Published On: June 7, 2016By
How to Buy an LMS You'll Hate - Independent learning tech analyst John Leh explains how to do it wrong (and right)

You hear a lot of chatter over the last decade about how everyone hates their learning management system.  Some people even think customer dissatisfaction is the reason there are 700 LMS vendors.  I don’t think that is the case.  I’ve spoken with hundreds of vendor references over the past few years and I have found plenty of buyers who say they love their LMS — although I also find many more who are neither thrilled nor dissatisfied.  LMS customer satisfaction is actually more of a bell curve, ranging from extreme hate to true love.

Perplexed by today’s market reality of 700 viable LMS vendors and the yin/yang of loving/hating LMS providers, I have also been thinking about who is at fault when there is a mismatch.  Does the vendor deserve the blame?  The customer?  Is LMS love or hate predestined, or is self-determination involved?  Can a buyer do certain things that improve the odds of love or hate?

Based on my 13-year career of selling LMSs and more than 3 years of helping buyers choose LMSs, here are my conclusions.  The first instinct is to always blame the vendor and of course, they carry the blame if they ever misrepresent themselves, don’t live up to their commitments or exaggerate their capabilities in the sales process.  But failure to buy wisely is not a vendor’s fault.  Caveat emptor (buyer beware).

Dissatisfied LMS buyers don’t like to hear that they may have caused their own problems, but I find it is often true.  Fortunately, poor buying decisions are often preventable.  However, if you insist that you would rather not fall madly in love with your next LMS, here are the top 5 ways to make sure you buy an LMS you absolutely hate (or just tolerate).

5 Ways to Buy an LMS You’ll Hate

1) Assume You Already Know-It-All

By far, the number one way to buy an LMS you hate is lack of preparation.  The most successful LMS buyers often invest 2-6 months to study the market before actively engaging vendors.  The LMS market changes rapidly, so if you were up to speed 2 years ago, you are behind now.

Do you know the state of the LMS market?  Key LMS trends?  Types of solutions that are best for you?  Relevant feature sets?  New (or old) jargon?  Have you read the industry’s most reliable blogs, online reviews, case studies or paid reports like the LMS Almanac?  Have you been to an industry trade show lately?  Have you tried to identify and talk with peers who have recent LMS evaluation experience?  Have you reached out to an LMS analyst like me?

If you like to shoot from the hip, get what you get, and don’t get upset about the consequences, then skip the research and assume you already know-it-all. It’s highly likely you will walk away with an old, expensive LMS that is easy to hate.

2) Define Requirements Like an Amateur

If you really want to hate your LMS, focus solely on defining your functional requirements.  Download one of many free LMS RFP templates, and you can quickly have 1000 “must have” requirements that you will never use – and 3 “nice to have” future requirements.  Buyers who love their LMS don’t focus on individual features.  Instead, they identify their unique audiences and the behaviors they want to change.  They script realistic use cases of learners in the moments when they need to find and use the system to connect with relevant content.  This process reduces hundreds of fake “must haves” to a few dozen truly essential requirements.  Haters also forget to clearly define their implementation, ongoing support, technical and business requirements. Instead, they screen LMS vendors exclusively by their inflated functional requirements list.

3) Evaluate Unqualified Vendors

Usually, an LMS purchase takes a couple of years.  The first year is comprised of making the business case, obtaining political alignment and officially getting the project funded.  The purchase occurs in the next fiscal year, when the funds are available.  In the purchase year, buyers inevitably start to run out of time because they invest too much time and effort evaluating unqualified vendors at the outset.  This leads to decisions made in haste as budget deadlines loom. But it doesn’t need to be this way.

An organization can easily spend $1500 or more in effort and time to determine if a vendor should be seriously evaluated.  Reading websites, talking to salespeople, seeing demonstrations and organizing this process with your team takes time.  Buyers with the best of intentions dig into the qualification process but don’t know where to start or stop.  Is looking at 5 of the 700 vendors enough?  100?  Buyers quickly get to the point where they must send the RFP or potentially run out of time for selection and implementation in the budget year.  So they send the RFP to too few or too many.  Regardless, the vendors are not pre-qualified and that means buyers must evaluate and choose the best LMS from a field of options that may not be the best for them.

4) Misalign the License Model

This one is really simple yet often overlooked, and it leads to so much bad blood.  LMS vendors license their products in various ways, and they charge for usage based on various metrics.  They may charge by named user, active users, per registration, per course purchase or even per log-on.

You may find an LMS that can do everything you want perfectly, but be a terrible choice because of its pricing structure.  For example, for internal employee LMS solutions, charging by named users is fine.  If you have 10,000 employees, you will need a 10,000-user license.  But with external, unknown and infrequent users of an extended enterprise LMS, a per registration or active users/time period model makes the most sense.

License model misalignment leads to strife because buyers feel they are overpaying for non-use, or they get into the self-defeating game of activating and deactivating learners to manage their license level because no additional funds are available.  That is not necessary.  Since there are so many LMS vendors in every category, and so many ways to license an LMS, why not look within your target category to find a license model that also aligns with your business model?

5) Open the Door to “Over Buying”

Because an LMS can be costly and selecting the right one can be such a complex and time-consuming process, many decision makers over-buy for safety or ignorance.  They actually would be happier with a smaller, more specialized, business-focused LMS, but they end up as a forgotten customer of some gigantic, faceless HRIS/TM/LMS vendor.  In this scenario, significant fiscal investment, implementation complexity, perfunctory customer service and lack of tangible return on investment lead to deep customer dissatisfaction.

But there is another huge, hidden problem that goes hand-in-hand with this kind of mismatch. The steep ongoing price of a too-big-for-my-needs LMS limits a buyer’s ability to invest in critical learning content and marketing activities.  This can seriously jeopardize the success of programs your LMS is intended to support.  It is similar to being “house poor” in your personal life.  There is a limit to your income.  If you allocate the lion’s share to your house mortgage you never have funds for improvements, vacations, dining out or discretionary purchases.  As a result, your quality of life suffers, and only the house wins.


I know buyers don’t really want to hate their LMS.  Although it may feel satisfying to give your vendor a good bashing at ATD ICE or DevLearn, it feels much better to be successful.  The good news is that if you start looking now for an LMS replacement cycle in 2017 or 2018, you will have plenty of time to educate yourself on the market, qualify vendors and define what you really need.  If you do, don’t be surprised when you find highly targeted solutions with better customer service and lower costs that you will love.  Don’t be an LMS hater.

Thanks for reading!


Learn More! On-Demand Webinar:

The Economics of LMS Replacement

Stuck with a learning management system that no longer meets your needs? Do you pay for annual maintenance and hosting, but haven’t upgraded in years, and rarely use tech support? Want to expand your learning program reach to customers, channel partners or others, but can’t afford the incremental licenses? Ready to move up to a new solution, but unsure about what it should cost? If any of these scenarios are familiar, this webinar is for you.

Join Talented Learning lead analyst and CEO, John Leh, as he shows you how to take charge of the LMS replacement process and lead your organization into the modern learning age. You’ll get insider perspectives and research-backed insights to help you overcome internal inertia, speak the business language of executives and get approval to replace your LMS.   In this fast-paced, information packed session, you will learn how to:

– Analyze what you’re currently spending (and why)
– Define what you need in a new LMS
– Outline the best license model for your intended use
– Develop realistic budget expectations
– Create a business case your stakeholders can support
– Find vendor intelligence you can trust

Replay this on-demand webinar now!

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About the Author: John Leh

John Leh is CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning and the Talented Learning Center. John is a fiercely independent consultant, blogger, podcaster, speaker and educator who helps organizations select and implement learning technology strategies, primarily for extended enterprise applications. His advice is based upon more than 25+years of learning-tech industry experience, serving as a trusted LMS selection and sales adviser to hundreds of learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $100+ million and growing. John would love to connect with you on Twitter or on LinkedIn.

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