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Who REALLY makes training purchase decisions?
(and what to do once you find out)

Training company sales manager: “Our people generally don’t call on training department types. They focus on the big dogs - you know, CEOs and other C-level executives with discretionary budgets and real decision-smaking clout.”

Training company sales rep: “I’d say I spend most of my time with training and HRD people. My boss says I should call on CEOs and division VPs, but they almost never agree to see me – and when they do, they almost always wind up dismissing me to the training department.”

What’s going on here? Who should training company salespeople call on? Let’s examine two common scenarios that call for dramatically different approaches.

Scenario No. 1:   Business Issue Owned by Line of Business

You are a provider of supervisory leadership training programs.

ZipTech is a Silicon Valley high-flyer, just six months out of the gate from going public.  Explosive growth has necessitated rushing individual contributors into leadership roles, and the fledgling managers are struggling with their new responsibilities.

It seems like a perfect opportunity for leadership training, except the need hasn’t been recognized or budgeted for – and the training staff consists of a few re-purposed software engineers tasked with translating application developer guides into Vietnamese.

In this scenario, you conclude that calling on the training department will not be productive.  Instead, you direct your efforts at finding a line-of-business executive who is suffering the consequences of an ill-equipped leadership cadre, in hopes of drumming up some supervisory training interest and budget dollars.

Scenario No. 2:   Business Issue Owned by Training Organization

Ten years have passed, and ZipTech has become an established multi-national market leader.  

You call on a line of business executive to discuss the importance of supervisory leadership training, and she says.  “Oh, my, you need to speak to our Corporate University people.  We recognized the need to develop our supervisors and managers ages ago.”

You discover that leadership development has become a cornerstone of ZipTech’s corporate culture, and is pridefully featured in the president’s message in this year’s annual report.  A rich management and supervisory curriculum is in place, supported by a sophisticated and well-funded training function led by a high profile CLO. 

Given this scenario, it seems sensible to set aside the missionary sell and focus on how your training offerings match up with already identified needs and outperform your competition.  You decide to focus your selling efforts on ZipTech’s training function. 

Who Owns the Business Issue Owns the Training Purchase Decision

In sum, whether you’re selling supervisory training or sales training or technical training, if a business issue hasn’t yet risen to the point of pain – or if training has yet to be perceived as a solution - then you will want to focus your selling efforts on the line of business. 

Once the business issue has been recognized and the training organization has been resourced and empowered to deal with it, then training pretty much owns the issue – as well as the purchase decision. 

Ok, now you know who to sell to. However, don’t for a minute assume that a “one size fits all” selling approach is going to get the job done.

Different Training Decision-Makers Pose Different Selling Challenges

Selling to training organizations and line-of-business (LOB) execs couldn’t be more different. Here are three important reasons why ...

1. Solution Configuration and Pricing

Line-of-Business Buyer Training Organization Buyer
  • Turnkey configuration
  • Solution price
  • Enterprise impact cost justification
  • Blow by blow configuration
  • Bill of materials price
  • Competitive cost justification

Comments

Line-of-business authorities lack the wherewithal to carry out training initiatives and won’t want to be distracted from their primary responsibilities.  So they’ll expect you to build in training delivery, administration, reporting and quality assurance and frame your proposal in terms they can relate to.

Similarly, LOB folks won’t have a reference point for evaluating line items like “cost/hour of instruction.”  So, rather than a bill-of-materials build-up you’ll want to reference your price to something they can understand like “cost/employee” or “cost/server” (if you are selling systems administration training), then break the progress payments into generic project mileposts (e.g.: Needs Assessment).

You’ll want to cost-justify your solution based on the way your client business unit keeps score, e.g. “revenue per sales rep in territory six months” or “output per machine hour” or “errors per 1,000 lines of code developed.”

Comments

As much as you may want to present the training organization with an outcomes-focused proposal, they are going to want to see all of the piece parts.  This helps them evaluate your tradecraft and identify any elements that they would rather supply than buy.

Training organizations are also going to want to sharp-shoot your price one component at a time.  They’ll want to know why you want $2,500 for developing an hour of instruction when their standard is $2,100.  They’ll want to know why you want $6,000 to fly instructors to their location when you are headquartered just 30 miles away.

You’ll need to cost justify your solution compared to the going rate for similar training products and services provided by your competition.

 

Too often training companies direct their salespeople to call on LOB authorities with the same shelf-ware presentation that plays well with corporate university folks.  Reps rapidly learn this doesn’t work, and may pretend future sales are the result of a C-level sales effort to appease their bosses.

Packaging training into solutions that make sense to line-of-business types doesn’t have to be difficult.  One example is elearning “library pricing” where 1001 curriculum piece parts and delivery-related services are reduced to a simple annual per-employee subscription fee with content hosting and LMS services bundled in.  Another is “training passports” where unlimited classroom training, elearning add-ons and consulting services can be combined into a blended learning solution, again with a single-line-item annual subscription fee.

One effective way to cost-justify training to LOB types is to position it as “solution insurance” that a more substantial capital outlay in another area will pay off.  “Why not invest $300 per salesperson in account planning training if that will improve utilization of the sales force automation software you just invested $12 million to install.” 

2. Competitive Context

Line-of-Business Buyer Training Organization Buyer
  • Competing business issues vie for attention
  • Training only one of many solution options
  • Potential sole-source opportunity
  • Head-on training vendor competitors
  • Likelihood of entrenched incumbent
  • Not invented here issues

Comments

Persuading a potential line-of-business buyer that they have a business issue only gets you to first base.  They may perceive other business issues as more deserving of their attention and resources.

Even if your prospect elevates a business issue to Numero Uno, they may not perceive training as the most logical remedy. 

Once you’ve achieved buy-in, take advantage of the fact that line-of-business prospects are unlikely to be familiar with your head-on training competitors.  If they are reluctant to sole-source with you, try to deflect them by presenting alternative configurations of your own capabilities – or by pitting yourself against more costly non-training alternatives.

Comments

Training organizations are knowledgeable purchase agents of training materials and services.  You better know your competitors cold and be able to speak to your advantages from your customer’s point of view, or else you risk coming in an also-ran.

Be prepared to unseat or out-romance a competitor who has already built a sweetheart relationship with your prospect.

Sophisticated and highly resourced training organizations are likely to present you with internal competition. You’ll need to overcome both the cost and ego gratification incentives of taking the project inside.

 

Here’s a challenge.  A business issue has clearly been delegated to the training organization, but they’re so in bed with a direct competitor or smitten by a home-grown solution that they won’t give you a fair hearing.  Should you elevate back to the line of business?

An end run approach stands the best chance of succeeding when:

  • The training solution has been entrenched for so long that it has become disconnected from the line of business and the training organization has forgotten who they are accountable to.
  • In a similar vein, the circumstances and cast of characters associated with the original decision have changed.
  • You’ve exhausted all reasonable means to build rapport with the training department, and are convinced they are putting silo-building and self-serving behaviors ahead of the best interests of their organization.
  • You know in your heart that you understand the prospective client’s situation and have a superior solution to offer.
  • You can find a powerful ally among the line of business who is prepared to advocate on your behalf.
  • The prospect is a “named account” and you have nowhere else to turn for business.
  • You are willing to risk burning your bridges forever with the training organization.

3. Sales Strategy

Line-of-Business Buyer Training Organization Buyer
  • Uncover business issue and consequences
  • Establish credibility as a solutions partner
  • Manage solution delivery
  • Uncover current solution gaps/ deficiencies
  • Demonstrate proof of performance
  • Manage solution integration

Comments

A salesperson skilled in selling to LOB authorities understands what questions to ask to surface a training-related problem.  For instance, a supervisory leadership salesperson might ask “Do you find yourself losing employees you’d like to keep?”, or “Are folks in the trenches on board with what your organization is trying to achieve?”

Since LOB executives are unlikely to be aware of your firm or its reputation, you’ll need to establish your credentials to earn their trust. One way to do this is to reference success stories where you have helped peer organizations deal with similar business issues.

Salespeople who close deals with line of business purchase authorities are advised to stay connected through the development and delivery process.  Why?  Because the substantial consulting value they have provided in defining the project make them an essential part of the solution.

 

Comments

When salespeople encounter a business issue once it’s been delegated to the training organization, there’s likely already some sort of a provisional solution in place.  So your people will want to frame questions that reveal solution shortcomings or gaps that the solution has yet to fill.  For example a Web-based training salesperson might ask “do you have trouble getting business units to spring for the cost of flying people to your training center?”

Training department decision makers are less likely to have concerns about your reputation and more likely to want to personally inspect the quality of your materials or establish proof of performance by piloting your solution in their environment.

Training professionals will feel comfortable dealing with post-sales project management and delivery people (they may prefer them to dealing with your salesperson!).  However, it’s important to maintain contact to be certain your solution fits in seamlessly with other solution components. 

The good news in selling training to line of business authorities is that LOB-sold-solutions can reach into the millions of dollars and catapult your firm into an enterprise transformation role. The bad news is that fewer than 20% of all training company salespeople will ever be successful at it. 

Why?

Because business issues selling requires broad business acumen, a gift for discovering new applications for tired training models, and, most of all, the rare ability to credibly transport yourself into your prospect’s job reality.  Consider the following:

Mary is attempting to sell supervisory management training to a C-level department head. Unfortunately, her only managerial insights stem from her relationship with her sales manager, who she loathes as a sales-preventing pain in the neck. 

Bill is calling on a CIO to sell project management training.  Unfortunately, while Bill is technical enough, he has never faced the challenges of rolling out a new technology platform across a heel-dragging, legacy-systems-loving crowd. 

So it will not be easy for Mary or Bill to strike a responsive chord with their line-of-business contacts.  And the odds will grow longer should the business issue turn out to be industry- specific.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is that there are several ways you can fortify salespeople who have trouble crawling out of their own skins.

How to prop up a business-issues-challenged sales rep

  • One way is to “borrow” scarce headquarters or 3rd party specialists to speak to particular business issues in Web briefings or “breakfast seminars.”  This way your rep need only sell the prospect on attending a job-relevant and non-binding presentation, and the expert can do some of the heavy lifting.
  • In a similar vein, it can help to recruit satisfied customers who represent particular business issues to evangelize on your behalf at conferences and user groups.
  • Also, be sure to arm salespeople with applications-oriented brochures, proof sources and white papers.
  • Don’t hire LOB practitioners to sell training.  Sales aptitude is more important than industry or job function expertise. Plus, why would a bank CIO worth their salt want to sell for you?   Finally, staffing your sales ranks with client clones can lead to guru vs. guru battles – better to let your client be the expert.
  • Also, better not to build a sizeable headquarters cadre of applications-oriented “sales support specialists.”  They’ll wind up spending too much time on the bench.  Plus they’ll rarely have the specific expertise needed and salespeople will get too reliant on them.

Finally, let’s not dismiss some additional hurdles in selling to line of business authorities including a long sales cycle, low engage rate, complex solution configuration and potential corporate identity put offs.  As an example of the latter, consider the difficulty of positioning your firm as a consultative, business-issues-driven solution provider if your name is Training “R” Us.

Advantages in calling on the training function.

Ok, training folks may be budget constrained – susceptible to NIH, and of limited help if a training priority hasn’t been blessed by the line of business.  But many training company sales reps make a pretty good living calling on the training function.   Here’s why:

  • Training professionals are curious beings  whose job depends upon being current on the latest and greatest in training content, design and delivery.  They’ll likely grant your rep an audience, if only to ensure that they aren’t blindsided.  They’ll also turn out in good numbers for web and breakfast briefings.
  • Like it or not, training professionals will want to open the hood, kick the tires and evaluate your training offerings at a granular level.  The good news is that they may conclude that your solution has a lot to offer even if your salesperson isn’t able to skillfully make a good case.
  • And if your salesperson is a total greenhorn, training professionals tend to be good-hearted individuals who will take them under their wing and show them the ropes.  Don’t expect this kind of treatment from a harried LOB exec!
  • If you can get one of your offerings blessed as a core curriculum component, you could be looking at a 5-10 year annuity revenue stream. Solutions sold to the line of business are more likely to peter out as part of a one-time enterprise transformation initiative.
  • Some training professionals are bona fide change agents, attuned to their organization’s strategic priorities and vulnerabilities. Approached in a deferential way, they’ll help identify business issues you may be able to address, introduce you to the business issue owner and, should the opportunity arise, partner with you in concocting a solution.

So it’s usually a good idea to take the measure of the training organization before you put on your Sherlock hat and plunge alone into the rough terrain of business issue land. Just understand, if a project is co-sponsored by a business issue owner and the training organization, you will need to orchestrate your selling strategy to appeal to both.

Questions you may have:

Q: Suppose a business issue has been delegated to the training department, but they don’t have enough funding to do the job right?

A:  More often than not, this is just another way of telling you that you really haven’t made a strong enough case for your solution.  Try asking “then if funding weren’t an issue do you agree our proposal is the right way to go?”  If there is hesitation or equivocation, than you’ll know you have more selling to do. Given sufficient conviction, most professional training organizations will find a way to do the right thing.  And if they can’t finagle the budget dollars internally, they are well connected enough to hit up the business issue owner for the additional funds.

If your training contact is sold on your solution but uncomfortable about going back to the well, offer to help him or her put together a cost justification work-up and partner in presenting it to the line of business.  Getting buy-in for a superior solution is in your joint interests.

 Q:  Suppose the training organization forbids me to directly contact anyone in a line of business?

A:  This is sometimes called “Gatekeeper Syndrome”, and is usually (but not always) a sign of weakness.  When a training organization isn’t trusted or seen as responsive, business units will frequently bypass them to “roll their own” training solutions or set up splinter training groups.  So a weak training organization won’t want you provoking any additional incursions on their turf.  Better-respected organizations may also object to your speculative forays on the grounds that they would rather an internal customer contact them concerning a performance issue than with a vendor-specific solution.

If you are currently doing business with the training organization and/or want to maintain friendly relations, try inviting a member to accompany you in your effort to uncover propitious business issues.  If they are smart, they will see you as an ally who can add to their credibility.    

If a training organization is respected as a change agent attuned with business issues and enterprise goals, then your line of business contacts will be swift to bring them into the picture, whether you like it or not.

Q: How do we get an appointment with a line of business manager if we haven’t any idea what training-related business issue they may be up against?

A:  This is another reason why so many training sales reps fail in selling to the line of business. 

Most line of business purchase authorities aren’t going to grant you an interview unless they have some idea concerning how you propose to help them.  So you’ll need to research what’s keeping your point of contact awake at night in advance.  The best way to do this is to conduct an informational interview with a less highly placed colleague.  You may also want to speak to former employees and colleagues from other firms in the same industry.  Perhaps your contacts in the training organization can provide some insights.  You may also want to look at the company’s mission statement and recent press releases. 

It can help to have a couple of conversation starters in case one falls flat.  Also, don’t assume that the business issue that gets you in the door is the one that will ultimately pay off.

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