Volvo Construction Equipment (Volvo CE) develops, manufactures and markets equipment for construction-related industries, including a range of wheel loaders, hydraulic excavators, articulated haulers, motor graders and compact equipment. Ensuring that the sales force has the information it needs on the products and the skills required to sell is George Lilly’s job. Lilly is in charge of developing the training capabilities of Volvo CE’s sales and service professionals and is vice president of marketing for Volvo CE.
Lilly explained that unlike many companies, where the order for training improvement comes from the top down, Volvo CE had a burning need in the company to improve training for its sales professionals. “We started the other way around. We said we had a sales force that had not received any significant organized sales training for a number of years, and we have a very high turnover of salesmen, plus because they’re salesmen, we want them out in the field selling,” Lilly said. “We don’t want them spending a lot of time flying back to the factory and things like that to get training.”
Lilly ultimately came up with a blended solution that includes 33 courses, which take between 30 and 40 hours to complete on the Web using TopClass from WBT Systems, followed by a two-day, in-person capstone course. “We wanted to start from a very defined position,” said Lilly. “The first thing we did is set up what we call QuickTrack, which is the basic level of training that all salesmen in the field should have.”
The QuickTrack program covers Volvo CE’s internal salesmen as well as salesmen working for independent dealers, a total of 2,500 to 3,000 worldwide. They get online training covering background information on the company and industry, the sales process, Volvo CE’s systems and product information. Following the Web-based course, students come to a central point for a two-day, hands-on capstone course that takes them through a case study of the selling process. Students also get a chance to get hands-on with the machinery they’ll be selling, as well as learning the most up-to-date information on the products. “When a person graduates, he’s had a significant amount of background material, plus he’s had an opportunity to actually apply it in a simulated, real-life situation. Plus, he’s touched and felt the machines,” Lilly said. “With that, he’s more or less capable to go out and begin his selling career.”
Because the Volvo CE sales force is spread around the world, the training had to be developed in multiple languages: English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish. Written materials are available in Chinese, as well, and that training is delivered in person using an interpreter due to bandwidth constraints. Lilly said the company plans to have the training rolled out throughout the entire sales force by the end of 2004—a total time from the start to finally getting all the salesmen on board of about two and a half to three years.
Because sales professionals are not as technologically savvy as other workers, Lilly said Volvo tried to make the online learning as simple as possible, using single sign on, a logical structure and software like Flash that is incorporated into most browsers. “We also tried to keep the need for bandwidth down, so it would run over even a telephone modem for a guy sitting in a hotel room somewhere,” Lilly said.
Because of the simplicity, Lilly explained, around 30 percent to 40 percent of the audience learned to use the system immediately. For those having difficulty, Volve CE set up a “Help and Encouragement Desk” staffed by someone who could talk users through their problems. This worker also was able to keep track of who had and who hadn’t started the system and encourage new users to get started by walking them through the first steps.
In addition to a focus on ease of use, Lilly said an emphasis on delivering exactly the right content was a key to the success of the program. Convincing the corporate executives and product professionals that the salesmen didn’t need to know everything about the company in order to succeed was a challenge, Lilly said. “There was so much stuff that we wanted to say about ourselves about how wonderful we were and about our products and how wonderful they are, and when you get down to a salesman who’s competitively selling, he doesn’t care,” Lilly said. “He doesn’t need that information. He needs to know why our product is better than somebody else’s, and he needs some minimum background about the company so he can reflect the company and so he’s in synch with where we’re trying to go with our advertising and things like that.”
Getting the workers to take the training involved a push from one end and a pull from the other, according to Lilly, with plenty of marketing of training done at the dealer level. “As I mentioned, about 40 percent of the people took to this like ducks to the water. Then the next 30 to 40 percent we dangled some incentives here and there. The last 20 percent are the real hard-core, those the manager has to bring in and say, ‘You need these courses,’” Lilly said. He added, “The message is, you can’t rely on one set of incentives because people are all different. You need to make it very attractive and easy, and then you need to put some real incentives in there. Then in the end, you probably need some social and other pressures on the tag-end group of people who are just hard to convince to get it all done.”
In the end, the learners were very positive about QuickTrack. At the end of each course, students were asked if the course was easy to understand and well presented, and if it was useful to their jobs of selling equipment. “Our average is 9 out of 10 for the first one, and 9.1 out of 10 for the second one, with more than 66 percent of the people actually giving us a 10,” Lilly said. “For people to rate something that high must mean that they really wanted it and really liked it. So we felt very good about the material.”
By delivering the courses online, Lilly said Volvo CE ensures a consistent message across its sales channel. In the past, Volvo relied on each product company to put together a package about the product, send it to the regions and train the regional people who took message to the dealers who then trained their own salesmen. “Our finding was that it did not happen on a consistent basis; certainly it did not happen on a timely basis,” Lilly said. “And most importantly, by the time it got down there, it’s like playing ‘Chinese Telephone’: you’re never quite sure what comes out at the salesman’s level. Now we know exactly what comes out at the salesman’s level, and now our people and the salesmen all have a common language and a common way of talking about the machines and the customers.”
Because QuickTrack is accessed through Volvo’s Global Dealer Network, adding the online training also helped get the sales force onto the global network, giving them additional research capabilities. But the ultimate return on the training for Volvo is better-prepared salesmen who are helping to build market share. “We see that the field salesman, a long way away from us here at corporate, is now much better capable of dealing with a customer and acting as a good representative,” Lilly said. “We have a much higher capability at the salesman’s level.”
This is backed up by measurements Volvo took of salesmen who had not completed the training, those who had completed the online portion only, and those who had finished the full course including the capstone course. “We could see, measuring the six months before they took the course and the six months after, the control area that took no courses, their market share didn’t move at all between those two sections. The group that had taken the Web-based courses only and not the capstone course had come up almost 10 percent in market share. And the group that had taken both the Web-based and the capstone course had come up 30 percent in market share,” Lilly said. “We have a significant increase in sales, and that’s a lot of money.”
This year, in addition to moving the rest of the students through the course who have not yet taken it, as well as training any new hires, Volvo CE plans to add additional levels of training for its sales force. “The second level will take them through subjects like negotiating or some of the customer segment information or some of the product information and go much more into depth,” Lilly said. “And then the third level will be more seminar and actually investigative kind of work.”
Volvo CE is also planning to expand beyond training the sales force. It has already pulled in service training, and it is considering expanding the program to take care of total training for the company. “We had a very targeted, very successful program,” said Lilly. “Now we have to determine how to blow this up into a full-blown continuous learning organization within our company.”