The six-year-old AT&T Alliance Channel consists of 4,500 outside partners (external sales agents) who sell AT&T's products, services and applications. A few years ago, AT&T's line managers realized that this group was not getting essential information, and speculated that their sales were low partially because they couldn't identify sales opportunities or keep up with the growing number of non-traditional products and services.
AT&T's Learning Services group was charged with developing a curriculum to help improve the partners' knowledge and application of AT&T products and services and enhance their selling skills. In 2001, the Alliance Channel's new partner training program came to life. The premise behind the program was that simply improving the skills of AT&T's external sales agents would translate into increased revenue for AT&T. Four programs are now available for AT&T's partners: partner product training, partner tools training, partner sales training and channel manager training.
AT&T's learning management system (LMS)—tagged "World-Class Campus"—holds these programs and allows channel partners and managers to navigate through course offerings, register and test for certification.
Each program focuses on different areas of the Alliance Channel. In the product training program, sales executives learn AT&T's product portfolio as well as the various components of commissionable offers and services. Within this program are both certification and authorization classes in which participants work through case studies and are challenged to integrate AT&T's components to solve a variety of problems for potential customers.
"That's really what we're after," explains Joe Altobell, AT&T education district manager for planning and metrics. "We want high-level learning that not only helps our channel partners understand knowledge- and comprehension-based learning, but also learn how to apply it."
The partner tools training program trains administrators on how to use the systems and tools to order, log opportunities and prepare for potential sales. Key issues, trends and the essentials of capitalizing on sales opportunities in the marketplace are covered in the partner sales training program.
Lastly, the channel manager training teaches managers—AT&T employees who support the partners—how to increase partner commitment on joint selling activities.
AT&T's partners have responded positively to these new programs and the information they cover. "We're hooked on continuous learning," says Barry Vaughn, CEO of Syracuse, N.Y.-based Guardian Communications. "To use a medical analogy, it's like we're now becoming specialists. We were general practitioners, and going through these programs, we're becoming more specialized. We'll come out with more access, more knowledge and more opportunities."
Guardian Communications opened its doors in late 2001, and immediately began sending its employees through AT&T's partner training. Because of the effectiveness of the programs, Guardian decided to send all of its employees through the training in 2002. By year's end, Guardian will have increased its annual revenue by 300 percent—or between $3.5 to $4 million. If the classes continue to be updated and flexible, Vaughn believes his clients are in store for more "cream of the crop opportunities."
Altobell's team builds metrics around these programs to show the effectiveness and test the impact on business performance for companies like Guardian. Ninety days after the training, surveys ask agents specific questions on how the training has affected their jobs and performance.
The findings have revealed success in a number of areas, including a 30 percent increase in completed sales per month for partners who take the authorization courses in the product training program—a 68 percent increase in the average dollar amount of the sale.
The sales training program is sharpening the skills of AT&T's partners as well. Results include a 45 percent increase in the use of business plans to support business imperatives; a 16 percent increase in the understanding of marketplace drivers and trends to differentiate AT&T from the competition; a 16 percent increase in prospecting strategies; and an 11 percent increase in the number of sales opportunities per month.
Sales program participants had 62 percent more leads as a whole, compared to non-participants—resulting in $4.8 million in revenue and a 168 percent return on investment.
A Comfortable Seat
Steve Taggart is president of Alliance Datacom, a Dallas-based provider of voice and data communications solutions for businesses, and an avid supporter of AT&T's partner education. Taggart and his staff have been taking the courses online since 2002.
"The World-Class Campus not only keeps agents aware of all that's available, but gives them a reference point to go to back to in the event that they have questions later about products or services," Taggart says. Some of the courses can be downloaded, and for the products with complex features or parts, being able to return to the curriculum can be extremely helpful.
Altobell also polls channel managers and regional development managers around the country on which types of training they would like to see, and then works hard to accommodate these requests. For example, AT&T brings instructor-led courses to Dallas two to three times a year, making it easy for Alliance Datacom employees to attend.
"The reason behind all this training activity is not learning for the sake of learning, as much as I would like it to be," says Altobell. "The whole point is to drive incremental revenue and strengthen partner relationships."
Although AT&T has a good thing going, it cannot be left at that, Altobell explains. In the future, the channel manager training will focus more on how to handle executive conversations, which means AT&T will have to better train its managers on business and financial acumen.
Channel managers will also be required to calculate return on investment for their clients. Trainees will not be the only ones held at higher standards. With a constantly changing and growing product portfolio of products and services, AT&T is well aware that the Alliance Channel training programs must be constantly updated and modified.
The metrics of the programs are beginning to show that AT&T is improving the skills and knowledge of its partners. "Through AT&T's Alliance Channel training programs, our partners are able to move into high-margin selling, add services and create incremental revenue opportunities for their businesses by creating end-to-end solutions," Altobell explains. "Channel training gives our partners a competitive edge and enhances their positioning with customers."
Heather Johnson is the editorial assistant of Training. email@example.com