Cyber Class

By charles dervarics

“Sales reps are probably the hardest employees to bring into a classroom for two or three days,” says Joselyn Davis, vice president of product development for The Forum Corportion, a Boston-based global training company that designs programs for Fortune 500 companies. Why? Ask any sales manager. Since product and skills workshops are vital for long-term success, sales teams need up-to-date training. But what about the short term? If you send top sales representatives to the classroom, it means they will spend less time in front of customers, where time counts the most. That could be costly. And costs don’t end there. Consider the up-front expenses for travel, instructors and materials.

Luckily, technology has the answer. Forward-thinking companies are turning in droves to the Internet as a new and convenient solution for traditional sales training. When fully operational, e-training can provide a healthy ROI by letting employees choose when and where to get their training – whether at an airport, at a hotel or at home.

“The sales-training market is ideal for this Internet-based approach,” Davis says. Product knowledge, knowledge of competitors and selling skills are accessed easily through the Internet or company intranet. And with audio and video streaming becoming increasingly popular, interactive training programs also hold considerable promise.

The “Knowledge Network”
Web-based training may range from simple text-based product information to intricate simulations that mirror a real-life sales pitch. But the essential ingredient is simple. “Build a ‘knowledge network,'” says Jim Brodo of Strategic Management Group, a Philadelphia-based company that designs sales training in the telecommunications, financial services and pharmaceutical industries.

“Training days are dwindling – there simply isn’t enough time,” Brodo explains. To combat the trend, his company has designed Internet-based sales exercises that range from skill building to intricate simulations that recreate the dynamics of a sales pitch or call. In one activity, sales representatives in different locations square off online in a one-hour competition for the same account. Individual responses during the computer-based simulation affect the action and, ultimately, the outcome. “If you do a number of things right, you’ll win the business,” Brodo explains.

The company also has a Business IQ Net program with an electronic resource center and learning center, so that users get access to best practices and sales techniques as well as the simulations. As a result, sales representatives can gain basic as well as advanced skills without losing sales time. “The reduced travel makes it appealing,” Brodo points out.

Other research has shown similar benefits of Internet-based training. A recent Forum Corporation study examined innovative training programs, including Dell Computer’s efforts to move much of its presentation material online. One sales representative spent three additional days per quarter in the field instead of going for training at Dell’s Texas headquarters.

So when do sales reps access this training? Anytime they want, say the experts. In designing his system, Brodo built in a tracking mechanism to determine time and usage trends. During the past three years, he has found a 25 percent growth in nighttime usage, usually between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m.

And often it’s the older, experienced salespeople who are the most loyal users. “They know that good selling goes beyond understanding your product and following a script,” he says. “They know they need to continually retrain themselves.”

The Ideal Candidates
With the Internet’s “anytime, anywhere” mentality, Web-based training is perhaps the best fit for companies with widely dispersed sales staff, experts say. Since the Internet allows for continual updating of information, it also has an advantage over CD-ROMs, once a leading delivery channel for remote training. Updating a CD-ROM is an expensive task, while the Internet offers unparalleled access for regular updating of content.

“The Internet offers just-in-time training whenever you need it,” says Ed Del Gaizo, director, sales portfolio research at Achieve Global, a worldwide company that provides Fortune 500 companies with training in sales, service, leadership and teamwork skills. The World Wide Web and a company intranet also are ideal ways to reinforce items covered in previous classroom sessions, he notes. Hyperlinks to other resources, including competitors’ Websites, also add to the convenience and ease of use.

But a lingering challenge is motivating employees to use the online content. “Often, it helps to have a seminar leader from afar,” says Del Gaizo – someone who can step in from time to time to make a point or assess a user’s skills. Another challenge is to pick and choose the content best suited for the Web. Del Gaizo’s goal is to avoid “shovelware” – the seemingly endless parade of new information posted without rhyme or reason. “You have to be sure the quality of training remains high.”

Blended Solutions
Before a company jumps aboard the Internet bandwagon, they need a training philosophy that makes the best use of the Web. Basic and updated product information are among the most logical initial postings on the Internet, while a how-to-sell workshop with video streaming requires extensive planning from trainers and technology experts.

“Putting everything on the Web can be very flashy, but does it meet customer needs?” asks Forum’s Davis. The critical factor, she says, is to offer blended solutions that combine the best of the Internet with occasional in-person training.

In one Forum online course, “Talking Business Strategy with Customers,” sales representatives learn techniques to link their products with a client’s business strategy. The course includes case studies as well as tips on listening and using email and the Web to forge long-term relationships.

Another course, “Smart Search,” helps salespeople find information via the Web as they prepare for a meeting, while a course on interpersonal skills may best define Davis’ blended approach. It mixes Web-based instruction with a one-day, in-person skill session heavy on role-playing activities best suited for a one-to-one or group setting.

In recent months, the company also has rolled out Performance Compass, an online development system that can provide individualized learning for employees at headquarters or in the field. Sales representatives set short- and long-term goals and use online resources from The Forum Corporation and Harvard Business School Publishing. Online and personal coaching also give users a choice of options.

“You have to create blended solutions to make it work,” Davis said. In her view, Web-based learning is like the microwave oven of 25 years ago: “People thought the microwave would replace the regular oven, but now everyone has both because they complement each other. That’s the way it should work with Web and classroom training.”

Sales Evaluation
The Internet also has tremendous value as an evaluation tool. Dave Kurlan of Objective Management Group Inc. already had a sophisticated sales force profile program, but he found many benefits in using the Web to help evaluate an existing sales training organization, again through electronic surveys and software programs that can quickly compile results. “You can do the diagnostic part via the Internet,” says Kurlan, whose company, based in Westborough, MA, provides evaluation tools to sales development companies that work with such industries such Merrill Lynch, General Electric and Lucent Technologies.

Partner Selling Group of White Plains, NY, uses a similar approach with a Web-based personality test before training. The 24-question survey seeks to answer questions about whether salespeople are best suited for individual or team selling and if they need a hands-on or hands-off sales manager. “Sales managers like it because they can really see the personality of the individuals,” explains Jena Jake, company marketing director.

With clients such as Mercedes-Benz North America, Partner Selling Group also has made extensive use of the Web to follow up on lessons learned from in-person training workshops. A typical example is a course on consultative selling, which requires face-to-face interaction initially. Jake’s program conducts follow-up testing and frequent refresher skills via the Internet.

But Web-based sales training has its limits. “I don’t see the Internet as a substitute for certain types of live training,” Kurlan says, at least until trainers and clients have access to high-speed Internet connections that provide audio and video. Experts also caution that those who do face-to-face selling need live, in-person training to succeed.

“Many programs need real-time feedback,” according to Kurlan. But Webcasts of traditional training, featuring live audio and video streaming, can provide the flexibility needed for role-plays and other key activities – once training companies and clients have the same high-speed, integrated configuration. “When everyone has a fast connection, a camera and two-way phone, it works. You can have live interactive training like in a classroom, but without the classroom,” he says.

Such a time is not far off, however. Achieve Global’s Del Gaizo notes that some clients already are preparing for a time when sales representatives throughout the globe can communicate – and compete against each other – in a sophisticated simulation training program.

“Web-based training can go global. You can match up people for role-playing activities in the U.S. and Europe,” he says. “At that point, people can work all over the world and get training in any location.”

Computer-based simulations also become richer as more sales representatives use a program, according to Del Gaizo, because the program’s database assembles a large array of end-user responses. “The person who uses the program tomorrow gets to benefit from my experience today,” he explains. In some of these cases, the program can offer advice for future coursework as it scans online training modules, to help users based on their performance during a simulation.

Another fast-growing technology, hand-held computers, also holds considerable promise as a fast, convenient vehicle for learning. Palmtop computers can hold about three gigabytes worth of data, enough for small nuggets of data and training information that a person can access before a meeting or conference. “It’s like a short refresher course that’s portable for use in the field,” according to Kurlan.

As a result of these advances, training in the future may come in many shapes, sizes and online outlets. With these trends, experts predict an explosion of Internet-based options in the next two to three years, possibly approaching 25 percent of all training courses. “Maybe you couldn’t put a dress-for-success course on the Internet,” says Del Gaizo. “Other than that, I think anything could work on the Web.”