides trusting your gut, there are at least three signals to look for, according to Tom Armour, a consultant based in Ontario:

  1. When the law changes and a new regulation requires your business to become compliant in a certain field.
  2. When customers require your business to have specific skills and certifications.
  3. When your business is floundering and it becomes clear your employees need help.

Where to Look

Ellen Jovin, co-owner of communication skills training firm Syntaxis, in New York City, suggests you use specific terms in Google searches for an employer trainer, such as including the region of the country. Jovin also recommends getting referrals from a business associate.

Once you do find someone, you should meet with the trainer in person and consider having key employees meet with him or her as well before you make a decision. "Some people are a bit shy about doing that," Jovin says.

Whomever you choose and wherever you look, "find a trainer ... who aligns well with your company cultures and values," says Heather Wright, an adjunct business professor at Marlboro College Graduate School in Brattleboro, Vermont.

Cost and Preparation

The cost can be a reach for some owners at first, especially if money is tight. What you'll spend depends on your industry, your location and how much training is involved, but chances are, you could spend in the thousands of dollars.

You can help boost cost efficiency by spending some time training your trainer. Victoria Cabanos, managing principal and CEO of the Stuart-Lynn Company, a construction consulting firm in New York City, claims that around 2007, she and her partner hired someone to do technical training for their then-eight employees. Her partner, Breck Perkins, fully understood the technical side of the training but they both felt he should be spending his time on the selling side of their business.

Looking back, Cabanos claims they should have better briefed the consultant before several months of employee training. "Despite the consultant being conversant, articulate and a great instructor, it wasn't a good end result," Cabanos says.

She claims their company spent about $30,000 on training.

Since then, Perkins has trained employees himself, though Cabanos claims they still use the same consultant for other work.

You also need to communicate to your employees beforehand. The training will likely cut into work time, so you need to prepare for that. And so do they. Amy Fox, president and CEO of Accelerated Business Results, a Cincinnati-based consultant to Fortune 500 companies in training and sales performance strategies, points out that if you don't give them enough notice before training starts, "it will only leave people frustrated as they scramble to rearrange schedules and finish tasks."

Fox also suggests seeing if the consultant has any preparation he or she can provide for employees. "A short assignment that participants complete before the training session can provide a preview to the content and help ensure that time in the classroom is dedicated to application and discussion instead of lecture," she says.

Determining the ROI

If you did a lot of testing and analysis before the training, you should also be able to quickly measure employees' performance with how they were faring earlier. Some metrics you should be looking at, Armour says, include "margin improvement targets, productivity improvements objectives, reductions and lost time, speed of hiring and reductions in turnover."

Assuming the training went well and you're seeing results, Fox points out that it's important to continue what you've started. "Many training sessions end when participants walk out the door," she says. "If there is no plan for follow-up or reinforcement, employees will see training as something that happens only in a classroom environment."

While there may be scenarios where training is once-and-you're-done, Kruse backs up Fox's assertion. His experience with employee training has gone so well that he put his strategic growth consultant on a monthly retainer and gives him bonuses based on the company's performance.

"For what I pay him, he way more than pays for himself," Kruse says.

Read more articles on employee training.

Photos: Getty Images, Hermann London Group