If you want your channel partners to get behind you and more effectively sell your products, it’s important for them to know and understand these products almost as well as you do.
Now, they won’t always be motivated to sell for you, especially if they’re not just buying or selling from only you, but also from a few of your competitors. But if you can offer these partners some type of incentive for pursuing targeted learning and enablement behaviors, then you give them a reason to become more familiar with your offerings, which can lead to a significant competitive advantage.
In the end, the idea is to motivate those behaviors and activities that lead to better relationships with sellers and buyers alike, and this starts with better competency and ends with a more loyal customer base and a more effective sales force.
How Does It Work?
The most common way to enhance your channel partners’ knowledge of your products and services is through an eLearning initiative, which focuses on rewarding non-sales activities like deal registration, training, certifications, content consumption, and so on. This type of initiative may be pursued via training videos or online modules that could include a short, incentivized quiz at the end.
We’ve also seen examples of white papers or newsletters that include “Easter eggs” in the form of embedded promo codes that readers can then redeem for additional points in their existing points program. These types of embedded codes can also serve the dual purpose of measuring how many people are actually consuming your content, not simply clicking on a link or an attachment.
But there’s more to a good product knowledge strategy than simply creating a bunch of digital content and pushing customers to consume it. For starters, learning and enablement doesn’t necessarily have to be online.
Depending on the number of channel partners you’re trying to educate, a combination of virtual training and in-person training can provide important product knowledge while also offering valuable opportunities for face-to-face interactions with your customers.
While everything (including training) is clearly trending digital for the sake of convenience and scale, the importance of face-time when it comes to training shouldn’t be overlooked.
Whether this means onsite training—where a manufacturer rep physically visits individual partner locations or customers—or training at a localized event such as a trade show or user conference, these face-to-face interactions can be an efficient way to build trust and loyalty while also providing key insights and personal feedback that a manufacturer might otherwise not receive.
One unique training method that’s becoming increasingly popular is the use of immersive experiential learning activities during meetings and events. Because many people tend to learn better by seeing and doing rather than by simply reading, these experiential learning activities appeal to a broad audience and various learning styles, and have proven more effective at controlling learning outcomes.
Finally, yet another face-to-face product training option we’ve seen in the HVAC space is the development of manufacturer training centers, which can offer localized customers the opportunity to learn about things like new warranties or how to install new products through sponsored “lunch-and-learns” and other low-key events.
These training centers are obviously viable in targeted areas rather than across-the-board, but the principle of offering a hybrid approach to learning and enablement remains the same.
Not All Training Is Created Equal
In addition to the modality (online vs. in-person) of your product knowledge strategy, another important aspect to consider is the shape and structure of the content to be consumed. We’ve already highlighted online quizzes and experiential learning as two popular methods for testing and transmitting knowledge, but if we focus for a second on the online element, it quickly becomes apparent that not all content is created equal.
For example, there may be no amount of bonus points you can offer your customers that will get them to read a dry and text-heavy 50-page manual for installing a new product.
Likewise, your customers may have a hard time carving out two hours straight during their busy workday to watch a live, nonessential webinar or training video. For these and other reasons, it’s important to create content that’s the right size—whether that means the length of a video, the number of slides, or the amount of text.
Take the classic example of TED Talks. Based on research done by TED, the maximum length of a talk is 18 minutes, and apparently TED takes this limit quite seriously.
The reasoning behind this 18-minute rule involves neuroscience and terms like “cognitive backlog,” but the idea is pretty simple: the brain has a hard time staying focused and engaged as time wears on, and eventually these diminishing returns reach a breaking point where the brain no longer fully tunes into what’s being presented.
With this in mind, to get the most out of your product knowledge initiatives it’s important to make your content consumable—that is, bite-sized rather than all-you-can-eat.
This can be done by breaking down a particular product training session into small modules that take between 15-45 minutes to complete. In other words, a series of short videos or articles in a Learning Management System will be much more likely to get viewed than something that requires a long, continuous time commitment.
Prioritizing content is also key. You may have 50 modules about your products, but if only a dozen apply to a particular segment of your customer base, they may decide the entire thing isn’t worth their time. Therefore, understanding who your channel partners are will enable you to prioritize your content according to their particular profiles.
For instance, if a segment of your channel partners typically sells your industrial supplies rather than your residential supplies, then you’ll want to consider tailoring learning materials specifically for the industrial sector of your SKUs.
It seems like common sense, but failing to recognize audience segments or overlooking their specific sales trends is a surefire way to produce misguided product content that lacks engagement.
Keep It Social
Finally, another learning and enablement strategy that’s beginning to gain traction involves building an online community of customers or channel partners, one that allows them to exchange knowledge-based testimonials, anecdotes, and advice to one another.
This controlled, members-only group provides a peer-to-peer network where individual members can ask questions and share notes and ideas that benefit not only the individuals who share and respond, but the community as a whole.
There are a number of manufacturer benefits to developing this kind of community. First, it fits with a workforce that is trending younger, as millennials are more likely to trust product reviews and recommendations that come from outside the company producing them than are older generations.
In other words, hearing this kind of information from someone other than the manufacturer can go a long way in building trust and confidence in the quality of the products.
Furthermore, providing a peer-based community to share product knowledge can help with enabling and promoting your brand. The social element—getting your channel partners to share useful case studies with one another, for example—can serve to evangelize for your products and the value they can provide.
Brand advocacy doesn’t happen overnight, and there may be a number of steps needed to be taken before a functioning community can really take root and prosper. But as your strategy matures you can start to think about this type of promotion as an organic means of increasing brand engagement and trust.
Lastly, manufacturers can help themselves by cultivating these communities through the rewarding of various social behaviors, such as posting a product review or sharing a testimonial. This type of rewards structure can be seamlessly integrated into an existing incentive platform, allowing certified community members to earn and/or be recognized for their contributions.
These are just a few of the things manufacturers should be considering when looking to increase their partners’ product knowledge. But regardless of the method, as products and services become more sophisticated, learning and enablement strategies will need to find ways to keep these partners ahead of the curve—and ahead of your competitors.
By doing a lot of the heavy lifting for them—in terms of creating, curating, and delivering valuable content—manufacturers can arm their partner networks with the tools they need to turn knowledge into profit.
About HMI Performance Incentives
Founded in 1980 in Cambridge, MA, HMI Performance Incentives is a global leader in designing and managing sales and customer incentive solutions. At HMI, success is measured by the outcome of our clients’ programs and their satisfaction. Our programs are designed to accelerate sales, increase customer or employee engagement, and increase market share. With more than 38 years of experience in the performance improvement industry, we know what it takes to deliver results.