Responding to the New Reality Through Virtual Training
When it comes to commercial training, we know from feedback that participants respond best to engaging content delivered through highly-interactive workshops. So, it’s critical to our success that we have high energy, engaging trainers and an environment that supports dynamic interaction. While there is a commonly held belief that virtual training is dull, it definitely doesn’t have to be, and it certainly isn’t the case with Bridgethorne.
Pre-pandemic, it was common practice for us to engage audiences physically and hold training workshops in person. The pandemic put a halt to that in March 2020, and we at Bridgethorne had to respond fast.
Bridgethorne is a UK-based international agency that specialises in commercial disciplines such as key account management, category management, and shopper marketing in the fast-moving consumer goods industry. We help suppliers and retailers to unlock opportunities to win in their markets and collaborate more effectively.
We provide that help primarily in three ways: strategic consulting services, operational services, and my part of the business, capability development. Building capability might include new tools and processes or certain inputs like data and research. But more often than not, it’s about people and it’s about building commercial skills.
I’ve been with Bridgethorne for 18 years, and although we've been developing and offering both e-learning and virtual training for a number of years, the fact is that clients have typically preferred face-to-face workshops, which they presumed to be more engaging and interactive. Prior to March 2020, we were running many global programmes with clients like Johnson & Johnson. Then the global pandemic came along, and the rules changed completely.
Face to Face Became Forbidden, and Our Business Changed Overnight
At the time, we had many courses pre-booked to deliver face-to-face training. Just one example was a programme for a retailer here in the UK. We’d planned a curriculum of multiple courses to be delivered to a community of well over 1,000 participants. Then the pandemic arrived, and with it, lockdown. The concept of “face-to-face training” became taboo and almost overnight, clients suspended their programmes. We found ourselves staring over the edge of a cliff, thinking, “What’s going to happen now?”
So we started having conversations with our clients about how we could deliver our programmes virtually. The overriding sentiment that soon emerged with a majority of our clients was a desire to still invest in their people, and if people have to work from home, they would also benefit from the additional stimulation for mental well being.
That got us thinking. Can a person not only just “get by” working from home, but enhance their professional development? Can we use our expertise to help people move into a new norm of working virtually? Can we fully and rapidly transfer our style of highly engaging and interactive training to a virtual environment?
That left us searching for a virtual collaboration software platform to help us revamp our training approach. First among our criteria was to be able to implement it and upskill all of our team to work from that platform quickly and effectively. Therefore, a support programme had to be part of the package to give our team that confidence. The second consideration was client preference. If some of our major clients use a particular platform already, that will be their preference over learning a new one.
So, we needed to choose a well-known solution that was already in use by a number of our clients. This narrowed our options to Cisco Webex, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom. Thirdly, we pride ourselves on our training being highly engaging and interactive, and it was important for us to be able to maintain this virtually. That meant we needed a platform developed with training in mind, and one with features that promoted high engagement.
A number of our key clients use Cisco Webex, which has a specially designed Training component that came highly recommended. It has all the tools that would allow us to bring Bridgethorne’s signature interactivity and engagement into play virtually. Security was also part of the conversation, and when we looked at the process to log on and set up meetings, we felt assured that Cisco was a secure solution. By the end of March, Cisco Webex Training was our chosen platform, and we were ready to begin deploying.
Training the Trainers: Setting New Rules of Virtual Engagement
There were a few key things that helped us with a quick deployment of Webex. First, one of our close clients was already on the journey of using Webex Training, and they shared their knowledge with us. But we also received tons of support from our Cisco partner, ITGL, who provided training, coaching, and hands-on guidance through the early learning curve for our team.
Even now, when we have a question or issue, we are on a first-name basis with the team at ITGL. It’s a matter of a quick email and their representatives will jump on a call to offer us some quick guidance. It was invaluable having someone experienced with Webex helping us through the transition, and the level of support we continue to receive proves to me that we made the right choice in both platform and partner.
For our team of trainers, the overwhelming feeling was positivity. Learning a new platform might sound daunting, but it’s just like anything else—you become more comfortable with it the more you use it. The pandemic caused everyone to try their hand at multiple virtual collaboration platforms, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Webex is very intuitive, well structured, and easy to navigate. With a little bit of practice, my team was off and running. Now, we resource our training by assigning each training session a host, who is knowledgeable in the nuances of Webex and is responsible for looking after the IT side of things, leaving the trainers free to concentrate on the workshop itself.
Our trainers have adapted their delivery style to the new environment. Different rules apply when you go virtual. For example, in a face-to-face workshop, we have something we call the 15-minute rule: You shouldn’t present to an audience for more than 15 minutes before engaging them in some way. (And really, 15 minutes is the absolute maximum.) Virtually, we know that participants’ attention spans are much lower when they’re staring at a screen, and it’s even worse if they don’t see a video of a trainer talking, and feel their personality complete with hand gestures and a glimpse of their environment. The 15-minute rule is now the two-minute rule, and we know we have to use every means of engagement possible given we’re not physically in the same room.
For this, we go to the Webex toolbox. In the chat panel, we might ask for responses to questions of the audience, or place relevant information and links. We use polls to test knowledge and learning, we use whiteboards to solicit participant’s thoughts. We use the range of emojis to gauge participants’ reactions. We also use a function in Cisco Webex Meetings that seamlessly allows for breakout video sessions. We use that breakout function an awful lot. All In all, it means our virtual workshops now offer the same content and very similar experience as our in-person workshops.
Now We’re Basking in Glowing Reviews, with Benefits All Around
Before the pandemic, our clients had a strong preference for face-to-face training. There was a fear among clients and trainers alike that it would be hard to replicate the high engagement in a virtual environment. Now everyone sees the value of virtual training through Webex.
The individuals who we train have been overwhelmingly positive in their response. Programme feedback from one of our key clients showed 99% of participants agreed or strongly agreed that the trainers were highly engaging and knowledgeable. The “highly engaging” is a true testimony to both the Webex platform as well as our team.
When participants leave comments saying, “it felt like we were in the room together,” and "it didn’t feel like a full day of online training,” I think we can put to rest the fear that participants won’t be engaged virtually. If the virtual course is designed and delivered in the right way, we can absolutely engage people for any duration up to an entire day, and multi workshop programmes across a number of days.
For our business at Bridgethorne, and our trainers, there are a lot of upsides to going virtual: for example, trainers don’t have to leave home and potentially stay away overnight maybe internationally. That limits disruption and makes for a better work/life balance. We can also be more efficient with our time whilst reaching a broader audience. Just recently this week we have been running a series of programmes in Asia from here in the UK.
Our third group of stakeholders in all of this, the client sponsors, also see a benefit to virtual sessions. There are often a lot of additional costs to face-to-face training: travel, accommodation, food and beverage, even the paper material we distribute in a workshop. Virtual training does away with most if not all of that.
For example, for one of our client programmes, the total cost per participant was 20% less for virtual training vs face-to-face workshop.
This entire process has been incredibly fast: From looking for a viable virtual collaboration platform solution to running virtual training workshops as ‘the new norm’ in just four weeks. At Bridgethorne we have completely transformed the emphasis of our training model, and over the course of the last eight months, we’ve become experts in virtual training. Webex and the team at ITGL have enabled us to not only survive the pandemic crisis, but to thrive. We are busier now than we’ve ever been, and that would not have been possible without Webex. I’m delighted with the newfound possibilities for the business and confident that post-pandemic, this will remain one of our chosen ways of working.