Revving Up Elearning to Drive Sales

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BEST PRACTICES SERIES

Product Launches
Elearning can be particularly advantageous for businesses that frequently launch new products. An innovative company must not only keep pace with marketplace demand by offering new and improved products, but must also keep its sales force up to date and educated. This can present a formidable challenge. Traditional classroom training can be an expensive and time-consuming project, especially if members of the sales team are located in different offices around the world.

International Rectifier is a global manufacturer of complex power management semiconductors. Due to competitive pressures, the life cycle of its products is consistently shrinking; the company now introduces an average of three or more major products each month. With 17 locations around the world, International Rectifier faces a significant challenge. It must coordinate and train hundreds of sales reps, internal sales staffers, field service engineers, key executives, and independent inside sales reps across a variety of time zones.

In order to provide timely training in advance of product launches, the company decided to implement an elearning strategy platform provided by GeoLearning. Not only was the sales force thrilled about being able to attend training sessions at a time convenient for them and without leaving their home base, the cost savings were significant as well. According to a GeoLearning case study, approximately 500 sales students from International Rectifier have completed more than 5,500 courses over the past nine months. And the cost? Just $12 per student per course, which includes LMS, Web conferencing, and recording media. Overall, the company saved approximately $250,000 during the past year with the online learning system compared to the costs associated with on-site training.

As the International Rectifier example illustrates, the traditional barriers of time and distance can be expunged by deploying elearning technology. All it takes for a sales staff to be up and running are a few simple keystrokes; once a training program has been created, the entire sales staff has instant access via the Internet. A required proficiency date can be established that enables managers to know when their salespeople have completed the material and achieved a passing score on the post-test. For a rapid product roll-out, this type of Web-based education can be invaluable.

Continuous Education
For established products, elearning can provide a continuing education of sorts. Prior to meeting with a key customer, a sales rep can review product specs and benefits, study briefs pertaining to industry regulations, and brush up on negotiating techniques.

When establishing an elearning program it is important to remember that personal relationships play a large role in sales. No amount of formulas and hard data can substitute for the human interaction that is required of a successful salesperson. Techniques such as role-playing and live simulations are commonly associated with traditional sales training. Today's elearning programs provide online versions of these time-honored practices, while of course, eliminating geographic and availability restrictions.

"They used to take whatever you did in a classroom in text form and just put it up as one large Word document. It has certainly evolved now into being a lot more interactive," notes McStravick. "What we're seeing now is that a lot of technologies are facilitating the community-building aspects of learning so it is not just about getting knowledge in the head, but also making sure it stays there."

Joe Gustafson, founder and CEO of Brainshark, agrees. When he first started in the field, then known as computer-based training, nearly 20 years ago, he recalls information being delivered from mainframes on green screens with no interaction at all. Now he notes, "Elearning can be a rich form of communication, and communication is the heart of any business process."

Both asynchronous learning, or two-way communication that occurs with a time delay, and synchronous learning, where participants respond in real time, can provide pupils with an opportunity to interact with a mentor so they can feel a personal connection and have a forum to ask questions.

A chief advantage of asynchronous learning is that it can be scheduled around other time commitments. Its drawback is that a salesperson's motivation can drop off without interaction and customized feedback. That's why it's important to provide online mentoring as a way to retain the learner's involvement and answer any questions that they may have. People tend to learn better in communities and asynchronous communication, such as email and electronic Q&A groups, which are valuable tools to bring learners in remote locations together to share learning experiences and offer mutual support.

Synchronous learners are able to interact in real time with facilitators and colleagues through various types of browser-based interaction. Its interactive nature mirrors many elements of traditional classroom teaching, and interaction with peers, as well as individualized breakout sessions with the instructor, are possible. Another advantage is that the sessions can be recorded and archived—which means that they can ultimately be accessed asynchronously.

In one case, a salesperson might be interested in learning more about a specific distribution channel and may not require live interaction with an instructor. In another case, the salesperson might be struggling to run a software application that is essential for a client presentation and will need to collaborate with an expert in real time.

The ideal elearning model combines both synchronous and asynchronous techniques. "You have to use the right tool for the right job," explains Gustafson. "If it's a small group, if it needs to be collaborative and you need interaction, then synchronous is a perfect fit. If it's knowledge transfer, and there are either many people who need to be trained, or if it's not critical that you have back-and-forth dialogue, then asynchronous is the way to go."

Whatever the platform, it is essential that the elearning content be engaging. Rather than consist of laborious electronic page-shuffling, the platform should incorporate the unique capabilities that digital media has to offer. Rich video and audio, flash technology, and animation can all be utilized to capture and retain audience retention.

Gustafson says a module for traditional elearning content should constitute a maximum of 12 to 15 minutes or attention spans will wane. And he believes that for sales audiences the segments should be even shorter so that the reps can access content between customer calls, prior to an important meeting, or when they have a few moments of downtime.

Elearning is also ideal for educating suppliers and customers about product attributes. Having more knowledgeable channel partners results in higher brand loyalty and fewer service calls. In order to achieve this synergy in the sales process, it can be advantageous to provide training at no charge.

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