One of Canada’s largest wireless carriers is turning senior executives into animated characters to teach soft skills to its internal sales force and reseller channel.

Rogers AT&T Wireless Monday said it was in the process

of developing new modules for the Interactive Training Tree, an online tool provided by Redwood e-Learning Systems. Rogers has been using the product since the fourth calendar quarter of last year, when it began a project to enhance its customer service capabilities.

Gordon Stein, the carrier’s vice-president of sales operations, said Rogers develops custom modules to be used with Redwood’s software, which offers an online role-playing experience for 12,000 sales representatives across Canada. The stars of the show are the executive vice-presidents of Rogers AT&T Wireless’s sales and marketing departments, who act as coaches as reps respond to a variety of customer scenarios.

“”One of the challenges with online training is that is has a very dry feel to it,”” Stein said. “”It can be intensely boring to do it. If you want to get 12,000 people excited about it, it has to be entertaining.””

Lydia Sani, founding partner of Redwood e-Learning Systems, said the company’s tools offer a distinct advantage over traditional instructor-led training for what can be challenging interpersonal skills.

“”It’s time off the job, it’s getting people together to do the soft skills,”” she said. “”Classroom training you may only do every four months. This is instant. You have access to it immediately.””

Stein said e-learning has allowed Rogers AT&T Wireless to teach reps how to better target customers based on demographics like youth or business customers. The modules have what he described as very lifelike ways of responding to questions a sales rep might ask them. The animated coaches then offer their critique, often in a humourous manner.

“”If you use close-ended questioning, you’re unlikely to do well,”” he said. “”In a typical store scenario, when a sales rep comes up and asks you if they can help with anything, it typically gets a response of ‘No. Just browsing, thanks.'””

Instead, Stein said, the rep might ask customers how they are using wireless or cellular devices and tailor their approach accordingly.

E-learning can also be an efficient communications medium, Stein added. One of the first modules Rogers AT&T Wireless rolled out brought reps up to speed on the end-of-year specials, for example. As the company introduces new features to its products, this training will become vital, he said.

“”We have to also get across to our entire sales force not just speeds and feeds but whole new ways of using our devices,”” he said.

Sani said Redwood’s tools could be used for negotiation training as well as in human resources. “”So far, the big thing we’re seeing is in sales — how to close a sale, how to identify a customer,”” she said.

Rogers will be evaluating the success of the Redwood product through its mystery shopper program, Stein said. The company also has access to a system that will allow it to see how many employees at an individual store have taken part in the training.

Rogers isn’t the first Canadian carrier to lean on e-learning. In 2002, the Bell Canada division formerly known as Nexxia used e-learning tools with cartoon caricatures of employees to help smooth over the integration process between two groups of employees.

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