Turning Novices Into Experts

Mar 18, 2020 • Featuresfuture of field serviceMartin Summerhayesapprenticeships

Development from novice to expert is something we need to go through multiple times in our working career. So, why do organisations still struggle with refining this process and what still needs to be done? Martin Summerhayes writes...




Let me ask you a question, when were you a novice? 

Likely as not, you are currently an expert in your field of service, having worked across a number of companies and business sectors over a number of years. Your experience and maturity mean, that you may be considered an expert in your field. Whether it is supply chain, reverse logistics, inventory management, field planning, field service, engineering, remote support, or repair operations. You get the picture.

The spectrum of support areas that make up an end-2-end service model are extensive and require people to understand both the individual complexity, as well as how that whole service lifecycle fits together.

How often are people “pigeon holed” into a particular part of the service landscape, gaining experience in one area, but not understanding any other?

So, back to the question, when were you a novice?

For me, it was last Autumn, when I started a new role in a new company. Despite the many years of experience that I have in the services business; taking on a new role, in a new company, brings the feeling of being a novice and having to learn from scratch, numerous things. How the company operates; what in reality my role is verses the role that is advertised and interviewed for. The clients

and partners that I have to engage with and serve. All of these aspects take time to master and I challenge anyone to say that they are fully productive and adding value within a short period of time. Even someone with the length of experience that I have, it takes weeks and possibly months to fully embrace the diverse aspects of the role that you take on.


"I really do not like the word apprentice due to the meaning that it has..."


So, let’s turn to one of the biggest challenges in the services business today that is directly tied into being a novice and getting novices into the service world.

I have played slightly with words here, as most people would call a novice, an “Apprentice”. However, I really do not like the word apprentice due to the meaning that it has. If you check the google dictionary, the word apprentice means,  “a person who is learning a trade from a skilled employer, having agreed to work for a fixed period at low wages.” Now, I know that is what the definition means, but for those who take on these roles, it can feel negative in its meaning.

I recall starting out as a field engineer, many years ago. Yes, the salary was low compared to the other engineers in the team I was joining. However, they were all more experienced than me and had been trained on a broad range of technology. Me, I was straight out of college; had masses of theory; but no practical experience at all. I was paired up with a senior field engineer for my first month and together we travelled across greater London, resolving numerous service issues. He was kind, thoughtful and helpful in explaining both the problems and how to resolve them. He taught me the technical aspects of field service, but more importantly, he taught me how to engage with customers. How to ensure that they felt that they were important. That their issue was managed well and resolved.

More important that both of those aspects were the end-2-end views my supervisor gave me. He organised for me to sit with the field despatch team, seeing how field calls were organised. He made sure I spent time with the parts storeman, so I understood the importance of returning parts in a timely manner and finally, he let me sit with the bench repair team, so I could learn some of the techniques of component repair.

"It gave the novices the freedom to experience as many different roles and aspects of service as possible..."

That early set of experiences has always stayed with me. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to mentor and support a group of novices as they started their service careers after leaving education.

I organised their joining based on a double rotation basis. A week spent with each key aspect of the services lifecycle within the business (a lot more complex than what I had experienced when I started). This meant, starting with Service Introduction, with the technical take on of new services. Then to Remote Scheduling and Partner Support. Then into the field, across the multiple different field models – High End Systems, Break Fix, Volume Repair, and Deskside. Then into Warehousing, Logistics and Repair. This was to give them a small understanding of the services model we operated.

From there, the novices were then rotated through each department again on a four to six-week rotation. The idea being that they would deliver a specific project during that time to aid that part of the business. Finally, there was 360-degree feedback from the department heads and the novices themselves as to which department that would like to be based in for the next year. At the end of the two-year programme, they were allowed to take up permanent roles or apply for other roles in other parts of the business.

Was this approach affective? Yes, highly.

It gave the novices the freedom to experience as many different roles and aspects of service as possible. It enabled them to understand the board picture and how services fitted together. It also allowed us to understand their strengths and where they worked well and for them to understand whether service and a particular role was right for them. Some stayed and some left, but every one of the novices appreciated the effort we had put into the scheme.

So, what scheme do you have? Do you even have novices in your business?

It does not matter whether your business is massive or small, there is always an opportunity to bring on new people. Let me give you two current examples.


"I challenge everyone in the services world to embrace the idea of novices..."


The client I am working with at the moment has 40,000 employees. Yep, 40,000, across the whole of the UK. They have a novice programme and operate very similarly to what I ran previously. The cohorts are grouped together in groups, to give them peer support and so that they do not feel isolated. They do a four week rotation and work on projects designed and supported by the departments they are in. They get regular support, feedback and guidance. Each novice has a mentor that they can work with. Speaking to a number of them recently, they felt positively engaged, valued and part of the organisation.

For my own organisation, which is much smaller, we too are looking at bringing on a couple of novices this year. To support the expansion of the business and also to provide resilience by cross training them in a couple of technical areas.

So, I challenge everyone in the services world to embrace the idea of novices. Bring them into your organisations, but more importantly, have a plan and a roadmap of what they are going to do. Don’t just dump them into an area of your business and expect them to thrive, proposer and grow. Look after them and in the medium term, they will grow into roles that will add significant value to your business.

I leave with the following quote:

“In most every business, you learn by doing. The apprenticeship model is much more effective than the classroom for cultivating entrepreneurs.”

Andrew Yang (American entrepreneur, philanthropist, author, lawyer, and former candidate for President of the United States in the 2020 election