How To Make A "Training Superstore" A Super Success.
Once upon a time, training providers were small, specialty firms with focused client followings.
Then along came some well-heeled folks with an enterprising idea. They reasoned: "Let's acquire a bunch of these niche providers and splice them together. Then we'll be able to offer HR buyers a one- stop-shopping experience -- and enjoy superior economies of scale for ourselves in the bargain."
They envisioned becoming a "category killer" in the mode of Wal-Mart, Staples and Home Depot. But, surprisingly, few of these training industry aggregations has amounted to any more than the sum of its parts. Let's examine why, and, if you're among them, what you can do to achieve the rewards you were looking for.
A. Why "One-Stop-Shop" Is No Walk In The Park.
Sure you'd to like to wrap up all of a customer's training needs in one blanket purchase order. But there's a problem. Chances are the budget for training is spread across multiple departments who see no benefit in combining their efforts on your behalf.
Ok, HR is a good place to start for staples like supervisory training or diversity training. But don't try to sell sales training to anyone but the sales department. And, if you're seeking to sell training on technology topics like systems administration and application development, chances are IT is the place you need to be. Got training in safety or ISO 9000? Call on Manufacturing. Get the picture? All too often, there is no centralized training purchase authority.
So if you're seeking to achieve a pure one-stop-shopping proposition, best to combine training providers that serve the same buying center.
For HR, combine a supervisory training provider with a performance appraisal specialist. Add in sexual harassment prevention and diversity, perhaps project management and presentation skills. And, while you're at it, sweeten the pot with basic training in written and verbal communications and in social and behavioral styles.
For Sales, try combining an interpersonal selling skills provider with a specialist in account planning. Add in negotiating and presentation skills. Don't forget proposal writing. How about a specialist in selling to the executive level. And, by all means, a custom product knowledge training provider. Customer service training may also prove a natural add on -- since it is frequently aligned with Sales.
For IT, consider adding Oracle and Cisco training to your core Microsoft offerings. And expand your certification paths to include Webmasters and Website developers. But be wary. Sometimes IT training is partitioned right down to the individual server or application.
And if your training portfolio covers the waterfront? All is not lost. Consider repurposing courses to help you achieve critical mass. For instance, customize a presentation course aimed at managers to selling situations so you can complement your interpersonal selling skills offerings. Or perhaps you can tailor a basic business writing skills course to the requirements of writing compelling sales proposals.
B. Sharing A Single Sales Force: Easier Said Than Done.
Another questionable assumption of "Training Superstore" proponents is that efficiencies will be easily gained in channeling multiple types of training through a single sales force. This can pose not just one, but three problems.
Problem One: It can take a very different type of sales professional to be successful across each training buying center. For instance, sales training purchase authorities typically come out of the sales ranks themselves. They welcome an aggressive, go-for-the-jugular selling approach and lack patience for a lot of preliminaries. Meanwhile, the folks who purchase management and supervisory training are more apt to be academic types who want to endlessly debate behavior theory and instructional design before they open their wallets. Finding a single salesperson with the style flex to appeal to both crowds is next to impossible.
Problem Two: Training is an intangible sell where a skilled and savvy salesperson provides a great deal of the value. Much of this value comes from being expert in what it takes to be successful in a given industry and job function. Now take a soft skills salesperson who can't figure out their sales automation software or their digital phone and assign them to sell in an IT data mining training solution. What kind of value add is that!
Problem Three: While the need for product knowledge is over- emphasized in most training sales forces, it's a fact that most salespeople tend to gravitate to one or two product sets for most of their business. So when you increase from three lines of business to twenty-three, unless you're smart about it, all you're doing is adding to the number of products on the cutting room floor. What's worse, because of backbreaking product knowledge requirements your people wind up spending a lot more time cramming and a lot less time selling.
As for how to make a single sales force work, begin by thinking externally, not internally. Don't knock yourself out with cross training and elaborate revenue sharing schemes. Instead, make your expanded product set easier for customers to buy in a solutions way. Simplify pricing and purchase terms. Reward high volume, cross product line purchases. Build in safety nets to minimize risks for customers who engage with you across the board. For some ideas on how to do this, visit the back issues section of our Website for "Stop Arguing About Training Pricing" (5/9/99), "Using Safety Nets To Sell More Education Agreements" (5/27/99) and "How To Write Training T's and C's That Sell Not Repel" (11/15/99).
Finally, rather than expect one salesperson to represent all of your training offerings across an entire account, appoint a senior person to serve as Account Manager. Charge this individual with deploying and orchestrating the efforts of your specialists where they can best add value. Support this account team with goals and metrics that support and reward a collaborative selling effort. Minimize internal channel conflict by also making the Account Manager responsible for inside sales and direct marketing initiatives directed at the account.
C. Pooling Your Product Development Resources: A Potential Sinkhole.
People who develop training courses can be fiercely territorial. So when you combine previously unacquainted development units in the interests of increased efficiency and economies of scale, you're more likely to wind up with an instructional methodology turf war.
If the preponderance of your developers are dyed in the wool ILT veterans, you can be sure that e-learning will be marginalized into a superficial classroom training pre work or follow up afterthought.
If the tightly choreographed ID proponents win out, then you can say goodbye to your ability to develop topical, informational public seminars.
Another problem in combining development groups is that you create a functional ghetto that is more focussed on the instructional state of the art than market needs. Which brings me to a general concern.
Many niche providers that have sold out to aggregators originally rose to prominence on a founder's visionary idea. However, the core of this idea -- the intellectual property -- was likely aging by the time ownership was transferred. But rather than rejuvenate the idea -- or replace it with a new vision, it's tempting for the inheritors to simply re-format or recycle the idea -- and there's a limit to how long intellectual property can be recycled before it begins to taste like yesterday's leftovers.
So Suggestion No. 1 for becoming a successful training superstore is to hire talented course development people and push the envelope in R&D to keep that product content fresh and uncover tomorrow's visionary ideas. Pure consolidation is unlikely in itself to lead to growth.
Suggestion No. 2 is to leave the development groups in the business units where they are closer to market needs. This needn't jeopardize the possibility for creating cross-unit learning solutions, reusable learning objects and blended learning. These priorities can be addressed by a tiny headquarters group charged with encouraging course development and delivery standards and with spurring each business unit to work together.
Will tomorrow's training industry be dominated by the Superstores? Not necessarily. But with more realistic goals and better execution, there's no reason why they can't claim a disproportionate share of the spoils.