I recently visited a colleague who is a senior learning leader for a Fortune 100 company. He is a visionary leader, a remarkable student of our trade and as technically competent as they come.
He has a clear and well-vetted vision of where L&D can go and what it can do for his organization and has done his homework around budgeting and resourcing to help act on this vision. His ideas are forward thinking, performance-based and well beyond what I see in a typical L&D portfolio.
Yet he was frustrated with the managers of the lines of business he was tasked with supporting. His frustration was with their narrow focus specifically around “their infatuation with the classroom” and “little to no interest in learning to start with.”
L&D leaders are often running into a passive and “training-first” centered consumer and, more important, buyer. They are more comfortable with the products we’ve sold and promoted for years.
Enter two difficult words in our business: sales and marketing. I know that in my professional development and early tenure in this business, I had little to no understanding of these two areas. I once watched an entire room of L&D professionals walk out of a meeting because a senior leader dared to broach the idea that they might want to consider ways that they could help sell and market a particular training initiative they were intimately involved with.
After all, they were in the L&D business, not sales! Shouldn’t the consumer want their product without being subjected to “the pitch?” Before we get too hot under the collar, let’s revisit the last part of that scenario: “training initiative they were intimately involved with.” Isn’t that always the case? Aren’t we the front line of the success or failure of learning initiatives?
Like it or not, we’re in the sales and marketing business every day. If we do our job right, we’re trying to convince an often stubborn or ignorant buyer (our learners) to want to consume and apply our product. That’s a huge part of the business we are in and becoming more important by the minute.
Back to my colleague’s situation. The success of his vision pivoted on his buyer not just paying for, but wanting a very different product than he had sold them. For years, he had fought for backing and funding to, at one point, build and operate one of the larger brick-and-mortar training “universities” in the United States, if not the world. And he had done an amazing job of it. Part of the building and operating involved selling his company on the idea that they were investing in the best possible L&D solution around.
Now his vision was shifting dramatically! In fact, he was doing almost a 180 from his original position. Those classrooms weren’t shutting down, but they were no longer front and center in his vision and strategy. In fact, they were going to take a significant back seat. Learning is an emotional buy. It’s integral to the success of any business and to each learner’s livelihood. As I’ve written about many times, change in L&D is slow and difficult for every stakeholder.
A few fundamental principles have to hold true when effectively selling and marketing our solutions.
Listen more, talk less. You’ll hear a lot of ways to win over the buyer once you hear their concerns, challenges and needs.
Slow and steady wins the race. A proof-of-concept to begin to get buy-in is way more powerful than launching with a full-blown program.
Build what they need, not what they want, and still call it training. They will be won over by what they see, not what we try and sell them up front, especially if it’s new to them.
They’ve always had “little to no interest in learning anyway.” They want results, improved performance, and to do their job quicker, faster and better. If the product you build works, it will sell itself over time!
Sales and marketing skills are essential to our toolkit. Many of us have a blind spot here. I know I did, but the better we get at it, the easier the change and the greater the impact.