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Training: the journey from “chip and dip” to today


The bygone days of “chip and dip” training

Repeat after me, “The good old days are gone.”   Life was simpler then; things moved at a slower and more natural pace.  The young man from down the street returned from the Army, walked into your business and asked for a job.  After working a few years in the warehouse, he moved to the counter, then to inside sales, and later still, to outside sales.  Everyone lived happily ever after.  Training in those days was by “osmosis” – you watched the world around you and learned. 


When I came on the scene in 1977, training had advanced to the “chip and dip” phase.   As a factory rep from a leading supplier, I was taught how to organize a distributor training session.  I packed away a few demos, stopped by the grocery store to pick up chips, dip, and maybe a few beers.  Armed with the right stuff, I showed up ready to conduct “chip and dip” training.  The drill was the same across distributor-land.  Just after closing time, the crew gathered around a convenient corner of the warehouse.  While everyone enjoyed the tasty mix of potato chips and dip, an untrained and sometimes unprepared Rep rambled on about some new product.    But, as Bob Dylan said:  “Times were a changing.” 


Little did we know, the “chip and dip” sessions that we all knew and loved were about to become obsolete.  A number of issues brought the demise.  Proper compensation for hourly employees (from the warehouse, counter, and inside sales) was one issue.  But ultimately, social change issued the “coup de grace”.  Generation X and Y members who value personal/work balance and single parent families worked to end the practice.  But from the nasty crumbs of those chips, a phoenix rose - the “lunch and learn”.  A Rep armed with pizza stages a meeting over the lunch hour.  The meeting remained the same, only the menu and time changed. 


Product training is still the king

Now, distributors across many industries are trailblazing a new path.  Product training is still the king, but key refinements improve the delivery.  Training is still delivered by Reps, factory based trainers and (increasingly often) by the distributors own Product Specialist.  The product training is carefully planned and the outcome measured.  Distributor managers tell me, “Without guidance and discipline, Rep meetings are ineffective over 50% of the time.”  With a plan developed, metrics monitored, and safeguards in place, man-hours and dollars spent on training become a powerful investment.. 


A process for turning Rep conducted meetings into productive time has proven itself very effective.  Efficiency is driven by the creation of a check list (see table) to measure and plan meetings.   Reps are required to address the checklist prior to training sessions and are graded on their ability to meet the training expectations of the distributor.  Critique forms, distributed after each meeting, provide feedback to keep the Reps on track.  Failure to live up to the expectations of the Training Checklist result in pointed discussions with the unprepared or uncooperative Rep.


Rep Training Checklist – Table 1



Cleared by distributor management?

If no – do not discuss

Is this meeting designed for the right audience?

Inside - Outside Sales

What is the main point of the meeting?

Intro – Ongoing - Sales

How long will the meeting last? 


Will you have a cheat sheet to share with our people?


If inside – customer service oriented:


Does everyone have the latest catalog?


Who is available if technical assistance is needed?


What are the most common products ordered?


Are there places where this product should be an add-on?


Are there any commercial issues we should know about?


If outside oriented:


Have locally oriented best-prospects been identified?


What are key benefits (and values) to our customers?


What are benefits (and values) to distributor?


Are there commercial issues to be aware of?


Is there sales literature?  (5-10 for every salesperson)


Are you available for joint calls on this product?


Are there special techniques that should be used in sales calls?





Even with refinements, traditional training may not be able to keep up with the fast pace of today’s industry.   Products like Programmable Controllers, Home Automation Systems, circuit protection and electronically controlled lighting stretch the time and ability factor of even the best Rep.  And, in some instances, manufacturers have right-sized their field sales forces to the point where sufficient time for training simply does not exist. 


Learning programs like NAED’s EPEC and “on-demand” training programs provided by manufacturers (Panduit, Bussmann, and many others) fills the gap.    Progressive distributors have experimented with these systems and developed solid rules for applying these courses.

  • Management must monitor the course work to insure it is pertinent
  • A manager/mentor must regularly follow progress and discuss applications within local accounts
  • Specific milestones need to be established to encourage timely class completion (The EPEC course has 3 levels and takes 18 months to complete)
  • Employees must be recognized and compensated for meeting training goals
  • A specific time is established to discuss the application of newly learned material in a group setting


The bar continues to raise

In simpler times, a product savvy staff insured the future success of an organization.  Today, a perfect storm of change signals the need for a whole new (and parallel) training requirement.  Supply contracts and corporate purchasing practices add new dimensions to the sales process.  The internet and technology dramatically change key skills needed to provide successful customer service.  Vastly improved logistics systems add to the need for a scientific approach to warehousing.  Massive organizations such as Home Depot, Granger, and others apply constant competitive pressure.    Skills based training is no longer a luxury, but rather a necessity.  Unlike product training, skill-based training requires constant renewal. 


The best of companies have already learned – skills training does not mean send people to a 2-day class once a year and call it good.  Rather, skills based training works best when it becomes a part of the ongoing routine.  For example, sales managers are adding specific skills training to meetings once dominated by product features.  Negotiations, measuring customer value, and account planning techniques are discussed with local applications and local account names added.  (Often discussion material is pulled from this very publication.)


Some skills based training becomes cross-departmental.  For instance, general computer training conducted by a young customer service representative improves the flow of quotes to customers by the outside sales group.  Or, an IT person demonstrates shortcuts on MS Excel to insides sale reps who apply the tricks to logging bills of materials. 


Companies like Taylor Marketing Media Group have begun to offer ongoing No Charge skills based training for their product offering, and distributors have begun to carefully measure the ability to further develop employee skills in their buying decisions.  No purchase of CRM software, business system, or store-room management software is made without a review of the following questions:

  • What or who is available to keep our people up to speed?
  • Who or what is available to train new hires?
  • Is there advanced training that teaches us how to better apply the tool to our business?


On the cutting edge

Jim Collins’ best seller “Good to Great” outlined the cultural behaviors of the very top performing companies across a broad range of industry sectors.  The book challenges all of us to improve our organizations by modifying the very culture in which we do business.  Cultural training is the new edge of training.  Company culture is the very essence of what makes your company different.   It has to be developed at the very top of the organization and it must be felt and observed rather than announced and proclaimed.  Table 2 defines a sampling of company culture issues.


Company Culture Issues – Table 2


Key topics


Both good and bad news travels painlessly from the bottom-up and from the top down


I know where I stand with the company

Employee-centric management

Employees feel as though their leaders care about them as individuals and as people

Employee Empowerment

Manager stands behind me in decisions


It’s OK to make decisions without manager’s input


Learn from mistakes – not punished for mistakes


When we disagree, we work out a mutual understanding rather than “gripe” about it

Conflict resolution

We handle disagreements soon and without resentment

Company Morale

Teamwork is evident everywhere


Turnover is minimal


The organization deals with changes in the marketplace and in structure more comfortably




Companies looking into this new frontier ask questions such as:

  • How do we help our leaders develop greater mentoring skills?
  • How do we build a leadership team?
  • How do we make use of executive coaches to improve our leaders?
  • How do we attract the best and brightest to our organization in a way that sticks?  


Some conclusions

We face a manpower shortage:  HR experts have been warning us for years.  Distribution is not a glamorous industry – I promise you – there is not a rash of high school seniors wearing “I want to be a wholesaler” tee shirts.  We have always worked opportunistically to pluck qualified folks from other sectors of the business world.  And, the labor pool is getting smaller.  Just twenty years ago, training wasn’t a critical part of our business model.  To be successful in the future, we will need, not one, but two well thought out training plans; one for product knowledge and one for skills.  Expect help from vendor partners in the product training arena, but rest assured skills training will fall firmly on our shoulders.  A third component – Cultural Training – is a very long process.  If you have started down the path of cultural development: good for you.  If you have not, I suggest you read “Good to Great” and call me.

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