This is Part 1 of our interview with Gene Feldman M.A.Ed., Training Manager, Nestlé Purina Pet Care. The interview is a discussion of the future of sales training and corporate learning. Gene is an avid early adopter who has championed the use of UPtick™, a virtual reality sales development software at Purina. The interview below has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Could you describe your role at Nestlé Purina?

I work for Nestlé Purina Pet Care, part of the Center of Functional Excellence. I’m a training manager who oversees our category and sales training technology. Much of my role is to bring training to life in a training environment.

At Purina, it’s all about pet’s lives. Pets come first; they are truly our customers. We are one of the biggest pet care manufacturers and distributors across the United States. My department, the Center of Functional Excellence, focuses on training. We want to provide tools and skills to our salesforce and our marketing category leadership. 

We are responsible for training that enables them to do their job, so we recreate their day-to-day jobs within a training environment. Currently the Center of Functional Excellence has three training managers, one  training specialist and a director of Functional Training. We support the entire sales organization, which is about 400-600 people.

A lot of my day is monitoring our current training as well as researching and piloting new technology. So I spend much of my time networking with other leaders in technical training spaces in order to find better courses of training for our company. 

What are some of the challenges your team faces today?

Some of the challenges that we face as an organization deal with size. With big corporations, sometimes it is difficult to be agile and scale solutions. Another challenge is that a lot of time people think of training as something that is an add-on to their day, and therefore expendable. 

One of the things that we really noticed that is a challenge for our sales organization is creating a risk-free environment to fail. On average, it takes over 300 conversations with a customer until a sales person is proficient. For us, that is 300 opportunities to make a mistake with a customer. We wanted to create an environment where people can practice without the worry of losing a sale – but also be emotionally invested. 

What is the sales training process at Nestlé Purina?

Our training process has been morphing over the last few years. What we have done is created a program that takes our new hires – anybody that is new to the sales organization or the category – and creates a roadmap where we start with the landscape of CPG and ground all of our people in what is going on in the landscape. 

We start with the basics, then we start them with a great software tool – UPtick™ Sales Readiness platform –  that actually allows us to practice simulations and conversations. Finally, we teach them the Purina specifics. We really want to ground them first. Sending a sales rep to a call without giving them the proper grounding is like asking a musician to play a symphony without giving them a sheet of music. We believe in starting with a good foundation and then drilling down into Purina specifics. Then they are better able to understand why Purina does things a bit differently than others in our space.

How long does it take to onboard a new sales rep?

Our onboarding process takes new reps from a foundation in the CPG space, all the way through the Purina specifics. Right now, it’s a 6 month program. We have always tried to cap it at 6 months, but recently we have pulled some instructor-led training out and replaced it with valuable new immersive e-learning courses, like Selleration’s UPtick. That enabled us to add in more training to the 6 month time period, without making it overwhelming. 

With UPtick, people now do a lot of on-boarding at their own pace, and on their own time. The instructor led piece is where we get into Purina specifics. So, our training time has stayed the same, but we have actually been able to increase the depth and breadth of our training by incorporating some e-learning tools.

What is the ROI on your new on-boarding process?

This has been the first year we have really piloted and we are just now getting early data. We’ve  been really surprised about the value added just within the preliminary data result. Understanding of topics such as sales negotiation went up by 200%!  It has really been unbelievable. 

The key thing seems to be that the software enables them to practice sales conversations and customer conversations before they ever sit down with a real customer. We see reps learning to be more agile, think better on their feet. 

Our sales organization is unique in that we don’t attribute sales results to training, because there are so many outside circumstances that could skew their sales numbers. For instance, a product recall. Instead, we use analytic tools provided to us by e-learning, including Selleration’s UPtick™, to see results. We also look at the analytics to see where people are struggling in a conversation, we can coach to it, as well as we can see their improvement. 

It is those metrics that we are looking at because if they practice it enough and they start scoring well, we are more comfortable sending them into the field to meet with real people. In this way they have learned how to make a first impression long before they actually had to do it, and so we are starting to see real growth in Selling Intelligence scores

Another great thing is the reaction of the reps, who have really embraced Sellerations’s virtual reality (VR) sales training tool. In fact, next year we are expanding UPtick VR it to our entire sales organization to be used for all new hires. 

What was the primary business driver for you to purchase UPtick?

Innovation. When I first started looking for VR training software years ago, I started with a google search. When I saw the demo of UPtick™ Virtual Reality I was completely taken aback,  and then I got to meet the UPtick™ crew. It was a no-brainer for me because of the power of the conversation, which was conducted in normal voice, as well as the ability to adjust the conversation and create “on-time conversations”. 

What I mean by on-time conversations is one of the things we have really looked at is if something like a product recall happened and we have to go out to those affected customers and have a hard conversation with them, an important consideration for Critical Communications programs. If that ever were to happen, Selleration’s UPtick™ would be our solution. 

We would get the virtual reality sales conversation designed in UPtick™, get it out to all of our sales organization so they can practice having that tough conversation, before they have to actually deliver it. What we are excited about is that this would offer real consistency across markets, with all of our sales reps delivering the same message.

When we started with Virtual Reality we targeted our Category Leadership. Their job is to help with the planograms and get product from the store to the cart. The category team has information that they are not allowed to share with others in the company, even though they are part of Purina. This is why we decided to roll out UPtick™ virtual reality sales training to them first. 

Has Purina been able to quantify the impact of UPtick™?

Granted the data is early, but we’ve been able to quantify the impact of UPtick™ on sales in several ways. We have seen triple digit growth in sales conversation understanding. Off the top of my head, there is a great conversation about leveraging sales and a great conversation about negotiating. 

These are two key things for any rep. But they are also 2 key conversations that some people shy away from. Negotiating – some people LOVE negotiating and some people struggle with it. What these conversations did, is that with people who were low performers – scoring for instance 27% – we saw them go all the way to the top. This is huge.

We’ve trained these folks on negotiation, but they’ve never been able to have a conversation on negotiation. With UPtick™, we are able to define their sales knowledge and then see their growth in understanding.

Most recently what drove you to ask for custom content delivered via virtual reality?

For the past couple of years, I have been working on a pet project in virtual reality. It led me to start reaching out to companies to see how they could support sales training in virtual reality. UPtick was one of the first I reached out to, because they offer a full virtual environment and allowed reps to talk through conversations, rather than just choosing from multiple choice answers. 

One thing I knew, especially from following the video game industry, is that the consoles that typically win the war are the consoles that have the biggest catalog. That’s why I reached out to the UPtick team, because there were many off-the-shelf conversations that were great, and then we could take the training wheels off by using our own custom conversations. Everyone is going to have their own selling story. We knew UPtick™ employees love innovation. It was a long conversation. At first it was just a crazy idea. But the technology has caught up to us.

The early results we have seen from the VR experience in our initial pilot has been overwhelmingly positive. We have had our sales leadership say that everybody needs to go through it. We have seen emotional investment, with reps even breaking down crying, getting upset, and even very nervous since it recreates real situations. People have embraced the system, and are really finding value in it. 

UPtick™ immersive training goes beyond multiple choice answers. A great example is one of the avatars doesn’t like it when you are friendly. So if a rep typically communicates through jokes or being funny, UPtick conversations can give the tools to use different approaches and help reps start thinking critically and analytically about what is going to work best with a specific customer.

What benefits have you gained from UPtick™ that you weren’t expecting?

As we started using UPtick™ we have had some unexpected benefits. The big one is being able to expand the benefit of these conversations outside of our sales department. We are looking at using them to help the HR team gain experience having difficult conversations. 

The other benefit has just been how much the reps have embraced the technology. I have seen reps who have been in sales for 20 years kicked out of a virtual customer conversation in 2 minutes. They have a customer banging their fist on the table, or maybe some foul language is being delivered – and these reps tell me, ‘This is real life.’

When you have a group of experienced salespeople who have sold all around the globe telling you this is real life, that is value in and of itself. The connection to realism has caught us by surprise. There is real personal, emotional investment from the reps engaged in these VR sales conversations.

Interested in experiencing sales conversations in a virtual environment for yourself? Contact us for a demo.