How do you get people to turn out, and stay awake, for product training?

The annual AIM/R Management Conference, though a boutique meeting in size, packs as much educational value pound for pound as any event in the industry. A session held May 14 at this year’s conference at the luxurious Hammock Beach Resort in Palm Coast, FL, proved the point once again.

A more thorough review of the conference can be found on page 44. Here I’d like to share a bunch of ideas that came up on the subject of product training. These arose in a panel discussion involving manufacturers and wholesalers, with reps chiming in from the audience.

The overall gist was that product training is one of the most pressing needs throughout the supply chain, but especially for distributor personnel. Manufacturers need concern themselves chiefly with the products they make, and reps with the lines of the manufacturers they represent. Distributors handle tens of thousands of skus from sometimes hundreds of manufacturers sold through dozens of rep agencies. Distribution people responsible for selecting and selling those products need to know at least a little about their features and applications.

Learning it all is a daunting task. Most distributor personnel come into the industry without a trade background and must devote training time to their job functions as well as product knowledge. What training they do receive often takes place in piecemeal fashion rather than systematically.

Product training is one of the most valuable services a manufacturers representative can offer. Reps recognize this and most are eager to oblige, but understandably gripe about spotty attendance at sessions that cost them considerable time and expense. Here are some do’s and don’ts that various people came up with at the AIM/R conference to make product training more productive.

  • “Lunch & learn” sessions tend to work well overall, according to most observers. It’s difficult to attract people after working hours, and even if they come they tend to be fatigued physically and mentally after putting in a full day’s work. A free lunch provides extra incentive. A drawback, though, is that lunch time is limited and distractions from pressing duties often occur when sessions are held at the workplace.

  • Another suggestion offered that it’s better to conduct training at an outside facility away from the workplace, precisely to avoid interruptions. This is more expensive, but for more complex types of instruction perhaps preferable.

  •   “Keep it simple,” was the advice offered by one participant. “These are counter and salespeople, not PhDs in mechanical engineering.”

  • One rep countered with a suggestion that wholesaler personnel make a list of things they’d like to see covered in a training session.

  • Repetition is needed. Just because one session was held on a product line doesn’t mean everyone will retain it, and newcomers and absentees will have missed it the first time.

  • Manufacturers can be a big help to reps by putting together “launch kits” filled with pertinent literature and data about new products in particular.

  • One rep in the audience who specialized in decorative products asked about sales training. ASA President Jeff New immediately launched into a plug for the ASA Education Foundation’s “Essentials of Profitable Showroom Sales” manual, authored by Supply House Times columnist Hank Darlington. (The jury is out as to whether the questioner was a plant!)

    In listening to this exchange of ideas, I couldn’t keep my mind from wandering back to the essential premise of generally poor participation in training events. I’ve personally seen it happen on several occasions where a wholesaler orders pizza and kegs for a hundred people and twenty show up.

    The tendency is to blame the no-shows for a lack of ambition, but it needs to be recognized that unmotivated employees always reflect a management shortcoming.

    Pick up a copy of our May 2008 edition and check out a photo on page 38. It shows a jam-packed classroom of Western Water Works Supply Co., filled with employees volunteering time on a Saturday to learn more about the products responsible for their livelihood. That article relates how this company typically gains maximum participation because they have set up a distinct relationship between learning and career advancement in the company.

    In short, give your people a compelling reason to come to training sessions, and they will.