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Educating Your Distributors in a Short-Attention-Span World

Proper training about your products can increase your profits.

Imagine if everyone who sold a manufacturer’s products knew the value and quality as well as the maker. What if distributors understood that selling goods on price was the least important proposition?

Instead of selling a single item and treating it like a simple commodity, sales people and counter associates would differentiate an OEM’s wares by looking for ways to sell a package of products and accessories to outfit, for example, an entire fabrication facility or job shop.

In a world like that, manufacturers and distributors could potentially sell more, and at a greater margin. Some people on the front lines do sell a whole solution versus parts, but it’s the exception.

To change business as usual, some manufacturers are linking their distributors to channel learning via mobile devices, tablets, desktop computers and classrooms. The goal is educating an on-the-go, multi-generational workforce of warehouse staff, sales representatives and distributors about a product’s unique features, what sets a product apart from the competition, and strategies for selling the product’s advantages.

 “Training is a competitive endeavor among manufacturers,” says Rob Moe, president of Sphere 1, Inc., a purchasing coop for distributors of tools, fasteners and concrete accessories.

Moe, who has worked for manufacturers and distributors for 34 years, says the strategies, tactics and tools for forging industry relationships are changing—from product know-how passing through word of mouth or classroom training, to on-demand product training delivered to a non-captive sales channel. The changes stems in part from a younger generation accustomed to accessing information at their fingertips and older generations of workers who the see the convenience of getting training at the place and time they want it.

Any savvy manufacturer wants a distributor properly representing all the manufacturer’s products and explaining why one product is a better fit for the job than another. There’s power in having everyone in the supply chain qualified to sell in this way.

Lighting manufacturer Acuity Brands, a winner of multiple IMARK Group “Supplier of the Year” awards, understands the strategic value of learning. According to John Kimmel, vice president of strategic account management for Acuity, when IMARK Group started using an e-Learning platform to deliver product know-how via IMARK University, Acuity jumped in.

“I’ve been with Acuity 40 years,” says Kimmel, “and it’s always been the same:  If people know our services and tools, they’ll sell them.”

This year, Moe’s Sphere 1 team built a survey to quantify how the coop’s e-Learning platform, filled with manufacturers’ content ranging from how to sell fall-arrest systems to learning about the dangers from silica dust, has paid off. Sphere 1 parsed his members’ purchasing data, breaking members into groups based on the number of online training modules they took. On the low end were members taking one to 50 modules, while the high end included members who had completed 500 or more e-learning modules. By comparing members’ year-over-year purchase history from 2016 to 2017, Moe saw an uptick of 14%, on average, for members who consumed manufacturers’ online training.

Wendol Rice, an inside sales employee for Broken Arrow Electric, has taken well over 100 courses, many created by manufacturers, via IMARK.

"I don’t think about the number,” says Rice. “I just think of being more knowledgeable and selling a greater variety of products.”

Acuity knows it’s competing with other manufacturers for the time and interest of distributors’ sales associates like Rice. So the manufacturer invests in delivering compelling product training. At a conference last spring, Arthur Kohn, a Fulbright professor of cognitive science and president of AKLearning, noted that developers of training have to distill learning into “two minutes of training within five minutes of need to an audience of one.” While that’s not always possible, Kohn says manufacturers should focus their educational content for behavioral change. For example, if the learner is a sales representative, product training would go beyond features and functions and include how the item helps a buyer do her job, so the trainee always sells with that perspective in mind.

“When distributors take our online courses we want to inspire and inform. The experience has to be worth their while,” remarks Janet Cecchettini, manager for education & training at Acuity.

Acuity delivered 58,000 online courses in 2017 via IMARK University. Those 58,000 course enrollments translate into multiple courses taken by learners—on average 10 courses per person. In regards to the impact of this on its business, Acuity’s Kimmel says the firm continues to see significant growth in new product sales, much of which is a direct correlation of the visibility and awareness created through online and in-person training.

In addition to profit, online training can also help with message consistency, brand affinity and reducing sales lead time.

Legrand, a manufacturer of electrical products and systems, creates courses for contractors, architects and a host of individuals who are specifying commercial products.

Moe recommends that manufacturers build an educational program for their channel partners that incorporates face-to-face instruction. As much as millennials are thought to be enamored with a digital approach, Moe says younger workers want hands-on education; they want to meet and learn in-person.  

“I would be afraid if we weren’t engaging our channel with this sort of educational strategy,” says Cecchettini, Acuity’s education and training manager.

Douglas Gastich is president of BlueVolt, a learning solutions company delivering training to employees, suppliers and customers. Gastich has nearly 20 years of experience developing and consulting on training technology, educational media and business programs. He holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science and fine arts from Boston College.

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