In a world of commoditized products, shrinking delivery channels and increasing customer service expectations, it is more difficult than ever to stand out in a crowded marketplace. As differentiators go, it’s hard to beat good old fashioned people. Companies cannot operate without people, and the best companies know that people are the only true sustainable competitive edge.

An informed staff ready to serve and exceed customer expectations earns and keeps business. How do you keep your staff operating at this level? Make it cultural. The phrase ‘culture of learning’ is commonplace, but culture is more than words. To develop a learning culture, start at the top. When the top leadership embraces and promotes continual education, it’ll naturally flow through the organization. It takes work to affect a culture, but it is so much easier when the leadership believes in learning.

Electrical Wholesalers, an electrical distributor based in Middletown, CT is a great example. President John Reznick attributes training as the X factor that is fueling his company’s growth.

“For us, it’s all about investing in our people through training,” said Reznick, whose company operates 19 branches throughout the northeastern U.S. “Those who make (that investment) will win this game. Those who aren’t (prioritizing) training are being left behind.”

Everyone in the company participates in the learning program, from product specialists and inside sales professionals to warehouse support teams. It starts with onboarding new employees and continues to developing and strengthening new skills in all the employees. Everyone has an individual training agenda that is designed to nurture, educate, and incentivize – ultimately leading to impactful change in the business.

“Our training program today is really self-motivating,” Reznick said. “It’s not something we’re making [people] do. We explain the benefits and tie reviews and pay increases to results.”

Having an online training platform makes it easy for employees to access the training when and where they want it. The company also leverages its relationship with its parent company, USESI, and its buying group, IMARK Group, to provide access to additional topics like product training from its suppliers.

Customer-facing staff at Electrical Wholesalers are not just up-to-date, they are experts on the products the company sells. This is a major differentiator for Electrical Wholesalers. The training program empowers the entire staff with the knowledge needed to help their contractor customers remain competitive—keeping them a step ahead of other distributors and out-classing the bigger players that are trying to disrupt the electrical distribution market.

There are two more ways that the learning culture has helped Electrical Wholesalers stay ahead of their competition: extending training to their customers and improved employee morale and relations.

Healthy training programs can become loyalty programs, said Reznick, who has experienced firsthand how offering training to its customers can pay off.  When sales reps and customers sit together through a learning program, you can watch the process of that joint learning build trust and loyalty.

“We believe if you invest in both sides in terms of customer and employee training, you’ll have more loyal customers and a more loyal employee base,” he added. “If we’ve made the investment with the customer, chances are, he’s going to place his business with you.”

The other benefit of an online training program is improved employee morale. With an aging workforce, Reznick is thrilled with how freely knowledge is passing among generations. He has watched many mentor/mentee relationships develop organically as a result of having a powerful culture that embraces learning and uses technol­ogy to deliver training. The team has realized that you are never too old to learn and that all generations have something to offer each other.

“We really feel that training helps us attract and retain the right employees and gives us a competitive edge in the marketplace,” said Reznick. “I cannot believe the difference [training has made] in attitudes and knowledge base. Morale has definitely gone up.”