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The Specialist’s Role in Training
A diverse group of Specialists from a major Midwestern electrical distributor were gathered to share best practices. We worked our way through the usual topics; demos, issues with supporting salespeople on calls and methods for handling what seemed like an exponentially growing number of calls from customers. When the discussion turned to training, the Specialists in the room were in a quandary. What exactly is our role in the overall training scenario?
Based on soon to be released research conducted on distributor Specialists across all lines of wholesale distribution, Specialists should consider themselves the sales manager for their specific product group or technology. For many this is a pretty heady thought. With such a responsibility, the Specialist needs to assume a major role in determining exactly what and how much training is appropriate for their product. For the next few moments, let’s consider some of the important points for Specialist training.
Specialists must determine what information is important in selling their products.
The Specialist’s role began as a technical back-up for members of the sales team. They were the experts that salespeople called in when the going got tough or the customer got technical. But to be successful the Specialist needs to think beyond these tasks. Building a sustainable sales effort means building the knowledge-base of the sales force in general. 
This is not just about the “nuts and bolts or bits and bytes” of the product offering. Instead, it’s about exactly what information will be useful in promoting the Specialist’s product group. Information that leads a salesperson to the right customer is important.   Identifying the applications that best fit the product is another key to success. 
Features so common that every competitor has them make poor “lead ins” at new accounts. Exclusive features provide a door opener by piquing interest and generating add-on sales. Specialists should begin fine tuning their list of important features. Sales training then focuses on the best ones to use in specific situations. 
Specialists should understand the difference between training salespeople and customer service representatives.
Training isn’t one-size-fits-all. It is a mistake to assume there is no real difference between inside (CSR) and outside sales training. To understand why this is true, let’s look at the basic job differences between the task of an outside salesperson and a customer service rep. 
The salesperson’s main task is to harvest information from the customer, process this information and make valuable recommendations. The salesperson needs to understand how to sell the product, the best applications and the right contacts to target with important product/solution based information. On the other hand, the CSR must help customers select the right specific catalog number. CSR’s receive a constant stream of story problems from customers that must be translated into hard and fast catalog numbers. 
Examine the CSR’s world. Most are surrounded by a sea of catalogs and computer tubes. A customer calls in and says, “I want a lamp just like the last one I purchased last week except I want it to be 50 watts instead of 100 watts.” The CSR quickly translates this into a catalog number string and enters it into the computer. Wouldn’t it make sense to build CSR training around catalog familiarization? Manufacturers often provide cross references and on-line tools for creating these same number strings. Should you take the lead in periodically reviewing the tools available for quick and efficient conversions?
Great Specialists work hand-in-hand with supplier sales teams to insure that supplier based training is presented properly and with the right follow-up.
In our industry, the local vendor team still plays a role in training. Yet many distributor salespeople and their managers still feel the vendors often perform the task in a less than stellar fashion. To illustrate this point, one vice-president of sales said, “Over 50% of our vendor based sales training misses the mark.” The Specialist has professional and economic reasons to do something about this nasty little problem.
You and the vendor are a team. There is only so much time available for product sales training. If the vendor consumes an hour and doesn’t produce the right results your team suffers. And, you as a Specialist suffer in missed opportunities and loss of interest in your product. 
Specialists should sit down with their local vendor team to discuss training strategies. If a particular rep has delivered poorly in past presentations, you might make suggestions to improve the content. Review presentations looking for sales and application tips. Make certain they pertain to your customer base. Whenever feasible, ask that your local customers or target customers be used as application examples. The more finely tuned the information, the greater your success rate will be in the future. When PowerPoint presentations are used, insist that slides with no substantial value are removed – the fewer slides the better. 
Hands on training
If the product lends itself to a “hands-on” kind of demonstration, deliver a sample presentation. To illustrate this point, let’s look at a potential scenario. The Specialist begins by setting the stage. 
“This is the presentation I suggest you deliver to the maintenance electrician at a large institutional complex.”
Then as the presentation continues your audience becomes the maintenance electrician and you become the sales person. Each feature demonstrated, is explained in its context as a benefit to the electrician and his organization.
During your hands-on learning, segue back to instructing as a tool for reinforcing important commercial points. Inserting an aside creates a bond between the presenter and those you are training. Here is an example of such a comment:
“As you hand the electrician the demo, always turn it backwards so you can talk about the NFPA-70E flash hazard created when competitive brands are used”
All of this sets the stage for salespeople to feel more comfortable presenting the product without your support. 
Specialists develop skill sets. These are detailed checklists which describe what level of knowledge is acceptable for a successful salesperson.
Without some sort of roadmap to success, it is difficult to judge who understands the product and who “doesn’t get it”. By investing the time to build a list of expected minimum product knowledge, you develop extra insight into the leadership process. You might tutor those who are struggling or qualify potential new hires based on these criteria. Further, the list allows you to more easily help new employees get up to speed. 
Remember; one of the chief complaints of salespeople attending product sales training is “I already know the material”. Building a checklist with acceptable levels of skills allows you to build a better long term plan. 
Specialists use joint calls to reinforce “class room” style training.
With skills checklist in hand, the Specialist can turn the joint call into a natural tutoring session serving the dual purpose of revenue generator and learning lab. Successful Specialists use windshield time prior to the call to brief their sales team on questions important to the application and why the information gained is important. Salespeople learn more intently when working in a live application. Ask the salesperson to conduct a portion of the presentation. If a series of calls on the same product are scheduled, ask the salesperson to take an increasingly important role in the discussion.
A final thought
The purpose of training isn’t to show how much you know; it’s to grow the knowledge-base of your sales team. Learning is a journey. Start slow, develop milestones, measure forward progress and your travels will be more pleasant. 

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