Arlyn S. Powell, Jr
Imagine that you work in a rapidly changing, high-technology industry and that your company has employees in locations spread throughout the United States. Imagine further that these employees must reliably educate and advise your company`s customers about the full range of products, from simple to complex, from brand new to tried-and-true, in your dynamic marketplace. This was the situation confronting Graybar (St. Louis, MO), one of the country`s largest electrical and voice/data distributors, a half-decade ago.
Unlike some of its large competitors, which depend on centralized warehousing and automated fulfillment to reach a widespread customer base, Graybar`s hallmark is more than 250 branch locations around the country. Each of these locations offers walk-in counter service as well as same-day pick-up and delivery services. In addition to branches, Graybar is establishing a network of 19 regional distribution centers that will be able to effectively service 98% of the United States by 7 AM the next day.
Needless to say, key to the success of this ambitious strategy is staffing each countertop with well-trained sales and service representatives. To provide this training, Graybar`s corporate management came up with the idea six years ago of a National Comm/ Data Training Conference.
"Our event is unique among distributors," says national market manager Karl Griffith. "Others offer regional events, but ours is national in scope."
After holding the conference twice in its first year, Graybar cut it back to an annual event, making the conference held last February in Austin, TX, the seventh. Crucial to the event`s success, according to Griffith, is Jan Meyer, a marketing-services manager for the company, whose main responsibility is to organize the show each year. "As soon as we`re done here this week," Griffith says, "Jan will start planning next year`s event. We truly couldn`t do it without her."
Moving to a different geographic region of the country each year, the training conference brings together 300 to 350 Graybar employees for a long weekend of intensive training seminars, a trade show, and social activities each evening. The goals of the conference are to provide up-to-the-minute training for Graybar employees, offer a chance to network with personnel from other areas of the country, and in the process build morale and company spirit. "We try to bring in mostly the newer people," Griffith says, "those who don`t normally get to go to trade shows. It`s a sought-after honor within the company to be invited."
Each "delegate," as the attendee is called, is required to attend 8 hours of training seminars during the conference. Presented by bicsi registered communications distribution designers and knowledgeable corporate officials, the seminars cover such technical topics as the outside-plant network, voice products, local-loop electronics, switching and routing, premises wiring, and circuits and protocols in wide-area networking. Graybar`s national marketing managers also present marketing seminars on their respective specialties: the commercial and industrial market, public network market, and reseller market.
"The training is serious business," Griffith says. "You can get CE [Continuing Education] credits for it from bicsi [Tampa, FL], and it also goes toward advancement at Graybar`s `virtual campus` " (see "Distributor`s training programs crucial for advancement," page 128). The depth and detail of the seminars were evident in the sessions attended by Cabling Installation & Maintenance staffers. "Outside Plant Networks," for instance, was presented by senior marketing analyst Tom Bludau, an outside-plant specialist from the nearby 3M Telecom Systems Div. (Austin, TX). Bludau provided exhaustive audio/visual coverage and documentation of outside-plant cable, closures and terminals, splicing equipment, and components, as well as discussing outside- plant design procedures and local-loop architectures.
As far as Graybar is concerned, the trade show, which this year attracted about 85 manufacturers, is another required avenue of training for its delegates. Conference attendees are required to spend 8 hours on the show floor and are given tally sheets to have stamped at each booth visited. At the end of the show, prize drawings are held using the "game cards" of delegates with stamps from a minimum specified number of booths.
"An extra perk for exhibitors," says Griffith, "is that we bus in about 300 Graybar customers from the surrounding region to attend the trade show on its first day."
Talking to end-users is useful, according to sales associate Chuck Ruchis of General Machine Products (Trevose, PA), but the real action is among the delegates. "It`s a good event," he says. "It gives the manufacturer a chance to educate Graybar employees, and in the process, extend its sales presence."
Why would a manufacturer be anxious to exhibit at one more trade show? If you stop and think about it, the reason becomes clear: Every Graybar delegate who stops by a booth is empowered to order the products displayed there. There`s no wasted time or effort, no unfocused selling activity.
For three evenings in a row, the delegates top off their busy days with company dinners and hospitality events. But even the social events have a serious purpose. One such event, for instance, was sponsored by Graybar Financial Services, a subsidiary set up to finance contractor and end-user cabling installations. You could sip a glass of wine, munch hors d`oeuvres, and watch a demonstration via computer monitor on how easy it is to help your location`s customers apply for financing of their construction and renovation projects.
Following a closing session on Sunday morning, delegates pack up their awards and certificates and head for the airport, but their training is by no means complete for the year. Once they`re home, they`ll be visiting Graybar Training to register their CE credits and sign up for follow-on classes.