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Virtually Trained

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Virtually Trained

Different tactics may be the key to training in the tire industry.

 

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Within the tire industry, most dealers will say there’s a serious need for training. Either training on new equipment or products, or training for continuous improvement. Rare is it that a dealer feels he knows everything there is to know about the tire business.

However, acquiring training seems to be getting harder and harder. Now, that doesn’t mean tire manufacturers or equipment makers aren’t providing an education. Far from it. With the way technology has made leaps and bounds over the years, it seems that training programs start seconds after a product is released.

No, what seems to be making learning more difficult is the fact that dealers find it tougher to spare themselves or their employees the time to go for an off-site training course. Of course, having more training can mean larger profits in the long run, but getting the training can involve lost profits while employees are out of the shop. It’s a nasty catch-22.

One way to combat this problem is to send the teacher to the dealer. Maybe a shop buys an expensive piece of equipment and someone from the equipment company comes out to make sure it’s installed correctly and fill everyone in on how to use it. Or maybe a tire rep comes in to educate the dealership staff on the latest tires and their features and benefits. But then scheduling can sometimes be difficult.

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There are loads of CD-ROMs, videos and promo kits available from nearly everyone with a product, but those may not provide enough detailed information. Certainly, they are not designed to be interactive. And what happens if your technician has a question on something and there’s no one around to answer?

And then there are the types of training that just can’t go to the dealer. The Tire Industry Association’s Commercial Tire Service Training & Certification Program is a prime example. Anyone who wants to learn the proper procedures for repairing, installing, demounting, mounting and inflating tires has to take a three- or four-day course at TIA’s facility in Louisville, Ky. That information just can’t be delivered on a CD or video tape.

With the increase in communications technology, many companies are changing the way they educate – and many dealers are going along with it. The Internet has done wonders to allow dealers to get the training they need, without sacrificing a lot of time or money. Virtual training is the new big thing and many companies are on board.

Web conferencing is one manner in which dealers can "meet" with tire or equipment companies and learn about products. The training sessions happen in real time via the Internet while the dealer remains in his shop. Downloadable movies, training manuals and even tests are other ways of "virtually" training dealers and their staff without the expense and lost time of travel.

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It’s not quite accurate to say the possibilities are endless when it comes to virtual training. But it’s certainly getting close.

Manufacturer’s Perspective

Virtual training is something that’s now being asked for by dealers, but not always offered by manufacturers. Hunter Engineering is one company that’s witnessed an increase in requests from its customers for a style of training that fits into their schedules – not necessarily the manufacturer’s schedule.

"Going to this type of training helps fill in a gap for the person who desires to learn more about a topic but due to circumstances such as work schedules, travel costs etc., is unable to gain additional education or training," said Byron Morgan, director of training for Hunter.

Currently, Morgan says Hunter does not have full implementation of Internet-based or alternative methods of virtual training, but plans are definitely in the works. Hunter is thinking about sessions lasting 30-60 minutes on average with "session requirements that would span two hours per session."

Hunter’s plan is to be able to offer a variety of training packages for its customers. Some training sessions will cover basic topics and be offered all year long, while others will be handled on a "demand" basis throughout the year. Some sessions will be no charge, while others would have a fee attached.

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But while Hunter has the staff and the capability to fully handle their own development and implementation of any virtual training scenarios, Morgan doesn’t see training over the Internet ever completely replacing currently used and accepted forms of training.

"This form of training is undoubtedly going to grow in acceptance through the industry," Morgan said. "But we do not, at this time, envision all training being conducted in this manner. There are several areas that one-on-one supervision and face-to-face instruction are much more effective. Virtual training is simply another ‘tool in the box’ to assist with training and education goals."

Face-to-Face, Electronically

There are several ways to "conference" in business. There’s the conference meeting, the conference call and the sometimes-necessary conference call between two or more conference meetings.

That’s a lot of information changing hands there, to be sure. The problem is, it usually requires several people to be in the same place at the same time. Now though, the integration of the Internet into Corporate America has made it possible for people and businesses to Web conference.

With Web conferencing, two or more parties connect into a Web server via their own computers. Everything is handled in real time, so there isn’t a "drag" or delay waiting for information to be exchanged. Instead of printouts and information packets, electronic files are shared over the computer and business can get done quickly and efficiently without the expense or time of travel.

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Think of it, tire manufacturers can have meetings on the latest designs of new tires, tool makers can communicate with casting plants, and dealers can receive training without leaving their shop.

"Web conferencing became popular for two reasons. The Internet made it possible to share documents in real time and teams were becoming dispersed and needed ways to collaborate remotely," said Michael Jaret, the product marketing manager for PlaceWare, a Mountain View, Calif.-based company that specializes in Web conferencing.

"The market for Web conferencing, whether it’s used for regular team meetings, sales calls, technical training or large events, has grown substantially over the last few years. Market analyst IDC predicts that the market for Web conferencing will be $3 billion by 2005."

PlaceWare was founded in 1996 and began providing users with live, Web-based presentation solutions in early 1997. The company can now handle small meetings, group meetings and events. Some of its clients include American Express, Cisco Systems, Dow Jones, Johnson & Johnson and Prudential.

"PlaceWare provides a Web conferencing service that allows customers to meet virtually and collaborate together from remote locations," said Jaret. "Participants can share PowerPoint presentations, Word or Excel documents, do interactive whiteboarding and even stream video through the PlaceWare interface."

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Like many Web conferencing companies, PlaceWare simply requires the parties involved to have an Internet connection and a browser. There’s a fee involved, either monthly, per-use or by the minute. Additional hardware and software are generally not needed.

"Tire companies are continually innovating with new tire technologies to address safety and fuel efficiency issues," Jaret said. "Design and engineering teams need to work with marketing people in remote offices on product issues. Salespeople need to conduct business with dealers around the world. Tire manufacturers need to train their salespeople, service technicians and dealers on the latest technologies and offerings.

"Web conferencing reduces the need for real-time interaction by allowing team members to collaborate and share documents remotely. This allows for a company to be more productive and reduce both the cost and hassle of traveling."

PlaceWare says it can handle meetings with more than 2,500 participants at a very secure level. Those in the meetings connect into the company’s Web server, where content and files can be uploaded. Everything can be stored as well, "so if you conduct a training session and want to go back and review it with someone who was absent that day, the content is there and accessible," Jaret said.

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Web conferencing is catching on as the newest way for businesses to communicate. Witness PlaceWare claiming a 700% revenue increase since 2000. "Our customers have been very happy with the increased productivity and the cost savings from reduced travel," Jaret said. "The usage has doubled because, suddenly, face to face meetings aren’t as important as they used to be.

Cloning Employees

Sure, there are traditional e-ways of doing virtual training – Web conferencing, downloadable manuals, avatars. All of them are very successful and highly useful. Problem is, they can be a little static, even stagnant. If there’s no human touch to the presentation, even Web conferencing gets boring.

But what if a company could simply turn its training manager into a computer program so that he could teach anyone via the Internet? And it would be interesting to look at? And fun?

Eliminate the middleman and spice things up at the same time, so to speak.

Toyo Tire USA has found a way to do just that. By digitizing Dealer Support Manager Joe Anzelmo, Toyo has created an animated Internet program to help train dealers.

Meet Jarod Treadwell.

"Jarod is the result of a long process which began last year," Anzelmo said. "Gary Kirschke, Toyo’s director of marketing, was at a convention in Los Angeles and noticed a gathering of people watching a live, real-time computer-generated image with a human voice interacting with the audience."

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Once Toyo decided the software, from California-based Eyematic, could be useful, the tiremaker made the purchase and began rendering its own character. The result was the three-dimensional animated character Jarod, which will represent the company on the Internet.

The software behind Jarod Treadwell is complex, but easy to explain. "The tool is designed to bring speaking human faces and computer-rendered characters to the Internet," Anzelmo said. "It is based on facial-sensing and lip syncing technology and creates animated speaking heads by simply talking into a Web cam."

Basically, Anzelmo talks to a camera. Computers read the movements of his face as he speaks and translate the information to Jarod. Once the process has begun, Jarod simulates Anzelmo in real time or he can be recorded.

"One of the reasons we chose this training method was its entertaining and attention getting properties," Anzelmo said. "We are providing a Toyo-branded animated character that can deliver information in an informative and fun way."

Once Toyo settled on Jarod’s final "look," it took about six months for him to be "born." He is expected to be unveiled to the public in early 2003 and will reside on the company’s Web site.

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At the 2001 dealer meeting during ITE/SEMA, Toyo dealers were shown a concept of Jarod. According to Anzelmo, their response to Toyo’s newest "employee" was great.

Once Jarod is turned loose on Toyo’s Web site, the tiremaker expects to use him to deliver information on new products and product features, incorporate him into presentations ,and "bring him to life along with realistic images, text and movies."

"We plan on using Jarod to instruct not only dealers, but the public as well," Anzelmo said. "Initially, we’ll upload recorded segments highlighting new products with pictures and video to Toyo.com. End-users will be able to view the segments after installing the free plug-in.

"For the future, we’re considering live presentations at trade shows and other Toyo events."

So it’s possible the next time dealers attend ITE/SEMA, a guy in a white lab coat could be talking to them from inside a computer monitor.

Anytime, Anywhere

All of these methods of training are definitely a break from the norm.

While good training is important to business success, dealers can no longer afford to send their employees half way across the state – let alone, half way across the country.

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Virtual training has allowed manufacturers to get their messages across and, more importantly, allowed dealers to hear the message. There’s been a lot of talk about how the Internet and computers have permeated the tire industry and all the possibilities they force dealers to consider. But perhaps their biggest asset is the capacity to deliver much-needed training anytime, anywhere.

Training that is critical for a dealer’s survival.

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