Distinctive Systems on the importance of training

Mike and Andrew from Distinctive Systems

routeone pays a visit to Distinctive Systems’ recently completed training centre in York, which has started to take its first visitors

Distinctive Systems offers a suite of management solutions for private hire, contract, touring, workshop and maintenance operations that sets it out as an industry leader.

For many years, its systems – Coach Manager, the Tour Booking System and the Vehicle Maintenance System – were simply sold outright, then supplemented with paid software maintenance and updates. A subscription option was introduced around a decade ago. Now, the majority of sales come via subscriptions.

Support staff have driving experience and TM CPCs

The role of training

With such a comprehensive offering, tailored training has always been included with a subscription to Distinctive’s software. In the early years training took place in the Distinctive Systems development office, but as the company grew, training had to be moved into local hotels and eventually facilities rented off its neighbour, the Diocese of York.

In 2018 that all changed when the company began construction on a dedicated training centre at its York head office. Finished in July 2020, the training centre is an extension to the existing building and includes a large training room that can be split into two separate classrooms. There is also a break area and first floor conference room.

There is a sense of relief, as Distinctive reveals it has always preferred to do training in its own building. “Training courses are not just about training,” says founder Mike Whitehead. “It’s an opportunity to get users out of the workshop area, away from distractions. It’s also a chance to discuss the more comprehensive versions of the systems.”

Things were complicated slightly when, in March 2020, social distancing requirements saw face-to-face training suspended. That was replaced with pandemic-friendly online sessions for all systems offered. Despite Distinctive never having previously explored the option for remote digital sessions, they were implemented successfully and well received by customers. “Instead of one or two intensive days, sessions were broken down into smaller hour-and-a-half to two-hour sessions, where it could be fit around trainees’ days,” explains Mike. “As that was so well received, we’ve continued to do that as things are getting back to normal.”

Distinctive Systems’ York office

New ways of working

COVID-19 means Distinctive has introduced a new level of flexibility and variety when it comes to offering training to its software users. “Operators like the flexibility of having a series of sessions online to do their training,” says Installation, Training and Support Manager Paul Wildman. “Previously we always went on site to do training, but we often had situations where a problem occurred – staff would be called away on an emergency, there might be distractions or incidents in the workshop.”

Now there are multiple options available to those looking for training. Training courses can be attended in the new centre, with operators given a number of free places per annum depending on the system they have in use, and with a software maintenance agreement in place.

Operators can also pay to have multiple staff visit the office for a dedicated training day. Bespoke ad hoc extra training over the phone has proved popular, with many staff seeking refreshers or training in a new area of operations. Site visits, meanwhile, are still available as a chargeable entity.

Because Distinctive Systems does not offer bespoke software solutions, training is focused around teaching operators how to get the best out of the system based on the way it is used.

The Distinctive staff members know their stuff, too – four in training and software support are fully qualified with driving experience and Transport Management Certificates of Professional Competence.

After installation of the software, Distinctive’s team will follow up with an email two or three weeks after install training to ask the operator how things are going. Distinctive promotes users to talk to its support team to ensure the software is being used efficiently. “We get a good constant flow of support enquiries come through on a daily basis and we try and process them as quickly and efficiently as possible,” adds Paul.

While operators have come to favour the flexible online training – with the pressures of driver shortages and day-to-day operations often making full day site visits somewhat impractical – Sales Director Andrew Fraser says Distinctive favours having operators and staff come to its York office for training.

“There’s nothing better from a support perspective than face-to-face training,” he explains. “You can judge from someone’s expressions whether they understand what you’re explaining. Remote training works – but you have to work harder at it. You don’t get the same rapport, and it’s harder to gauge reactions from someone.”

It is also good to be away from the operations environment, believes Paul. There are no interruptions or distractions, making training more effective.

Another positive about classroom training sessions is the opportunity for operators to meet, react, and exchange details and knowledge serendipitously. Each classroom session is now booked up until Christmas, suggesting that those advantages are being recognised.

“We try to tailor sessions,” Paul adds. “We always ask everyone in the session what they would like to achieve from the day. We then cover those details and take out details people don’t need to know – operations staff will not get a lecture on accounting and sales, for instance. It’s key that we have the flexibility to do that, and it works very well.”

Making training bespoke

Operators are wanting and needing more bespoke training according to Andrew. With such a large software offering many are using only a fraction of what is available to them – but operators are aware there is more to the system. “As time has gone by, operators are wanting to get more out of the system, become more efficient, replace manual systems and look to us to top up training or have new staff that need training,” Andrew says.

For instance, Coach Manager has an automated quotation structure built into it. Operators can price quotes that they’ve been asked to do, yet many still choose to do quotes manually. “They are starting to understand this can now be done through the system,” says Andrew, “and even more, it can be done through their websites – so instead of manually picking up emails and manually pricing, that can be routed through from the website into Coach Manager and, if desired, could populate pricing automatically.”

Such software is becoming essential as operators face mounting pressures on their time. The COVID-19 period saw Distinctive Systems’ sales patterns change, with a spike in interest in the Vehicle Maintenance System, as operators took the opportunity to streamline processes and move away from paper, and even down the route of Earned Recognition, for which the company is an accredited supplier.

Even if not implemented now, such systems can be a safeguard for the future.