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Training - key to future growth23rd of September 2013
Distributors need to be trained about the products they sell to help them come up with persuasive arguments for customers to buy. But how much training are they offered, and is this carried out in-house or provided by the manufacturers and suppliers?
Distributors need to have any number of skills to allow them to carry out their jobs efficiently. They should know their product ranges inside out and be able to steer their customers towards the most appropriate products for them. They are also the interface between the supplier and the end-customer which means they should have good interpersonal and service skills.
Elements such as logistics and business ethics are important for a successful distributor, and they should be up to date with the latest legislation in terms of health, safety and EU regulations. But who takes responsibility for training the distributor in all these disciplines?
While larger distributorships offer their own training schemes, smaller firms may rely on manufacturers and suppliers to equip them with the skills to sell.
“This is particularly true of companies that offer technical equipment such as cleaning machinery,” said Andrew Lawton, marketing researcher of distribution company Cromwell. “Manufacturers also tend to offer us training when there is a new product they want us to promote. Companies such as Nilfisk and Kärcher provide us with a great deal of support, both regionally and nationally.”
Kärcher’s environmental PR David Wickel confirms this to be the case and adds that the company’s Kärcher Academy offers tailored courses for distributors. “Our Basic, Advanced and Expert modules build on to one another and impart different types of knowledge depending on whether the module is about machines, accessories or applications,” he said.
Kärcher courses comprise basic training acquired via e-learning followed by classroom-style teaching and practical training. These courses operate for between one and five days depending on the content.
“The Kärcher Academy aims to communicate product-specific knowledge and the practical techniques of successful selling,” said Wickel. “The idea is to make employees and trading partners familiar with our cleaning systems and to guarantee a high level of training globally. We have academy bases worldwide to cater for disparate customer needs.”
Specific content may include modules on how to clean various types of hard and textile floor coverings as well as the winter maintenance of machines and high-pressure technology. “Practical training plays an important role in our courses,” said Wickel. “Another programme is concerned with service issues. This includes the maintenance and repair of individual models, but also more general topics such as systematic fault analysis, electrics and electronics, batteries and chargers, motors and hydraulics.”
Nilfisk-Advance also offers classroom-style training for distributors says executive vice-president of EMEA sales and service Anders Terkildsen. “We try to keep the classes as small as possible to ensure all participants get the most out of the training,” he said. “We also send out newsletters on a continuous basis with news and updates on our product portfolio to keep our distributors informed.”
Nilfisk-Advance’s two-level training programme comprises a sales training course in three modules and a product training course in two modules. “At every session we strive to incorporate as much country-specific material as possible,” said Terkildsen. “We also try to train the distributors towards becoming ‘cleaning consultants’ to enable them to give better advice about choosing equipment.“
According to Terkildsen, distributor training is the joint responsibility of the distributor and the supplier. “The supplier has to provide the training programme and the distributor needs to allocate the time and resources locally,” he said. “The key to success is for the manufacturer to offer an interesting training programme in which the distributor can clearly see the benefits of participation.”
Marketing vice-president of Pro-Link Mike Nelson agrees that the supplier and distributor both have equal responsibility for training. He says training is particularly important to the smaller distributorship, and this is something that Pro-Link – a US association of 90 janitorial supply distributors - can provide for its members.
“Pro-Link develops a variety of training tools and resources for use by our distributor members,” said Nelson. “Some of the content is developed in-house and some with the help of a product supplier or manufacturer. We offer our members product-specific training and sales tuition and have developed an entire course on how to use a selling system or an approach to selling.” The course took the form of 12 webinars recorded for later viewing. Pro-Link also offers support films and a written study guide, and the association conducts two-day seminars for its members.
The member-owned association also operates an online training centre that tracks its distributors’ course activity. “This tests the students at the end of each course and checks how each person fared in the tests,” said Nelson. “We also develop material that enables our salespeople to train distributor sales reps in the field. Typically this would take the form of training presentations.”
Another company that carries out distributor training is Tork hygiene tissue manufacturer SCA. The company runs the Tork Business School Premium in conjunction with external training company Lammore. The course leads to an Institute of Sales and Marketing Management-accredited qualification.
According to SCA national account manager Steve Palmer: “We started the Tork Business School Premium because we saw some knowledge gaps among our distributors. We therefore came up with a bespoke course with the aim of closing those gaps. It is co-funded: 50 per cent from us and 50 per cent from the distributor and although the course is geared towards people in the hygiene tissue industry the sales skills it teaches are transferable.
“We can gear the course to the client’s requirements depending on whether their core business is in the healthcare, catering or commercial sector,” said Palmer. Delegates receive graded ISMM certification and an individual feedback report is produced for each student.
The course has been a huge success according to Palmer. “We have trained more than 200 of our strategic distributor partners over the last two years and gained a Highly Commended in the 2013 British Excellence in Sales and Marketing Awards,” he said.
Skincare manufacturer Gojo also provides training which takes the form of a mix of written information and formal presentations. This is delivered in classroom-style to its distributors throughout Europe according to Teresa Rich, national UK sales manager. “We provide practical demonstrations and product samples for the distributors to try, and we use online training materials and support for our products and programmes,” she said. “We also give advice on selling in general.”
She feels it is imperative to offer distributors an adequate level of training and support. “They are our extended sales force and arming distributors with the most up-to-date information about the benefits of our products helps them to sell to their customers, which in turn helps us.”
Classroom-style product training is also offered in Gojo’s western Europe region according to country manager Benoit Duvillier. “Offering training is essential for developing good relationships with our distributors and it helps to demonstrate our commitment and professionalism,” he said.
“It also brings results in terms of sales because if distributors find us supportive and reliable, they will trust us and sell more of our products.”
Besides product training, distributors in western Europe receive specific information on hygiene in healthcare establishments and on relevant regulations. Product training is always best delivered by the manufacturer according to Gojo’s Iberia country manager Nuno Salgueiro. “When it comes to general sales training, however, the distributors themselves are perfectly placed to run this in-house,” he said.
The Iberia arm of the company offers initial training to new distributors followed by ongoing support including specific information around new product launches. “We also offer field training which is more informal and usually occurs during joint visits to end-user clients where a specific need has been identified,” said Salgueiro.
So how important is training to the success of a distributorship? It is in fact crucial says Salgueiro. “The feedback I receive is very positive and our distributors see the training we provide as an added value service,” he said. “And the more knowledgeable the distributors are about a specific product or service, the better placed they are to achieve more sales.”
Pro-Link’s Mike Nelson agrees. “Since Pro-Link’s role is to help our distributors thrive, we take on this responsibility and use our suppliers as support in developing content and material.”
Anders Terkildsen from Nilfisk-Advance says training is key to the growth of the company. “Most distributors appreciate the training they receive from us and can see how it directly benefits their business through increased turnover,” he said. “And distributors sell what they are good at selling and where they feel comfortable.”
SCA’s Steve Palmer says the company sees a direct correlation between the company’s training programme and the distributor’s sales success. “We monitor the sales results of those distributors who have completed our course and we find that their sales figures improve after training,” he said.
And Kärcher’s network of qualified trading partners is one of the company’s key strengths, according to Wickel. “This is more than a mere producer-distributor relationship: our job is to support the distributor so that they are successful,” he said. “Training is the key to future success.”