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Help Your Employees Be Strategic Thinkers

Ongoing education is a core part of every great business. The investment is small, but the return can be a game changer.
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Education is easy to make part of any business. That does not have to mean bringing in outside experts or sending employees away to expensive courses. Drawing on in-house resources can be just as rich. At Metal Mafia, we used to have sales seminars on a regular basis, at which different staffers would present on everything from the pros and cons of new products, to techniques for communicating better with customers. As we got busier, the seminars were scheduled less frequently, and finally, not scheduled at all. 

Two weeks ago, I asked my staff to tell me why a customer would want to spend money on a specific new product we now offer. I thought the answers could have been better, so I decided we all needed a refresher course in how to explain the value of our products in a meaningful way to our customers. I held an in-house tutorial this week, and the investment paid off.

Here's what I think you'll find most useful.

Let your staff know it's OK to ask questions.  

People have a tendency to allow embarrassment over not knowing something trump the need to know it. Even if you think you have clearly shown your staff how to do something or gone over the benefits of a product with them a million times, the concept may not be as firmly in place in their minds as it is in yours. It is important to give your team an opportunity to learn and re-learn key ideas that are core to your business's success. It sends your team a strong message--this information is worth mastering--if you set aside time for a seminar about the concept you want to be sure everyone understands.

I could have typed up a list of the key points I wanted my reps to memorize instead of making time to re-teach the concepts in a class setting, but that would have made the process about dictation instead of education. A workshop rather than a memo encourages your team to ask questions in a low-pressure setting.

Communicate strategies in non-threatening ways. 

The freshest ideas in business come from conversations. If you want your employees to not just understand something, but to really own an idea, you need to give them ways to engage in your strategy on their terms.

Teaching situations are not meant to be lectures, but to invite participation. I had ideas about what I wanted my team to take away from the class we scheduled, but I left the teaching up to everyone who attended. The sales reps came to the class ready to participate--and because they knew their input was both sought and valued, they were willing to teach and learn openly. They each talked about five products they thought could bring value to our customers' businesses, and explained concretely how the products should be talked about to get that value across. They asked each other questions, reviewed talking points, and discussed the customer concerns they had fielded. In the end, we all left as "A" students because we found better ways to help our customers.

Raise awareness and energy levels.

Devoting time and resources to promote continuing education emphasizes to team members that you value not only results, but also development. If you want your team to always examine interactions for deeper meaning, creating time for learning and evaluation is crucial. Employees who are encouraged to learn are the first to spot additional market opportunities, the best at increasing customer satisfaction, and the most effective at trouble-shooting. Learning to ask questions in a class setting hones one's instinct to probe outside of the classroom as well.

My team left our "class" today with both ideas and enthusiasm—and a feeling they were better-equipped to do their jobs. The confidence that came from being well-prepared was evident in their energy level.

Last updated: May 18, 2012

VANESSA MERIT NORNBERG | President, Metal Mafia

In 2004, Vanessa Merit Nornberg opened Metal Mafia, a wholesale body and costume jewelry company that sells to more than 5,000 specialty shops and retail chains in 23 countries. Metal Mafia was an Inc. 500 company in 2009.




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