WITH A COMPLEX AND GROWING product line from seven different business units, Maritz Inc. found that traditional forms of training were not enough to fully educate its sales staff. So, with the help of its business unit, Maritz Learning, the St. Louis-based travel research and performance improvement company created its own certification program for sales professionals: Maritz Solutions Certification.

“The breadth of our product offering became much greater, so the product-knowledge piece needed to be expanded,” says Steve Korbecki, vice president, sales, Maritz Learning. “That led to the whole certification process that Maritz has put in place from a sales perspective.”

Internal certification programs are on the rise as a growing number of companies take training to the next level, especially for jobs with exposure to customers, such as product management and support, customer service, and sales. For example, Brainbench, a Chantilly, Va.-based employee certification and testing company, has seen a 30 percent increase in business in 2004 compared to 2003, according to Mike Littman, vice president, marketing. Driving the rush, he says, are internal certification programs, such as the one developed at Maritz.

“Companies want to know that their people are doing the right things,” adds Judy Hale, founder of Hale Associates, a Downers Grove, Ill.-based performance improvement consulting firm and author of Performance-Based Certification: How to Design a Valid, Defensible, and Cost-Effective Program (Pfeiffer, 1999). “When you certify people, you also answer questions like what training they really need. If people are weak in an area, you can be more focused in the training you provide.”

The Right Answers

In cases where companies want to ensure competency in proprietary products or services, internal programs are most valuable, says Hale. “Why should you certify me to know how to answer the phones?” she asks. “You want to know if I have the right answers.”

There are several benefits to certifying employees, according to Hale. One, it demonstrates to customers that the employees are capable and qualified and that the company has done its due diligence with regard to training. Two, it holds employees accountable to certain standards, ensuring that they actually learned the training curriculum. It also lets a manager identify weaknesses and provide targeted supplemental training if an employee does fail a certification test. Three, it bolsters the training process by bringing trainers and executives to the table to discuss competency and define expectations and constraints.

At Maritz, the certification program encompasses three areas: knowledge of products; the capacity to communicate and apply product knowledge to customers; and the ability to leverage multiple products to solve client problems. The company had a sales training program in place before this, but it was too basic. “We felt the account managers needed more knowledge to go out and represent the product thoroughly, but more importantly, what to look for and ask the client about in terms of the key business results they are trying to drive,” says Korbecki.

Maritz developed a self-paced curriculum — available online or in hard copy. The program was launched in late 2003, and so far, 80 percent of the approximately 75 account managers have earned their certification. “Our whole reason for doing this is very simple: It's called growth. Top-line growth,” says Korbecki. In the first quarter, overall sales were up about 15 percent at the company, which he attributes in part to the certification program.

Of course, there are some deterrents to certification, mainly added cost. Dealing with incumbents who don't make the grade can also be a thorny issue, especially if the person in question is a veteran employee, says Hale. While not common, the potential for litigation is a concern, particularly in cases where the exams are knowledge-based as opposed to performance-based. Finally, there is the issue of unions, who largely support certification, says Hale, but may not back tests that they feel are unfair.