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Don’t Be Sold: Find the Best Fit for Your LMS

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Tell me what I should buy!
I often see message board postings basically stating “My company is transitioning to eLearning, so what LMS should we buy?” The question is not inappropriate but incomplete. There is usually a flood of responses from LMS salespersons or resellers pushing solutions without understanding, or asking for, requirements. When I or a colleague respond and probe deeper it becomes clear that the person asking the question has not identified what they really need from the system, how they plan to use it to drive value for their organization, or other key decision points that need to go into LMS selection. If these questions are asked and answered early in the discovery process, the customer has a better chance to identify the right system.

Several times I have seen vendors show up for sales demos and ask about uses cases to demonstrate for customers who had not performed their due diligence, nor did they have a good understanding of what role the LMS would play in their organization. Without a breadth or depth of understanding, the customer could not provide a direction for the demonstration. The vendor goes to their Plan B default setting and provide a general overview of features available in the system – emphasizing its strong points even if they not important to the customer’s requirements. This is not a gimmick or sales trickery, but a natural consequence of a customer not having requirements defined-or worse-when the customer actively avoids frank discussion of these requirements with their potential vendor for fear of illustrating that they had not thought through how the system would be used in the organization.

In Customer Complaints, How to Avoid the Traps, Craig Weiss notes some of the traps customers can fall prey to during the LMS sales process, specifically: “Sometimes it is a result of the vendor, other times it is a failure of due diligence on the part of the soon to be customer. And yes, there are times it is both parties.”

Customers, Not Vendors, Need to Drive the Process
Expressing my honest experiences on this matter will not win me a popularity contest. Overwhelmingly, my experience has been that the fault primarily lies with the customer. My advice is the same as when I was interviewed about tips for LMS implantation by the Elearning Guild 360 Study on LMS Systems:
  • Know your requirements before inviting vendors to present
  • Stay in the driver’s seat at all times during the presentation to focus on these requirements
  • Once satisfied, the vendor can certainly demonstrate any “icing on the cake” they are eager to show you
By having all vendors first demonstrate how their systems fulfill your requirements, you gain clear understanding how each LMS performs against your most valued criteria. Thus, at the core, all vendors are measured against this same yard stick as the starting point for your decision making.

Most LMS vendors are relieved when you have a very specific set of objectives for them to demonstrate. It focuses and directs the conversation, avoids misunderstandings late in the sales process or post-sale, and in a lot of cases, will still enable them to demonstrate some really cool technology that addresses your most important decision criteria. And, if it is clear that there are requirements that cannot be addressed, it gets to the matter quickly without wasting time for both organizations if there is not a good fit.

Snake Oil
I have joked in previous blog about my first experience with Chris Wylie, CEO of Accord LMS, demonstrating the Accord LMS to me. I described it as hijacking his demo. I could tell in about 5 minutes into the presentation that it was a capable system and Chris had deep expertise. Truth be told, I was confident in the product and presenter to a level where I decided to throw about every litmus test would stump many LMS vendors. No matter how crazy my request, Chris was happy to oblige. I stated a need and he could show how the system would competently handle the issue. Never once did Chris try to avoid exploring an issue, overstate the products ability, nor did he try to redirect the demonstration to flashier, sexier features that can easily dazzle and impress a buyer (of which Accord LMS has almost boundless possibilities with all the modules available from store.dnnsoftware.com). Chris allowed me to take the drivers wheel, state what value I would like to see from the product, and then simply and transparently showed that value.

In Craig’s article he talks about Snake Oil Salespeople. When demonstrating their product they try to lead the show with a scripted scenario, and make bold claims that are half truths. Here again, it is important for you to stay in the driver’s seat and focus the demonstration on your needs. You will quickly determine if a system will and will not perform to your specifications. If the salesperson says the system can do something, they should be able to demonstrate it without qualifications. If they cannot, question the claim. Offer to reschedule a demonstration for a later date if the salesperson notes that their current demo isn’t set up to illustrate that feature.

Integration and Interoperability
One of the common claims of the Snake Oil Salesperson is about interoperability. It is true that no system is interoperable with everything. There is always some work integrating elements in a learning ecosystem. However, the Accord LMS is built on the DotNetNuke (DNN) open source framework; it has flexibility and interoperability as a core asset of the system. I have written previously that the Accord’s integration with other DNN applications can be seamless. Compared to many systems I have worked with that took herculean efforts to bolt together and were still not seamless, Accord’s flexibility is perhaps the most open I have seen to date (even more than many of the platforms claiming “open”-ness on the market). Accord also provides auto-login from remote heterogeneous sites and an API for mashups.

As for integrations, I did want to make a special note about ERP systems. Carefully consider the value of tying to ERP systems. Changes to ERP systems can cause issues for your LMS. ERP systems with years of legacy data that hasn’t been cleaned up will reflect in your LMS- meaning the data feeds from the ERP to your LMS may introduce bad ERP data to the LMS (garbage in, garbage out). Several times in LMS implementations, I have seen the LMS get the black eye for what actually is an issue with the ERP system. This is another area to perform due diligence.

Also keep in mind the cost for any extension to the core functionality. Identify all the features you want and find out what is included and what will cost extra.

Coming Soon
In his blog, Craig expresses concern of the sale of “coming features”. Accord LMS can currently leverage hundreds of application extensions (modules) from snowcovered.com and other DNN vendors. This vibrant ecosystem keeps the available modules up to date with the latest technology. This is quite different than a small team of developers working for a closed/proprietary LMS product. If you’re looking for an extension to the Accord LMS, chances are good that it is already available at a very affordable price.

Burgers Served and Biased Whitepapers
“We are the best and have X thousand users, and X hundred clients or this huge name-brand using our system”.  Craig nails the issue perfectly in his blog. I call this the “burgers served” metrics. Who is on the system does have some merit if you are concerned with verticals with some very specific reporting or security needs (financial, healthcare, government). Even so, if those customer’s needs are different than yours, even this fact hardly matters. Number of users may seem important, but if the vendor can competently articulate how they can support your targeted usage levels, even this metric isn’t truly important. Also, I could argue based on my direct experience that a big numbers of clients can indicate where you might stand as a customer, especially when the vendor has a few big, name-brand clients with large amounts of users.

As for white papers and case studies, Craig is correct. They are marketing materials. Although they do provide valuable insight to features, understand that they do provide a positive-only perspective on the tool. Balance these with independent reviews.

Also, be wary of the resources offered by vendors. My personal favorite are “checklists to evaluate LMS systems”. Although the checklists do contain some decent guidance on selecting an LMS, understand the criteria is biased to tunnel you to their products (questions such as “does the vendor have an installed user base of over X users?” and “does the vendor offer integrated course authoring tools?” are certainly good questions to drive you to their solution, but often have nothing to do with your actual business requirements).

For Boogeyman data, Craig is 100% correct. Essentially any data can be flattened to a common format and re-imported to another platform. If content is SCORM compliant, it should run in any SCORM-compliant LMS. In addition, the Accord LMS has the ability to utilized and track non-SCORM content – both local and remote.

In Summary
  • Understand your requirements before shopping.
  • Maintain control of and direct product demonstrations.
  • Focus on real requirements, not fancy features you don’t need.
  • Ensure product demonstrations cover all your requirements before exploring extra features.
  • Nail down how much the features you need will cost.

This also summarizes my tour of the Accord LMS with Chris Wylie. He did not boast about his product (even though he has plenty to brag about), he did not sell “coming” features, he simply let the me, a very demanding customer, drive the presentation and let the product speak for itself. That is salesmanship at its best.
| Categories: eLearning

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