Client-targeted learning not only builds customers’ skills but also boosts an organization’s reputation — as long as it’s not laced with product placement.
Take it from agrochemical company Syngenta AG, which created the Syngenta Business Institute, or SBI, a program developed by the company that targets golf course superintendents who lack knowledge and training but are integral to their businesses.
Dave Ravel, head of sales, turf, ornamental and pest management in North America, was on the founding team for SBI. He said the learning program’s main priority is to educate and improve golf superintendents in their business — not to improve sales of Syngenta’s products, but to improve the company’s image.
“If we make [superintendents] better at their jobs, we hope they’ll reward us with their loyalty,” Ravel said. “And they are loyal. We don’t go back and try to drive sales with these folks. We want to provide them with a platform to improve their careers. We’ve gotten sales back out of it, but that wasn’t the initial intent. It’s more about the industry as a whole and providing value.”
After three days of business management curriculum, the golf superintendents learn financial management, management of generational and culture differences, delegation skills, effective communications and negotiation tactics.
Syngenta might say its primary motive is improving golf superintendents’ skills, however one might assume it slips in some product advertising when it has the chance. The previous director of the Institute for Executive Education at Wake-Forest University, Ken Middaugh, helped run SBI and said Syngenta’s words rings true — the program is not a sales pitch in disguise.
“One of the things that amazed me the most about this program is that from day one, there has never been a commercial during the program,” Middaugh said. “They don’t’ talk about new products. They’re really focused in on giving these folks a set of skills to improve the industry … That warms my heart as someone who’s a professional educator.”
Many companies would laugh at spending money on nonemployees who might not repay the favor by buying your product. Ravel disagrees. He said Syngenta’s program gives the company clout in the industry and distinguishes the company as a leading voice.
“SBI has just strengthened that brand promise Syngenta has and helps us deliver even more,” Ravel said.
To realize that brand investment, Ravel said companies should start learning programs to improve business with the right steps: first, define objectives; second, find the right partner; and last, evolve as time goes on.
According to Ravel, SBI is self-selecting. Applicants must apply on their own, write a brief essay on how the training will help them and discuss their future career plans and aspirations.
“We aren’t trying to reward our best customers,” Ravel said. “We look for 25 people who really want to do something with this. … That’s another reason why it’s been so successful. We have folks who aren’t taking it for granted. We’re only accepting folks who realize this is an investment in their future.”
Middaugh said the program benefits the attendees as well as the company. Syngenta might not be selling products outright, but they eventually see a return from the program in more ways than one.
The golf industry is under stress because of lower equipment sales at sporting good stores and a lack of young interest in the game. Last year, the National Golf Foundation reported 200,000 players 35 and under “abandoned the game” in 2013. Middaugh said this program shows that Syngenta wants to keep the industry alive, which ultimately means it will continue selling its products.
“To receive feedback from [the superintendents] a couple years later is the best part,” he said. “It’s really nice to hear we’ve made a difference in their lives.”