Perhaps no other area of bank programs is as important — or as misunderstood — as training.

From sales techniques for financial advisors to big-picture practice management, to mandatory continuing education, the need to train is one of the most critical requirements of every bank program.

But with today's need to cut costs and improve productivity and efficiency, investment programs are taking a hard look at how they train and exactly what training will look like in the future.

In the wake of changing economics and the needs of programs and FAs, it appears the days of multiday training sessions at off-site locations (which were frequently exotic, luxurious and expensive) are long gone. And while there's no question that web-based training has been gaining significant popularity, there's still debate about how to best use the Internet to achieve training goals and objectives.

To be sure, one thing remains clear — program mangers and industry executives believe that training has never been more important, signaling that the attention it receives will only increase in the future.

"So many factors are at work shaping.... how we train and the increasing importance of providing impactful training," says Dennis DiMambro, vice president of advisor development and technology adoption at LPL Financial Services in Charlotte, N.C. "The increasing complexity of the global marketplace and the products themselves, along with clients' expanding needs for innovative solutions are all making training more important," he said.

And clients are looking for a true financial planning approach, DiMambro notes. Plus, with an ever-increasing need for FAs and programs to be fully compliant, training will continue to be critical.

Indeed, with the pressing need for advisors to handle so many things, training is viewed by Dan Overbey, president of Bank United Financial Services in Miami Lakes, Fla., as an investment in his FAs. "There's been a convergence of FAs needing to go beyond packaged products to more complex alternatives, along with our clients having more complicated financial problems," Overbey says. "Regulatory and supervisory requirements wraps the needs of the FA with the needs of clients."

While there is consensus about the importance of training, there is still much disagreement about some of the details, including the exact skills and product knowledge that FAs need to become well versed in, to the best delivery or implementation methods.

In fact, there is disagreement as to what constitutes "training," observes Mark Stone, marketing strategist with Insurance Insight Group, a Park City, Utah-based insurance marketing and training firm, who believes that too many managers who think they are doing a good job are really missing the mark. "I believe the definition of training has been stretched, and there is confusion as to exactly what training actually is," explains Stone. "Providing an overview of a product's features isn't training. Real training occurs when, along with information, you provide direction and advice on how to use that information to improve the professionalism of the FA to ultimately benefit clients," he elaborates.

Howard Hammond, managing director of Fifth Third Bank, agrees that some banks are "fooling themselves" into thinking that they are providing training when they are really just educating. And they don't understand the difference, he says. "Educating is just going over the basics. But when you train, you're making an FA better and helping them see how to use that education to actually solve client problems."

In the past, much of the responsibility for training in the bank channel was relegated to the product manufacturers. But in recent years, the relationship between vendor and bank investment program has changed.

"We're developing more of our own materials," says Sean Casey, director of business development at PrimeVest Financial Services. "Our product providers have been terrific partners in developing and delivering training to our FAs and will continue to be. But we supervise their interactions with our FAs and clients more closely. In the past, we may have given them more freedom on content and access. Now we work hand-in-hand to make sure we're delivering what we want."

DiMambro at LPL says that having their vendors integrate technology or compliance requirements into their materials and presentations is a win-win. "Our vendors are very receptive to a partnership approach since ultimately it means better informed FAs, more business and fewer problems for both of us," he said.

WEB-BASED TRAINING CASTS WIDE NET
There's been a dramatic increase in the use of web-based training, making it easier and more cost-effective to train larger numbers of advisors at once or as needed.

Fifth Third, for example, has gone to a modular approach to web-based training. "We just launched BrainShark, a cloudbased company that makes video and other presentations available on-demand to a wide-ranging network of users," Hammond explains. "Not only does this allow us to deliver exactly what financial advisors want and need, and allow them to access it when they want, but it also gives us almost instant feedback from FAs to change, adjust and modify content to make it better. But we've found that it's important to keep the modules short, no more than 45 minutes to one hour max. Financial advisors don't have the time and they lose focus when the sessions are too long," he cautioned.

To be sure, live-hosted sessions and face-to-face training still have its proponents. "We believe a blended approach to delivery is best," says LeAnn Rummel, EVP and national sales manger at PrimeVest Financial Services. "We believe in leveraging the web for the obvious reasons, but we also recognize the importance of live training."

Stone agrees that live-hosted web training is critical to conveying information in a productive way. "Training has been compromised somewhat by convenience — quick and easy solutions by just putting stuff online and letting advisors use it when they want," Stone adds. "FAs do better when on-demand training is combined with live and interactive sessions. We find that they pay more attention and absorb more when they're engaged and live sessions do that better."

At Bank United, Overbey thinks there is still a strong need for live training but he takes a different tack. "We've added dedicated training specialists to go out in the field and meet with our financial advisors. We think programs should be more tactical, and deploying a specialist who works one-on-one or with groups is a very effective delivery approach." But despite the effectiveness of face-to-face training, it's not to the exclusion of other methods. "We have to acknowledge the differing needs of our FAs," Overbey says. "They learn best with different methods. Training programs need to have it all."

Paul a. Werlin is the president of Human Capital Resources Inc. and a frequent contributor to Bank Investment Consultant.