Volvo Enlists Sales Representatives for ’Boot Camp’

Tue September 14, 2004 - Southeast Edition
Jennifer Conway

For the men and women selling Volvo Construction Equipment, job training is a test of endurance, stamina and teamwork -–– in essence, it’s the manufacturer’s version of military boot camp.

For two days, Volvo dealers from the United States, Mexico and Canada send their sales staff to an intense training program aimed at not only teaching product knowledge but also selling skills.

But just getting to boot camp is a test –– actually 33 –– in itself.

“The students first complete our online training course, QuickTrack,” said Mick Vaught, Volvo’s training director based in Asheville, NC. “We track them through our LMS, or learning management system. We know who they are, what they’ve taken and when they’ve completed all 33 courses.”

Vaught explained that each course is laid out to be approximately 35 to 45 minutes in length, with most courses ending in a test. Once he or she completes all the courses, the sales rep must pass a final exam, which requires a score of at least 75 percent. It is only after this process, which takes approximately four to six weeks, that the salesperson advances on to the two-day training session.

Volvo’s boot camp integrates theory with a practical situation –– not just teaching, but engaging the sales person.

Similar to what often occurs in the initial six-weeks of military training, the manufacturer breaks up the students into teams, which are divided by the four products trained on –– wheel loaders, excavators, articulated haulers and motorgraders.

“Let’s say you’re a salesperson and you really understand wheel loaders and you’re pretty good at motorgraders, but you really have a hard time with excavators,” explained Vaught. “We make sure you are on the excavator team. We assign you to your weakest link, and you stay with that team for two days.”

Although Volvo works to reinforce the weakest area of a salesperson’s knowledge, all the sales reps will have a taste of all the products, Vaught added.

When students first arrive at boot camp, they receive a book detailing their mission: to identify the needs of the customer, Mr. Harding (actually a Volvo product specialist), do a machine walk around with Mr. Harding based on his needs, and negotiate and close a deal with Mr. Harding.

“Some [Mr. Harding’s] are actually pretty tough,” said Vaught. “We’ve had situations where a sales person actually could not close a deal. We’ve had situations where Mr. Harding has refuted some of the statements that a sales person has made. We’ve had situations where Mr. Harding has gotten up and walked away. … We make the training as real as you can possibly make it.”

The mission is competitive, with each team earning points based on its successes or failures. The team with the most points at the end of the second day is rewarded as the Top Gun team, and each individual is named a Top Gun sales rep and takes home a $100 Volvo gift certificate, a Volvo shirt and a Top Gun hat.

“So the incentive is,” said Vaught, “you’re a team player but you want to get as many points as you possibly can. You want to shoot to be the Top Gun. You want to be rewarded.”

So far, the benefits of the new approach to training have paid off for not only the salespeople but also for Volvo and its dealers.

“We’ve tied it directly to market share increases,” said Vaught. “We’ve measured it against no training, with Web-only training, and with Web and hands-on training. And typically, with Web-based training we get an increase of 10 percent. When we combine Web and hands-on, it goes up to 30 percent.”

The teamwork approach has also increased communication and networks between sales reps.

“A benefit of having teams is inexperienced players are mixed with seasoned sales reps, and everyone is gaining experience from each other,” said Vaught. “It really works well because … while all this is going on, they’re talking, sharing and exchanging information.”

Volvo held its first boot camp on March 15, 2002, and has since held a total of 25. The last camp was held in August in Asheville, and the next one will take place in late October, also in Asheville.

Vaught explained that the location varies and is based on when and where the salespeople complete the Internet training.

Volvo’s boot camp, which was originally offered for new salespeople or salespeople who never sold Volvo, ended up becoming so popular that experienced salesmen wanted to get involved in the courses. In fact, noted Vaught, Volvo is now getting requests from parts departments, and some of the service men and women also are taking advantage of the program.

“The product support people are interested in a lot of things the program offers,” he added. “It’s not only sales. We train employees on how to find information in the Volvo network, the history of Volvo, our world strategy as well as our products. So there are a lot of little nuggets in the program that just about anyone can use. And they do –– they use it.”

Vaught noted that Volvo developed the boot camp concept when the manufacturer realized it was becoming more difficult to get dealers to send their sales force to training, which in the past had lasted five days.

“They were losing travel expenses. They were losing revenue,” he said. “We knew manufacturers typically do a good job of product training, but we do not do such a good job on actually teaching the salesmen how to sell the Volvo product. What we said we didn’t want to do is stand up for two days and be talking heads. We said, ’We’re going to put these guys to work –– we’re going to put them to the test.’”