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13 Critical Questions to Ask Your Client When Scoping a Learning Development Engagement

As a salesperson in the enterprise learning industry, a critical responsibility of mine is to obtain the necessary information from a client in order to appropriately scope a solution. Many times the client won’t have all of the answers, in which case it is even more important to find them. As a professional services firm, our primary focus is to provide value to our clients, and educating them on important questions that need to be answered is a great way to start.

Here is a list of questions that I believe must be answered, hopefully before creating a proposal, definitely before starting the project:

1. What is the business problem that you are trying to solve?
All too often, training programs are developed just for training’s sake, just to check the training box. There must be a clear business objective that a training program is attempting to solve. If the business need isn’t there, the program shouldn’t be either.

2. What does success look like?
This question will make or break the success of your project. If you want a chance of working with the client again, of getting a referral, of getting anything in return, you must be on the same page when it comes to how you will judge the success or failure of the project.

3. What business group or person is sponsoring the project?
Always know where the money is coming from. Often times on large projects, stakeholders will be coming out of the woodwork, from all areas of the company. Know who is footing the bill and what their needs are. All other stakeholders’ needs, while important, come secondary to the sponsor.

4. Who are the primary audiences affected and how many people in each audience?
For a training program to be effective, you have to know who the audience is. Their demographics, their location, their roles, etc. are all important in designing a program that will resonate with them and succeed in changing the behavior of the group. In addition, this will dictate what delivery methods can and should be used.

5. What are the audiences’ attitudes and expectations toward training and this program in general?
One of our favorite maxims is, “If the Head and the Heart Aren’t Engaged, the Hands Won’t Follow.” Often times training is intended not only to train, but to serve as change management as well. This doesn’t work! If the learners don’t know why they’re taking the training, and/or they don’t believe they need it, they will never change behavior, no matter how good the content is.

6. What behavior changes are required for the project to be successful?
This is similar to the question, “What does success look like?” but it’s going a little deeper. Far too often, training groups are satisfied with knowing, (1) if learners liked the training, and (2) if learners understood the content. Understanding the content is all well and good, but if the learners don’t apply what they learned and change their behavior, what’s the point?

7. How important is tracking and reporting for this program? How do you currently track and report learning engagements?
Continuing down the path of understanding the business needs and intended behavior changes, it’s important to know how the client plans to measure the outcomes. What kind of assessments do they use? Do they have an LMS for tracking online learning? In order to prove the value of the program, you need to measure its impact, early and often.

8. What tools do you currently leverage for training and content management (rapid authoring tools, LMSs, CMSs, etc.)?
This is important from a usability and sustainability standpoint. I always tell clients that we have certain processes, tools, and best practices that we’ve developed or acquired over our long history, but in order for our programs to be sustainable after we leave, we need to use whatever is already in place. Moreover, we need to leverage tools that the learners are already using in their day-to-day lives as well; tools like SharePoint, WordPress, Lync, the company intranet page, etc.

9. How flexible are you with the structure, approach, and creativity with this program?
This is a very important question when working with a large organization. Most large organizations have very rigid policies, processes and standards when it comes to branding, training, communications, etc. You must understand how much room you have to play.

10. What existing content can be leveraged?
Anyone that has developed training before knows this is critical. Often times when a non-training person brings you in to talk training, they don’t think about this element, or they overestimate how much fine-tuning still needs to be done. Knowing what existing material can be leveraged will not only help accurately scope the amount of work required to develop the training, but also the amount of time needed from the client’s subject matter experts (see below).

11. What resources are you able to provide to the project from a subject matter expertise standpoint?
From my experience, subject matter expert availability is the single most misunderstood and potentially derailing factor on a training development project. Referencing the last question, often clients overestimate the amount of finished content that can be leveraged. Moreover, if you have experience developing a similar training program, they overestimate your ability to leverage past experience.

The fact is, every company is unique in its business processes, its culture, its tools, its people, everything. You can provide expertise in adult learning theory, instructional design, and training development but you do not know the ins and outs of your subject matter. You’re going to need the client’s help with that part, and to make sure you meet deadlines, you need to know the availability of their experts for knowledge, feedback, reviews and approvals.

12. What milestones and dates are critical to meet?
This is a fairly obvious project management question. This will help you assemble the appropriately-sized team and ensure that you are meeting a client’s expectations.

13. What is your budget? What are the biggest priorities among cost, time, and quality?
Clients are often apprehensive to reveal their budget, but when you’re developing custom solutions, this is really important to know. In this business, it is crucial to be able to right-size a solution to fit the budget and help the client understand what they are and are not getting for that price. Prioritizing cost, time and quality is critical because you cannot have all three.

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I'm the director of sales and marketing at Dashe & Thomson. I've worked in sales and marketing with various organizations, including 3M, the Minnesota Timberwolves, Ionix Medical, and the Itasca Project. I live and breathe Minnesota sports and love golfing, boating, skiing, traveling, and attending live music.