At Northwestern Mutual in Milwaukee, "Fastrack" helps get new reps up to speed and positioned for success even before they enter into a formal contract as a financial representative. Training reps early on—and then continuing to train them throughout their tenure with the company—says Stephen Frankl, the company's director of field training and development, not only adds to Northwestern's bottom line, it also helps the company to retain representatives over the long haul. "Our retention rate is about 150 percent of the industry average, so we know that Fastrack makes a difference," he says.
How is Fastrack different from other training programs of its ilk? "While we're probably not the only company in our immediate industry training reps in this way, if you look at the broader industry, you're likely to find companies who front-load all of their representative education up front," Frankl says. "They'll bring people in and jam their heads full of information for six months, then send them forth to work and be productive —with the warning that if they don't, they'll be gone." While fear can be motivator, Frankl says, it's certainly not the best way to engender the performance Northwestern Mutual expects from its reps.
Thus, when the company set up its Fastrack training program in the early '90s, the training team took great care, Frankl says, to continue integrating learning into trainees' day-to-day work (through field assignments, role-plays and the like), provide ongoing reinforcement post-training and ensure that the program would foster a lifelong commitment to professional learning and development among new reps. That latter component of the program is especially important given the industry in which Northwestern Mutual operates, Frankl notes—an industry in which products and services change quickly, as do the rules and regulations that govern them.
What does the program entail?
- The Fastrack Basics Kit consists of a printed study guide, a copy of Building a Financial Services Clientele, A Guide to the One Card System, by Al Granum and an interactive CD-ROM. These materials prepare prospective representatives for the experience they'll have in Fastrack Sales School as well as two online examinations that they must pass to complete their pre-contracting requirements with Northwestern Mutual. The Fastrack Basics Kit also includes introductory training on products such as insurance and annuities.
- Fastrack Basics Day is a facilitator-led day of activities designed to energize new representatives about their career and their decision to join Northwestern Mutual. The day is conducted within individual network offices and enables reps to become better acquainted with the office's leadership and culture, as well as with their peers. New reps have an opportunity to test their mastery of sales language and present their initial marketing plan (which they develop by completing a pre-contracting tool called "Discovering Your Markets"). They also receive feedback from leadership team members on both activities.
- Fastrack Sales School is a three-week program that combines facilitator-led training with hands-on experience through a number of "field days." Participants build a foundation of knowledge in Northwestern Mutual's unique sales process, with an emphasis on comprehensive fact-finding and obtaining favorable introductions. The modules are activity-driven opportunities for representatives to self-discover and apply concepts that they learn. More specifically, Sales School focuses on topics such as prospecting, handling objections, building relationships, asking questions to uncover a prospect's needs, and creating unique product solutions.
- Fastrack CORE (Comprehensive Ongoing Representative Education) provides 48 additional, one-hour, facilitator-led modules that are used weekly with new reps. The modules expand on the basics reps learn in sales school and provide more in-depth coverage of product features and benefits, sales ideas and skill-building, as well as continued focus on mastery of the art of building enduring client relationships. The program continues with monthly, facilitator-led modules through reps' fourth year on the job.
- In addition to the Fastrack curriculum, Northwestern Mutual provides numerous academies and clinics focused on specialized areas of practice management. The company also has an established relationship with the American College in Bryn Mawr, Pa., where financial representatives are encouraged to continue their education by taking college-level courses to earn credentials such as the CLU, ChFC, CFP, etc. "We put our money where our mouth is," Frankl says. "Representatives can register for courses through our virtual university and we will prepay the tuition and books for them."
Quick Tips and Lessons Learned
When it comes to new financial representative training, what are some of Northwestern Mutual's tips and lessons learned?
- Pre-training pays off. Reps are trained before they are formally "contracted" by the company. "The goal is to help people understand whether they have the discipline and the financial acumen to succeed in this business," Frankl says. Helping recruits evaluate whether they'll be successful with the company in the beginning, he says, not only helps Northwestern Mutual to save time on those who should be weeded out in the beginning, but also to build excitement among those who are moving on to the next phase.
- Localize. Each network office employs a full-time, dedicated professional trainer. "We build the training at our home office, but we understand that this business is a person-to-person, face-to-face business, so we deliver much of our learning in that manner. So, instead of flying into Milwaukee for training over and over again, reps receive most of their training in their local network offices so they can learn and apply what they have learned the same day." This gives Northwestern Mutual corporate a "certain amount of quality control" over training material, Frankl says, and also allows the company to localize content to trainees' culture and to the unique characteristics of their sales area.
- Integrate training into trainees' day-to-day work. Thanks to ongoing reinforcement and training that is integrated into trainees' day-to-day work—with field assignments and the like—Northwestern Mutual ensures that training is not an "event," Frankl says, but a regularly scheduled occurrence that corresponds with where reps are in their careers.
- Don't go for the quick fix. Setting up a program such as Fastrack can be very expensive, Frankl says. "We have a lot of people in the field delivering training, and it takes a lot of staff internally to build the training. It also takes a while to build up increased productivity associated with the program. But by doing training at a local level and integrating training into the sales process so that reps will actually apply what they learn, our productivity and retention gains over the long term are huge."
— Use trainers, not just SMEs. There's a difference between being a good salesperson and a good trainer, Frankl says. "We want people training our reps who understand adult learning and who understand that it's not best to tell trainees to do everything in a certain way. Everyone has a different style when it comes to interacting with clients and, in many cases, using a neutral third party who is not a salesperson allows us to take out some of the personal bias and focus on what works for each rep."
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