Finding Your Secret Sauce: The Training Challenge for SMBs
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Finding Your Secret Sauce: The Training Challenge for SMBs

One thing RLI salespeople notice is that learning professionals at large companies insist that training be highly customized. One CLO said she loved our “off-the-shelf” (i.e., non-customized) safety modules, but she couldn’t use one of them because a slide showed a Hyster brand forklift; her company used Yale forklifts. Does that negate the value of the program? Probably not, but large companies have the money to hire training professionals and they obviously feel they needn’t compromise on customization.

Small and medium-size businesses (SMBs) don’t have that option. They have no training staff. Customizing training is usually impossible. So they rely on off-the-shelf content and figure out how ideas expressed and presented generically can be applied to training their workforces. Most people, if they’re motivated to do so, can “flip a switch” and make an idea transferable. I do this all the time when read a book about Steve Jobs, Jack Welch or Bill Gates. I ask, “How could what they did be replicated in my business?”

What all companies, large and small, are looking for is their own “Secret Sauce.” Big companies can afford to create it by themselves. SMB generally have to adapt existing training materials to their own culture. Here’s a graphic from Bersin & Associates that sums up the concept nicely:

Algorithmic learning refers of course to routine, usually urgent task-based training; for example teaching customer service reps to use the phone or cashiers to use a cash register. Heuristic learning refers to non-urgent soft skills training in areas such as sales or leadership. In this article, and this blog, we’re primarily interested in heuristic learning, which is more complex and far more likely to be done badly (or not at all) than algorithmic learning.

When doing heuristic training, SMBs almost always have to identify useful off-the-shelf tools (the bottom right quadrant), then “flip the switch” and adapt them to their own organization. The good news is that it’s not terribly difficult to do. Back in the 1990s I read Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” I gave it to my boss, who liked it so much he gave every employee a copy and built a seven-week onboarding program around it. At that company, everybody walked around talking about “seek first to understand,” “start with the end in mind,” “Quadrant 2 activity” and so on. In doing so we were applying Covey’s language and concepts to our own business. That was our “secret sauce.”

RLI has an eight-minute sales training module on price negotiation that we refer to as “the hot potato.*” The concept is that when a prospect says, “We don’t have the budget to pay your price,” they’re making their problem, your problem. They’re throwing you a hot potato. Rather than cave on price, a skilled salesperson figures out a way to throw the hot potato back. The training challenge is to take that generic concept and apply it to your own business, to make it your own. That might mean taking a “blended learning” approach where a sales manager shows the module at the beginning of a weekly sales meeting and then asks each rep to script a response to a customer who complains about price. They could discuss the scripts, craft an “ideal” response, test it out in the days and weeks following, and eventually come up with the best way, in their particular market, to toss back a hot potato. That, in effect, becomes an ingredient in the “secret sauce” that makes their company successful.

You get the idea. Big companies do this as well, of course. All great ideas don’t originate in corporate training departments. But SMBs have no choice but to go outside for their training content. That said, I think it’s liberating for SMBs to recognize that they, too, can create a powerful learning environment by finding the right “off-the-shelf” training tools and adapting them to their unique needs. It’s not brain surgery. It doesn’t take a lot of money. And you don’t need a corporate training department to do it. You just need the will to do it. You need to believe that non-urgent soft skills training is, in fact, mission critical to the success of your company.

*The actual title of the “hot potato” program is “Tough Negotiations: How to Stay in Control and Get What You Deserve.” It resides in RLI’s Selling Essentials Rapid Learning Center.

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