Class in Session

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"How many people got more than five wrong?" asks the instructor. A few hands go up. "Nice try, however you're out of the running. Here's a consolation prize for your efforts."

"Ah, Charlie," continues the instructor, "only two wrong and you were the first to finish. You get the trophy." The room explodes with cheers and catcalls.

This isn't a third-grade arithmetic quiz, though you might think so from the energy in the room. It's a group of sales reps learning how to use a sophisticated new CRM system. Now able to enter activities, create opportunities and track customers, the group has just been on a "Treasure Hunt" to answer some tricky questions. The exercise has engaged them-and actually caused them to think about their answers.

This group of 15 sales reps has come together for a day's classroom education. But this is the 21st century, right? Why not use computer-based training and save on travel and the costs of instructor-led training? And, most important of all, if these reps are in a classroom, they aren't in front of the customer, which is where you need them to be.

Exactly. It's just because you need your reps in front of the customer as much as possible that it's worth the investment in first-class education. If CRM is to meet its promise and make good on the ROI projections you've established, it needs to be used effectively by everyone--especially sales reps.

As you know, the statistics on CRM success aren't pretty--even though they are steadily improving. If your system is to increase profits, you not only need the system used, you need it used effectively.

According to Stuart Kirk, Executive Director - IT, Hitachi Metals America, Ltd.,
"Your CRM effort will be an absolute disaster if you don't do classroom training. It's a group system and everyone is sharing things. You need synergy. It's critically important to have everyone in the room working together. You can't get that from computer-based training or through WebEx."

Here's our argument for doing classroom training and doing it right.

Most sales reps aren't fond of computers. They are people oriented and happiest when they are busily engaged in the chess game of selling. They like the chase; they don't like paperwork, accounting or filling in forms. They like forecasting their opportunities least of all. Yet one of the biggest payouts of CRM for your company is more accurate forecasting. When your system is up and running and it works as it should, you can improve your odds at telling the plant what to expect next quarter.

Making this happen requires that each rep be on board with the system, feel competent to use it and be confident that others will do so as well. Sales people like the independence of selling, but they don't like being the lone ranger when it comes to reporting to management. Good classroom education goes a long way toward building the team you need to close more sales.

These are our top three rules for successful classroom education.

1. IT can't go it alone

We've been at this a long time and we know the kiss of death when we see it. If your CRM/SFA project is being run out of your IT department without sales involvement from the start, you are poised to be a failure statistic. IT can take the lead, but the voice of sales needs to be heard from the initial writing of the specs to designing the training.

And education needs to be part of the plan from the very beginning. We make a distinction between 'training' and 'education.' Training teaches how to use a system, what keys to hit for what results and how to get to this screen or that. But education teaches the proper and effective use of a system, how the sales process will change with automation and how to manage geographically dispersed sales teams without micromanaging.

2. One-size doesn't fit all

The plain vanilla system you get from your vendor needs to be personalized for your organization. In today's competitive environment, this doesn't mean you'll start from scratch, but it does mean that your CRM system fits the way you do business, not the other way around.

The same goes for the training. A course and manual might be available from the CRM vendor, but you shouldn't use it as is. Make sure your trainers go on "rep rides" to fully understand the sales point of view, the lingo they use and the challenges they face.

After we do our rep rides, we write a "Day in the Life" scenario for each functional group that will be in class-sales reps, sales assistants, sales managers, marketing staff and so forth. These short scenarios are a great place to deal with the realities of the new sales process people will be using. They are written to the reality of the company, its industry and its products or services. A technical sales rep visiting sophisticated manufacturing plants doesn't have the same scenario as a consumer products sales rep. The "Day in the Life" needs to fit your company and refer to traits unique to your organization.

The manual also needs to be customized for each client. If your company isn't implementing a feature, make sure that feature doesn't show up in the manual. And, customer entries in sample databases should be modeled on real company clients.

3. No snoozing in class

One sales manager called us after the education session with excitement in her voice. "You won't believe this," she said, "But someone from your class actually called to thank me for sending him. No one ever thanked me for a training session before."

That's because we follow some simple education design rules. Classes are 75 percent do and only 25 percent listen. To make this work, each student needs a computer-no sharing. A large screen easily viewable by all is essential so everyone can clearly see demos.

Because we do so much hands-on work, we use training assistants for larger groups. They answer questions one-on-one and check screens to make sure participants are following the exercises and keeping up.

Another key element is a training database. This is a sandbox where class participants can play with the system without doing any damage. Examples from this database are included in the customized manual to provide a reference for students when they get back home.

Effective training design for sales and marketing is done in bite-size pieces-each feature and function includes a short lecturette, a brief demonstration and the hands-on portion. Frequent breaks are required, but students need to buy in to some ground rules. No outgoing calls on short breaks or the class will dwindle as if they are playing musical chairs.

What classroom training can't do

Well-designed education can make up for a few sins. If you have some glitches in your system, you might be able to teach a workaround in class. But if you have a bad product-one that doesn't work or isn't suited to your needs, no amount of education will solve the problem.

Putting the learning to immediate use is almost as important as having the classroom education in the first place. Occasionally, we run across clients who have selected a good system, but have a faulty implementation plan. If students don't have the system to work with as soon as they get back from class, they might just as well not have gone in the first place.

Finally, the bite-sized pieces rule works for product design as well. Don't try to implement all of a complex system in one phase. More training than people can absorb and use is another way to waste scarce resources.

What to add to classroom training

Our enthusiasm for classroom education doesn't exclude other forms of information delivery. Quite the contrary, we recommend that our clients use the full complement of learning aids.

People learn in different ways and retention is always an issue with a complex system. That's why we like to set up regular, interactive web sessions after the entire team has gone through the training. These sessions begin with a review or perhaps the introduction of some more sophisticated material. They continue with an open phone line where participants can ask questions.

We also reinforce education on-line with individual and group coaching. We monitor our clients' systems and suggest more effective approaches with private e-mails when we see that individuals are making mistakes or have misunderstood system use. We also favor on-line communities where system users can get coaching from each other as well as from our team.

For people who must miss class and for new hires, we also recommend web casts and training CD's. These can be produced during a live session and made available on the web.


You're going to spend a lot on your CRM/SFA system-probably from $1,000 to $3,000 per rep. Depending on the size of your organization, the cost could be in the millions, not to mention the time and resources it will consume. To increase the odds that your expenditure will pay off, plan on an additional investment in quality classroom education. Make sure it's part sales, part system and all show business.

Will Ryan is head of the Systems Sales Support Company and Susanna Opper is a management consultant and groupware pioneer.

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