External sales partners generally recognise the value training adds to a partnership. After all, the more adept they are at selling a product, especially if it’s a technical product, the better outcomes for everyone across the board, from the manufacturer to the end-user.
Yet securing interest and buy-ins from your external network is only one step of many for successfully implementing your training programme.
Businesses will have to iron out the logistics of training learners who aren’t their employees, which means practically zero visibility into their day-to-day work.
There are several ways to ensure your training is a hit with partners, starting from the conceptualisation stage. Businesses will need to build from the ground up with the needs and interests of their external partners in mind.
Map out your learning objectives
Every learning programme–whether for internal teams or distributors–starts with the end in mind. Outlining goals allows businesses to identify where the knowledge of external partners is lacking. It also minimises waste, in that you don’t include material partners won’t end up using.
The smartest way to avoid that is by leaving assumptions behind and directly talking to your target audience. Every business operates differently. Distributors, resellers, and franchisees follow a different set of metrics, so their priorities may not be aligned with your own.
Talking to partners early in the planning stage ensures your programme is built on relevant, solid ground. Ask them about the outcomes they expect from training. For instance, if the training is on inventory management tools, then the related learning objective may be to lower their Days In Inventory (DII).
Secure buy-in from key decision-makers
Many businesses look at training and immediately see the upfront costs. Justifying training for external sales partners can be even more challenging, as many remain unaware of the importance of providing comprehensive training for channel partners who aren’t perceived as part of the core business.
But part of the core business they are. The work lies in drawing a clear connection between the performance of external partners and a company’s sales. Distributors and resellers who are given product training can more effectively sell your products, moving them out faster and keeping you top of mind when the time comes to make another purchase order.
Bring subject matter experts on board
Some skills are more easily taught than others. Technical subjects you typically want to teach external sales partners, such as product training, inventory management, and warehousing best practices, are better left to the experts.
You may not have to go far to find them. Sometimes your best resources can be found within your team. Tapping internal experts minimises costs, as you don’t have to hire anyone new. Further, it also helps foster a sense of teamwork between you and your external sales channel partners.
“It really doesn’t cost you much, other than people’s time. … That also creates the sense of team and the idea that we are in this together,” says Susanna Galanni, an assistant professor focusing on incentive and performance management at Harvard Business School.
Test using a prototype
Training programmes are seeing shorter and shorter development cycles due to rapidly changing skill requirements at work. The traditional, waterfall-type method of spending months on planning is becoming less effective, especially for fast-paced functions such as marketing. More L&D teams are adopting a more dynamic and agile approach, launching sooner and adjusting as they go.
However, this high-touch approach may not work as well when training external partners. Companies do not have control over the schedules of their distributors or resellers. Availability is hard to predict.
To maximise everyone’s time, businesses should look into testing at least once with a prototype. Prototypes uncover major issues before the course goes live, saving you the need to amend a programme in the middle of training.
During The Training
Promote your programme
At the office, it’s easy enough to raise awareness for a training programme. You can include it in company newsletters, or ask managers to bring it up during the weekly huddle.
Informing external sales partners is a bit trickier. A lot of communication is done through email and invites may get buried beneath a pile of other pressing matters. You may end up passing information along to a sales rep who doesn’t have the influence to decide whether their team participates in training or not.
A coordinated approach works best for looping in external partners. Work with your sales team and arrange a meeting with key decision-makers from your distributors and resellers.
Training in itself is a reward, especially for external sales channel partners who benefit greatly from knowledge sharing with larger, more experienced companies. But it never hurts to sweeten the pot, especially when it comes to learning. There’s a body of research that proves the positive effects of rewards for data retention.
For your external sales networks, rewards can take the form of merchandise or certificates for completion. Certificates are particularly appealing, as learners can use them further down the line to promote their new skills.
You can also incentivise as the training programme is ongoing. Gamification is a great way to make training more interesting. And what’s a good game without a reward at the end?
Improve and iterate
Many companies end up losing money in training programmes because they treat it as a one-and-done package. But learning is a continuous, dynamic process, especially in a fast-moving industry like retail or tech.
You don’t have to wait until the end of a programme to check whether it’s effective or not. Test scores, attendance, and participation metrics such as the time learners spend in each session can all tell you whether your external sales partners are performing or simply clicking through the programme.
Seek feedback and track key performance metrics
Compare the performance of external sales partners before and after they take your training. Have their Days In Inventory gone down significantly? Have their case fill numbers improved?
As for their experience of the training itself, you can use metrics such as the Net Promoter Score. It’s a single-question survey that evaluates a user’s satisfaction with an experience by their likelihood to recommend the training to colleagues.
A score of 9 to 10 makes a learner a “Promoter”, while 6 and below would make them “Detractors”. Conducting follow-up interviews with learners from both of these groups will help you improve your programme, as well as show external sales partners that you value their input.
The success of a training programme is not decided by one act alone, but rather by a series of measures done throughout the entire process, from the moment you start planning until you’re collecting feedback from your learners.
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