The Role of Online Training in LBM

By Robert Brooks
LMS Director, The Building Supply Channel, Inc.

Everyone in the distribution business says the same thing. The products you offer may not be identical to your competitors’ products, but they’re close enough that the only way to differentiate yourself is with service. You’ve heard dealers say, “Our people are our most important asset.” In fact, you’ve probably heard it so many times that it’s become a cliché.

It’s also wrong. Employees are not your most important asset. It’s their expertise that’s the asset. They could be the nicest people in the world, but if they can’t answer customers’ questions, solve technical problems, and get orders filled on time and in full, you’re going to lose business.

So, what are you doing to protect your most important asset?

You maintain your trucks and forklifts religiously. You level your lumber stacks and sweep the warehouse every day. You refresh your showroom displays as soon as they start to look dated. But dealers often assume that any employee who has experience in the lumber business must have the necessary expertise to do the job.

Most of the time they’re right. But you would never settle for knowing the oil got changed most of the time in most of the trucks.

The NRLA Learning Management System (NRLA LMS), available at The NRLA’s LMS is one of many education and training programs offered by the Lumber and Building Material Dealers Foundation (LBMDF) and provides a well-rounded, cost-effective solution to help you get new employees up to speed while filling gaps in your veterans’ knowledge. The program offers more than 175 industry-specific topics: construction and estimating, yard and warehouse skills, sales skills, customer service, purchasing basics, and supervisory skills.

Unless an employee is brand new to the industry, chances are they don’t need all of that. The foundation of the NRLA LMS is a comprehensive suite of skills evaluation tests to help you assess an individual’s knowledge on a wide range of topics. The results will identify strengths and weaknesses. When a knowledge gap is identified, the system will provide a list of recommended courses to help strengthen the individual’s knowledge base.

There are a lot of different ways to train people, and each one has its place. You can’t beat on-site seminars if you’re covering advanced topics that will require interaction, clarification, or guided practice. But seminars are only effective if every trainee comes with basic knowledge of the topic.

If not, the trainer will need to cover everything from scratch. Attendees who already know some of the material will get bored, their attention will lapse, and they’ll miss important points. Attendees who are brand new and don’t understand the fundamentals will struggle to keep up and won’t absorb what they need to learn.

Mentoring can be effective, but it also has some weaknesses. Veterans may know the topic cold, but they aren’t always good teachers. The time they spend teaching is time away from their own jobs, so productivity suffers.

Self-study and direct experience are the most effective ways to provide a solid grounding in the fundamentals of any given skill. Some dealers throw new employees to the wolves and let them learn as they go, and that’s okay in some situations.

You don’t need a training course to teach you that a 2x4 is actually 1-1/2” by 3-1/2”. You can learn that faster by taking a stroll through the yard with a measuring tape. If you’re trying to teach someone how to brace a two-story deck so they can explain it to customers, it’s not a bad idea to make sure they understand it thoroughly before you turn them loose on the sales counter.

That’s where online training shines. Most NRLA courses come with a test so you can verify that the employee has learned what’s needed to be learned. Administrative tools allow you to track progress in multiple ways—for example, how many times the course had to be retaken to get the final score (do they need extra help?), how many times the course was opened (are they getting distracted?), how much time the person spent on that course, and how often the person signed into the training system.

All you need to do is tell them what you expect, then check your reports periodically to make sure they’re doing it.

One other thing about online training: virtually all workers under 25 years old grew up with the internet at their fingertips.

The NRLA LMS is available on your computer, tablet, or phone. The ability to provide training on the go is essential if you want to attract and retain young talent, and it isn’t because they’re fussy. Instant access to the knowledge they need to do their jobs is as fundamental to them as forklifts were in the 1950s. Not every yard had them, but if you were new to the business in 1955, that’s how you could tell the difference between a successful company and a company in decline.

Getting started with the NRLA LMS is easy. First, create a company account and then add trainee accounts for your employees. Next, have everyone go through the skills evaluation tests so you know who needs help with which topics.

All of this is free. You don’t buy anything until you know what kind of training your people need. The system will recommend courses for each person based on their test results, but you can add courses to the list or remove them as needed.

Once you do buy subscriptions, you’re not restricted to those courses. Every subscriber has full access to the entire course library, so you can use the NRLA LMS for cross-training if you want.

While you may believe that employees are your most important asset, it’s really the training and expertise that matter, rather than the individual.  Mentoring, self-study, seminars and the NRLA LMS can all be valuable tools to help you grow your own employees.