Many channel partners talk about the need for more and improved training. Some lament their inability to develop effective training, or worse, the difficulties of getting their people to participate in training. Everyone sees the value, but the return on investment is frequently questioned.

Training is an area fraught with challenges, but opportunities exist to maximize its benefits — if manufacturers, distributors and reps channel their energies. Unfortunately, as we stated in our last article, success can only be achieved “a distributor at a time.” The effort needs to be led by distribution.

To identify training challenges, we asked manufacturers, reps and distributors a few questions. Essentially they were:

  • What percentage of time should be spent on training?
  • How important is online training?
  • What do you see as training challenges?
  • How would you address these challenges?

Time Commitment

Recognizing that most people attempt to work a 40-hour week and that distributors and reps are responsible for a multitude of lines, we felt it important to understand how much of a time commitment the channel feels should be allocated to training.

Surprisingly, responses were pretty consistent. In Figure 1, we see that reps and distributors feel that two to four hours per week, on average, may be reasonable, whereas manufacturers prefer that salespeople spend six hours per week in training. The differential comes from one's perspective. Reps and distributors focus on the lines that are important to them. Manufacturers, however, only need to focus on their line and product categories.

This, unfortunately, is where much of the training challenge emerges. Distributors must decide on which product categories they need to focus their training and which manufacturers' lines should provide that training. This is especially difficult when a distributor carries multiple lines in the same product category. Can all products in the same category benefit from the same training, or do distributors need to get separate training from each supplier? Who makes the decisions about the quality of the training from the supplier?

We also asked manufacturers and reps how much time should be devoted to “manufacturer training” for their independent reps. As shown in Figure 2, we found that manufacturers feel their sales organizations need to spend less time being trained than distributor salespeople, even though the reps need to be trained in order to train distributors!

Perhaps this is recognition that reps' compensation is commission-based and that both the reps and manufacturers want them maximizing their sales time. This leads reps to dovetail distributor training around sales opportunities. According to one rep in the Southwest, “We schedule training time with our distributors around other sales opportunities with them. If we can schedule joint sales calls, time with purchasing or the project department, we'll then come in early for a breakfast training meeting or conduct a lunch-and-learn. If not, we'll reschedule training for another time and spend our time with another distributor. It's all about monetizing our time.”

Part of the Answer is Online

Increasingly at all levels of the channel training is being made available online, and providing online training can address part of the challenge. Manufacturers are moving more of their training online, supporting BlueVolt, the Portland, Ore.-based multimedia training developer, and the Learning Center offered by the National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED), St. Louis, as well as making in-house training courses available on their websites. The availability of such training is becoming more important to reps and distributors.

We found that each audience in the channel rates online training as important. However, the slightly lower rating by distributors probably correlates to the continued challenge of finding time to train. According to one Rockwell Automation distributor, “For lines that border on being “commodity-like” and may have marginal payback on training for us, we have gone to 45-to-65 percent online training. In certain instances, BlueVolt has been a blessing.” In the words of one rep, “Web training, in my opinion, is a good thing for both the distributor and myself. It leaves me with more time to sell and make joint calls.”

BlueVolt has gained significant traction through its relationships with electrical distributor marketing groups IMARK Group and Affiliated Distributors (A-D), through its high-profile marketing strategy, and by offering end-user training in the National Electrical Code that can be integrated into a distributor's website. As of Oct. 2007, BlueVolt had delivered over 180,000 training courses to 30,000 users. IMARK and A-D also endorse NAED's Learning Center.

Training Challenges

The challenges identified by manufacturers, reps and distributors were very similar, with time commitments being the biggest challenge, and the most difficult one to address. Topping the list of challenges mentioned by manufacturers was having the time to deliver the training and the difficulty of scheduling people to take the training. Other issues they identified included distributor management commitment; the need for a variety of methods for delivering the training; the motivation behind the training-i.e., whether they want to, were told to, or were being compensated; the need to adapt content to the audience and market; the cost of developing training materials; inconsistency in the quality of the material and its delivery; and concerns about return on their training investment.

Reps' responses revealed a perspective similar to their manufacturers, in that the time to deliver training and scheduling time with distributors to take the courses was far and away the biggest issue. Other training challenges they face include the varying quality of manufacturer training content; the constant need to retrain distributor personnel due to turnover; extended or additional travel and logistics related to offering the training; commitment among distributor management; the need to adapt content to the audience and the market; their costs for conducting the training; the need for a variety of delivery methods; and the low turnout at the training sessions they do.

Distributors' perceptions of the challenges were more dispersed. Over 50 percent of distributors cited time as an issue. A distributor from the Midwest commented, “More often than not we have issues pop up that need to be addressed and we end up putting off training.” Other issues included the breadth of their product offering; the number of manufacturers that wanted to offer training; the quality of presentation materials and the skills of the presenter (usually a rep); the need for content to be tailored to the audience and their experience level; the need to balance sales and customer face-time versus training time; and the value, or effectiveness, of the training itself.

More specifically, distributors also mentioned the need to develop economical and yet effective training methods and to allow enough time for completion; the need to balance the time spent on training with the importance of having a knowledgeable sales force.

Some Solutions

Manufacturers and reps perceive that much of the training challenge can be addressed through the increased use of online training, through providing various incentives for taking part in training and through increased distributor management commitment to training — to the point of making it a requirement of a position.

Specifically, manufacturer ideas included offering spiffs for attending online training, conducting “activities” centered around training; providing more online training with incentives when employees meet their goals; developing training databases with tracking, ranking, and reward systems. One suggestion was that manufacturers consider pricing benefits based on training qualifications, or making it an element of a program to earn rebates in a “preferred distributor” setting.

In the words of one manufacturer, “Distributors need a paradigm adjustment and need to figure out how to use what we are trying to give them. Otherwise everything will be price-based and the national chains will win with their transaction-based model.”

Another manufacturer responded “I am not sure what needs to be done but they need to get committed or they'll go out of business in the long term.”

Reps had their own suggestions. One says, “Most important — give a salesman the information he needs to sell the product. He needs to know enough to sell it, and nothing more.” Other ideas included a change in manufacturer policy changes that would link training to rebate programs; that distributors should consider a minimum mandatory training requirement for each branch; that manufacturers need to understand that their needs don't necessarily coincide with the need or focus of the distributor or end user.

Says another rep, “If sales can receive advanced notification of new products, pre-training and samples for both product knowledge and application would help set up a more favorable early return.”

A New England rep is becoming more selective in his training endeavors, saying, “Most of my training time now is spent with independent distributors who I think are not going to be bought, that basically want to move inventory and that I feel will support my lines even when I don't have a ‘new’ product for them.”

Conclusion:

In working with distributors, we've observed that those who are most successful in managing the training conundrum have:

  • Made training a corporate priority and have allocated resources and time, including senior management time;

  • Assigned the training role to an individual, or hired someone to coordinate training (supplier, skills, corporate);

  • Developed some of their own training, using in-house resources to develop and present;

  • Sourced learning systems, typically via BlueVolt, with some using elements of NAED's Learning Center;

  • Developed a training reward and recognition system;

  • Continuously communicated their training opportunities and proactively “guide” individuals to specific training;

  • Coordinated sales, purchasing and marketing to work closely with the trainer to determine needs and supplier resources; and

  • Leveraged marketing group training opportunities.

A trained staff has the ability to differentiate you from your competition as customers prefer to work with knowledgeable people. While there is always going to be concern that a trained person may be more valuable to your competition, creating equitable compensation and a challenging, motivational work environment can help to keep them happy.

Distributors that invest in training will capture sales, and profit, opportunities. If you are an optimist and are planning on the longer term, an investment in training will deliver dividends.

FIGURE 1. HOW MUCH TIME SHOULD DISTRIBUTORS DEVOTE TO TRAINING?
% of time Weekly Hours Mfgs Reps Dist
1-5% 2 hours 5.8% 14.8% 21.2%
6-10% 4 hours 23.1% 31.6% 42.5%
11-15% 6 hours 34.6% 26.7% 24.2%
16-20% 8 hours 19.2% 15.4% 9.1%
21-25% 10 hours 13.5% 8.9% 3.0%
26+% 10+ hours 3.8% 2.6% 0.0%
FIGURE 2. WHAT PERCENTAGE OF TIME SHOULD BE SPENT ON MANUFACTURER TRAINING?
% of time Mfgs Reps
1-5% 3.8% 13.8%
6-10% 34.6% 36.2%
11-15% 30.8% 25.9%
16-20% 19.2% 15.5%
21-25% 9.6% 5.2%
26+% 1.9% 3.4%

Voices from the Field

Manufacturer Concerns

  • Getting distributor management to take a strong stance on personnel training can be frustrating.

  • Efficient delivery in a very fragmented industry structure is costly.

  • There are a multitude of formats and delivery methods that are needed. And training our salespeople is a nightmare.

  • There is only so much time out of the field reps can afford.

  • Distributors carry so many lines, that only some have time for training.

  • I understand that distributors need to allocate their training time, but what does that say about their commitment to my line?

Rep Concerns

  • More new products/services are introduced each year by manufacturers than can be processed and passed on to distribution and end-users.

  • Some manufacturers have on-line training, and they all say it only takes 20 minutes of your time. While true, multiply that by our sales force of 10 guys and it adds up.

  • The expense and time away from their job is killing us. We live on commissions.

  • Sharing costs with manufacturers needs to be considered

Distributor Concerns

  • Specialization is becoming the watchword. We're developing product champions/specialists vs. training everyone.

  • Effectiveness evaluation. We're trying to measure the value of the training. A West Coast distributor summed up the challenge for many, “For many lines it is a profit vs. time spent issue. They need to show us what the payback will be, especially given that the percentage of our sales for the specific product will be low.”