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The Three Rs Go Virtual
As online training catches on in the CRM world, trainees are taking their seats in front of a computer to learn the basics of relationships, retention and ROI.
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Williams Scotsman, a mobile office and modular structure provider, trains salespeople in its 90 locations throughout the United states and Canada on a regular basis. Up until two years ago, the company brought employees to its Baltimore headquarters for classroom training or sent an instructor out to the branches. "We'd meet face-to-face for two solid days," says Chuck Hunter, technology training analyst for Williams Scotsman. "It was pretty mind-numbing."

No more. Williams Scotsman now carries out training online with a system from LearnLinc. Employees access the live training sessions via the company intranet. In initial training of sales reps on the company's order entry and lead procurement systems, Williams Scotsman trained 670 seats in nine weeks. "If we had had to send a trainer around to all the branches or bring the salespeople in to Baltimore, it would have been incredibly expensive," says Hunter.

The online training system has gotten tremendous reception from Williams Scotsman's sales force, according to Hunter. "It only takes one or two hours out of their day," he says, "so they're content." And it seems to do just as good a job of training the sales force as the old classroom system did. The company had been concerned that with the change to distance learning, salespeople would fail to master the system and would make data entry errors, corrupting the sales database. "The database is our lifeblood," says Hunter. "Thankfully, we detected no increase in errors after implementing the online learning system."

Wave of the Future
Although computer-based training (CBT) has been around for almost two decades--mostly in the form of CD-ROMs--it is only recently that the CRM industry has jumped on the online training bandwagon. "Online training in CRM is just getting off the ground," says Katrina Menzigian, CRM and call center program manager at IDC in Framingham, Mass. According to Menzigian, 70 to 80 percent of CRM software training is still carried out in the classroom, sometimes by the CRM vendor itself, sometimes by systems integrators or consultants.

In the near future, however, Menzigian expects the CRM training landscape to change. CRM vendors are starting to want to offer the whole story, she says, and are bringing out training modules as part of their software offerings. They want to take control of training, hoping that increased end-user skill levels will translate to more successful software implementations and improved customer satisfaction. "It's a lesson learned from all those CRM implementation failures," she says.

The only CRM implementations that are successful are those where the employees use the software on a day-in, day-out basis, says Mary Swenson, chief customer service officer at Interact and in charge of the online training program for the company's ACT! and SalesLogix applications. "Training is a critical component to making the end user confident and thus getting consistent use," she says.

Faced with an increased need for training but limited by a fixed or reduced training budget, CRM players are looking to alternatives to classroom training. Vendors who don't offer online training now will offer it shortly, says Menzigian's IDC colleague Cushing Anderson, program manager for learning services research. "It's the only way to train employees who are dispersed geographically and to compress the training timeline," he says.

Partnerships
Last year in a white paper on IT education and training services, Menzigian and Anderson predicted that there would be a trend in the CRM industry toward partnerships between training content providers and companies that offer the architecture and tools to provide that training online. Indeed, this year a vanguard of forward-thinking CRM vendors has formed partnerships with online learning providers to offer online learning services to both CRM software trainers and end users.

Learning management systems provider Docent and CRM training provider C3i have joined forces to offer training on Siebel software. Clarify has signed a pact with online learning provider Knowledge Impact to take its software training online. Interact is developing online learning solutions for its SalesLogix and ACT! solutions with learning portal Learn2.com. eGain has selected MindLever.com as its e-learning partner. And the list goes on. Online training is "something you have to have," says Anderson.

Clarify's director of worldwide learning, Carol Shaffer, sees several reasons for the burst in online learning in the CRM field. First, the information stored on CRM systems has gotten more and more critical, she says. At the same time, CRM systems are getting increasingly complex. Companies can't afford to put important customer information at risk by skimping on employee training. Second, there is a more frequent need for training because the pace of new software releases has accelerated over the past five years. "It used to be software would have one new release every one to two years," she says. "Now there are often two or three new releases per year." Interact's Swenson agrees. "Interact will have a version release almost every month," she says. "Our training needs to be dynamic."

The proliferation of new software can cause training dilemmas, says Steve Gott, CEO of Learn2.com. While software does raise productivity, training users can be prohibitively expensive. Previous to forming Learn2.com, Gott worked at investment banking firm Lehman Brothers where he observed how difficult it was to train employees on increasingly numerous varieties of software. "Employees didn't show up to classes or read books," he says, "so we hired consultants to go desk to desk. But that didn't work either because people soon forgot what they learned." So Gott decided to form a multimedia training company to make it easier for companies to realize the full benefit of the software investment they were making by ensuring the proficiency of the end users.

So, How Does It Work?
There are hundreds of online training providers on the market today, and many different training technologies.

At one end of the complexity spectrum are live online learning tools--from vendors like LearnLinc, Centra, Placeware and MShow--which attempt to create an experience that is as close to an actual classroom as possible. Students in this "virtual classroom" log on to the Internet or company intranet and click on a URL to gain access to class (with MShow, the URL is embedded in an invitation e-mail sent to all participants). Students then can see a presentation, which may be a set of PowerPoint slides or, with software application sharing features, a version of the software to be learned. At the same time they hear the instructor's voice and in some cases see streaming video of the instructor, usually in a small window on their screen. If students have a question, they can click on a "raise your hand" or "talk" button to get floor control. Students can e-mail each other as well, the equivalent of a whispered conversation in a real classroom. The instructor can also take a quick poll, asking students to raise their hands or respond to questions, testing that all participants have understood the material. And, to display last-minute information, some applications incorporate whiteboard technology so instructors and students with floor control can drop in images, edit text and otherwise make changes on-the-fly.

In online learning jargon this is referred to as synchronous learning, although IDC's Anderson--claiming that listeners' eyes glaze over when he mentions "synchronous"--has dubbed it "live, over-the-Web" learning. Everyone participates at the same time and learns from the same instructor.

For these types of multimedia presentations to work well, students need access to a fairly high level of technology. They need a computer--of course, the faster the better. For PCs, a Pentium or better chip is preferred. For Macintosh users, it's best to have a PowerPC. If students will be listening to the presentation through their computer, a sound card is necessary, although those without good sound cards and speakers can always dial into a conference call to get the audio portion by phone. MShow, for example, has a button on the screen students can click on to find out the toll-free number to call. Students will also need a network connection, again the faster the better. To receive streaming video, for example, an ISDN--or better yet, a T1 line--is good. Of course, users will need a browser to access the Internet and perhaps a specialized software plug-in, like RealPlayer, may be required to play audio and video.

Williams Scotsman's LearnLinc system is one example of a synchronous online learning experience. The LearnLinc software is installed on the company's intranet. A small client is installed on each employee's computer. Williams Scotsman runs a series of regularly scheduled training sessions, among them a two-hour initial training course on the basics of the company's in-house SFA system. Employees can access the training sessions through their browsers. Trainees phone in to a separate conference call for the audio portion of the online class. Although LearnLinc accommodates video and audio streaming in its technology, Williams Scotsman doesn't use either. "Bandwidth requirements are too high," says Hunter. "Some of our salespeople connect to the training courses by modem, and audio and video streaming would wipe them out."

Asynchronous
And there's the rub. Critics of flashy virtual classrooms claim that they require more bandwidth and computer savvy than the average employee possesses. "Live, instructor-lead online training is just not ready for prime time," says Mike Merriman, vice president of technology solutions for Knowledge Impact, Clarify's e-training partner. The Clarify/Knowledge Impact solution doesn't have a live component, though custom-designed solutions could include in-person classroom training. Philip McCrea of Siebel training provider C3i agrees. "One year from now there'll be a phenomenal demand for live, online learning solutions," he says. "But right now these programs don't meet our criteria of easy and ubiquitous."

So there's the other option: asynchronous online learning. This type allows the student to log on and access training modules, with or without video, audio and animation, whenever it is convenient. As upcoming files can be cached on the user's computer in advance and there is no need for live audio and video, less bandwidth is needed.

Most training experts agree that a combination of synchronous and asynchronous training, supported by paper-based materials and even in-person classroom training, will achieve the best results. In reality, most companies use this hybrid approach today. "It's not an either/or situation," says IDC's Anderson. "Some people learn better with a live instructor. Some topics lend themselves better to live training." In an editorial titled "Blending--How to Combine In-person and Online Training," e-learning guru Brandon Hall writes that the decision about which type of training to choose should be based on the cost of bringing learners together, which parts of learning are best served by classroom versus self-instruction and what is needed to ensure that individuals complete the course.

For example, the system developed by Docent and C3i for Siebel has the following four steps.

• step one: C3i sends up-front communications to trainees to get people excited about the training program.

• step two: C3i provides a system preview, which is available in a self-serve fashion on the Web. This part includes a skills assessment. "The preview gives trainees a baseline understanding of the Siebel software they will be training on," says McCrea.

• step three: C3i conducts a one-day classroom training session (as opposed to the two to three days of classroom training with a traditional system). "The classroom session includes the things trainees absolutely need to know to use the system," says McCrea.

• step four: three to ten online courses that reinforce what was learned in class and introduce new concepts. "The final step gives trainees the 'nice to know' skills," says McCrea.

"Traditional trainers say learning must be done face-to-face," says McCrea. "With soft skills like negotiating and selling techniques, I agree. But with technical training, I don't agree that students have to be in a classroom. I can as effectively tell them to do a series of hands-on exercises online as in class, and 75 percent of CRM training is hands-on exercises."

Likewise, Interact has not made a complete transition to online learning. Although ACT! training is easily available online through Learn2.com, core SalesLogix training will continue to be in the classroom. Interact offers a four-to five-day classroom training course for SalesLogix in various locations around the world.

"The modular, online approach works better for add-on components such as training in the marketing, support and e-business parts of the software," says Swenson. Interact is now developing these online modules, which will be available in the third quarter of this year. Interact prefers to keep at least some training in the classroom, according to Swenson, because meeting customers and channel partners face-to-face allows the parties to get to know each other. "Customers see our facility and get to know the people in our company with whom they'll interface over time," says Swenson.

Other considerations to keep in mind when choosing between online and classroom training are how many students you expect to have and their degree of computer literacy. The fewer the students, the less likely it will be worthwhile to set up an online training program. Interact plans to keep its e-configuration training in the classroom, for example, because only a few specialized technicians need this training, and it is too complex to set up the necessary database online. On the other hand, the company will offer its administrator course online. "It is a perfect candidate for Web-based training," says Swenson, "because the trainees understand some IT and have some business and sales skills."

A Lifetime of Learning
Employees are notorious for forgetting most of what they learn in a typical training course. So, online training can be designed to deliver just enough training, just in time. Online training courses are usually divided into easily digestible chunks and can even be accessed, much like Help on steroids, right from the applications. Learning continues far beyond the initial class.

Knowledge Impact's online training for Clarify is designed to make training not just an event, but support that is woven through the Clarify application. The solution has three parts.

• Part one is a one-hour Web-based training course that gets users started by teaching them basic navigation. The Clarify application is simulated, and trainees can practice the various operations they will have to perform.

• Part two is a performance support module. Someone who is using Clarify and runs into trouble can click on a help button to get a quick refresher. A user who still doesn't feel comfortable can access a five-minute drill session to master the operation. Then the salesperson or call center rep can go right back to the job. No time is wasted returning to the initial training and searching for information on forgotten functions. "This is good for tasks employees don't do that often, where retention isn't great," says Merriman.

• Part three is what the company calls the "InfoWeb." This is a portal to information on the Web or in Clarify documents that will help end users improve their performance. Information such as course offerings and calendars, FAQs, discussion databases, Web-based seminars, leading research, news and events is available on the InfoWeb.

"It is the blending of these three elements that is especially valuable," says Merriman.

Make It Convincing
Online training may seem the obvious choice for your company, but even e-training cheerleaders admit you may have a hard time selling it, both to your CEO and to your rank-and-file employees. "We have to do a fair amount of convincing to get companies to accept online training," says C3i's McCrea. Interact's Swenson is more optimistic. "Web-based technology is changing, and it is more accepted by students," she says. "One year ago, students would not have accepted online training."

A study by online training expert Brandon Hall may supply you with some valuable statistics in your quest to convert unbelievers. The study, entitled Return on Investment and Multimedia Training, reviewed case studies and online training literature and concluded that there is very strong evidence to support the following conclusions:

1. Online training costs less than instructor-led training. Hall included both the cost of development and the cost of delivery and documented cost savings of 30 percent to 60 percent. Online training's lower costs result mainly from reduction in training time and the elimination of travel. E-training costs more to develop but less to deliver than traditional training. So, Hall says, a positive ROI requires a training population large enough for the savings in delivery to offset the cost of development. In general, online training is cost-effective when you have at least 200 participants, he says.

2. Computer-based training requires less time--typically 50 percent less--than instructor-led training. Hall attributes this time reduction to online training's tighter instructional design, and the option for participants to bypass content they already know and focus on sections not yet mastered.

3. E-training results in an equal or higher quality of learning over traditional instruction.

Training is critical to CRM success. "You may have just spent $5 million on a new CRM system, but if employees don't use it, it wasn't worth the money," says C3i's McCrea. Online training could be the key to a successful implementation.

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