sales training

Stuff, Not Fluff – DEC’s Networks University – Part 2

Stuff – Not Fluff

In conducting my needs assessment for Networks University, one theme I heard again and again from the people who would attend is that they needed “stuff, not fluff.”  For the most part, the attendees were technical people and they wanted to talk with technical people – they were wary that the program was being sponsored by the marketing group and, repeatedly, they said they didn’t want to “waste their time listening to marketing fluff.”  In fact, the phrase “Stuff, not fluff” became a mantra for Networks U.

As the technologies for local area networks rapidly evolved, we were challenged in how to get the best and latest technical information put together for the program.  We were talking about new technologies, a whole new set of products, new services unlike anything the company had provided in its history.  When I had tried to impress these points on the company’s educational services organization, the response I got was “That’s not how we do things.”

Educational Services had built its own model for how to train employees.  For each new computer model (which took 3 to 5 years to develop), it created a one-week comprehensive program that covered everything from pre-sales to installation to trouble-shooting.  That program took 12 to 18 months to develop and had development costs of $100,000 to $150,000.  The new reality for the Networks and Communications (NaC) group was that the development cycle for new products would be well under a year and sometimes as short as a few months.  The Educational Services model was clearly not going to work for this business unit.

So, if Educational Services couldn’t help us develop and deliver the content for Networks University, who could?  The solution was to get the subject-matter experts to develop and deliver the training.  With the support of the entire NaC business unit, we got whoever we needed – product managers, marketing managers, engineers, back-up support groups, college professors, consultant – whoever we needed, we got.

This was not a slam-dunk strategy from the beginning.  When I approached several engineers as we were planning the first session, I got remarks like, “You want us to talk with sales people (said with a sneer).  What possible value is there for us to talk with sales people?”  I called in some favors that were owed me and got a few engineers to participate in the first Networks University session.  At the end of the session, I met with the engineers.  “It was amazing,” they told me.  “Did you know that these sales people actually talk with customers and know what customers like and don’t like about our products?  That they talk with customers about what they would like to see us develop in the future?  We never thought we could learn anything from sales people, but we were wrong.”  From that point on, we never had problems in getting engineers and other technical people to participate in Networks U.  (It also didn’t hurt that we fed them well.)

Now, you have to realize that engineers, product managers, and other technical personnel do not always make the best trainers.  First, they haven’t been trained to develop or deliver training.  Second, egos sometimes get in the way (“People will see how brilliant I am and once they see that I can answer all of their technical questions, they won’t care if I’m a great speaker or not”).  How to overcome these and other obstacles?  Here are a few ideas (Note: a more comprehensive approach can be found in my article on using subject matter experts that you can find on my Articles page (

  • Provide training on how to put together a presentation
  • Encourage them to take a presentation skills course
  • Assign an instructional designer to work with them to help organize their presentation and develop some good visual and job aids

We also emphasized to these technical speakers that they needed to focus on “stuff, not fluff” and that they needed to prepare for their sessions, rather than walking in cold.  The most effective strategy we developed was to require presenters to review their content and approach with two volunteers from the target audience.  In this way, we ensured that what the audience needed was what was delivered.

Despite all of these warnings and preparations, we were not always successful.  Because we were running multiple concurrent sessions throughout the week-long program, the participants quickly learned to “vote with their feet,” i.e., we had a few disastrous sessions which might have started with 100 or more participants, but ended with only a handful of people in the room – the rest had quickly lost interest and moved to other sessions.  It didn’t take many of these occurrences to get the message across.

These many sessions within a single Network University program were the core of the program.  But there was much more to Networks U that these formal sessions, and I’ll cover some of those aspects of the program in subsequent blog entries.

DEC’s Networks University – Part 1

About 10 years ago, the company for which I was working hired a new vice president of sales.  I saw in the announcement that she had worked for Digital Equipment Corporation and that her time there overlapped with my own 11 years there.  One day, I stopped in to see her.  I told her that her name was familiar and she said that my name rang a bell as well.  She asked me what I did there and I said that, among other things, I had created a program called Networks University.  “Oh!” she exclaimed.  “I just loved Networks U.  I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since.  It was just the best program.”  And this was more than 20 years later.

While subsequent posts will provide background on the creation and operation of Digital Equipment Corporation’s (DEC) Networks University, here are some basic statistics on this remarkable program.  While it took a few years to get everything up to speed, once we got there we were running Networks University:

  • Twice a year in the U.S. for an audience of around 600 people
  • Twice a year in Europe for an audience of around 400 people
  • Once a year in the Pacific Rim for an audience of around 200 people
  • Each week-long program included 40 to 70 separate sessions, ranging from one hour to three days
  • For each 6-month cycle, 80% of the content was brand new
  • In terms of the content of the session, it was all planned by 2 to 3 people (more were involved in the logistics of the events)

Network U was unique, not just for Digital, but in the computer industry (we had many people hired from other computer companies attending the program and they said that their previous companies had nothing to compare).  Networks U was not a “training program” in the traditional sense, but more of a “learning event” where everyone in the networks world (sales, field service, software services, marketing, engineering, support groups, etc., came together to share what they had learned and to learn from each other.

When you walked into the hotel where we held a session, there was an electricity in the air, an excitement that I have never experienced in any other program I created or attended.

Did everything work perfectly?  Of course not.  With each iteration of the program, we made improvements and corrected things that didn’t go so well in previous programs.

My hope is that by sharing my experiences with the program other training professionals can benefit from my own experiences.  In the next blog entry, I’ll provide some background on Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), a company that pioneered the mini-computer.  While DEC no longer exists, at its height around 1987 employed 125,000 people around the world.

I’m back!

Please pardon my absence from blogging for a while.  Early this year I had an unfortunate heart attack that sidelined me for several months.  Now, with three stents in my coronary arteries, and completing a multi-month course of cardiac rehab, I am now in good health and feeling good.

In my 40+ years in the training/learning field, I have been fortunate to have a number of managers who allowed me to try new ideas which, for the most part, resulted in very successful programs.  While I have written 7 books on corporate and individual learning strategies, I still have many stories to tell.  I plan now to write a long series of blogs and articles to help transfer some of my experience to others.

I have been pleasantly surprised throughout my career where I have suggested new approaches that seemed simple to me, but had never occurred to the people I worked with.  In these blogs, I plan to relate many of these stories.  Some of my colleagues may find some of these stories simplistic and obvious, but my hope is that some of these stories may spark an idea for some of my colleagues.  In other blogs, I will share some of my own philosophy of learning and development that I hope at least some of my readers will find useful or, at least, challenge them to rethink how they do things — even if they decide that their current practices fit their situations perfectly, it never hurts to consider other ideas.

I hope that, through this series and through my earlier books, writings, and presentations, I can establish my legacy for the field.

Dan Tobin

Working with Subject-Matter Experts to Develop and Deliver Training

At one time or another, training personnel must rely on subject-matter experts to help them develop and/or deliver training. Over the course of my career I have learned a lot of lessons on what works best in these situations. For more information, please click on the “Articles” tab above and read my article on this subject.

As always, your comments, suggestions, and war stories are more than welcomed.

Dan Tobin

“Features” or “Benefits” — What is your salesforce selling?

When I worked for Digital Equipment Corporation through the 1980s, one of the challenges that we shared with much of the high tech industry was in teaching sales reps how to distinguish between the features of a product or solution and the benefits that product or solution would provide to customers.  Digital traditionally sold to technical customers rather than to management, and technical customers were interested in technical specifications, what we called “speeds and feeds.”  But as we tried to get the attention of a customer’s non-technical managers, our sales reps found that they were unable to communicate in “business-speak” rather than “tech-speak.”  We used to joke that the way most of our sales reps approached business managers was to put our technical product brochures in a leather binder rather than a paper binder.  Here’s one way that I tried to solve that problem…

I had found an article in MIT’s Sloan Management Review written by Michael Hammer and Glenn Mangurian titled “The Changing Value of Communications Technology.”  I envisioned how their “Impact-Value Matrix” (see diagram below) could be used by our reps to talk with customers about their business and how Digital’s technology solutions could enable new and improved ways for our current and potential customers to conduct their businesses. 

Working with the late Michael Hammer, then a professor at MIT, and Glenn Mangurian of the Index Group, we created a sales training program that was very different from Digital’s longstanding approach to sales training that focused on specific products and their configurations.

We asked the sales reps to come to the training with all the background information they had about one of their toughest prospects – a company that was already doing business with our major competitors and that wasn’t interested in our technology.  After presenting the impact-value framework and providing examples of how our solutions could be matched to the various benefits outlined in the matrix, we asked the reps to prepare a presentation for that customer based on the matrix, so that when they left the training they were immediately able to go back to that customer with a new approach that focused on the benefits of Digital solutions, rather than the technical features of those solutions.  The results were excellent, with many reps reporting that they were finally able to get their foot in the customer’s door and start a dialogue with the customer that would produce sales in the short term.

Do your sales reps focus on the features of your company’s products and services or on the benefits the customer will reap from implementing your solutions.  If the focus has traditionally been on features, the use of the impact-value matrix, or another framework of your choosing, can spark new ideas and new sales.