No matter how savvy a dealmaker you may be, the auto dealer is probably more prepared than you are.
Why? Partly because of a Marina del Rey firm called Internal & External Communications Inc.
IEC develops interactive training packages, usually based on CD-ROMs but also often containing print and video elements.
The company’s dramatic growth has been fueled by a number of top-tier clients, including Lexis. IEC has expanded from a 17-employee boutique training firm in 1990 to one of the industry’s biggest players today.
With its staff of 130 having job titles ranging from creative director to audio producer to systems engineer, IEC has more in common with an advertising agency or a software game developer than a traditional training firm.
The programs have an edge over classroom-based training systems because employees can use them at their own pace, whenever they want.
They also allow clients to cut back on the expense of classroom training. IEC claims that employees using its programs learn faster and retain the information better than those taught in the classroom, and they’re fun.
“For most training firms when I started out, their idea of a high-quality presentation was putting a color cover on a three-ring binder,” said company President Alexandra Rand, who founded IEC in 1983. “To train the MTV generation, you need a different pace and approach and attitude.”
IEC’s approach is often to try making the learning process as interactive and exciting as a video game.
For example, the program it created for Lexus contains dozens of hours of dense training information that is sugar-coated into a spy-themed computer environment packed with animation, digitized videos, music, spoken instructions and other bells and whistles.
The competitive nature of Lexus dealers, most of whom are men in their 30s, is spurred through a scored quiz game simulation. The user is placed in various sales scenarios filmed with professional actors such as dealing with a tough-guy customer who knows precisely what he wants and has already gotten quotes from several other dealers.
The user is then tested on his or her ability to use various sales techniques to break down the customer’s resistance and get the maximum markup.
Other levels of the CD-ROM contain volumes of factual information on Lexus cars, and even video test footage and precise technical specifications on all the competing cars in the same class as Lexus models.
Rand won’t disclose the cost of such a program. But the price range for an IEC training program is $100,000 to $3 million. (Lexus’ system, which is updated twice a year and is one of the most extensive IEC has ever created, is on the high end of that scale.)
IEC’s clients seem convinced that the programs are well worth the price.
Last July, Federal Express Corp. began implementing an IEC multimedia training program for new hire couriers.
“The program allows FedEx to add new course material using interactive programs to simulate on-the-job experiences,” said FedEx training manager Jeff Scott. “It has also reduced training time, and thus costs.”
Rand, who interned at an advertising agency through high school and college and worked four years at a training development firm after getting a graduate degree, started the company with little more than a computer and a supportive cat.
IEC grew slowly until the early 1990s, when business suddenly started to explode. Rand attributes the growth spurt to two decisions she made. One was to bring programmers and artists in-house (the company had previously hired freelance contractors for those functions) and the other was to take on a partner, a former marketing manager with Prodigy Services Co. named Suzanne Biegel.
Now executive vice president at IEC, Biegel helped develop products and manage the company’s growth.
But equally important to IEC has been improvements in technology. The invention and widespread use of CD-ROMs revolutionized the business, allowing for eye-popping graphics, animation and digitized video that would have been impossible on floppy discs. And as more businesses bought personal computers, IEC’s client list swelled.
“You can really trace our growth against the technological advances in personal computers,” Rand said. “The proliferation and price reductions associated with multimedia PCs has absolutely turboed our growth.”
IEC’s client list includes such corporate giants as Anheuser-Busch Inc., PepsiCo Worldwide Restaurants, Citibank, Pillsbury Co. and Sun Microsystems.
Although IEC has swelled to a size that even Rand sometimes finds hard to comprehend, it has maintained a boutique atmosphere. Employees are made to feel like part of a community through such events as weekly themed lunches, in which a randomly selected worker comes up with a theme and emcees a rap session on various topics. Five pairs of movie tickets are given away weekly at the lunches to employees nominated by their co-workers for being particularly helpful.
New employees are asked three questions on their first day of work: Where they’re from, their favorite flavor of ice cream, and something about themselves most people don’t know.
“It’s a young, work-hard, play-hard crowd here,” Rand said. “One of the things that’s valuable to us is employees who bring in other employees, because there’s a lot of competition for creative, tech-savvy people out there.”