American Tire Distributors is the world’s largest distributor of tires, far exceeding the scope of even its closest competitors. The $5 billion company has more than 5,000 employees in North America and sells more than 40,000 different products across a vast network of clients.
But company leaders knew they could do better. The automotive and tire service industry is getting more competitive, and they wanted to be sure their sales team and franchises had the tools and knowledge to deliver value to customers, said ATD Chief Operating Officer Owen Schiano: “Training has to be an important part of that business strategy.”
Schiano noted that tire manufacturers often provide ATD with training on their products, but it’s a “very check the box” offering. And while ATD has a sales training program for new hires, once reps were in the field it was up to their managers to reinforce their knowledge and development. That led to an inconsistent development experience.
Making a Difference
In 2016, ATD brought on Rebecca Sinclair as the new chief people officer to help reinvent the HR environment in the company, including how — and what — the sales team was learning.
She noted that over the past few years, ATD had become a very data-driven company. “We have more collective knowledge about tires and the purchasing life cycle because we are a primary partner to most manufacturers,” she said. But her team needed a better way to propagate that data to help the sales, marketing and support teams do their jobs better.
They knew the sales teams wouldn’t be eager to spend hours in a classroom learning about every product in the catalog, nor did they feel like this was the right setting for their needs. “Flying people in for a train-the-trainer course, then evaluating whether the training they deliver has an impact three or six months later isn’t effective,” said Rick Lima, vice president of learning and organizational development. “We wanted to know if we were making a difference right away.”
They went looking for a more just-in-time training model. In a past role, Sinclair had worked with Axonify, a customizable microlearning platform, and she thought it would be a good fit for ATD’s needs. “It’s a modern learning approach that gives learners what they need to know to be successful,” she said.
The Axonify platform allows companies to dole out tiny bits of learning on any topic in three-to-five minute chunks, with short quizzes to validate knowledge. “Our goal with Axonify was to make learning convenient, beneficial and easy to access so it becomes a habit,” she said.
Closing the Gap
Axonify created a cloud-based solution and app, called Spark, that links the learning platform to ATD’s network so employees can access it via any connected device. Then the ATD team worked with Axonify to develop microlearning elements that were relevant to the sales team’s needs.
While the content is built for ATD staff, each learner doesn’t get the same lessons every day, explained Carol Leaman, CEO of Axonify. The platform selects content based on what the user gets right and wrong, then adapts the next lessons accordingly. In this way, users who already understand a topic aren’t stuck taking similar lessons over and over, while those who aren’t confident with a topic get added support.
It also offers users access to leaderboards, 50-plus games and points they can use to bid on prizes via an eBay-style auction engine. “People love the competitive nature, which keeps them coming back,” Leaman said.
While games and prizes are fun, ATD wanted to be sure the platform would add actual business value before deploying it to the entire company. So Lima’s team ran a pilot project with a predefined group of salespeople. He began by evaluating what they knew and didn’t know about the company’s salesforce model, then he worked with Axonify to break the salesforce model into microlearning elements that were rolled out in daily lessons through Spark. “In two to three weeks we closed the knowledge gap in that group,” he reported. A month later, evaluations showed their level of knowledge about the salesforce model remained high.
That was enough to convince ATD to launch the platform companywide in mid-2017. At first Lima’s team leaned heavily on Axonify to help them build lessons that were relevant, interesting and easy to digest. “It was difficult at first to create content that spoke to tire people,” he said.
But over time his team figured out the process and brought content development in house. They spent the first three months almost totally dedicated to crafting microlearning elements, but now they have a full catalog of material and only spend time building content when staff need training on new products, trends or business models. “Once a month we pull all of the business leaders into a room to help us prioritize learning based on what’s relevant to their needs,” he said.
Sales Are Up
Schiano admitted that he was skeptical of the platform at first. “I’d heard about microlearning but it felt like a ‘been there, done that’ trend.” But when he saw the impact of the program he was transformed from a skeptic to a champion. “The engagement level is way better than we could have expected,” he said. “The sales team jumped on it right out of the gate.”
Metrics show more than 90 percent of the sales team use the platform 18 out of 20 business days per month, and that the top 25 percent of sellers are among the top 25 percent of Spark users — while the bottom 25 percent are least likely to use the platform.
Lima noted that training alone isn’t the only factor attributable to sales success, but the analytics tools have allowed him to draw clear lines between training and sales performance. For example, if the company wants to increase sales volumes for a specific brand, his team will ramp up training on the features of those products and then monitor sales increases. Last year, sales of one manufacturer increased by 5.5 percent following a bump in training content on those products, he said. “We estimate that 15 percent of that sales increase can be directly attributed to improved product knowledge.”
Similarly, the sales team experienced a 3 percent overall increase in sales compensation in 2018, and Lima attributes 16-17 percent of that growth to training. He’s invited external analysts to validate his numbers to prove the impact training is having on the company. “When you peel back the variables around knowledge growth, market trends, top performers and growth, it all starts to add up,” he said.
The biggest challenge the learning team faces now is requests from company stakeholders to add more content on a specific subject. “They can only digest so much information so fast, so we have to prioritize,” Schiano said.
New Revenue Stream
The training has been so successful that ATD launched versions for the operations and maintenance teams. In the fourth quarter of 2019 they were set to launch a for-pay Spark for Retail model for customers who want to benefit from the training. “They’ve never had access to anything like this before,” Lima said. “It’s allowing HR to create our own revenue stream.”
This microlearning model could work for any organization, though Lima warned that it is about more than just the technology. “You have to build relevant content and bake it into daily workflow so it’s easy to use,” he said.
Then measure the impact. “Our internal analytics prove that we are producing results,” Sinclair said. “When you can show that training is contributing to sales results, people will take note.”