This month's column is a bit of a departure for me, something different than installed sales. I want to focus on employee development, specifically on continued development through education and training programs.

With a declining housing market, job losses, cutbacks and belt-tightening all around us, it's difficult to think about training programs or educational opportunities. But now is the best time to prepare for the future–your future.

2008 was an interesting year on many fronts, but very interesting with regard to the programs I offer through our federated lumber associations, manufacturers, and industry suppliers. I have seen a decline in overall attendance, to be sure, but what is most interesting is the enthusiasm of those who do attend.

Those who came to my programs this past year have been eager to learn and grow, enthusiastic about preparing themselves for continued advancement, and insuring that they will be in a stronger position to help both their customers and their companies when the market returns. Everyone realizes that our builders, remodeling contractors, and homeowners need professional, dedicated sales and customer service specialists who can meet the ever-changing demands of our industry.

Here is what the attendees learned, and how you can use it, too.

Sales Training. This is more than just meeting and greeting the customer and going beyond the basics to professional account management. A true sales professional in today's LBM industry knows as much about the builder's business as he or she does about the lumber business. These pros need to understand the financial issues that drive a builder, and also how to present a proposal that fully addresses the customer's needs. We must develop sales professionals who go beyond selling simple sticks and sheets to selling total solutions.

The same holds true for those who sell to remodeling customers. Yes, they are a bit more difficult to identify, and their need for service is certainly higher, but the rewards are right up there as well. When you develop a relationship with a design-build remodeling contractor and demonstrate your ability to meet its needs for a diverse array of products and service, you've won a very loyal customer.

Customer Service Training. Those people in our stores who work at the counter, who walk the aisles meeting and greeting customers every day, deserve nothing but the best in training and education. Customer satisfaction for the retail trade is sometimes difficult to track, but the big boxes fail in this critical area. We have the people, the knowledge, and the local impact; don't discount your image and ability to serve your customers. Reinforce the basics of customer service at every opportunity.

Yard Foremen and Operations Training. These men and women carry the burden of our industry on their backs every day with very little in the way of thanks, and even less in the way of formal training. My yard foreman classes are always well received. In many cases, this is the first formal program that these people have ever had, and there is so much to the job, including Transportation Department compliance issues, safety compliance, customer service impact, and employee development.

Without thinking about it, this is the most diverse department in the business with the largest physical inventory, in many cases the largest employee group, and certainly the largest operational expense. And its manager is pulled in a dozen directions every day.

Don't turn your back on employee development. Take advantage of the educational and training opportunities offered to you, whether I am the instructor or it's someone else. The right employee is your greatest asset, and that employee is one that is well trained, has the proper tools, has motivation to do the job right, and is ready to help carry your business into the future.

Mike Butts is president of LBM Solutions, a DeWitt, Mich.-based LBM supply consulting and training firm. 517.267.8757.