Staying at the top of the game

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In a difficult economic climate some companies adopt the ‘slash and burn’ approach to staff training. This often causes damage to relationships with customers at a time when competition is fierce and high satisfaction levels are vital to survival. A recent poll conducted by the Institute of Customer Service found that 30% of organisations surveyed have cut investment in customer service training, and 21% have laid off customer-facing staff in 2009. At the same time the Institute’s research shows that companies with a reputation for service excellence and committed frontline staff have a 24% higher net profit margin than same-sector rivals who do not enjoy similar standing.

Why bother?

“Training is so important now because when the going gets tough we all want more. Today’s consumer is incredibly savvy; they have often done their research on the Internet prior to shopping and often know a considerable amount about what they are looking for. To meet these demands and help the consumer make the right choices and match their needs, training has to be high on the investment list,” advises Ray Isted, head of training at Whirlpool UK.

Liz Baker, Neff training centre manager agrees: ‘When consumers are looking to save on purchases, being in possession of all the facts for a sale puts the retailer in a stronger position. Focusing on product knowledge – namely what makes one product worth more money than another in the range – not only helps the retailer to help the customer buy the appliance that is right for them but more importantly, future proofs the purchase.”

It is also prudent to use the quieter times of the year for training and perhaps hone sales skills on attachments sales. “The first few months of 2010 will see the television market go quiet until the World Cup begins.  During just these few months, retailers cannot sit and wait for a return of volume sales and cash margins.  A trained and dedicated retail sales advisor could maximise sales and profitability with attachments to the sale of a flat TV,” comments Jeremy Lanaway, Vogel’s trade marketing manager.

What’s on offer?

Manufacturers’ training offers are plentiful and their formats are diverse as all leading brands recognise the role and the power of a knowledgeable sales person in introducing and enthusing customers about their products.

The majority of electrical manufacturers and some distributors provide product-related training, but some make also an investment in sales skills training, particularly for the retailers who show greater commitment to their brands.

Consumer electronics

Most of Armour Home’s training takes place in its two training suites which are located in the company’s HQ in Bishops Stortford and at Alphason Design’s premises at Wigan. The company currently runs 19 different training modules. The majority of Armour training is product specific, particularly for custom installation and multi-room products, but the company also undertakes generic and bespoke training courses. As well as retail staff, the company trains installers and specifiers, overseas distributors, house-builders, architects and interior designers.

One of its latest courses is an intensive two-day Home Cinema Workshop, which teaches retailers advance skills in home cinema, multi channel specifying, configuration and installation. In addition to this Armour undertakes training on retailers’ premises, during the day, as well as early morning or evening sessions.

Alphason Designs delivers a wide range of training via several mediums, including one-on-one training from the company’s sales and merchandising team, presentations to multiple distributors and, new for 2010, an online training video. “Alphason understands how important sales skill training is, this is why all of our training sessions, no matter what medium, advise the retailer HOW to sell AV furniture and associated accessories, such as cables, screen protection cleaning fluid etc,” explains Chris Emerson, chief operating officer of Alphason Designs.

BBG, is well know in the industry for its training, often conducted by its founder, Gordon Dutch, who endeavours to deliver sales skills training with a difference. Paul Dawes, BBG director of marketing, comments: “The key to every single BBG training session is to make it memorable, enjoyable and useful, because if it doesn’t fulfil these three criteria then by the time the staff get back to the shop floor the information will have already been forgotten. This is even more vital in a recession – especially when the product we are training to sell are the high margin accessories that can make a huge difference to the profitability of a business.”

Meanwhile Sony offers a comprehensive range of training for independent dealers throughout the year.  Product training courses, open to all retailers, are run across the Sony range. However, Sony also conducts sales skills-related training, and the company’s field-based Retail Experience Team advises retailers on delivering key messages, promotional activity and helps with in-store merchandising.

Loewe’s training facility,  ProCollege, was established at the company headquarters in Germany and introduced to Loewe’s UK offices in Irvine, Scotland in early 2008. It encompasses a range of training seminars on installation, marketing, merchandising and point of sale promotions, providing participants with practical advice, best practice techniques and updates on the latest Loewe products. Additionally, Loewe uses the training sessions to educate retailers on brand philosophy and strategy, helping retailers to sell to a more discerning customer group. Occasionally Loewe’s training sessions are held in-store or regionally. Retailers are also offered the opportunity to visit Loewe headquarters in Kronach for a two-day course on the Loewe brand. To date, over 600 dealers have taken advantage of this opportunity. 

Vogel’s provides face-to-face training on its latest 8000 Series products to every new retail customer.  Retailers can book the training through the company’s account managers. The company also delivers training via store visits or group seminars.

Freesat conducts its face-to-face in store training through its national training team of seven dedicated individuals which is a significant investment for a small, not-for-profit organization. In 2010, the company is planning to run a national Freesat training roadshow and is also considering online training opportunities.

Domestic appliances

Miele has a very comprehensive training offer for its dealers. Paul Tayler, sales director at Miele, explains: “We offer a complete training package – from foundation training in the field through to advanced, interactive training on site at our Experience Centre. Miele training adopts a blended approach of learning styles, using theory, practical experience and reflective time.” The company also has an e-learning portal, giving dealers the option of addressing their training needs during quieter periods.  Recognising independents’ limitations in terms of time and resources the company provides flexible options. “Our team of trainers offer time-poor dealers breakfast training sessions, lunch meetings and even field training as required,” says Paul Tayler.

Meanwhile, Electrolux has three types of retail training. It includes Premier Partner Induction Training, designed with the independent retailers in mind, which offer Electrolux kitchen studios training on all Electrolux built-in products. Another format is retailer training events tailored to dealers’ business. The courses are built around sales analysis, sales history, and store demographics, and retail staff knowledge. Finally there is POD training – ‘information snacks
’ designed around Unique Selling Pointers. These modules can be used individually or batched together to create an individual training programme.

Neff training takes place at its head office in Milton Keynes three days per week and on average for 40 weeks of the year. “Our key training is focused on our products and the relationship between their functions or features and the benefits to the consumer.  However, although we do not offer specific sales training, it isn’t possible to train a retailer in a product without focusing on the selling aspect of that product – so we do offer tailored selling skills,” explains Liz Barker, Neff training centre manger.  

De Dietrich offers training to its dealers both in its training centre at the Basingstoke headquarters and off-site at dealer showrooms. “All our training courses are offered as bespoke packages to the particular dealer in order to ensure we hone their skills according to the product ranges they offer in their showrooms and according to the style of their business. Each programme covers both product and sales-related training and all are hands-on and interactive,” comments Richard Walker, De Dietrich sales and marketing director.  “Since we have been regularly exhibiting at Grand Designs Live! Twice a year, we have also incorporated a level of consumer training on our stands, by providing cookery demonstrations either with acclaimed chef, Mike Robinson who is our brand ambassador, or with Deborah Barnes, our national training and business development manager. What we have found from this exercise is that consumers are then entering independent showrooms with a higher level of knowledge about our products.”

Whirlpool has recently opened ATHOME – a training facility and showroom for four of its brands: Amana, KitchenAid, Maytag and Whirlpool. Whirlpool uses it to deliver a tailored and bespoke training programme for its dealers. The company has also recently invested in a new online training tool, which enables retailers’ access to Whirlpool’s product training, knowledge and information 24/7/365.

All GDHA training is product related but its format is tailored to each individual retailer. The company runs monthly sessions at its Prescot headquarters and also offers training on request which takes place at retailers’ own premises and is offered on demand. “Last year, to minimise interruption to their business, GDHA’s ASMs provided hundreds of hours of training to independent retailers outside of normal office hours,” says GDHA’s Steve Dickson.

The trainers

Most manufacturer retail training is delivered by professional trainers who, in addition to in-depth product knowledge, have skills to engage and enthuse their audiences about the latest technologies and their benefits for consumers. For example, Armour has three full time, certified training and technical support staff. They are supported by their own admin team and the whole sales team as necessary, as well external experts from the brands which Armour distributes. 

Also Miele has a team of experienced trainers, many of whom worked for the brand for many years and have developed long-term relationships with the company’s dealers.

The Electrolux training team has undergone skills in neuro-lingusitic training programme (NLP) to help the retailers in understanding of customers’ buying patterns and their behaviour during the sales process.

Vogel’s at times uses trained agency staff from ‘Infinite Group’ which has long standing experience in the UK electronics market.

However, many electrical brands, such as GDHA, provide training through its area sales mangers (ASM) who have established relationships with retailers and have a good understanding of their needs.

Who gains?

Effective retail training provides clear benefits for both parties – the retailer and the manufacturer. With in-depth knowledge of the products and their benefits retail staff acquires the ability to cross-sell and to encourage the consumer to trade up to premium products – resulting in larger profit for the independent and greater sales for the manufacturer. However, it is important to remember that “every time a retailer sells a product they are not only selling the product but selling their reputation,” says Electrolux’s Raymond Laidlaw, national training manager.

In a nutshell: “Confident, well trained staff will: close more sales, sell up to better, more expensive products, and more successfully defend prices, meaning less discounts,” says Ashley Hutchinson, Armour’s sales training manager.

There is also an important emotional factor. “Knowledge breeds enthusiasm and this spills out at the point of sale increasing sales conversion and profitability, “ reminds Ray Isted.

Investing in the future

Training your staff is also a way of showing that you value their contribution to your business and care about their future. When the economic situation improves you will need your staff even more. Although then they will have more employment opportunities, they will hopefully be willing repay your trust.

“Training is an investment and a tool that can assist in getting the best performance possible from everyone, and at the same time increasing their job satisfaction. It shows a level of care, your confidence in your team and your business values over and above their wage packet! There has never been a more vital time than to invest in training,” concludes Ray Isted.

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