September 30, 2002, 12:00 AM

School Days

Retailers are bringing the classroom to truant employees in need of training—over the web.

When it comes to teaching retailing skills, Cokesbury, the retail division of the United Methodist Publishing House, has as tough a challenge as any merchant. Operating through three channels-web, catalog and stores-Cokesbury’s sales reps are tasked with increasing sales of products ranging from scholarly theology books to custom-fitted robes, candles, pew cushions and a vast assortment of other church supplies, but doing so in a way that works within ministerial standards. “We are a business, but also a ministry,” says Jenny Emerson, training manager for Cokesbury. “Store employees must combine the skills of a librarian, a church supply expert and a tailor.”

Charged with improving the way Cokesbury, which serves a customer base of 11 million church members, trains retail employees, Emerson started planning for an e-learning program in January. “We looked at having a corporate university and how to do that with retail stores across the country,” she says. “We decided online learning was the way to go.”

One-year payback

After months of researching, getting approval from top management, and then choosing a technology provider, Emerson’s efforts resulted in an early September launch of an e-learning program for which Cokesbury has high expectations. Because e-learning is more effective than traditional training methods, Cokesbury expects the program to pay for itself in the first year through increased retail sales; in the second year, it expects it will significantly boost sales in all retail channels.

While the answer to what kind of training system to deploy seemed obvious to Emerson, Cokesbury is in the vanguard among retailers in e-learning. While 60% of business organizations will have deployed an e-learning program by 2004, says META Group Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based research firm, analysts say the retail industry has been lagging. “We haven’t seen many retailers deploy this, but lots of them are talking about it,” says Greg Girard, retail analyst with AMR Research Inc., Boston.

Nonetheless, like Cokesbury, some retailers, have been progressing with e-learning efforts. “The retail industry is getting beyond the early adopters,” says Nancy Pless, e-learning product manager of Radiant Systems Inc.

Retailers at the forefront share a common theme in developing their e-learning programs: Their employees must sell a broad range of products that require some kind of specialized knowledge. In Cokesbury’s case, it’s books, church supplies and ministerial accoutrements. In the case of CVS Corp., the drugstore chain, it’s pharmaceutical products that pharmacy technicians need to know intimately because such knowledge can literally involve life-or-death decisions, and commodities like combs and toothbrushes. In recent years, CVS’s rapid growth has led to inconsistent use of pharmaceutical training materials by 16,000 pharmacy technicians nationwide.

Higher pass rates

The company, with more than $20 billion in sales and 4,000 locations in 32 states and the District of Columbia, relies heavily on its pharmacy technicians as the frontline employees facing customers. Like the drugstore industry in general, CVS is experiencing increasing demand for prescription drugs and other pharmacy items that often require complex instructions on product attributes and usage. The ability of pharmacy employees to explain the intricacies of products, as well as to process insurance forms and address customer problems is vital to the company’s success.

CVS, with an e-learning system that automatically monitors the progress of thousands of pharmacy employees from entry-level to senior staff technicians, is now able to more readily assure that employees stay current with an ongoing series of certification programs. One of the results: 97% of CVS pharmacy technicians pass the national Pharmacy Technician Certification Board exams, compared to an industry average of 81%, the company says. With personalized reports on each technician’s status available through its e-learning system, technicians can determine when they can sit for the PTCB certification or which in-house CVS certifications they have outstanding, says K.J. Payette, project manager for the CVS e-learning system.

No more truants

Operating behind the scenes is the Thinq Training Server Learning Management System from Thinq Learning Solutions Inc. Jeff Tomchik, manager of e-learning technologies at CVS, says the system works well enough for pharmacy technicians that the company plans to implement a version to serve its entire workforce of 100,000. The system employs web-based as well as instructor-led courses in classrooms.

In addition to increasing levels of training and improving customer service, Tomchik says, the e-learning system is saving CVS millions of dollars by improving attendance at courses. In the past, he notes, CVS would conduct training sessions related to new products and policies at conference hotels around the country. “But only 50% would show up, and the balance we’d never see,” he says.

CVS uses web-based materials most of the time for general training, but still uses CD-ROMs when major rollouts of training sessions would create technical problems, such as overloading stores with insufficient bandwidth.

At Cokesbury, the new e-learning system will initially serve more than 300 employees in 75 stores. If all goes well, Cokesbury eventually will roll out the system to employees in the online and catalog operations as well as at administrative offices of United Methodist Publishing in Nashville, Tenn.

The system consists of the web-based KnowledgeHub learning management system from Rochester, N.Y.-based Element K LLC, which hosts the system and provides e-learning software content. Cokesbury also uses content from other vendors and content developed in-house. So far, the system has worked well in tests, Emerson says. Other than high bandwidth connections to all stores to support the streaming video in e-learning software content, the system hasn’t presented any special requirements or difficulties, she adds.

Cokesbury had considered basing its employee e-learning program on a distance learning system it already offered to customers, but that system did not integrate well with back-office applications. With Element K, Emerson says, information on e-learning course schedules and employee records can easily flow into the company’s PeopleSoft applications to integrate with human resources and other systems.

Intuitive and easy to use

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