There are 103 -- we've counted them -- reasons to hold customer-training seminars: visibility, prestige, and market feedback pop to mind. But they all come down to just one reason: sales. For lots of growing companies, seminars turn out to be a cost-effective way of spending limited marketing dollars.

For instance, The Great American Quilt Factory Inc., a $1.2-million single-store Denver wholesaler and retailer of quilting materials and literature, holds seminars primarily to expand its market -- by hooking new quilters and teaching vets new techniques.

Rockford Corp., a $51-million Tempe, Ariz., company that produces high-performance audio components, holds seminars to train the middlemen -- the retail salespeople and installers -- who influence retail consumers' choices.

Both programs have been successful in boosting sales, in part because they adhere to some basic guidelines for running effective seminars:

* Define your costs and benefits. What do you expect to get out of a seminar program? Great American looks to cover only its out-of-pocket expenses with seminar fees. Rockford's seminars are run purely at the company's expense and are budgeted at about 1% of sales. But Ronald Trout, Rockford's vice-president of product development, considers that a bargain: "Just the stuff I learn in class about my competitors makes it worthwhile."

* Gear your seminars to those who really influence your industry. While its deep-pocketed competitors, such as Kenwood and Pioneer, spend money on consumer advertising that brings would-be buyers into the stores, Rockford concentrates on winning over retailers. "It's the dealer who largely determines what customers buy," says Trout. So the Rockford Technical Training Institute (RTTI) seminar program seeks to win dealer loyalty by teaching salespeople how to design car-audio systems, and shop people how to install them.

* Make sure the right people attend. Asking attendees to pay is a good way of guaranteeing interest and commitment. But if there's no fee, impose some other condition of attendance. To attend a Rockford seminar, for instance, you have to be recommended by one of the company's sales reps.

* Demand attendees' undivided attention. Don't allow business matters to interrupt. When Rockford initiated its seminars, in 1986, it didn't have the prestige that would allow it to make a no-interruption policy stick when it held seminars in customers' plants. So Rockford decided to bring customers to Tempe for training, where interruptions would be less of an issue.

* Make it challenging. Once the seminar is under way, make demands on attendees' concentration and stamina. Great American will sometimes hold all-night quilting seminars -- 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. "They're rough, but they're fun," says Lynda Milligan, Great American's co-owner, "and you can establish a rapport that doesn't come in a two-hour class."

-- Tom Richman

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