At some point, each of us has convinced someone to do something. If you’re a parent, think about each time you have tried to get your child to eat dinner. It may have sounded like this: “If you want dessert/to play with your best friend/to use your tablet, you need to eat your food.” What about trying to convince your friend or significant other to go see the movie you want to see instead the one they want to see? Have you ever borrowed something from someone – an outfit, a car, a book, a game? This list could go on and on.

Sales is convincing someone to part with resources in exchange for something that you have. We live in a world where we are constantly trying to exchange stuff – not just money but time, attention, information, ideas or other resources. At its core, this process is sales. Anytime we are convincing, persuading or influencing someone to part with or exchange a resource, we are selling.

As leaders in learning and development, we are continually tasked with influencing others. Sales might have a bad rap, but it is misunderstood. The sales profession has mastered the skills and strategies necessary to influence people. Whether selling an idea to a stakeholder, determining root causes of problems or convincing others training is not the solution, L&D leaders are faced with the same goals of persuading and influencing others. Here are a few strategies from sales that can apply to L&D.

1. Perfect Your Sales Trailer

We have all heard that first impressions are lasting impressions and that we only have one chance to make a first impression. Sales has responded to this challenge with the sales trailer strategy. The focus of this strategy is being prepared to answer the question, “What do you do?” Having a prepared response sets you up to make a good first impression.

In L&D, you can use the same strategy. Beyond the “What do you do?” question, you may want to be prepared with answers to a few questions that stakeholders frequently ask of L&D leaders:

  • What is instructional design?
  • What value does your team bring to this project?
  • Why do I need you when I have a subject matter expert (SME)?
  • How do you work with SMEs? How will you work with us?
  • How long does it take to develop an e-learning course? A video?

When preparing to answer each of these questions, be sure to consider your audience as well as the questions you may want to ask them. By being prepared, you will be able to start your relationship in a positive direction, establish that you are a credible resource, and better align L&D efforts with your stakeholder’s needs.

2. Use Qualifying Questions

One of the main functions of sales is to conduct transactions. As humans, we can lose focus of this goal anytime we are interacting with one another. It is human nature to want to get to know people and make connections. Sales handles this predisposition by asking qualifying questions. Also known as “qualifying hard and closing easy” or “qualifying hard, qualifying early,” these questions keep the conversation focused on answering whether the business transaction can even happen.

This process of asking qualifying questions may be second-nature to many L&D leaders, because it is similar to the process of assessing needs. The biggest takeaway from the qualifying questions strategy for L&D is to make sure to ask the hard questions as early as possible and to tailor your questions to your project. This approach will enable you to quickly assess whether you can work with the client or stakeholder and prevent wasting money and time. Here is a list of potential qualifying questions for L&D:

  • Is there is a budget? If so, what is the budget?
  • Who makes the decisions? Does their timeline match your timeline?
  • What resources are available (e.g., SMEs, media team, IT)?
  • After you have launched the solution, what resources are available to address problems and maintain the product?
  • Who are the target audience? Where are they located?
  • What’s the root cause of the problem?
  • What data do you have to support that this issue is a problem?
  • Ask specific product or project questions.

These questions will help you determine whether your team has the necessary skill set to successfully complete the project and whether you have the necessary resources.

3. Use Impact Questions

Salespeople use impact questions to dig deeply into what a client needs while also making an impression or impact. They use these questions to help understand the customer’s situation in depth, figure out what they really care about, and begin to learn who they are and how they make decisions.

In L&D, success hinges on the alignment between needs and learning solutions. Using impact questions to tease out what a client really needs increases your chance of successfully aligning those needs with the best solution you can provide.

When constructing impact questions, be sure that they force the client to think. It is a good practice to consider how easy it would be to answer the question; avoid short yes/no questions. Here are a few examples for you to consider tailoring for your situation:

  • What’s holding the business back from giving customers a great experience?
  • If you won the budget lottery and had unlimited resources, what would you do?
  • What were the biggest challenges your product overcame during development?
  • What would happen if we did nothing?
  • What is the worst thing that could happen?
  • What do success and failure look like for you?
  • What was the best learning experience you ever had? Why?
  • Why are employees continually making this mistake?
  • Why do you think that this training is the best solution?

4. Handling Objections

Objections happen to everyone. In sales, objections happen more often than not. Regardless of the setting, the key to handling them is being prepared with responses. As a former teacher, this strategy reminds me of “anticipating questions.” The goal of this instructional strategy is to identify questions your students may ask, think through their misconceptions and plan how you would respond.

The same strategy works well in L&D. Being able to anticipate objections is helpful when presenting potential solutions to stakeholders. While you will need to think through potential objections or pain points for every project, here are a few common ones:

Objection: Our work group won’t go for that!

Potential Responses:

  • Ask, “Why?”
  • Ask if you can try but establish a backup plan.
  • Test it with a small group first.

Objection: This initiative needs to launch in two weeks.

Potential Responses:

  • Determine if a multi-phased approach to launching training is an option.
  • Provide solutions that you can complete within the time frame.

Objection: This is a training problem. I need e-learning!

Potential Responses:

  • Establish the problem. Then ask, “Why?” until you determine the root cause.
  • Explain potential solutions based on the root cause.

Making an Impact

Many of these strategies seem straightforward or like common sense, because most of us have used them in our personal lives without realizing it. Convincing, persuading and influencing are second-nature when you know your audience and have an established relationship with them. By applying these strategies to your role as an L&D leader, you will be better prepared to share your ideas and in a better position to make an impact. Two final pieces of advice: Carefully reflect on how you can tailor each strategy to meet your initiatives, and always keep your goals in mind!

Want to learn more about sales strategies you can use as a learning leader? Come to Taryn’s session at TICE 2019.