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Training: A wholesaler’s secret weapon

By Louis Iannaco

How critical is quality training to those in the distribution arena? Most executives would equate its importance with that of exceptional product and superior customer service. It’s not surprising that some of the biggest names in the wholesale business take advantage of the quality training available, making their companies stronger in the present and better suited for future growth.

“Training is critical at all levels,” said Marc Haberman, director of marketing for All Tile. “In particular, due to product changes and customer/employee turnover, communicating and understanding the various products’ uses and requirements is vital.

“When new items are brought into our system,” he explained, “we typically hold training meetings for inside/outside salespeople first, then take it out to clients.

“One of our highest priorities is making sure our retailers understand the suitability of different products for various applications,” Haberman added. “If the wrong product is selected for an application, customers will be disappointed in the outcome.

“The particulars of installation requirements, jobsite and future site conditions, and maintenance requirements also come into play,” he continued. “When the correct product is selected, all expectations in these areas are met.”

Keith Slobodien, president of Apollo Distributing, agreed with Haberman in that training “is essential to a business’s success. The most important benefit of internal training is better employees, while the most important benefit of external training is more effective dealers.”

Jeff Hamar, president of Galleher Corp., concurs. “We focus on internal training of our employees,” said Hamar. “Salespeople participate in an ongoing educational training program. We also spend time on safety-related issues.

“In addition, we have continual programs aimed at all of our associates in areas other than sales,” he explained. “Our salespeople are frequently helping customers and, in most instances, this acts as training. We spend time delivering information from our sales staff to the entire company.”

According to Scott Hendricks, president of Central Distributors, training is “extremely important. Product and sales training are keys to increasing sales at the retail level. We consistently train our employees so they can train the retailer’s staff. This helps minimize problems and potential claims.”

Retailer’s role

Proper training for distributor personnel is critical as it goes hand-in-hand with the betterment of retailers. “Training is an ongoing process,” said Haberman, “especially with the release of new products or updated technologies. It starts at launch and continues as our outside representatives make retail calls. We are always looking for ways to be more efficient and reach a greater audience.”

Slobodien noted when Apollo trains a retailer its goal is to provide key knowledge and skills needed to sell the product. “We emphasize the manufacturer’s advantages and the product’s features. We help the retailer develop an appreciation for the manufacturer and its products. We are the manufacturer’s best method of advertising.

“To be effective,” he explained, “our retailer product-knowledge training must be based on a foundation of manufacturer knowledge. For that expertise, we depend on the training we receive from manufacturers. It then becomes our responsibility to accurately communicate information we obtained.”

In order to successfully educate about product, Slobodien said, training should adapt to the customer’s needs. “We have a training facility with classroom accommodations as well as mock-ups for installation training. We will also train in the dealer’s venue or rent space as needed. The training methods vary with the subject matter, but we prefer a hands-on method with extensive trainee participation.”

Hamar noted companies generally look toward suppliers to make sure salespeople fully understand the products they sell. “With over 30 sales reps in the field, our people play a critical role in linking the manufacturer with the consumer. The relationship is managed by the sales rep and retail salesperson. While we look to manufacturers for help, they have considerably reduced their field presence. Much of the responsibility for training has fallen on the distributors.”

Most of today’s training is done in dealers’ showrooms. However, according to Hamar, “there are times, particularly in installation, when our sales or technical staff meet at the consumer’s home.”

Haberman noted, “Traditionally, training is conducted either at our retailers’ sites or sometimes at regional events. However, we’re finding that Webinars, online tools and other electronic methods are becoming increasingly helpful with training.”

Some retailers hold periodic sales meetings where training is included, Hendricks added, while others offer one-on-one programs. “Training is generally in the retailers’ offices or showrooms, although some smaller group sessions are held outside the office at a nearby meeting room.”

According to Hendricks, differentiation is vital when it comes to training methods. “Training retailers about products and their benefits provides their salespeople with skills and knowledge needed to gain business. When manufacturers spend time and money to train and educate our staff, it returns many times as we become able to train our customers’ employees.”

Training evolves

Training and the way it is dispensed continue to change as time becomes a more critical factor. “In the past, distributors would sponsor evening sessions at local hotels and restaurants,” said Hamar. “This has become less popular as people’s free time is more valuable. Therefore, much of the training has been pushed to the retail store where it happens during the workday.”

According to Haberman, the biggest change in training in recent years involves technology. “Electronic delivery versus in-person training is one major change. Another would be the nature of the content, which I attribute to recent technological developments such as click-type joints and other floating products. We’re also trying modular programs instead of end-to-end training, which will allow information to digest gradually.”

Overall, he noted, field coverage by manufacturers and distributors is noticeably thinner now than years ago, meaning less organized and incidental training. “However, the increase in electronically delivered training may have offset or even exceeded in-person events.”

Slobodien agreed with Haberman, saying practice and refinement “has made us more effective. Modern technology makes [training] easier and more comprehensive. Training has increased due to the availability of Internet-generated information.”

Hendricks also believes online training methods are growing in popularity. “These sessions allow manufacturers to take their messages directly to the retailers.

“Over the last few years,” he concluded, “training has dropped off as economic conditions dictated. However, we have recently seen an initiative from many suppliers to reintroduce training programs for our staff and retailers. We welcome this change and hope it continues.”