Contrary to other analysts in the learning technology industry, I come at LMS buying topics from a vendor’s selling standpoint. After selling 100+ learning solutions, I’ve developed a viewpoint that is much different from someone who has purchased 1, 2, or even 10 systems.
Believe me, buying is easy. Buying well is tougher. And selling is the most difficult. I can definitively say that in my past 13 years selling high-end LMSs I’ve met every type of LMS buyer – dozens of times each – including the:
- Sizzle feature shopper
- Perennial I-can’t-get-budget moaners
- I-have-1000-critical-must-have-requirements time wasters
- I’m-the-decision-maker-and-plan-to-make-a-selection-this-month (but-I-really-don’t-have-authority-or-budget) blowhards
- Educated, prepared buyers
I preferred the latter, although unfortunately, they were the smallest minority of people. When I was a fledgling LMS sales guy at Click2Learn almost 15 years ago, I was such a wide-eyed, glass-half-full, silver-lining sap.
Each and every lead I worked with gusto, jumping on planes to anywhere, answering any RFP, fully believing in my ability to win anything and never considering most shoppers would not — or could not — buy. (Unsuccessful LMS salespeople are some of the nicest and busiest people you will ever meet.)
By the end of my sales tenure, I didn’t believe anybody could buy and I qualified-out buyers if they looked at me sideways. As a result, my win rate climbed from 10% to 80%.
As a litmus test, I used the following questions to qualify a new LMS prospect on my first discovery call to decide if the buyer had a shot of actually buying and if we had a chance of winning:
- Could the prospect articulate why they were buying, what business problem they were going to solve, the expected impact on their business, the level of executive support and the state of the budget?
- Did they invest the time to define their LMS requirements through the lens of their own business or did they just quickly reuse somebody else’s requirement list?
- Were we a match from a functional, technical, business, professional service and ongoing support standpoint?
Educated, prepared buyers always knew the answers to the above questions and most often turned into great clients because they took the time to accurately define their requirements and find the right partner. Defining your LMS requirements like a professional helps you cut through the marketing fluff of 600 potential LMS vendors and find the closest match to you and your needs.
So how do you define your requirements and become an educated buyer? Where do you start? The very best buyers I’ve encountered defined their LMS requirements through the lens of their business in five key categories.
5 Key Requirements Categories All LMS Buyers Should Consider
1) Functional Use Case LMS Requirements
Functional use case LMS requirements are the actual features that learners and all LMS users will be using. Without a doubt you need to define your functional requirements, but how you define them is key.
If you download a list of hundreds of requirements from analysts or vendors and go through the exercise of marking each functional one as “critical must have,” you are kidding yourself and setting yourself up for failure. I just had a conversation last week with a vendor who told me that out of 487 requirements in a recent RFP only 3 were marked as “nice to have” and the rest “critical.” Taking this approach shows that you don’t know what is important, forces you to evaluate only the most expensive systems and drastically increases the chances of your management balking at the cost and putting the project on hold.
The best way to define your feature and functional requirement is through use case scenarios. Here is how. Identify the different types of audiences that will be using your LMS and what exactly you want them to do. For example, how will they access the LMS? How will content be assigned to them? What type of content? On mobile devices? Will they purchase content? Will they need reports? Access to transcripts?
When you go through this exercise for each unique audience group, you will find that hundreds of your former “critical” requirements will be demoted to “nice to have” and then you will have the true critical feature list remaining in use cases format. Use cases allow you to tell the story to vendors in a way they understand and can price more precisely. Imagine the difference in getting vendor demos if you can ask the vendor to show you 6 focused use case sequences vs. please show me these 1000 requirements.
Unsophisticated buyers, lured by the sirens of marketing hype, start and stop with the functional requirements, but educated experienced buyers continue on with the following.
2) Technical LMS Requirements
Technical requirements center around deployment models, integration ability, customization strategy, feature development, enhancements and most importantly security.
This week’s news has been dominated by the cyber hacking attack on Sony Studios and within the last year we’ve seen major hacks on Target, eBay, Montana Health Department, P.F. Changs and Domino’s Pizza. It’s only a matter of time before the targets are LMS solutions. LMSs contain a wealth of data that could potentially be useful for identity thief and corporate espionage. As a result, defining your technical requirements is very important. To get you started, here are some things you should be thinking about:
- Do you need an on-premise solution, private cloud or multi-tenant hosting?
- What measures does the vendor use to ensure security and privacy?
- Does the vendor get 3rd party application and penetration tests? It’s easy for a vendor to say they are secure, but vendors should be paying cyber attack experts to try and break into the network or LMS.
- What is the application backup strategy? How often? Do they keep the backups offsite?
- What integrations will be needed? Want to share data with SalesForce, MailChimp, Zoho, Google Apps, PayPal, Single Sign-On, HRIS, ERP and other systems?
- Do you have content compliance standards requirements like SCORM, AICC, xAPI (Tin Can), AICC or PENS?
3) Professional Services LMS Requirements
Ten years ago, every LMS vendor had a professional service team that trained you and took you through a multi-month implementation process. With the evolution of the cloud providers over the last 5 years, that has changed and many LMS providers provide only phone support to help get you going. Therefore it is important to define what help you want and need.
If you are just starting out in LMS or extended enterprise LMS, you will be able to get by with very little help. If you have a big complicated system that you have been using for a decade, you are going to need help migrating. Here are some professional service LMS requirements to define:
- Do you want onsite implementation support — at least some of the time?
- Do you want to migrate users, completion and progress data, and content from an existing LMS?
- Do you require custom integration services?
- Do you need help defining your LMS governance or overall strategy?
- Do you need ROI definition and measurement help?
- FDA CFR Part 11 validation services?
- Mobile and eLearning content strategy or development services?
- Adoption marketing services?
- Onsite trainers?
- Global service teams?
There is no sense evaluating any vendor’s LMS if they don’t provide the level of professional services required to get you transitioned off your system and on to the new!
4) Ongoing Support Requirements
The #1 reason LMS buyers are not happy with their vendors is customer support. After your LMS purchase, at some point, your LMS implementation will be done and will be transitioned to the general support group. Here is where the frustration starts. Vendors always seem to allocate too little of their operating budget to adequately fund and scale their customer support and inevitable they run shorthanded. Once behind, it usually gets worse, much worse, before it gets better. This leads to slow response and resolutions and frayed customer tempers.
Amazingly though, few buyers spend a lot of time defining what they really want and need in customer support and often seems like an afterthought during the buying process. To define your ongoing support requirements, consider questions like the following:
- Do you want chat, live, phone administrator technical support?
- Do you want a dedicated point of contact?
- Do you want U.S. based support or global?
- Do you want a vendor with annual meetings or active online communities?
- Online content to train you, other administrators or future admins on the LMS?
- Automatic upgrades? Control timing of your upgrades?
- End-user live support via chat or phone?
5) Business LMS Requirements
The business requirements are all those things that you want in a partner and the contractual arrangement. I observed that these types of questions were always in RFPs, but I don’t think many customers actually discussed what they wanted in a partner. Here are some things your team should consider before contacting LMS vendors:
- Is it important that an LMS vendor has deep or any experience in your industry?
- Is it important where the vendor is located and from where services are being provided?
- Do you want to speak to live references? (Yes!)
- Do you want a partner that has annual meetings or regional user groups?
Another important business requirements area is how you want to pay for your LMS. There are multiple licensing options in the software marketplace, so depending on your audience size and expected usage behavior, some models are definitely a better fit than others.
If you are focused on the extended enterprise and are selling instructional content, you may want to find “consumption” model vendors that will invoice you a predefined fixed amount after you sell a course, or a user registers or completes a course. If your LMS is for employees only, then consider negotiating an annual or monthly license based on # of employees. If you are going to deploy on-premise, you may want to consider a perpetual license.
Few (if any) vendors support all three models, so defining what you prefer will help you narrow the pool of choices.
There are over 700 LMS options we’ve tracked in today’s market. If you take the time to qualify each one, you can spend a fortune (and a decade). If you go to the vendor community with just a list of desired features, you will find 700 LMS vendors who say they are a perfect match. So you need to prune down the options. The best way to do that is to define what you want, up front.
If you take the time to outline your functional use case, technical, professional service, support and business requirements and share with vendors before investing any time with them, you will find many will drop out if they are not a match, which saves you the effort of actively qualifying them. What remains is worth investigating.
Once you buy an LMS you’ll likely be living with it for at least a few years. If you want a quick, successful life with that system, you’ll want to be educated and prepared before you start looking for the ideal match. Buy in haste or without clarity about your requirements, and it will be the longest few years of your life. I encourage you to choose wisely.
Thanks for reading!
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