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Eight steps to a low-cost IT training program

While budgets are getting cut, training is expected to stay strong over the next few years. Resellers can take advantage of that by offering IT training programs, without investing in expensive facilities. Follow these eight steps to get your training program developed and rolled out.

Solution provider takeaway: Storage solution providers can offer a very competitive IT training program to their customers by following these eight steps.

Despite the common perception that in order to offer an IT training program you need to be exclusively focused on it, training services aren't restricted to those companies in the channel whose primary offering is training. All resellers should have an IT training program for their customers, and it should be viewed as a key component in their portfolio of products. Whether you are a backup expert or a storage virtualization expert, you have knowledge more valuable than what's offered in the expensive classrooms and curriculum of suppliers' formal training; you have knowledge that has been acquired across countless installs in the trenches of the real world.

According to a study conducted last fall by Symantec, training is one area of the IT budget that will remain intact during the tight economic times of the next few years; 78 % of 1,600 respondents to the company's "State of the Data Center" survey said that they expect training budgets to rise or stay constant in the next two years. So an IT training program is worth investing in, but this investment doesn't need to be in additional personnel or expensive facilities. You can train them on their premises, sharing expertise that your staff already has. Without the overhead of a more formal training program, your revenue from training will be driven mostly from an investment in time and creative brain power.

Besides the additional revenue that an IT training program can bring in, it also has a positive impact on your relationship with customers. Customers who are well trained on the systems they use generally are easier to support because they have a foundational understanding of those systems. And if you train them and later provide support on those products, there's a better chance you'll be using a common vocabulary as you troubleshoot problems as they arise.

A well-trained customer is also more likely to take full advantage of the products that you've implemented. If they're apprehensive about the product, they'll be less likely to extend its use, taking an "if it's not broke, don't fix it" stance. And the only way a customer will require more of a particular product is if they're willing to expand the use of it beyond the initial implementation.

While many channel organizations offer some form of training -- often referred to as "knowledge transfer" during installation or as part of an assessment service -- the goal for your IT training program should be to expand your ongoing training efforts, not just sustain the current ones. Don't worry that you aren't equipped to provide formal offsite, classroom-style training. Your customers can't afford it anyway: Staffs are stretched thinner than ever, and travel is a luxury that's hard to justify. They need to-the-point, on-site training customized to their environment.

Now that you know the "why" of training, it's time for the "how." This step-by-step list lays out how to build and roll out your IT training program.

Step 1: Assess your team's knowledge set.
You first need to examine the skill sets your organization has that can be leveraged for training. What areas of IT does your organization have in-depth knowledge of? For example, do you have a guy who really understands Fibre Channel over Ethernet or someone who's an expert at managing storage in a VMware environment? If so, those areas should land at the top of the list of your potential training offerings.

Step 2: Assess and refine your team's training abilities.
Once you've identified the strongest knowledge bases in your company, you then need to determine if those individuals within the company are comfortable in a customer-facing situation. This is more involved than a simple install; they'll need to spend all day with a customer, teaching and listening to them. Personal interaction skills are critical. Some technical people have the capability; others do not. If your knowledge expert doesn't have the customer-facing skills, you'll need to look for someone in your company who has the people skills and who's also a good candidate to absorb the knowledge well enough to teach it. If this person can't be found internally, consider going outside the organization and hiring someone. The profitability of this service can easily justify the added expense.

Step 3: Identify technologies to train on and nail down the approach to take.
Once you know who's going to deliver the training, the next step is to identify what customers most commonly need and are willing to pay for. You can identify what they most need by analyzing the types of support calls you get, or by simply asking them. Typically, the themes that work best are how-to sessions, along the lines of "How to optimize your 10GB Ethernet investment," "How to protect your VMware environment with your current data protection products" or "How to identify and fix storage performance issues with your current products." The "with current products" phrase is critical because it conveys that your training is, in fact, not a cleverly disguised sales pitch.

Step 4: Pull together course materials.
The next step is organization. It's ideal to have a PowerPoint presentation, along with handouts and spreadsheets. Any material that you've developed in the past to help with your installations and troubleshooting engagements are important to include as part of the IT training program. For instance, if you have a spreadsheet that you use to inventory and rank the virtualization readiness of a server, make sure to share it; it will be invaluable to the customer.

Step 5: Determine pricing.
Setting pricing for your training is pretty simple: When you start out, the daily fee should be the same as the fee for having an engineer at a customer site for a day. As your IT training program matures and you build up a stable of references, look to raise the price.

Step 6: Try out the training on some guinea pigs.
After organization, it makes sense to offer a "beta" version of the training to a few of your most "friendly" customers. This gives the trainer an opportunity to test the delivery of the curriculum, and you should ask for feedback on points to emphasize and de-emphasize. Don't charge for the beta training; only ask for permission to quote them in a marketing brochure or use them as a reference if they find the training valuable. Beyond testing the curriculum, this beta training also gives you an opportunity to verify the logistics for the "live" training. For instance, can it be done in a customer's conference room with a connection to the data center, or does it need to be done hands-on in the data center itself? (In general, it's better to tell the customer what you need in terms of equipment and access privileges and have them set up that equipment. That's one of the advantages of training on their machines.)

Step 7: Market your IT training program.
After you've tested the training program and verified that it works, the next step is to market it to customers or potential customers. Training is for the most part an intangible sale and so it's more difficult to demonstrate its value than hardware; pull together examples of the curriculum, quotes from existing customers and even short videos of in-action training to be used in a sales handout. Then, get your sales team excited to talk to their customers about the IT training program. One important note: During the sales and marketing process, expectations need to be set correctly. Unless they're told otherwise, customers will assume that your training is like any other training, where they have to leave work, travel somewhere and be stuck in a classroom all day. Make sure they understand that this training is designed to be given at their facility, provide plenty of time for handling other IT emergencies as they arise and is customized for their environment as only you could do.

Step 8: Deliver the training.
The final step is the actual delivery of the training. A day or two prior to the training session, make sure that you reconfirm logistics with the customer. If you'll be using a conference room, make sure that it's reserved and that the equipment you need is ready and set up with the right access privileges.

The training itself should be straightforward; you're trying to educate your customer on the subject matter. If you've set the expectations correctly, there won't be incredibly high expectations of you. You're merely going to impart some of your knowledge and experience to a fellow IT professional. You don't have the standards of a certification class; you're merely teaching storage survival skills.

Done right, an IT training program will separate you from your competition and increase your value-add. As one reseller said to me: "Offering this type of training has transformed our business and our image in front of customers, and it required the [smallest] capital outlay of any initiative we have tried in the last three years. Because of the customer good will, reduced support costs and the additional product sales that we can track directly as a result of providing these hands-on sessions, I could easily justify providing this training at no cost to our customers; I don't intend to, but I could."

About the author
George Crump is president and founder of Storage Switzerland, an IT analyst firm focused on the storage and virtualization segments. With 25 years of experience designing storage solutions for data centers across the United States, he has seen the birth of such technologies as RAID, NAS and SAN. Prior to founding Storage Switzerland, George was chief technology officer at one of the nation's largest storage integrators, where he was in charge of technology testing, integration and product selection. Find Storage Switzerland's disclosure statement here.

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