Very few companies in the IT and communications sector sell purely products these days. They sell ‘solutions’, which could be anything from a hardware/software bundle to a fully-managed service.
The competition is such that sales staff not only need to have a degree of technical knowledge about what they are selling, but also about how it will benefit a customer and impact on the bottom line – not easy when such ‘solutions’ are becoming increasingly complex.
Colt Telecom is Europe’s leading provider of voice, data, bandwidth and hosting products and services to business, with a 20,000 kilometre fibre optic network directly connecting more than 10,000 buildings in 32 major cities in 13 countries. Its portfolio includes voice telephony, managed local area network (LAN) interconnections, high speed digital lines and data centre facilities.
The company has always recognised the importance of product training for its sales team in maintaining its competitive edge. But it was widely recognised that changes needed to be brought in to make training more effective and results-driven, especially with products becoming increasingly sophisticated. A key first step towards achieving this was introducing a product/services accreditation scheme for sales staff.
The training scheme had to be delivered in a minimum of five languages to 1,000 sales and consultancy personnel across 13 European countries, and had to allow for local market variations. Daryl Szebesta, director of data services and systems outsourcing, wanted a classroom component in the training, but felt that e-learning could help to overcome some of the problems.
“Like many companies, we’d dabbled with e-learning but this was the first time we’d used it in earnest,” he says. “I don’t think you ever get away from the need for classroom training at some point, but I thought e-learning would help us make the training more engaging and effective.”
London-based Fuel was chosen from a list of suppliers. Its track record in telecoms and previous experience of product training played a major factor in Colt’s decision.
“As well as being engaging, the learning had to clearly identify the benefits of each product for the customer,” says Steve Dineen, director and co-founder of Fuel. “It is a highly ‘customer-centric’ training programme.”
Fuel’s instructional designers worked directly with Colt’s product managers on developing the content. The learning provider’s approach is always to use instructional designers who have prior knowledge of the sector. In this case, they had already delivered training to Colt and other such companies, explains Dineen.
“It means that time spent by the [client’s] subject matter experts is massively reduced, and the knowledge exchange becomes more of a brainstorming session than a brain-dumping one,” he says.
E-learning modules were designed to improve product and market knowledge prior to the face-to-face sessions. The classroom element was used to stage workshop scenarios where learners put the theory and knowledge into practice using role play. Mystery shoppers would drop into the session, sometimes from senior management.
There are 20 individual e-learning courses on different areas, including voice data and managed services. Each takes around 40 minutes to complete and staff in all the European offices can access them at home, as well as at work. Each module fits into a product area (there may be three modules for one area), and users must pass all three to be eligible for the workshops, which are held in their respective countries.
All sales and consultancy staff undertake these initial modules, which gives an awareness of the technology and products and focuses on the business benefits for the customer.
Colt’s consultants then go on to access more intense and technically-detailed modules to reflect their role.
Although the material is technical, this doesn’t pose any added problems for an online medium, says Dineen. “The learning takes a visual, interactive approach,” he explains. “We’ve tried to use pictures to explain products rather than text. We wanted to make the learning experience as enjoyable as possible.
“The feedback from users was that e-learning was far more effective than the normal instructor-led training delivery, which tends to be a case of ‘death by Powerpoint’.”
Prior to rolling out the learning to sales staff across Europe, a pilot scheme was run around the more complex products, and learners were brought together before and after testing to gain feedback. It was judged a success, but revealed the need for several extra modules about Colt and the business communications sector.
At this early stage, Szebesta also gained the support of the two key senior sales managers, who were excited by the potential for maximising the productivity while reducing training costs.
Fuel also built a customisable learning management system (LMS) to help Colt plan, implement and assess the e-learning. It allows them to track the progress of learners and calculate the return on investment from the learning.
“The addition of a LMS has added real value to the training programme,” says Szebesta. “It’s made it auditable, trackable and manageable. It’s a very powerful tool for us. Return on investment is a major factor as we have to make a business case for the training. We must show that increasing productivity increases the rate of selling.”
Colt is also in the process of embedding course completion, including deadlines and passmarks into individuals’ personal objectives, and the LMS helps to manage this. In time, it may introduce a reward scheme.
“As the training is embedded in objectives, ultimately they are rewarded through salaries and bonuses,” says Szebesta. “We will probably introduce additional recognition schemes for high performers, but the structure of this is still under discussion.”
Fuel has worked through building the training modules for Colt’s current product base, and can now add new modules as new products come out.
The next step is to roll out online and blended learning programmes to other areas of the company and extend the content outside pure product and solution selling, says Szebesta.
“We will introduce additional courses specifically related to particular disciplines. For example, customer service may have modules on techniques for enhancing customer care, which is something we pride ourselves on through the 40 awards we have won,” he says. “But we are always looking for continuous improvement.”
DARYL SZEBESTA’S TOP TIPS
- Don’t make any assumptions about the general level of knowledge. This needs to be tested, verified and baselined
- Make sure the development of the modules is resourced at the right level. Don’t be tempted to skimp and understand the needs of the end users
- Test, test and test again, and make sure the training is embedded in objectives.
Blended learning at Colt Telecom
What they did:
Colt Telecom created a programme of blended learning for product and service training for 1,000 sales staff across 13 countries.
To increase the effectiveness of product training and make it more results-driven and linked to the bottom line. It also wanted to make the training more engaging and enjoyable for the learner.
Is it working:
Metrics are currently unavailable but feedback has been positive and e-learning is now likely to be used in other areas, such as customer service.