Product training: The critical job that (almost) nobody is doing.

We produce a fair amount of technical work that’s used by our clients to inform dealers how to sell, install, and maintain all kinds of products. But even with pieces written and designed to communicate the right information in an engaging way, it doesn’t mean the brand can sit back and watch the sales roll in. There’s actually a lot left to do.

Earlier this year, I attended the annual National Kitchen and Bath Industry Show (KBIS) in Orlando. Over the course of my conversations, I listened to a lot of custom kitchen and bath dealers talk about the various brands at the show—brands spending a not-so-small fortune to impress them. Sure, they discussed new products and design trends. But the overarching theme was that of frustration at the lack of product training. These dealers want to sell and support those brands, but they were crying out for help. To me, it was loud and clear. I’m just wondering if the reps at those huge booths with their celebrity chefs and espresso stations ever stopped to hear what their customers were saying.

And this was just one trade show in one industry. How many other customer requests for training are going unanswered?

So why do training programs get ignored or pushed to the side, even though they’re so important to customers? Here are the main reasons we run into.

  • Training ain’t cheap. Training requires well-written educational material, people capable of managing that material, and an effective, comprehensive method to deliver it (via e-learning, webcast, in-person workshops, onsite, etc.). These “what”, “who” and “how” aspects each require their own hefty line item not found in the typical sales or marketing budget. Plus, the more technical the product, the greater—and generally more costly—the endeavor.
  • Training is left to the product managers. On the surface, this seems to make sense. After all, these guys (to clarify, I mean “guys” in the gender-neutral sense) are definitely geeked out on the product—they know it well and are passionate about every technical detail. But understanding and excitement do not a communicator make. Being able to share technical information in a way that is understood by not-so-technical salespeople is an entirely different skill set. Training requires a trainer.
  • Training takes time. Whether we’re in sales, product management or marketing, most of us are overworked, and there’s no shortage of urgent stuff to deal with on a daily basis. Because training is perceived as something “extra” and outside everyone’s job description, it stays at the bottom of the to-do list. The connection between time spent training and sales success isn’t instinctively made.
  • Training is not glamorous. Since creating product materials designed for dealers and salespeople generally falls to marketing folks, they (we) tend to focus on assets that are easily connected to sales—spec sheets, product brochures, comparison guides. We can deliver visually appealing pieces with accurate messaging then move on, confident that once those assets hit the hands of the salespeople, profits will blow up. (I mean, who wants to put together a PowerPoint presentation, anyway?)

3 great reasons not to disregard training

Although the ROI story for training programs is hard to see on a spreadsheet, there’s substantial empirical evidence to support the bottom-line impact of training. Here are just three of the reasons we’ve found why brands should be developing and implementing training programs.

  1. Dealers tend to avoid recommending brands that don’t provide enough training. Whether you’re pontificating about politics or the playoffs, it’s easy to talk confidently with others when you’re well informed. The same is true when selling: people push what they know. When a brand has made the effort to inform (and excite) their dealers about the latest products or services, salespeople are naturally more emboldened to sell those things. Brands that they’re less comfortable with will be placed on the sidelines because dealers know confident knowledge means sales.
  2. When training and support are lacking, there’s an increase in returns and callbacks. Not only are fewer sales made within brands that don’t provide dealer training, but there’s also a greater likelihood that products sold will be returned or exchanged. Without proper training, salespeople make specification errors and installers will get confused and make installation mistakes that cost real dollars (not to mention reputation). This is especially important when you’ve introduced a new, innovative product that changes the way the spec and install process needs to happen. This will only get more complex as technology moves deeper into areas traditionally handled by craftsmen.
  3. Poor training can ultimately result in a poor customer experience. Think about that old telephone game where someone whispers something in your ear, and you turn and whisper what you thought you heard into the ear of the next person. If you didn’t clearly understand what was told to you, you’re going to pass along an incomplete—or incorrect—message. In the game scenario, it’s hysterical. But when this trickle-down misunderstanding is applied to product sales, it’s just frustrating. Although poorly informed salespeople do their best to share their product knowledge with the customer, too often it’s not enough (or just wrong), leading to aggravated buyers or no buyers at all.

To be fair, there are brands that get the value of training. They’re doing a really great job at arming their dealers with the necessary education and equipping them with the product (and selling) confidence. These are the leaders who understand the true ROI of training and look at the significance of the investment over a long haul.