Training is frequently regarded as the most obvious and easy route to value-added profits, but according to training professionals, resellers? courses are generally poor quality and ineffective. Training is often offered lightly and is not perceived by resellers as something that is particularly demanding. If you take that view, training can also result in the swift demolition of your reputation with your customers.
Yet resellers can have a crucial role to play in training users, as Mark Andrews, marketing manager of networking provider BTN, points out. ?Resellers are in a position to know exactly what a customer?s training requirements are,? he says.
The cost argument for resellers to provide training themselves is persuasive. For example, The Last Word has facilities for up to 12 delegates a course at its new pre-press demonstration and training facilities at Twickenham, and charges a relatively modest #250 or #300 a person a day. Rates of #400 or #600 a day are common among some resellers. With in-house staff costing about #200 or #300 each ? or at the other end of the scale specialist freelances up to #1,000 a day ? the sums are clear: even with overheads there is a clear profit margin.
Even if the training facilities are used for only 50 per cent of their capacity, they clearly provide a steady revenue stream, and resellers are frequently seduced by the figures into offering their own training as a value-added service.
Many small and medium resellers balk at the cost of setting up a proper training facility, yet the gleam of profits results in them trying to make do with sales or demonstration areas. The desire to provide ad hoc training without investment means that users get unprofessional training which is not worth having. From the users? point of view, there is little more frustrating than wasting a day sitting in a training session which does not impart the required knowledge.
The alternative is for resellers to subcontract their customers? training and use a specialist training company or take advantage of the product vendors? facilities. Both solutions mean that the reseller does not have to invest a bean in setting up the physical facilities or employing specialist staff, yet can make sure that the customer is getting first class and relevant training for their application or system.
Sunservice educational services marketing manager Brian Couling says it makes sense for resellers to take advantage of manufacturers to provide training. ?No one can give the same quality of service as the manufacturer,? he says.
Couling maintains that Sunservice, as the service arm of Sun Microsystems, is at the forefront of Sun technology and therefore best placed to offer training second to none. ?Any reseller or integrator wanting to set up and run a training organisation is faced with an enormous investment, but an organisation like Sunservice has already made the investment. The reseller can avoid the need for the huge financial outlay.?
The problem with taking training from vendors is that few users want such product specific courses. Taking training from vendors means forfeiting independence, something which users and many resellers regard as crucial.
Tina Johnson of Croft Computers believes that although some investment is required, the dividends make it worthwhile, and resellers can do an excellent job. The trick, she says, is to set up the training provision as a separate entity rather than just an add-on to the main business of reselling and integration.
?The reseller,? she says, ?is already working closely with the customer from the pre-sales stage, and can understand the business objectives and overall IT strategy, and can make sure that the training delivers exactly what is required.? The worst type of training, she says, is provided as an after-thought at the end of a sale.
Croft Computers specialises in networks and Johnson says that it is important to start from basics. Some of the training that the company provides explains to users what networking is, provides a non-technical explanation of how it works and spells out how it can improve the quality of their work. ?Many people have not had training at that level before,? she says, ?and they are often overwhelmingly appreciative. They tell us that understanding the ?why? of computing and networking helps them learn the ?how?.?
Julia Jones, director of education and services at Faculty, the specialist training arm of distribution company Persona, agrees that some resellers provide good training, but her view is that most do it very badly. There is rarely a problem, she says, if they are like Croft Computers and committed to training to the extent of starting a training division, but many try to use sales staff as trainers and demonstration equipment as the hardware, often with negative results.
?It is a mystery why resellers bother to offer to train their customers themselves when it is so much effort for them and the results are often not very good,? she says.
?The reason is probably that they are paranoid about passing their customer on to a third party. They are nervous about letting another organisation close to their customer, and like to keep their customers tied up closely to them.?
But such an attitude, says Jones, shortchanges dealers and users. ?An organisation like Faculty is not like a vendor which provides very product specific training. We take a broad view of training needs, and provide all sorts of business, IT educational and product and application training. I don?t know of any vendors that can do that ? and few resellers can provide training as broad as a training specialist.?
Johnson says Faculty initially works with a dealer to determine what it perceives as its customer?s training requirements. ?Then we talk to the users and undertake a training needs analysis, which is essential if the training is to be effective. It provides criteria against which the training can be evaluated, as well as guiding us to decide which is exactly the right mix of courses. Many users already have some expertise, and there is no point in giving training that is not wanted.?
As well as providing training to the hands-on application users, Faculty shows IT directors how to develop their IT strategy and how to design and implement a new system. ?Few resellers are able to deliver training at that senior board level,? she says, ?Yet it can smooth the path for providing training throughout the organisation.?
Johnson agrees that persuading the managers of the need for training and explaining to them what the technology can do is the best first step. She also adds that using real-life work for training exercises is a wise move. ?Trainees easily see what they have to do and why, and it makes the training more relevant and memorable. It also ensures that the training covers everything that they need to know in order to do their job.?
Debbie Walsh of Microsoft, which uses resellers almost exclusively to deliver training to users of its products, reinforces the view that the most successful resellers are those which develop a specialist arm or business for delivering the training services.
?We try to get the message to users that they should only use resellers which are accredited, and to avoid those resellers which throw in training as a casual adjunct to a systems sale,? says Walsh. But she adds that for many resellers, offering training is an automatic part of the sales routine, whether or not they are able to deliver it.
?It has to be up to the users to determine whether the reseller is able to deliver what it promises,? she says. ?That is why we provide accreditation and test the training services, because we want our resellers to help users to get the best out of a product, which if often more than just understanding what happens if they press certain keys.?
Mike Briercliffe, a channel consultant, agrees that many users are receiving inadequate training because resellers are tempted to offer training services that are not properly financed or thought through. ?It can be highly profitable,? he says, ?but what use are those profits if the customer is left still not able to use the system very well. Sooner or later the customer will call in a specialist training organisation. Much better if the reseller stays in control of the customer by setting up and managing its contact with the third-party training specialist, rather than have them wander off and make their own contact.?
Jones believes that resellers are wrong to be wary of third parties. ?We are not a threat, we have the potential to help them keep their customers satisfied,? she says.
Juliet Ripley of The Corps Business agrees that third-party specialist training can be as varied as reseller?s own training, but the good and professional ones are nothing but a benefit to the channel and their customers. ?Training offered by dealers to their customers is too often limited and of mixed quality,? she says.
The reasons for this are simple. First, many dealers just offer training in the products they are selling, not in broader overview issues that help the user take better advantage of the technology. Second, they just take a user?s request for training at face value.
?But many clients over or underestimate their ability and sign up for the wrong course,? says Ripley. ?This disadvantages everyone else on the course.?
It also means that courses have to be very general, says Ripley, to meet everyone?s requirements, rather than being able to focus on a particular problem within a certain company.
The Corps Business started by offering everything that the resellers wanted it to offer, but now it offers specialist tailored courses, and only trains groups from the same company together to ensure they get the degree of relevance they want. Ripley says resellers that try to provide training are not just hampered by the technical investment required ? having the right training skills available is even more challenging.
?Even if a training person is skilled in teaching, they cannot possibly know all the subjects, so to offer a range of courses there has to be many different teachers available. No reseller can afford such a resource, which means that it is essential for resellers to use specialist third parties,? she says.
The Corps Business gets round the problem by using freelance trainers, but makes sure that they are thoroughly vetted and tested before being used. ?We have a two-hour interview and they are tested on their knowledge of their specialist applications,? Ripley says. ?We expect them to only specialise in three applications and we expect them to keep their knowledge current and relevant. By using freelance trainers we are able to adapt to current trends.?
Of course, resellers could also take a freelance approach which solves the problem of having the necessary skills to offer, but does not remove the difficulty of having a properly equipped classroom.
?There is an old saying that those who can, do, and those who can?t, teach,? says Briercliffe. ?For resellers that should read: those who can focus should teach and those who can?t should get someone else to do it.?
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