It's easy to find excuses to neglect training in a sales automation project. Expenditures are already high, various pitfalls have pushed back the rollout dates, and the project owners are getting itchy to "take her out for a spin." Load the laptops, send them out and get people started-"we'll get to the training next quarter." Sound like a familiar plan?
It's a plan for disaster. Racing to the finish line without a pit stop in the classroom can sideline your project's success. You can issue endless memos and secure all the enthusiasm you want, but training is a prerequisite for success.
"If you don't train the users well, you're almost certainly dooming an SFA project to failure," says Chris Selland, vice president of customer relationship management research for Yankee Group.
Proper training builds confidence in the system and makes clear the individual and organizational benefits of your SFA project. Improper training, or no training whatsoever, can turn your project into a nightmare, with support costs spiraling out of control and discontent that can jeopardize the unity of your sales organization.
Even as sales automation solutions have matured and expanded their feature sets, and many enterprises have endured at least one failed system, training continues to be a sore spot. "It's difficult for people to measure what they're getting for [training] dollars. Top management, when they can't see what they're getting, is often reticent to put a lot of money in," says Thomas Minero, president of Training Resources, Inc. of New Jersey.
What You Can Do
Be serious about training, and be prepared to invest serious money in that training. Wendy Close, research director with the Gartner Group, recommends allocating 6 to 10 percent of a total SFA implementation budget to training.
It seems that enterprises adopting or re-engineering their sales automation solutions are starting to get the message. A recent survey by Insight Technology Group of over 200 companies found that, on average, 5 percent of total SFA project cost is going to training. Although not quite up to Gartner's specs, Close agrees that the numbers were heading in the right direction.
Past experience, with historical data indicating that over half of all SFA projects have failed, may be contributing to a renewed enthusiasm for training. Also at work may be a new attitude from SFA implementation partners. More than one firm says it has walked away from projects for which a potential client was unwilling to properly invest in training. The reason? Pure self-interest. Support costs are much higher for struggling projects and a disappointing implementation hardly makes for a good case study on one's Web site.
Plan For Training
It may be one of the last steps in your sales automation implementation, but that doesn't mean that planning for training should be left until the last minute. "Ideally, planning for training will happen when you're doing your software selection [and/or] design, at least three to six months before delivery," says Debra Exner, president of software training firm Exner and Associates.
Successful training requires that you and your sales force have reasonable goals for the project. "Companies have to realize that increased revenue is not always what you're going to find," says Yankee Group's Selland. When designed well, sales automation systems can benefit management, administration and production as well as the sales force even without producing a single "extra" sale.
"Salespeople understand selling benefits," he says. "The real benefit is, `This will help take away the manual tasks. This will get more sent into your pipeline. This will help us to help you sell.'" Communicating the big-picture benefits of your sales automation system before the actual training begins will put the project into perspective and make it easier for your salespeople to appreciate the benefits of their full and willing participation in the classes. "Companies sometimes see training as a replacement for gaining a consensus [among the sales force], saying, `You need this; training will prove it.' That doesn't work either," he says.
strongly consider training sales management even before the pilot rollout of your system. "They get immersed in understanding what the issues of the technology are before they actually have to deal with their own end-user community," says Paul Cowley, president of Toronto-based Cowley and Associates.
Jeff Johnson, sales development consultant at Pioneer Hybrid Seed Company, is the head of a multiyear training program for thousands of agricultural sales representatives. His original plan called for sales managers to be trained before any sales reps, but that plan was ultimately scrapped because some feared it would project a "Big Brother" image, discouraging sales reps from participating because it was being "forced" on them. Johnson and his team lived to regret the decision.
"That was one of our stumbling blocks," he says. "How well the manager was onboard supporting the system was directly correlated to how fast the reps picked it up."
Finally, you will need to make an early decision of how to handle required basic computer skills. Although computer literacy is on the rise, many people are still clumsy at best with the standard Windows interface. And mixing computer-savvy folk with those who don't understand how a mouse works can be a recipe for a wasted afternoon. Exner suggests that if this mix is necessary, students should be grouped into small teams, with at least one skilled user on each team to help the others.
The best solutions are to either require students to come to class with a basic literacy of computer skills (often provided by paid classes at a local community college or training center) or to extend the training program by a half day and add a required course on general computing. Pioneer ultimately added such a required session to its training program, as the computer literacy rate steadily dropped as students progressed through the sales ranks.
Know Your Trainers
Deciding whether to go with your own internal training staff or outsource the training program is a big decision and will largely be made by the availability and experience of your trainers. If you outsource, you are faced with an additional decision: going with a full-service SFA consultant or a dedicated training firm.
Dedicated trainers have the advantage of specializing in corporate education, but the training staff may not be SFA experts. Full-service SFA consultants have a wide range of experience to draw upon, but may not have the same classroom presence of a full-time educational professional.
Do some legwork to research your options. See what firms can collaborate best with your sales force and management to respond to their needs, and what firms have a solid understanding for your sales process. Also, don't be afraid to discuss "what if" scenarios, such as how potential training vendors will deal with hopelessly lost students or makeup sessions. Refunds, discounts or free repeats are not unheard of.
Remember that a good trainer should be someone who can effectively deliver several hours of important content to your sales force. "They have to be dynamic, exciting, into the product...a lot of it comes down to personality and ability," says Sidney Lejfer of Success Automation of Waltham, Mass.
Finally, check into what sales automation vendors say about your potential trainer. Many large vendors put their VARs and trainers through the wringer before they can claim expertise in the product line. John Pringle, director of training for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based SalesLogix, explains. "We act as gatekeepers-we develop exams that are challenging to our business partners," he says. If your training partner is not accredited, find out why.
Remember the Sales Process
Training is essential for the success of your SFA project. But misdirected training can be as bad as or worse than no training at all. Remember that your sales automation system is the means to an end-enhancing your sales process. Learning what buttons to click and what numbers to type is meaningless unless placed in the greater context of your particular selling methodology. No matter who does your training, make sure they understand and communicate your sales process as part of the education process.
Chances are good that a new sales automation system will make some fundamental changes to your sales process, even if they are not immediately obvious from reading a list of features. For example, a field-quote tool and e-mail communication may allow client bids to be prepared and submitted to management faster than conventional paper-and-pencil methods. Teaching the point-and-click functionality of the software will allow reps to complete accurate quotes for their customers. But if the quicker cycle time means that reps can be more flexible in offering time-critical discounts to their customers ("If you can come down 8 percent by 5 p.m., you've got a deal"), that scenario needs to be incorporated into the training or field reps may miss the point: that the new feature can help them close deals that would have died in pre-SFA days.
"The trainer that just teaches the feature is almost ensuring that it's not going to work. Training must answer `What's in it for me?'" says Minero.
By building training that heavily incorporates real-world sales process examples, you greatly improve the chances that reps will adopt more of the software into their daily business. "The only pieces of a sales automation project that get used consistently are the pieces that the salespeople, independently, have made a judgment that they get a benefit from it," Minero adds.
Working with trainers to ensure they understand and incorporate the business impact of your SFA system in the rollout program, rather than just the feature-by-feature list of its functionality, is key to getting the most from the experience.
It's Never Over
Don't put your training program on autopilot once it gets up and running. Like any major undertaking, SFA training should improve with time and experience. Don't be afraid to learn from your mistakes. In fact, make a point of it.
Pioneer's training program is at the two-year mark and still going. In that time, Johnson and his team have made numerous adjustments to improve the quality of their delivery. He regularly adjusts the curriculum by examining help desk and e-mail logs to determine what areas are causing reps the most problems. In general, getting help desk, training and development personnel on the same page is the best way to ensure that all areas of your project evolve in sync with each other.
Square D Company of Palatine, Ill., is in the process of rolling out an extranet-based SFA system to thousands of electrical distributors. It is running three pilot training programs: one with a paper manual, one on CD-ROM and one on videotape. By rollout at the end of this year, Square D will settle on the method that is working best for its field force.
Keep in mind that fresh grads from your training program will probably not be 100 percent productive with your new system at first. "Understand that for the first 4 to 6 weeks after rolling out an application, you'll have a lot of users struggling," advises Close.
Classroom or CBT?
Sooner or later, the question will arise of whether to conduct traditional classroom training or a computer-based training (CBT) solution. There's no single answer.
Even staunch CBT advocates concede the classroom's obvious advantage: any question can be asked and answered in a classroom setting. Even an exhaustive CBT program can only address a finite number of possible issues a student may have with a particular concept or feature. Classroom learning also has rigid time constraints, which may initially seem like a burden to the sales force but at least ensures participation, unlike a CD-ROM-based CBT, which can be placed in the circular file or otherwise forgotten.
On the other hand, CBT offers an immediate, "just-in-time" capability the classroom and even the help desk lack. Context-sensitive, concise information can be delivered within seconds to a sales rep who needs to solve a particular problem or learn a discrete new process in a timely, efficient way.
When CBT works, it generally represents tremendous cost savings. For under $10,000 (not counting staff salaried time), Johnson's staff created and shipped a CD-ROM to 3,000 Pioneer reps, training them on a new grain-yield reporting feature, which had previously been done on paper forms mailed to headquarters.
Despite rolling out the feature too late for some reps to record local harvest figures, fully 80 percent of all yield reports that season came in using the software, and 90 percent of those were entered perfectly. A rousing success, all for about $3 per seat. Compare that to an average of $330 per person Pioneer spent on classroom SFA training that year.
Not all CBT will offer such dramatic savings, of course. Selectivity is the key. To keep CBT effective, limit the number of new concepts taught on a single CD. Students can feel overwhelmed if they are exposed to too many new training options at once. CBT is generally strongest when used for incremental or refresher training and to provide fast answers. Introducing radically new concepts is still best left to face-to-face learning.
When using classroom learning, be careful of class size. Most instructors prefer a size under 10, sometimes as few as five or six students. Thirty students per teacher may be common in today's high schools, but it doesn't work for intense sales training. "If everybody asks one question, you're not going to get through 10 percent of the material," says Lejfer.
Don't let training become a problem. Start early with an aggressive stance toward getting it done right the first time. If you do encounter problems, work through them. "Some of the people who had the most problems became our best advocates later because of how well we solved those problems and made them believers," says Johnson. And every well-educated believer on your sales force brings you one giant step closer to a completely successful project.