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It’s not every day that employee training exercises draw choruses of cheers, boos or phrases like “Correctamundo!” or “Dang! What were you reading?”

Unless, that is, they’re part of eXperticity’s online program, which puts the “fun” back into the fundamentals of associate education. Previously known as SwarmBuilder, eXperticity got its start in sporting goods. But some 41,000 retailers in a variety of industries are now using and its “Edu-Games” to teach their teams, giving sales associates access to materials from numerous brands — most of them in lively multimedia format, and all accessible with one easy log-in. Not only that, but by working through the various brands and levels, associates can earn deep product discounts along the way.

Tom Stockham, eXperticity’s CEO, says the company works across the spectrum of retailers, from organizations with tens of thousands of associates to one-door shops with just a handful of employees.

“In general, with smaller retailers, there’s always been more of an awareness and focus on the skill and knowledge of the employees,” Stockham says. “That’s why the term ‘specialty’ was assigned first to smaller retailers. And now, with no incremental investment in many cases, those retailers can have employees that continue to become even more expert.”

For larger retailers, he says, “the challenge is often just in execution when you’re trying to get something up to scale, and we can really help with that, too.”

All sorts of fun
In the world of cycling, racers are placed into five class categories based on skill. Someone with a Cat 5 rating, for example, is a novice, while a Cat 1 is a cyclist with a history of impressive results in high-profile events.

At Performance Bicycle, a 112-store private chain based in Chapel Hill, N.C., associates can move up the ranks through the Cat 1 Training Program. Performance began with the system, encouraged key bicycle vendors to provide education and then developed internal modules for the training. All together, says retail operations and training manager Sam Felts, it includes specific knowledge from dozens of bicycle-related vendors, onboarding materials and additional internal information that prepares associates to provide exceptional service.

When new associates come on board, Performance starts with the onboarding modules: how to use a cash register, understand paperwork and sell the sport of cycling. New hires also complete a knowledge assessment and are placed in the appropriate Cat level based on the results. “But as the days go on, the amount of training available to that associate becomes more detailed and more technical,” Felt says. Cat 4, which covers the basics of bicycling, must be completed within the associate’s first seven days. Cat 3, which delves into a broader level of information, must be completed within 60 days.

“It’s a new program, and associate feedback has been very positive,” Felts says. “They love the enhanced training, and they’re recognized for achieving the different Cat levels. I think it’s had a very positive impact on our customers, too, and we’ll continue to monitor that month to month.”

Stockham was not surprised at all that the “frequent innovators” at Performance have put their own unique stamp on the program. “We love the work that the folks at Performance do,” he says. Some 45 of the companies that sell their products at Performance are now involved, and eXperticity helps coordinate the knowledge content, incentives and annual updates with each supplier on Performance’s behalf. The collaboration also helps Performance better track which stores have higher rates of participation and commitment.

One benefit of the program, Felts says, is that it has helped reduce employee turnover, as associates become more invested in their work. Another advantage is that the training can be performed at any time of the day rather than relying on the schedules of visiting vendor reps.

“In these more technologically advanced days, the younger crowd in particular enjoys being able to log in and do the training online,” he says. “It’s more interactive, and it’s visually appealing. Along with the reading they do, they have to pass the Edu-Games at the end of each module.”

Once associates complete the training modules within each CAT level, they have to complete an extensive knowledge check,” Felt says. “They’re a lot of fun, and 3point5 has built in the audio that goes along with it, cheering for you when you get it right. And it will actually boo or make some crazy noise when you don’t.”

Building expertise
Stockham says the information involved is “tangible knowledge, based on the attributes that will make a difference for consumers.

“The problem is that it’s hard as a consumer to find real experts these days,” he says. “Personally, my deep appreciation for people who can help me make decisions about what to buy only grows over time. If we’re successful as a company, every consumer will have a better buying experience from this point forward. Associates will be more knowledgeable and more helpful, and you won’t feel like you have to be your own expert. We’re all going to be able to make the best buying decisions.”

The retailers that are going to be most successful in coming years, he says, will be those that can give the best answers to the “what should I buy?” question, and those answers come through greater expertise.

That doesn’t mean associates get to ignore the impact price has on the equation, he says, “But if it’s all about what they should pay, companies that are just really efficient order takers will win. I don’t love that world. If everything is based on price, we’ll all get worse and worse products over time.

“But if we can figure out how to make it measurable, tangible and effective, we can build better expertise in retail, and everybody wins from that — even the associates. They’ll have more rewarding careers, they’ll have better access to stuff they love, they’ll stay in their jobs and they’ll get raises because they’re more confident.”

Felts, who spent about six months with a team developing the new Cat training on, ponders whether the experience has personally been “fun” for him, too.

“Fun? Sure,” he says. “It was a challenge. But the most fun is in the fact that it’s now out there, our associates are gaining knowledge, the guest experience has improved and the feedback from the field is that they love it, and they’re embracing it. That’s where the real fun is — in having a valuable and functional training tool for our associates.”