Training Pays

As software needs change, so does the amount of training provided to end users.

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It should be simple: The better clients are trained, the less frustrated they are with their software purchases. Not to mention, they get a better return on their investment, and happier customers are customers for life. Training is important no matter how complex the software is, whether retail software like QuickBooks or mid-market packages such as those from Sage Software and Microsoft.

In fact, traditional training and business consulting are the largest revenue drivers for QuickBooks ProAdvisors, who on average bill $1,800 per year.

"Training is a recurring revenue stream, a relationship builder, and a great lead generator," says Leslie Merson, group product manager of accountant relations for Intuit.

Partner Insights

But no matter how important training is, it's not always easy to convince the customer to pay for it. "Classroom training is the first thing to be cut when the economy slows down, but it's rebounding now," says Taylor Macdonald, senior vice president of Irvine, Calif.-based Sage Software.

There are others who support Macdonald's observations.

"In the last three years, companies have become leaner and meaner, and they want you to come in and train them," says Gene Marks, president of the Bala Cynwyd, Pa.-based Marks Group, a Great Plains reseller. Marks continues, "They're [customers] starting to appreciate the value of training because in the past they have made the mistake of not getting enough."

A Sage reseller, Livingston, N.J.-based SWK Technologies receives 60 percent of its revenue from training.

"The key is to offer customers a combination of options, from classroom to one-on-one training, on a variety of subjects ranging from basic functionality to specific business processes," says SWK vice president Gary Berman.

SWK offers training on Sage products including BusinessWorks, Mas 90/200, SalesLogix, and Abra. Training covers basic topics, such as general ledger and accounts receivable, as well as more complex subjects such as inventory management, sales order processing, work orders, and Crystal Reports.

A Sage Authorized Training Center, SWK has 11 certified trainers on staff.

"We've seen an increase in the last quarter of 2005 for classes being taken at the firm's Authorized Training Center for both the MAS and BusinessWorks product lines. It's natural for growing companies to need more training as they migrate to new software, and experience company turnover," Berman says.

Although the percentage of revenue from the ATC is not high, Berman feels the training center adds an extra perspective to the training experience. "The combination of the training center classes and on-site training allows customers to take the best of both and get the maximum training experience," he adds.

Personalized Service

Art Nathan discovered 15 years ago that most customers do not need to know every aspect of the software. That's why the firm developed a methodology it calls "target training."

"Target training allows us to focus the training to the specific needs of the student, but also include information about what others do in the system and how that affects them as well as how what they do affects others," says Nathan, president of the Cranford, N.J.-based firm Solution Strategists.

He adds he speaks to each attendee to determine what they want to focus on. "We want to focus on what people need to know. We also encourage our clients to not train for more than four hours in any one day," he says.

Nathan says that when too much information is presented, many students forget the earlier information.

"Also, we find that this helps our clients by having their staff retain more, apply it sooner, and not feel over-burdened," adds Nathan.

What Type of Training Classes Attract Customers?

As vendors produce new versions of software in an attempt to make things easier, features tend to be more complex. Are customers still looking to be trained on the basics, or do they want to learn about business processes as well?

"Standard product training, such as how to cut a check, is happening a lot less. People buying software are now on their second or third accounting systems, and there are enough tools to help them out on the basics," says Paul Lundquist, vice president of sales for Shakopee, Minn.-based Open Systems.

More often, companies want specific training. For example, a firm hires a new accounts payable clerk; it wants to know everything there is to know about AP, and they want the reseller to get them up and running, Lundquist continues.

Suzanne Harrison, president of Londonderry, N.H.-based Harrison Consulting, an AccountMate reseller, agrees with this assessment.

"Training used to be very basic, but most people are more computer-savvy, now. People are looking for more than the basics," she says. "They want to know how to utilize their software to run their business better, and improve cash flow."

TBC International, an Open Systems reseller, has found the most interest coming from higher-level employees, such as CFOs and general managers. In the last couple of months, the Salado, Texas-based company has had several multi-office training sessions geared toward this clientele. For example, one day of training is designed for the CFO and purchasing manager, and another day for the head of sales and the general manager.

"They want to know how their systems work. They want more reporting and data-mining skills," says Richard Thomas, president of TBC.

Meanwhile, Lissa Eilers Johnsen, president of Raleigh, N.C.-based Business Technology Solutions, offers at least three days of training per week. Her firm has seen an increased interest in training related to inventory processes.

"In the last year, more and more accountants want to know how things are shipped. They don't know inventory, and they're realizing they need to understand," adds Johnsen.

Nonetheless, this doesn't mean customers still don't need the basics. Cranford, N.J.-based Solution Strategists still finds that product-specific training based on the trainee's specific area of responsibility is still the most requested. And the firm is currently in the process of considering refresher courses. These courses will be fast-tracked and suitable for people who have already had some training on the product.

That's just one of several techniques utilized by Solution Strategists that has resulted in training comprising approximately 15 percent of the firm's revenue. But Nathan anticipates that will increase by several percentage points this year. The firm had $2.4 million in revenue for 2005.

In addition to 'targeted training,' Solution Strategists provides other training alternatives with its three Sage certified trainers, starting with the train-the-trainer option followed by options offered by Sage such as self-based, Web-based, and user-based training. The firm provides on-site training to all clients, as well as training within the firm's office training facility.

Solution Strategists has chosen not to qualify as a Sage Authorized Training Center, the designation that is earned from Sage Software.

"Over the years, we have found our training is more on-point and specific to our clients' needs," says Nathan. "We can provide the same type of training, and knowing our clients' businesses, we can offer specific suggestions that are more helpful. We also use a specific consultant to train at the request of a client, to ensure continuity."

Nathan says two groups of companies are most likely to spend for training. The first are from organizations in which the environment supports training.

"The second ones are the ones who see the mistake of not doing it right the first time," he says. In many cases, larger companies are more likely to see training as a worthwhile expense. Nathan says, "The problem with entrepreneurs in most smaller companies is that they have not learned the value of training."

The Marks Group has also found client-specific training to be what its customers want.

The 11-person firm resells Open Systems' Traverse, Microsoft Dynamics, and the CRM product GoldMine, offering three training options: online, on-site, or classroom. In all cases, the customer picks the preferred form.

Gene Marks estimates that training accounts for a third of the company's revenue. He charges $135 per hour, whether five or 50 people are attending a training session.

"Customers always want more training. They know they're only utilizing about 20 percent of their software, but they need to decide whether learning the other 80 percent is beneficial," adds Marks.

Agreeing that training is often one of the first expenses companies cut, Marks emphasizes the importance of the training-the-trainer approach. "If we implement Traverse or Great Plains, we pick a central point of contact and have them become the expert. In turn, the internal cost is less for companies, and it's a good compromise in getting the customer enough training," says Marks.

A Little More Guidance

Resellers aren't the only ones offering training-accounting software vendors offer training as well. But most resellers agree clients need extra handholding when it comes to them actually attending training.

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