|SMALL BUSINESS LINK|
Getting Workers to Share
Know-How With Their Peers
As sales boomed at ExactTarget Inc., it became increasingly difficult for the sales-support staff to handle all the queries from the software provider's sales force.
Sales representatives, needing client information or specific details about the company's email creation and delivery product, barraged sales-support staffers with questions by phone and email. Some questions required very technical explanations that took several hours to answer. And some reps asked the same questions more than once.
"Sales reps are out in the field and they're kind of on islands," says Ryan Warren, who runs the sales solutions team at the Indianapolis-based company. "It's a challenge to keep everyone connected."
So ExactTarget found an effective and inexpensive way to handle all those questions: leveraging the knowledge that was already there in its sales force. Specifically, it has started getting its 75 sales reps to answer each other's questions via a Web site where all those questions and answers are posted and stored, allowing employees to easily search for them at a later date. Sales-support staff also can post useful tools on the site, including videos, training quizzes and case studies. And the company is taking this peer-to-peer learning a step further by designating a half-dozen sales reps to be the system's internal champions, encouraging and showing others how to use it. They'll later be involved in rolling out wider training.
|Courtesy of the company|
|Ryan Warren (standing) and Andy Skirvin|
So-called knowledge-management technologies like the one used by ExactTarget are increasingly helping small companies make the most of limited training budgets. They allow businesses to more easily and quickly spread employees' know-how and experience to others, cutting down on the need for more costly and time-consuming formal training.
"Companies are recognizing that, particularly when resources are tight, the best solutions can come from your own employee base," says Kevin Oakes, chief executive of the Institute for Corporate Productivity, a workplace-productivity consulting firm in Seattle.
Frontline employees often have real-world experience that training-support staff can't offer, Mr. Oakes says. At small firms especially, he adds, knowledge-sharing can be useful because the employee base is intimate enough that the "conversations don't get too unwieldy."
Not every company will embrace the idea, however. One deterrent is concern about the potential liabilities of misinformation slipping into the work force or employees using the system to post negative comments about other workers.
ExactTarget made its first attempt to increase information-sharing among reps last summer. Mr. Warren downloaded a free wiki-like program off the Internet and modified it for the company's use. Wiki is a technology that allows users to collaborate on a project and edit each other's work.
The program served its purpose in allowing reps to swap and store information. But it was cumbersome to use and many staffers had technical questions about how it worked that sales support couldn't answer. Moreover, the system broke down completely a few times and there was no one for the company to turn to for help.
"We quickly realized that when you build something yourself, you have to fix it yourself," Mr. Warren says.
So he decided the firm would be better served by paying for an off-the-shelf product that provided more support and a more user-friendly platform. After reviewing demos of various products, Mr. Warren and his team chose SellingEdge, an online learning tool for sales teams from OutStart, a Boston-based online-learning technologies provider.
ExactTarget declined to disclose how much it pays for SellingEdge. Massood Zarrabian, OutStart's chief executive, says the firm charges companies that use the product through a hosted site $30 per employee user per month -- or about $4,500 a month for 150 people. It also charges a $5,000 to $10,000 setup fee, depending on the company's needs. Some larger companies buy the software and integrate it into their own systems, which costs a larger flat fee.
ExactTarget started using Selling- Edge about seven weeks ago. It has rolled out the program to about two-thirds of its sales force so far.
To use SellingEdge, employees use a password to log on to a site hosted by OutStart. It can be accessed from a computer, handheld device or mobile phone. When sales reps email their questions to a particular email address, their questions automatically get posted on the site. Another sales rep or sales-support staffer can then provide answers. Employees can subscribe to get email alerts every time a new question is posted.
Reps can rank each other's questions and answers using a five-star scale to identify the most useful posts or flag inaccuracies. The search function on the site then weights posts with the most relevant keywords and highest rankings.
Mr. Warren says SellingEdge allows ExactTarget to track which reps are using the program and how often. He says average use is about three times a week among the 48 reps currently using it.
Another feature of the program is that it allows ExactTarget to couple its formal training materials with the informal information-swapping among sales reps. The company recently posted about 25 training videos, including one showing how the company's email product works with Google Analytics. Reps also can post useful information or documents they encounter in the field.
ExactTarget plans to eventually post more documents with sales-training information, case studies of clients, and online videos that include follow-up quizzes that reps will be required to take for certification.
Breaking Through Reluctance
To get employees to fully adopt the site, the company has appointed six tech-savvy sales reps as point people. These reps are responsible for familiarizing themselves with SellingEdge, actively posting comments on it themselves, and encouraging other reps to try it. ExactTarget hopes these employees will casually mention using SellingEdge when, say, they go to lunch with other reps. The firm also plans to involve these reps in training sessions later on.
"We felt it was important to have some reps acting as evangelists, so everyone didn't just feel this was thrust upon them by management," Mr. Warren says.
He says while some reps use the site regularly and even provide useful insights without prodding, others are reluctant because they're accustomed to calling or emailing sales support directly with questions. He adds that starting next week the support team plans to refuse to answer most questions that aren't asked through SellingEdge.
While some kinks are still being ironed out, Mr. Warren says the system seems to be paying off. His team now gets about three emails per day, compared with 15 to 20 before.
Andy Skirvin, one of six sales reps selected as ambassadors of SellingEdge, says the product has reduced the time it takes for him to find answers to questions while speaking with customers on the phone. A few weeks ago, for instance, a client asked about how ExactTarget's product worked in tandem with another customer-management technology. He was able to find a detailed answer already posted on the site and provide an answer immediately.
Previously, "I would have had to send a query out to our IT staff and then waited for a response," he says. Now "I can be talking to a person on the phone and get the information" right away.
Mr. Skirvin, who is manager of marketing development, says he has tried to help other reps by providing answers to questions they pose through SellingEdge. And he asks his own questions so others see the program is being actively used. He has posted about 15 questions so far, including one about the time it would take to integrate ExactTarget's email-marketing system with another online technology customers use.
Mr. Skirvin says he also plans to post some content about what sales-pitching techniques have worked for him.
Write to Kelly K. Spors at firstname.lastname@example.org