Can salespeople be trained online how to sell? JoAnne Williams thinks so, and she’s launched a new e-learning and certification program specifically for home-building sales men and women to prove it.

Williams is CEO of JWilliams Staffing in Irvine, Calif., which provides temporary sales professionals to home building companies in four (soon to be six) states. She claims her program is the first of its kind in the industry, although she says she’d welcome other building-related organizations to offer her training regimen under their own certifications. (She’s an instructor in NAHB’s Certified New Home Sales Professional educational program.).

JWilliams is partnering in this joint venture with a new company called Nucleus Academic, one of whose principals, George Ward, has spent 35 years marrying education with technology. His background includes 12 years at Cisco Systems, where he developed that company’s online technical education program, which is currently used as a teaching tool for 600,000 students in 151 countries around the world. Ward was also the lead architect of California State University’s online program planner.

Ward, who is CEO of Chandler, Ariz.-based Intraedge Education Services and Solutions, tells Builder that Nucleus was established specifically to develop e-learning architectures that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math. However, he is quick to note that learning techniques for those fields are transferable to devising e-learning platforms for home-building salespeople. “Creating learning communities online around content, goals, and outcomes is the key,” he explains.

Williams is a little vague on the details of her joint venture with Nucleus Academic. She says the program—which supplements her company’s face-to-face training—offers five online courses that would take salespeople about two hours each to complete, at which point they’d be eligible for certification from JWilliams. Content providers include the sales training expert Jeff Shore, and Shawna Schuh, who specializes in teaching sales etiquette and “business grace.”

Course instruction also touches on customer relations, cross-cultural selling, and professional image. The training includes role-playing exercises. “E-learning is about repurposing curriculum content, supported by social media, so that at any point in the content, you’re into a learning objective,” says Williams. In addition, the advantage of online presentations is that they can be continuously reloaded and refreshed.

Williams believes e-learning would be useful to builders at a time when customers have become more discerning and skeptical. “We have to understand that buyers are doing a lot of prescreening, so falling back on canned presentations isn’t going to work anymore,” she says.

Williams also predicts that, with so many people having exited the housing industry, either by choice or by being laid off, the industry is facing a serious talent shortage, especially on the sales side. That might be why at least two national builders have expressed interest in JWilliams Staffing’s e-learning program. (She wouldn’t disclose the builders.) Williams can envision builders eventually taking her company’s learning platform and using it internally to train their sales employees.

John Caulfield is senior editor for Builder magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.