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Sika, Merkrete boost customer service through CTEF training

PENDLETON, S.C. — Continuously increasing their value to customers and partners, Sika’s and Merkrete’s technical sales teams met for tile-setting training at the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF) last week.  Professionals representing the SikaTile and Merkrete systems product lines joined CTEF Director of Certification and Training Scott Carothers at the 9,000-square-foot tile installation training facility for four days of tailored, hands-on training.  The goal of the joint training, according to Merkrete National Sales Manager Todd Boos, was to “provide both sales teams with a better understanding of industry standards and knowledge to become a better resource for our customers.” 

Carothers worked with Sika Senior Product Manager Tom Carroll to craft a customized training program designed to give the teams invaluable tiling application and industry knowledge while using a combination of both brands’ high-performance tile setting materials.  “Tom gave me a parameter of what was needed, what aspects he wanted to hit, and I built the curriculum around it,” Carothers explained.  “It’s an individualized program.” Carroll and Boos determined that the optimal training coursework should incorporate the latest American National Standards Institute (ANSI) specifications and Tile Council of North America (TCNA) Handbook application methods.  These classroom lessons gave the technical sales teams a strong understanding of the standards that their products are designed to meet or exceed, as well as industry best practices for using these products in a variety of relevant scenarios.  Additionally, the teams would apply their products to numerous tiling situations, covering essential steps from surface preparation to grouting.  Boos said that while this will better position the teams to present sales-generating demonstrations of their product lines, “ultimately we want to be able to provide a service to our customers.”

Once team and trainer introductions were out of the way, day one informed the students of the overview and objectives that would occupy the remainder of the week.  Carothers reinforced the importance of familiarizing oneself with and keeping handy the TCNA Handbook, National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA) Reference Manual, and ANSI and International Organization for Standardization (ISO) reference guides.  These will enable the salespersons to better address the product’s suitability for a range of installation scenarios while allowing them to impart useful industry standards knowledge to their customers.  Carothers then led the class to the spacious training warehouse where Merkrete Technical Sales Manager Robert Cruz applied his brand’s SLU Primer to a demonstration substrate in preparation for the following day’s activities.

The classroom lecture that kicked off day two revealed benefits, strengths and limitations of flowable hydraulic cement underlayment (formerly known as “self-levelling underlayment”), readying the teams for the next hands-on activity.  A group of SikaTile and Merkrete representatives mixed and poured the latter’s Underlay SLU on the already-primed substrate.  Cruz served as resident SLU product expert, showing his classmates the proper spreading techniques that yield the most even, flat results.

Next on the agenda was a discussion on mixing and application of A118 mortars.  The teams followed Carothers’ in-depth trowel selection and use demonstration with trying their hands at mixing and applying Merkrete’s DUSTLESS 855 Premium LHT mortar.  As the class put Carothers’ troweling lesson into practice, they were able to choose from a variety of tools to apply the mortar.  For some, it was their first time using the highly effective European and slant notched trowels, causing them to rethink the acceptability of tools to which they had become accustomed.

The teams were then led to a large cement-board wall in the training facility.  Carothers’ assistants Brad Denny and John Roberts deliberately constructed the surface with warpage that rendered it unsuitable for tile.  The class took turns evaluating the shape of the substrate with a long straightedge, identifying the defects that would need to be remedied before any tiling could begin.  The teams alternately applied layers Merkrete’s Pro Patch XF and rechecked the wall until the needed flatness was achieved. 

Proper use and application of expansion joints closed the second day.  Carothers reviewed the EJ171 entry on expansion joint usage in tile installations before showing the materials and methods needed to uphold the guidance.  He showed the teams the proper application of backer rod in the expansion joints and applied Merkrete’s MK-100SC 100% Silicone Caulk over top.  The Merkrete and Sika teams then filled the remaining gaps with backer rod and caulk, showing that they understood this necessary step for preventing project failure.

Day three exposed the teams to the unique requirements of gauged porcelain tile panel and slab (GPTP/S) installations.  A classroom session was followed by a practical exercise focused on preparing and installing the oversize tiles.  Team members all had a chance to use frame handling systems to transport the GPTP/S to the set up worktables.  They also took turns cutting, applying mortar and setting the panels. Working with the large, high-demand panels proved to be the strongest learning experience for many. “I didn’t realize how important product open-time was until we worked with these panels,” revealed Sika Technical Sales Manager Abel Sandoval. “Seeing how the mortar kept its properties the whole time we worked on the panel and transported it was really eye-opening.”

Wrapping up day three was a lesson on the different grout classifications and the types of installations for which each is designed.  This was naturally succeeded by application assignments in a series of mock-up room environments.  Teams first applied large-format tiles to wall surfaces using SikaTile®-475 LHT Premium Set, noting the mortar’s non-sag properties as it instantly bonded the heavy tiles to the cement board.  Afterward, teams discovered the grout performance differences as they worked ready-to-use SikaTile® Ultima Grout and the soon-to-be-released SikaTile®-815 Secure Grout into a variety of floor and wall tile joints.

On the final day, the Sika and Merkrete teams met for a briefing on the proper protocol for conducting training at an American Institute of Architects (AIA) event.  The lecture emphasized the best ways each technical sales manager can provide an industry-focused service as a trainer, and the guidelines the AIA maintains to keep training free from conflicts of interest.  A round of questions and answers followed before the two brands broke off to hold separate meetings.  This gave each a chance to reflect on the knowledge they had received and plan how best to apply it to the benefit of their customers.

Merkrete Technical Sales Manager Greg Meiklejohn was one of many participants to have gained from CTEF’s program.  “I really came into this with an open mind,” he noted.  “After being in the industry so long, you can really get closed minded to things like this.  For me, it’s trying to validate whether what I knew or thought aligned with what the industry standards actually are.”

Sika Technical Sales Manager David Lepird Sr. agreed.  “I think any time you participate in a training like this where it talks about an overview of the industry, you’re always going to walk away with some knowledge you didn’t have or may have forgotten.  As we go out and see competitive products and the specifications that those products meet then obviously it helps us to be able to better communicate the value of our products with the customer.”

Feedback from the event was universally positive.  Carroll in particular enjoyed the cooperation with CTEF to achieve the goals he had set for the event.  “I was extremely pleased with how effortlessly Scott and the team at CTEF delivered this immersive training matrix,” Carroll said.  “Both brands’ solutions lines are constantly evolving with new products and product enhancements, so this training let the teams experience the dustless properties, experience the new no-slake properties and overall material performance from the end-user’s point of view.”

Boos was equally struck by how monumental and rewarding of an undertaking it proved bringing his sales team together with Sika’s for the training.  “Any time you take a bunch of sales guys out of the field for a week, it’s difficult for them to not be customer-facing and customer-selling, and it’s a big commitment on their part.”  He continued, “The reps now have the ability to provide solutions from an industry standpoint versus a product-specific standpoint.  I know the customers will find more value in the partnerships.”

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