Pizza & Beer vs E-Learning: The Trade Talks Training

Shriro Australia’s Sydney showroom was abuzz with Harvey Norman proprietors and floor staff in late July when the company held a special event to launch the new range, thank Harveys for their support and provide some in-depth product information.

Harvey Norman teams from throughout Sydney, as well as far flung towns like Bateman’s Bay, Griffith, Port Macquarie and Fyshwick, packed buses to travel to the event. In total, more than 24 different Harvey Norman stores in New South Wales alone were represented.

The franchisee at one of those stores, Ben Maddison from Caringbah in southern Sydney, received a huge cheer of support when he declared it “the best attendance I’ve seen for a Harvey Norman trade night in the last 10 years”.

This pronouncement came after a 20-minute product presentation and the introduction of the Blanco sales team. The showroom was packed with Blanco appliances and there were plenty of Shriro staff available to talk the Harvey Norman staff through the new range.

Although there is a general consensus that nothing beats face-to-face training and networking, the once-common practice of hiring a room and providing dinner and a drink in return for some brand indoctrination has slipped, replaced by online learning modules.

The success of the Blanco trade night suggests this situation should be re-evaluated, according to several suppliers and retailers.

Panasonic Australia has been conducting e-learning for the past few years, with staff rewarded with a free jacket for completing the course. Sources at the company have said that while some staff take it very seriously and score well on the tests, others simply hit the ‘Next’ button without reading any of the pages, fail the test and then still demand the free jacket.

Contrasting this was the great turnout and response Panasonic received on its 2013 Dealer Road Show, which played to packed houses in the mainland state capitals during May and June. Although this event has exhausted a lot of Panasonic’s marketing budget, company insiders believe it has played a large part in strong sales throughout the year.

“We felt it was the right time to hold a roadshow on this scale, with our recent push into new areas of whitegoods, as well as TV and imaging products that offer even greater interactivity and connectivity for the consumer and integration with devices such as smartphones and tablets,” said Panasonic general manager of marketing, Richard Tassone.

“We received great feedback — for example, in Adelaide, a number of retailers came to us with their customer questions on the new range, and we were able to show them on the spot some in-store demo ideas.”

2nds World managing director Peter Hammerman attended a similar style event hosted by the Samsung AV team in August. He said it was a great session but it does take a lot of effort to get the venue by 6:30 and then when it finished at 8:30, he and his staff all had to drive home.

To create a conduit between the manufacturers and his staff, Hammerman has brought a fulltime trainer, Jack Nunes, who has previously worked at Sharp and Whirlpool, so he has both an AV and appliance background.

“Training staff is very underrated — you can’t just stick people in stores,” Hammerman said. “We’re taking the responsibility of training away from managers, and Jack will be teaching skills such as how to sell extended warranties and how to greet customers with a friendly manner. We’re even teaching the staff how to smile!”

Hammerman confirmed the 2nds World staff will continue to attend manufacturers’ training nights and complete online modules, though he said it is hard to incentivise his employees to give up their own time for these programs, a point shared by Acer GM of marketing David Sunton.

“We have the ‘Academy for Online Retailing,” Sunton said, “but it is not getting the effectiveness of face-to-face.

“People working through the day, they’re not allowed on the computers; and at home, it’s hard for them to find the time or they don’t want to — and this is multiplied by hundreds of vendors.

“The incentive for free time learning is very difficult. That’s why the traditional, face-to-face, labour-intensive way works.”

Sunton said Acer used to host the pizza and beer nights, often at a cinema with a free movie thrown in to entice attendees. They would get all the staff from one retail group together to showcase new products, demonstrate new features and entertain the trainees. Interestingly, this program was ended five years ago because, he says, “all the majors — Harvey Norman and JB Hi-Fi — pushed for e-learning”.

One retail group that prefers the old ways is the newest: Leading Appliances.

“I am on the record as being of the ‘old-fashioned variety of retailer’,” said national product and marketing manager Nick Fry. “I remain a huge believer in face-to-face relationships between vendors and retailers.”

Fry has previously worked on the supply side at GAF Control and at the once-mighty Retravision Southern, so he know what is involved in these training programs.

“I understand and respect budgetary pressures facing suppliers in this challenging landscape but I remain convinced that the supplier who works harder at the ‘last three feet’ with product training; building relations with retail staff; and conveying the features, benefits and virtues of their products; will reap the rewards for their hard work.”

Fry said it is becoming harder and harder to get retailers to complete online training modules in a timely manner, and that this method lacks the personal touch that can really cement a partnership.

“Face-to-face meetings — a pizza and beer — forging long-term relationships and friendships; I still believe this is the best way of training retail staff.

“With Leading Appliances, given our mainly regional footprint across our 64 member stores, it is those suppliers that make regular visits and go the extra mile with staff training that are reaping the rewards within our business.”

Brad Hales, senior national marketing executive at Uniden, said suppliers have become wary of investing a lot of time and money into staff training because of the itinerant nature of retail sales staff.

“We’ve been moving away from full-scale training because so many of the salespeople are university students,” Hales said.

Because Uniden has such a strong presence in Dick Smith and JB Hi-Fi, which do attract a younger set of employees than, say, a Retravision store, there is merit to this caution.

“We’re still doing some work with training but we are focusing more on point-of-sale and merchandising,” he said, highlighting the very involved shelf-talkers Uniden has made available for its cordless phones, baby monitors and surveillance systems.

One of the most well-known trainers in the industry is Matthew Ahern, formerly of Sampford IXL and now with Smeg Australia. When he joined the industry, these trade nights typically consisted of retail staff leaving work at 5:30 to visit the supplier’s head office, where there would be a few drinks, a PowerPoint display, then a few more drinks, and then a trip home. Ahern said the impact of this method was “negligible”.

Now, he says, Smeg does as much training as it can during business hours, and the focus is on making sure every second is a worthwhile investment, so retailers can immediately apply their new skill when they are back on the floor.

Smeg only conducts face-to-face training — it doesn’t have an e-learning portal — and the feedback from Ahern’s own research was that e-learning does not work.

“Our industry is such a face-to-face industry — e-learning goes against the basic principle of how we work — face-to-face training has the most impact,” he said.

Ahern makes a very interesting point about the nature of appliance purchasing: because so much of it is emotional rather than practical, sales staff need a high emotional intelligence in order to connect with their customers.

“What we do in appliances is so heavily focused on EQ over IQ — anyone can have the facts — but how you read people’s emotions is very different,” Ahern said.

Ahern takes a very back-to-basic approach to training, and takes pride in tailoring his presentations to the size of the group. This, he says, makes a big difference.

“I’m able to tailor a training night to the people there, whether it’s 12 or 25 people, I can adapt my presentation to the individuals, whereas e-learning is very restrictive.”

It is hard to measure the precise return on investment from these nights. One insider at a major appliance brand said that if you can engage the staff with good products and good demonstration, and then reward them with nice food and some free drinks, you will see a lift in sales in the long run.

There are, however, horror stories. At a training and movie night in Sydney for the launch of a vacuum cleaner, staff from one of the majors behaved poorly throughout the film, throwing popcorn at the screen and making obscene comments with raised voices. I asked the organiser of this event for their thoughts:

“You get different reactions from different people. We did the same night in other cities and the reaction was great. Different films appeal to different people.”

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