By Ashlei Williams
It’s sometimes hard to be told how to do your job or, furthermore, how to do your job better. Taking time from the office or out of the day to learn can seem counterproductive. And as a business owner, adding costs to the budget for only a hope of strengthening your team can seem risky.
Yet the pace of technology is making it more and more difficult to ignore the need for training in the workplace. From literal product design and innovation, to aesthetics of marketing campaigns and sales tools, the technology learning curve is continuously growing steeper; for everyone, in every industry.
Bill Hurd, LC, CLEP, MBA, manager of Business Development for National Accounts Lighting Segment for Border States Electrical, has witnessed how necessary training and education have become. Prior to working at Border States, Hurd ran his own lighting company and served as a regional sales manager for Philips Lighting. With Border States being one of the largest electrical distributors in the U.S. for the construction, industrial and utility industries, Hurd engages with a variety of vendors and partners daily. He shared insights on some changes in training that he believes will help distributors improve their businesses.
lightED: When it comes to training distributors in the industry, what is the greatest need?
Hurd: A combination of technical training and how-to selling skills are what is needed today. It’s rare. Think about it from a Tier 1 vendor perspective. Although it is a bit murky today, with all of the niche players in the market, there is a need for convincing others that newer, lower-tier vendors of LED technology may not be the right companies to purchase from for a variety of reasons.
Upfront price is only one of many decision factors to consider. As Mark Jewell, an industry expert in selling energy, said recently, “Most people plan their pricing from a perspective of cost when they should be pricing their offerings based on the value they create.” This holds true, as well, to buying decisions. If you do not understand how to sell value-add services, and stick with selling only the specs of a product, you will become vulnerable to competition — especially the online sellers — because there is no value being sold online beyond price and specs. Though understanding the value proposition of what you are selling is important, there is still a need for understanding the basics of a product; especially when it comes to LED specifics, such as DLC, LPW, ROI, lifetime issues, warranties, and product features.
Controls training, combined with information on code are key today, as well. Sell sheets that will help a distributor sales person sell LED and controls technology need to be developed. An example is before-and-after testimonials. These showcase products in various real-world applications so that the salesperson can understand the product benefits.
One of the most valuable skills a distributor salesperson can have is the ability to articulate and quantify benefits of a project. Developing ROI analyses, calculating illumination projections, estimating rebates – these are skills that will turn the average distributor or “order taker,” into a “value-added partner” when it comes to the end user.
lightED: What is the difference between the training distributors are getting and the training they need?
Hurd: Most training in the electrical distribution industry is specific to product, and very little training is done on the application of a product or in the area of professional selling skills. One can have a full understanding of product, but fail miserably in communicating that knowledge to a customer or prospect.
Distributors also need less disruption. Vendors need to be more creative and proactive in their approach to training. Hosting webinars is great. But, engagement, hands-on and real-world training is the best. Teaching product along with application is important. The speaker and trainer’s communication skills are an often overlooked, but that skill can turn a good training opportunity into a bad one. You don’t want to lose your audience due to a presenter’s lack of preparation or communication.
lightED: What are some good examples of training that you have experienced or witnessed?
Hurd: I’ve seen some good trainings that take place at vendor headquarters. Logistics — like travel, food, hotel — were all taken care of. And the training agenda was specific, short and sweet.
I also think 30 minutes is a good standard for webinars. The training needs to provide the essential education that a salesperson needs to effectively encourage lighting upgrades.
Differentiation and upselling is where the margins are today, especially in the lighting segment. Again, tools such as payback analysis, rebate understanding, and code are needed to accomplish this. Although product specs are important to the success of a project, an end-user cannot justify a lighting investment without a clear understanding of its financial and aesthetic benefits. Most distributor personnel find communicating this to be challenging, mainly because of their historical reliance on the vendor and agent.
In addition, accountability at the local distributor level needs to be a priority in order for training to be taken seriously. A well-trained distributor person will have the tools to do an honest assessment of the value they can create, and the confidence to ask for what he is worth, as Mark Jewell said.
lightED: What are the impacts when distributors don’t have training they need?
Hurd: The result is lower sales of that product vendor — and perhaps product family — and less margins. This happens because the distributor has to rely on the vendor and agents more, which causes another possible negative result of loss of control over customer relationships.
It’s said too often, but it holds meaning: Knowledge is power! Competition is not sitting still. An untrained distributor will be vulnerable to embarrassment by a better equipped and trained competitive distributor. In such a highly competitive and rapidly evolving market, a distributor without adequate and up-to-date training cannot effectively promote products.
lightED: What type of training should distributors be asking their partners about?
Hurd: All types of training, from switchgear and controls to commodity value-adds and lighting.
Due to the ever-changing and fragmented lighting market, lighting and lighting controls training is even more critical today. It appears the passion to train has slightly been diminished, for some reason. Perhaps, it’s due to being hesitant to take sales folks off the road, or it may be due to a lack of training, organization, or even commitment. A bit short-sighted, in my opinion, but reality in many cases. The more we know, the more self-sufficient we become, which typically leads to improved margins.
Thirty-minute webinars are great, because you don’t have to leave your desk and you can focus. In general, I recommend having an educational website that is easy to navigate because of the millennial culture around us.
Quarterly dog-and-pony or lunch-and-learn types of training are good if they are well organized. Vendors need to figure out how to make this easy for distributors from time spent away from work, to cost reimbursements, a meaningful agenda, and knowledgeable and engaging speakers.
On-site vendor location training is always good. The available tools, test fixtures, and personnel are invaluable. Find a distributor point-person to organize it. Without specialized training, the distributor account manager is inclined to partner with the rep that they like, know, and trust – not necessarily the partner that can bring the most value to the application at hand.
Specific to lighting, and armed with the knowledge of each vendor’s strengths, a distributor salesperson can much more effectively make recommendations, close projects, and, most importantly, add value to end users. There is a direct correlation from a well-trained distributor sales rep to increased sales and margins.
lightED: How should distributors be interacting with their partners?
Hurd: Feedback, feedback, feedback! Hold top vendors accountable to their business plans, specifically the training goals. Consistently communicate the strengths and challenges of a particular vendor in respect to the market, from lead time to pricing and performance. Transparency is always the best way to promote improvement.
Specific to the lighting market and due to the crowded space today, we need to be aware that constructive feedback should always be encouraged and accepted by our top-line manufacturer partners. Communication, two-way accountability, and full transparency should all be central to an effective distributor-vendor training program.
About The Author
Specializing in multimedia storytelling, Ashlei Cooper has been creating content and strategizing storytelling for business, philanthropic, minority and academic audiences for a decade. She earned her master’s in Journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School and bachelor’s in English from Spelman College. In 2016, she started her communications company, GJC Publicity LLC, focusing on copy writing, social media, and media relations. Get in touch with her via phone 253-693-8711, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or web www.gjcpublicity.com.
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