This is the transcript of episode 5.
Click here to visit the full episode page and listen to the interview.
Today’s guest is Suman Kher. Suman is a self-employed trainer in Mumbai in India and she specialises in communication and soft skills training.
By some accounts, India is set to become the third largest economy by 2030 and the training industry in India, according to a report I read in the last week, could be worth as much as $20 billion by 2030.
Let’s see what Suman has to say.
Good morning, Suman, and welcome to the programme. You’re based in Mumbai, in India, is that correct?
I thought we’d have a chat because I haven’t spoken to too many trainers in India, and I thought that would be the great basis for a conversation.
As you know, my audience internationally are trainers just like you and I, and I thought that it would be a nice conversation to have.
I’ve been looking at your website and I see that you are primarily a soft skills and communication trainer. What does that mean exactly?
It means that soft skills and communication are two sets of skills that I’m an expert in. If I would call myself a sales trainer, then I would be an expert in sales. So when I say ‘soft skills and communication trainer,’ that’s normally understood in my country where I train as two skill sets that I have an expertise in.
So what is the difference primarily? The reason I’m asking the question is because there are people who would specialise in one or the other. Communication training is to some degree a soft skill.
What else falls under the umbrella of soft skills when you specifically say ‘soft skills’?
Communication definitely is one of the soft skills, but I try to say communications separately because there are a lot of other things, like business communication, presentation skills, that fall under communicating.
Other soft skills would include stress management, time management, customer service, those kind of skills which change with situation, the kind of customer you’re talking to.
That’s why I try and specify it’s communication and soft skills.
And do you think there’s a large market for communication training, specifically in Mumbai?
A lot. I would say that there’s a lot of scope as well for improvement, but there are people who do not realise that they need it.
In fact, of late I’ve been very disillusioned with a couple of emails that have been sent to me, a particular panel discussion that I was in, and someone sent me a brief of their organisation with so many grammatical errors. There is definitely a lot of scope for communication training.
Apart from that, people also do a lot of customer service training in today’s times. I think customer service is really important. Communication is one of the main modules that most organisations go for.
Let’s go back a moment to your story personally. How did you become involved in training, Suman?
I finished my postgraduate in English Literature about 16 years ago. That’s how long I’ve been training for it. I was very clear that after five years of Literature, I really didn’t want to go back to teaching Literature by doing a PhD or an MPhil.
That did not appeal to me, but I also knew that my career would have something to do with language and definitely with people because I’m really not someone who can sit behind a computer for eight hours and do content writing or something like that.
I discovered Coaching during my entrance exams. I did that for the first five years of my career. We have a lot of coaching classes for MBA entrance exams. It’s a common admission test.
CAT is the biggest one in India, but there are a lot of Business Schools. Business schools have their own entrance exams and there are proper tutoring institutes that coach students in that.
I used to coach students. I did a lot of reading comprehension, vocabulary building, grammar and I really loved it. I built a strong command over my own language.
Then I moved to Delhi, the capital city, and then I moved to Mumbai in 2007. I took a break for a year and in 2008/ 2009 I thought, “I’m in a new city. I have an opportunity to try something new” and corporate training is something that I always wanted to try and not continue teaching students.
So I thought, “Why not try something different?” Now, I’m talking about almost a decade before, so it was a very different world. There was no online world or social media. There were a few job sites. I uploaded my resume there and I just had to wait.
Meanwhile I also got a certification from Dale Carnegie in training. They have a ‘Train the Trainer’ programme for three days. Dale Carnegie is a well-known name and I wanted to do it from a place where everyone recognises it. And then gradually I started getting assignments.
Initially I worked as a Consultant, speaking to clients and figuring out what their training needs are.
So what do you like about the training business so much?
I love going out there and talking to people. I love being in a training session. Even if I’ve done the same module several times for a client, I think every batch is so different.
The reactions that you get to the same games and the same questions and the same activities are different.
I think that’s what really excites me every single time I get into a training programme, and that’s what I really look forward to.
You’re also a certified coach, just as I am too. What do you think is the difference between training and coaching? It’s a bit of a loaded question. I know what I’m thinking, but I’d love to hear your version of that?
Training is something where the knowledge goes from the trainer to the trainee. I could also give information, new learnings to the participant.
I think coaching is mainly one-on-one where the coach asks powerful questions to help the coachee reach his or her own answers.
It’s nothing ready-made. The coach is not going to teach anything. The coach is just going to ask questions and help the client reach where he or she intends to be. I think that’s the important difference to me.
I’ve seen on LinkedIn a couple of profiles this week of people who are trainers state they’re coaches, but I can’t see any evidence of a coaching qualification.
I’m often wondering if such people are clear on the fundamental differences between training and coaching. What are they doing with their clients when they in a coaching contract?
Are they clear on how to contract with the client?
Are they clear on the principles of coaching so that someone can actually genuinely say, “Yes, I’ve seen the benefits of coaching in my organisation?”
So you’re qualified as a coach. Did you find yourself drawn to coaching for any specific reason rather than just staying in training?
I trained for 12 years. I got my certification and coaching done in 2015. I think that was the right time for me to focus on one-to-one relationships.
I’ve trained a lot in a group of 20, 25 per batch. You do business communication or email writing. No one really writes great emails right from the next day.
So satisfaction of something that was missing in corporate training. I wanted to go out and try and work one-to-one and see what difference I can make to individuals.
I think that is where coaching came in: where I could train in batches when I was training but I could also work on individual goals with people and see that I could help get from point A to point B.
I started working with clients on a training model which works for me. I’m not sure it’s a very standard thing to do, but I work on clients one-to-one on their skills.
I give them things to do. They go ahead and work on that. We have sessions on Skype, so it’s more of a training, but one-to-one.
I really like that because I get to see the real improvement and difference in a single client who comes up with things that he or she needs to improve upon, and by the end of three weeks, four weeks, I can actually see them move a little ahead in their goals.
So I think coaching also really helped me master the one-to-one bit where I thought, “Why can’t I use my training skills and use it to train / coach a single individual?’
Why does it always have to be a group of people with group training needs?” So, I think coaching helped me there as well.
Was that delivered remotely? You mentioned Skype.
Not really. I have coached people individually as well, in my own city, but right now I’m working with a client who lives in a different city, in north India.
I do sessions over Skype with him once a week and that’s works fine. I think in today’s time where we have so much technology, boundaries are really not an issue at all. You could be anywhere and you could still do a virtual session. I think that’s a great thing.
You work with a lot of banks, or rather according to your profile on LinkedIn, you have worked with a lot of banks. Is that currently the case?
Yes, it’s not deliberate, but when I look back I just got assignments and I went ahead and did it. It wasn’t a deliberate thing to say that I want to specialise in the banking and insurance industry.
The majority of my clients have been banks and insurance.
Do you find yourself drawn to those kinds of clients, what I would call professional services per se? Would you work with companies in insurance or professional services, legal services as well, or is it primarily banks?
Not really. To me, a client is a client. I’ve worked for energy groups. I’ve worked for an audio company. I worked in retail. So to me, a client is a client.
As long as the client wants the skills that I deliver, I’m absolutely open to any kind of an industry. That’s really not a concern for me.
I noticed on your website that you also offer blogging. You obviously offer coaching and training, which we’ve discussed, but you also offer blogging.
That intrigued me. What exactly do you offer clients under the umbrella term ‘blogging?’
I started blogging classes at the end of 2015 and you could say that this was India’s first blogging workshop for beginners – people who want to start a blog and have no clue what to do.
Although I’ve not done a lot of open workshops on blogging, but I’ve still kept it there on my website.
There are a lot of communities in India where people who are already bloggers can gather and share and comment on each other’s posts, but I found that there isn’t really anything to help people who want to start blogging.
I was inspired to do this when I set up my own blog in 2013/14. I’ve read a lot. I literally read for eight to ten hours every day for three months to understand what the blogosphere is all about in the training industry.
In India, are there any such blogs? What are they writing? What kind of content is out there?
And I learned a lot of things on my own through trial and error, and I realised that Google did not have a lot of straight off answers.
There aren’t a lot of posts online with talk about the creative aspect of running a blog, like generating content pick up to a week, so how do you go ahead deciding what is the content?
What kind of content would work with the kind of target audience that you’re writing for? I thought that I really wanted to share my experiences with people who wanted to start a blog of their own, which is how the blogging workshop came about.
I very humbly named it ‘Blog like Suman.’ It kind of worked and I’ve had a few open workshops where people have come in and I’ve shared my experiences with them, helped them plan their blogs. Some of them have even made an attempt to start.
Blogging, of course, requires a lot of time and commitment. I’ve been doing this for four years so I know how it works. That is where the blogging workshops came out.
On the topic of blogging you’re extremely prolific on LinkedIn. I must get a post from you at least once a day. In the last week I’ve just been keeping an eye on that.
How is that working for you? Do you find that’s actually yielding concrete business results for you?
I started my online presence in 2014 when I started my blog and I connected that with a Facebook page ,my Twitter timeline and LinkedIn.
Honestly speaking, LinkedIn took me the longest to get used to because I still don’t like it.
I get all types of random things on my timeline, but being on these social media platforms really got people to recognise me for what I do, and my branding has been very successful because even now.
When people think of ‘soft skills’, sometimes they’ll send me a message or Twitter or go check out my blog and say, “Oh, you know, we were talking about this topic and I mentioned that I know a ‘soft-skills’ trainer who’s doing a great job.”
So that is how LinkedIn came about and I’ve pretty active for about a year and a half.
My content goes out to Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, but I think hosting content regularly on LinkedIn has really got me noticed.
I have had a couple of assignments come up straightaway based on the blog course I’ve written or the experiences that I’ve had which are there on LinkedIn.
For instance, I trained at a client-bank where I delivered 95 sessions on customer service for them.
Two years later, which was last year, someone got in touch with me who was a vendor, but he straightaway said, “Here, can I have five batches with another bank for customer service?” And I had to do nothing for it except have a presence on LinkedIn.
I use scheduling apps to schedule my content for the week or two weeks, so I’m not actually sitting and posting that content in real time, which is what helps me to be prolific and ensures that I’m not missing in action for a long time.
The attention spans are very short on social media. You can’t afford to just vanish for a week and expect people to remember you – which is why one will very regularly see my posts because they’ve been scheduled to appear at certain times during the day.
Is that something like ‘Hootsuite‘ which you use to schedule your content?
Yes, I use Hootsuite.
In terms of the plan for that content, do you batch content or do you simply sit down and create a series of blog posts on a particular theme and then send them out via Hootsuite?
Or do you find it’s more productive to actually sit down and do maybe eight, nine, ten, twelve, fourteen days back to back?
Actually content-wise, there are a lot of different kinds of content that work on social media.
One can’t just keep posting just blog posts or just images or just videos because there are people who like reading, there are people who like watching videos.
Sometimes I put up an image because people could just glance through and learn something. Something might click in their mind and say, “Oh, I need something of that sort.”
I try and post different kinds of content and I have lots and lots of content. My blog alone has 200 posts.
I completed 200 posts last month, for which I wrote another post saying ’13 lessons that I have learnt over 200 posts in four years.”
I got a blog topic there to write about, because what to write next has become increasingly challenging in the last year and a half.
I’ve written about so many topics that it’s really hard to come up with something really good and continue to write.
I make a lot of graphics for the posts using Canva.com.
I share photos on ‘Throwback-Thursday‘ which actually allows people to know what I did in the past. I already have a lot of content, so I don’t really have to create new content but I make use of all this content that I have.
Tuesdays might feature ‘Tuesday Tips‘
I also have testimonials from my clients because that really works well in attracting the attention of prospective clients. I might post something along the lines of : “This is a happy customer and this is what he or she said about me……‘.
Of late, I’ve also made the calls to action or ‘CTA’s’, on my social media.
I’ve started directly and shamelessly telling people that if they would like to work with me on their presentation skills or if they want a training experience similar to the one which a previous client of mine has described in her or his testimonial, they should email me for more information.
I’ve realised that giving specific call to actions attracts more attention.
So, I have all this content, which is just spaced out on YouTube – say, one video a week on ‘Throwback Thursday’, or a few blog posts here and there, a few images here and there. I try and schedule a week at a time.
If I have the time, then I schedule content for two weeks at a time. Maintaining social media itself is a full-time job because you just have to constantly keep doing it.
I once found an app for Twitter where one can post a certain number of blog posts and it just keeps shuffling it.
Unfortunately the free service went out of fashion and I don’t really I think I want to take a paid membership.
Hootsuite works fine for me. Scheduling ensures that people, if they miss something today, they’ll definitely get to see something from me tomorrow – if not in the morning, then some time in the evening or post-lunch. I try and space content across the day at different times when I think people might be on LinkedIn.
Where do you find the energy to do all this? I’m really impressed!
It’s a lot of work, agreed. I do have interns sometimes to help me with this.
There was a time when I just outsourced my social media schedule to an intern and I said, “You do this for three months while I take a break.”
Otherwise, I think it’s passion that sustains it. I know there are days when I get up in the morning and I groan and say, “Oh, God, I need to schedule something on social media.”
Otherwise, I think one has to have a lot of passion and I feel that since I set up my online brand, it’s very important to be on my toes and ensure that people remember me, people know what I am doing.
When I started off, we were freelancers, but now we are called ‘entrepreneurs’. So as an entrepreneur, if I’m not training, then the rest of my time actually goes into scheduling and writing blog posts and getting in touch with people – contacting then, asking them if they need any services, keeping track of my statistics on my social media and asking myself, “How has the traffic been on a particular post?”
Is morning better or is it better in the evening and then see how I can ensure that I post at a time when my target audience is going to be online?
So it’s a lot of work, but I love what I do.
I’ve done this for 16 years, so I think the passion just sustains me.
Where do you find the time for networking for events? I understand that you’re involved for executive presence for women in Mumbai. Is that on behalf of Oracle?
I went and trained this company called Oracle. This was a programme that I did for Women’s Day events. There were about 15 women and I trained them on executive presence.
Are you heavily involved in training women? Is that something which is dear to your heart?
It is dear to my heart and I’m also on the mentor list for a couple of women’s organisations including ‘Women at Work’.
So in India there’s a big movement helping women to come back to second careers and there are a lot of these women’s groups in online communities, which are doing a lot of work in connecting women to different companies and leads – working on their skill development, helping them to gain confidence and succeed at interviews.
I’m part of a couple of these communities and I’m also doing a session on 25th of this month for one such community, where I’m going to talk about the communication, the confidence building, the interviewing skills aspect of it.
These women are coming back after a break – maybe because they got married or mainly because they had children and they really need to get back into the workforce. So it’s bringing them up to speed with what the job market is about now and what are the skills that will help them move ahead?
This is one of the projects you can say that I do apart from open workshops or one-to-one coaching or training that I do for corporates. Being a part of women’s communities and training for them is one of the projects that I’m involved with.
I spent five weeks in India a number of years ago, specifically in Delhi, and I was quite struck by the number of female trainers. In fact, in the whole office there was only one man involved in training. Do you find there are a lot of women involved in the training scene, either in Mumbai or in India as a whole?
I’ve never looked at it as a gendered kind of profession, but maybe training is considered to be more a woman thing.
I think soft skills and communication you will find to be more women-oriented maybe whereas, If you talk about sales and negotiation and conflict management, they might be considered more ‘manly’ skills.
Maybe because women are considered more people friendly, that could be the reason. I really don’t think it’s very much a ‘woman’s’ thing in Indian society.
So, what is the size of the training opportunity right now in India? I’m thinking of the size of the city first of all is terms of population of Mumbai. How many in the city itself?
We don’t really have a lot of latest statistics. 22.5 million people, this is the latest figure.
Will it suffice to concentrate on Mumbai in order to provide with you an income?
In other words, do you market yourself in other cities throughout India or do you find that Mumbai is sufficient as a catchment area with a population of that size to provide you with your income for your business?
Again, geographical boundaries don’t really make any sense to me. I’m completely open to travelling to any place that has a training programme, and I’ve travelled extensively in the west of the country, as a ‘west-zone’ trainer for a lot of organisations.
Say a bank wants to train people in a lot of their branches. They might prefer to work with only one trainer who’s just going to travel to their different branches.
I’ve done that in Katra, in Mumbai, in Maharastra, in Goa, but I’ve also trained in Jammu and Kashmir which is right up north, and Chennai, which is down south.
So I really don’t find geographical boundaries to matter that much. I look at it as ‘let me do this in Mumbai and this is where I’m going to train.’
In fact, I started this new project where I’m sending proposals to colleges to conduct placement sessions for their students.
So final year students in engineering colleges and business management schools have companies coming in to their colleges to recruit people, and they have a good two months’ of preparation for placements.
As a soft skills trainer I really want to go down there where the college students are and train them in ‘corporate etiquette’.
Academic institutions don’t really cover that such that when graduates enter the corporate world, I can really see where they are lacking.
So I’ve been sending out proposals to pretty much any city I can think of.
I’m just looking at ‘tier-2’ and ‘tier-3’ cities where they’re really need of placement sessions of these sorts.
So I really don’t think of it as Mumbai is sufficient. The sky’s the limit, so I’ll never really look at geographical boundaries and say, “Okay, this is it.”
I think that’s the fun of being an entrepreneur, that you can reach out to as many people as you want to.
It’s funny you mention that topic just now about corporate etiquette.
I’ve been approached by a company locally here where I live, and they were looking for more or less the same thing.
Do you find that there is a growing requirement for graduates to have some kind of programme which enables them to slot into the corporate environment upon leaving school?
In fact, a few years ago, a new term called ‘Employability Skills’ was given to this kind of project, but a lot of companies actually started providing exclusively employability skills and they were on the lookout for trainers who would go to colleges for two hours a day, twice a week.
You look over the entire range of skills that people might need from presentation skills to grooming, to presenting, to interviews, to writing your resume, to writing a cover letter.
I think that fizzled out in the long run, but colleges and college students really have the need to understand corporate etiquette, which is not really covered in academics.
I feel that they severely lack in this particular area. I’ve had people get in touch with me and say,” Can I send you a resume?” They email me just the resume. Not a single line along with it.
Then I have to tell them that “I can’t forward this to the HR Manager of a company. You need to give me some kind of a cover letter which tells why you’re applying for this job, so I can forward that as it is, which is your application.”
I think this is a really huge people thing that people really need to work on. Academics doesn’t cover it. So there is a huge lack and college students really need to work on this.
If someone listening to this wants to perhaps get into the training business, what tip would you give them? Where should they start?
I think the first time anyone tells me, “I want to be a trainer,” I say to them “Why, would you want to be a trainer?”
I think the first thing that I want to tell anyone who wants to become a trainer is that it’s not as glamorous as it looks.
Most people feel, ”Oh, you can train for a few days a month and just chill the rest of the time.” But that’s really not the case.
Even getting those few days of training programmes is a lot of hard work, and when you’re not training you’re going ahead and setting down other opportunities to train – otherwise you may probably not have work next month.
So I think the first would be is training isn’t as glamorous. It’s not steady work at all.
One has to be prepared for a lot of hard work to ensure that you’re constantly at work with people, constantly telling people.
The second thing that I want to say is go ahead and please get a ‘Train the Trainer’ certification done. Get yourself certified. Formally learn how to be a good trainer.
Certain skills like professionalism, listening, time management, managing participants in a class – I think these are a few skills that are very important in order to become a great trainer.
So ‘Train the Trainer’ is something that one should aim for.
Choose a particular field and be an expert in it. Nowadays I find that a lot of people have six designations to their name.
They’re a Social Media Coach, and they’re a Sales Trainer and they’re lot of other things. I think that’s so confusing,
Just what is it that you are an expert of? I think people just really focus on something and it’s essential that they work on that before they move onto something else.
In fact, interestingly, a lot of people used to get in touch with me and ask how do I become a trainer?
I have put together a blog post on my blog and everywhere I find those are the areas among the top three posts in terms of traffic.
Those are the number of people who go and read that blog post on how to become a corporate trainer.
When I published this post, it was my longest post. It was 2000+ words. It’s almost a ‘long form’ post.
Anyone who comes to comes to me for advice in terms of skills, the certifications, the way you go about looking for clients, the pitfall, the works are referred by me to that post. The post covers everything.
I need to get a copy of that post. I’m going to include that in the notes to this show.
Sure, I’ll send the link to you.
Fantastic. Where can our listeners find out more about you then, Suman?
Sumankher.com is one of the best places to see what I do. I’ve mentioned my modules there. I have my services listed, the contact information, the You Tube channel is connected to it.
There is a photo slider which shows the programmes that I do. That’s the best place, but apart from that LinkedIn also is a great place to get in touch with me.
Anyone can go to my LinkedIn profile, drop me a line, and I’m pretty responsive whether that is on the phone or LinkedIn or on my blog.
I check them multiple times a day, so it’s not possible that I’m going to miss out on someone’s message. That’s a great place to get in touch with me.
I really enjoyed today’s conversations. Thank you so much, Suman.