by Peyton Burch

Training is the most important part of successful software implementations.

During the sales cycle, prospects often express dissatisfaction with the current software and its implementation. They often say, "We were never trained," or, "Our previous consultant did not know the software."

These responses are essentially the same. Consultants cannot be considered an expert on a product until they can effectively transfer their knowledge to end-users.

Being able to execute a task does not necessarily mean that you understand what’s going on. True mastery of any topic includes the capacity to explain it in a way that’s easily comprehended. This ability comes with depth of knowledge and experience.

Training is one area that should never be compromised. My practice’s philosophy is to not sell software to prospects that do not commit to training unless the prospect has previous experience with the product. Poorly trained users are never happy and they detract from productivity. Besides, nobody wants to work with people who intentionally remain ignorant.

The investment in training is much less than the costs associated with improper use of the software. Our training approach has evolved over the years into an integral component of our implementation methodology. Originally, we trained clients as the final step before going live, feeling that if we trained earlier in the process, they’d forget everything by the time they actually started using the software.

True to our origins as the consulting arm of a CPA firm, our implementation methodology focused on accurately converting accounting data from the old to the new solution.

Our focus was on the accounting function and not the users. Furthermore, clients were not effectively involved in system design. We covered the set-up options with them, but since the users were not trained prior to the design process, it was impossible for them to comprehend the available options and the implications of their choices.

To be accommodating, we typically trained at clients’ offices, which are never conducive to training. Computers were relocated to conference rooms or kitchens in cramped spaces that often prohibited something as simple as taking notes.

Rather than configuring a separate training company for each student and the trainer so that all the screens looked identical, we had the users operate in different records of the same company. While the instructor was displaying Customer ABC, one student would be looking at Customer 1-2-3 and another looking at Customer XYZ. The focus was often misdirected.

On-site training’s other main problem is interruptions. Unfortunately, most people consider their personal issues to be more important than training on "accounting software."

Ironically, the most frequent offender is often the one who complains about the training six weeks later - the owner. The poor controller was put in the unenviable position of sacrificing training to keep the boss happy. Or even worse, our trainer exceeded the training budget by having to wait for a key individual to return to class. Unforeseen interruptions destroy training flow and completely undermine the learning process.

On a positive note, we were providing hands-on training, and never trained by having a consultant at the keyboard while clients crowded around and looked. You cannot learn accounting software by observation; active participation is essential.

Yet, our overall engagement results were less than desired. Our clients never really owned the system as our approach precluded them from the design process. So, we invested in a small training room and initiated our subsequent implementations with an eye on training. Acquiring a liquid crystal display panel that sat on top of an overhead projector to project a screen shot on the wall may have been the best investment our firm ever made.

The improvements were dramatic. Upfront training enabled our clients to play significant roles in the design process. Training at our offices meant that the students could learn in an identical environment without interruptions. We developed a standard curriculum for each module and selected what we felt were appropriate components.

Still things were not perfect. The pendulum had swung the other way and the end users that were not really part of the project team were not retaining the information during the implementation process.

More important, we were still conducting user-specific training based on what we thought the end users needed. Our customers were satisfied with our training, but our approach did not necessarily create the loyalty that we sought.

We did not realize our approach’s shortcomings until we became an authorized training center for State of the Art, now known as Best Software Middle Market. For 2001, Best named my firm its Authorized Training Center of the year.

Despite being one the original ATC’s back in 1996, we still offered user-specific training and our training materials. I soon learned that clients that went to the ATC classes were significantly happier than clients that received our user-specific training.

While my experience has only been with the State of the Art/Best Software ATCs, the same thoughts probably apply to training centers that are sanctioned by other accounting software vendors.

The major difference was that the ATC classes taught everything about the modules, and students were better able to apply that knowledge to their particular circumstances.

In our client-specific training, we taught what we thought clients needed to know. Our user-specific training was not exposing our clients to features that might not be implemented at the initial conversion, but as a subsequent phase.

The appropriate focus for user-specific training is for end users that are not members of the conversion project team. Train these individuals as one of the final phases of the engagement - just prior to conversion. This is task-oriented training for warehouse receiving personnel or the accounts payable clerks, and should be tailored to their specific jobs.

I don’t mean to imply that effective training can only be achieved through an Authorized Training Center. The costs and time commitments may be prohibitive for many organizations. But, I advocate a training approach that features the following components:

An appropriate training facility in your office. Our training room features standardized computers, a ceiling-mounted projector, a printer, white boards, flip charts and an instructor podium. Students have ample space to take notes, and dimmer switches create the proper lighting.

Curriculum-based training. Curriculum provides the needed structure and depth. Users incorporate their own notes in the manuals and have the ultimate resource to take back to the office. Teach your clients everything that is available and let them decide what is appropriate for their businesses.

Use your consultants as trainers. The classroom is no place for novices. Battle-tested consultants rely on their experience to respond to questions and challenges presented by the students. Entry-level people reading from the instructor’s guide are ineffective. We make all of our consultants become Certified Trainers, and we rotate instructors and keep the classes fresh. Our consultants are compelled to stay current on products in order to maintain their certification.

Conduct scheduled training as part of your business. Our training schedule is developed on a quarterly basis. Our most popular classes are held every month. Encourage the entire client project team to attend classes together. Many design issues will be addressed during training. Often, individuals from multiple organizations attend the same class. The exchange of ideas between students from different organizations adds value to the learning process.

Continue to train your clients. All of us need to constantly keep learning to remain competitive. My firm offers advanced training on the productivity tools bundled with the software. We also conduct quarterly users group meetings to educate clients on new features in the software, remind them of existing tools that they may not be taking advantage of and cover topics like year-end processing, where payroll and 1099 requirements are constantly changing.

Operating your own training facility can mean several "home court" advantages, such as the ability for ghosting, which enables you to create a training program and store its image so the program can be readily called up each time you train. That compares to training at client sites, where you have to create new programs and environments each time you visit the site.

More important, providing a training facility eliminates interruptions and can encourage greater student retention. We’ve had only one person leave a class, and that was because of a fire at his warehouse.

We provide lunch at our facility to keep classes on track. The focus is on learning. We charge for our classes on a per-student basis. From an economic standpoint, the realization from a consultant teaching a class to seven students is typically greater than the revenue from a day of consulting.

The National Association of State Boards of Accountancy approves all classes for continuing professional education.

And well-trained users remain loyal to the reseller and the product. They are certainly more pleasant to work with.

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