4 kinds of questions to ask your client before you design training

Photo by Amy Hirsch Unsplash
Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash

What do you want from a successful training program? As a training provider or facilitator you probably want 4 key things. You want to be paid. You want results. You want a happy customer. But you also want to create a case-study which you can leverage to win more business. The ultimate win-win is to show real success with your training, so you can use that proof to sell your programs and workshops to other clients who want similar results. Getting your training client involved early and often in the design stage is the secret to genuine client satisfaction. This means asking strategic questions.

Why don’t you ask?

But, in my experience as a HR Consultant, many facilitators and trainers don’t take time to think about the ways they can involve their client in shaping successful learning programs. They avoid asking ‘hard questions’ up-front. I’ve often wondered exactly why service providers appear reluctant to thoroughly consult the very people who are going to select them as a vendor, approve their contract and pay the bill.

  • Perhaps it’s because you believe that asking questions will make you appear unprepared, uncertain or unknowledgeable about your subject.
  • Perhaps its because you feel unable to ask business-specific questions in case you don’t understand the answers you are given and their implication.
  • Perhaps it’s because you fear that asking ‘too many’ (or the wrong) questions could annoy your client and lead to your training or coaching contract unwinding.

Why do you play it safe?

What do you think? Is this true for you? As a learning & development service provider, you may prefer to ‘stick to the script’. You may choose to ‘play it safe’ by asking questions about training-needs-analysis, learning objectives, mode-of-delivery, numbers of participants, learning assessments etc. This is the stuff you already know. It’s your comfort zone. I get it. That’s also the kind of stuff that I talk about in my ‘HR world’ :o)

The trouble is that when you only ask these kinds of questions, you get stuck in a ‘HR conversation’. You play it safe by talking only to the people who ‘order’ or ‘commission’ the training instead of talking to the people who need the results of the training. You don’t get to ‘interface’ with the Managers and the Directors and the decision-makers. Worse still, when you ask the same questions that ‘every other’ training provider asks, you are indistinguishable from the competition. That makes it easier to haggle with you over your price.

LEARN MORE Listen now to Patti & Jack Phillips of the RoI Institute tell you how to have a business conversation with training buyers so you can demonstrate return on investment

What do you ask yourself first?

But before you start asking your client any questions, you might want to ask yourself a few hard questions first. The questions below are my just my suggestions so you may want to tweak these and/or come up with your own.

  • Which kinds of answers will help me shape my program?
  • Who do I need to talk with in order to get the ‘right’ answers?
  • How often do I involve my clients in co-creating my training?
  • At what stage do I ask them for their input?
  • What is value to each of my stakeholders?
  • Who should I be meeting with besides HR?
  • How do I go about finding them if I don’t get names?
  • Which metrics do I need to gather so I can measure outcomes?
  • What kind of data will help me build a business case to win future clients?

I challenge you right now to come up with a few more questions and ‘own’ these before you make another single business-development call. When you ask yourself these hard questions first, you’re going to find it easier to ask your clients the right questions so they can help you to create the exact learning intervention they want you to sell them.

The 4 kinds of questions to ask clients

Ok. So here are the four questions (and sub-questions) you should be asking clients before you design anything. When you ask these questions, you will be designing with them and not just for them. Big difference.

1 Business questions

What is ‘wrong’ with the business? Are there losses, what kind and to what extent? Or is there a goal to improve a situation, such as increased sales? Retain more Customers? Get higher ratings? Reduce staff turnover?  The answer to this question should include a number if possible: e.g. reduce turnover by 15% in 2021, increase customer service ratings from 2.8 to 3.4 in 2021. Think of these as ‘where does it hurt‘ questions. You need to know where your client is starting from before you can help them to get where they want to go.

Action: Write down 3 business questions you are going to ask your next client

2 Behavior questions

What behavior needs to change?  Are employees unaware of how to calm irate customers? Are they able to write proposals to the desired standard? Do leaders use conflict resolution techniques or do they run the other way when a quarrel breaks out? Are managers unable to motivate their people? Are sales people resorting to discounting when then should be negotiating instead? You get the idea. You need to ask questions so you find out what your client is trying to get her people to do and what s/he feels is stopping them.

Action: Write down 3 behavior questions you are going to ask your client

3 Skill questions

Next, what specific skills does your client think are needed? Most clients will have given this some thought. They will be conscious of the behavior they want to see. Listening and responding with empathy? Giving effective feedback? Having better coaching conversations? Resolving customer complaints with empathy? The behavior is what they want to achieve and the skill is what is used to achieve it. Be prepared to challenge your clients on this one.

Action: Write down 3 skill questions you are going to ask your client

4 Learning questions

Finally, what sort of learning experience will be appropriate? How will your client measure learning outcomes? How will this information be delivered? Face-to-face? Remote? Peer-led or Instructor led? Facilitated? Co-facilitated or solo? How will training / facilitation be assessed? How will the training / coaching be embedded and updated? What is their preferred learning modality and why? This is your chance to sell your learning program together with your portfolio of products and services.

Action: Write down 3 learning questions you are going to ask your client

Final words

Having asked these 4 sets of questions in a consultative fashion, you will have given your client the confidence that you understand their situation and goals. You will have earned the right to make a training proposal that supports their goals and solves their problems.

When your client selects you as an external facilitator or learning and development professional, they are sticking their necks out. Their reputation is on the line. The best clients usually want to be involved in the design of the program because their name is all over it.

The earlier they are convinced that you have expertise (by asking the right questions) the faster they are going to make a decision about hiring you and putting you in front of their people. That’s what you want.

But you must start with asking yourself some hard questions first. You need to be really clear about the information that you need to design a winning learning & development program that gets buy-in, gets cooperation and most of all, gets results.

What kinds of questions do you ask your clients? Share your thoughts below.

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