Shaking the Vending Machine: Becoming a Trusted Advisor

Once upon a time, I was sure I’d grow up to work in a vending machine. (That’s right; I thought there were people inside.) I loved the idea of translating keypad codes into icy beverages and crackling bags of snacks.

For L&D professionals, the idea of taking orders doesn’t feel quite so magical. We’re supposed to be trusted advisors, but too often, we find ourselves developing learning reactively, under pressure of product launches, quarterly compliance requirements, and other crunches. How can we reset when we get stuck in this cycle? How can we become a trusted advisor again?

Start by considering the following questions:

What am I ultimately selling?

Is it a product, such as an app or platform? Or is it intangible, such as consulting services or recommendations?

If what you’re selling is your expertise, you have the luxury—and the challenge—of being a comparison shopper. You can use your knowledge of your client’s business to make agnostic recommendations independent of a single brand or platform. You have the liberty to recommend an ecosystem of tools and approaches, and the responsibility to weigh the potential drawbacks of each.

If you’re selling a product, your incentive is to recruit licensees and add users. That’s an honest motivation, too! There’s nothing wrong with having something to sell—and selling it to the right people, for the right use case. Your value lies in asking the questions to determine how your product can help deliver results that matter to the client. Your ability to be frank when it’s not a good fit will earn you credibility: Think of yourself as a matchmaker, not a vendor.

Once you’ve made a good match, ask yourself:

Am I selling a panacea?

The correct answer is always no. There are a lot of interesting tools, but too many are labeled “AI-enabled” or “LX platform” based upon a couple of tenuous characteristics. Too many vendors, ingenuously or otherwise, overstate the ranges and use cases of their solutions. To use a cliché, there are a lot of hammer purveyors trying to convince prospects that their problems are nails.

It’s exciting to discover ways your product or expertise intersects with client needs and interests. But even the most expertly designed learning path or tool with the most exquisite UI isn’t for everyone and everything. Overpromising may win the contract in the short term, but it sets us up for failure down the line when business results don’t follow.

If there’s a certain segment or client you haven’t been able to sell but would like to pursue, change the conversation to a fact-finding one rather than a sales pitch. You might uncover some user needs that will inspire an entirely new tool or approach.

After your reality check is complete, ask:

How can I simplify my recommendations?

Rather than starting with the shiniest object and designing your program around it, find the simplest way to offer learners the learning content. Some of the most profound learning takes place in settings with nearly zero technology. For example, observing a high-performing peer is one of the most effective onboarding practices—and the only resource it requires is another person.

That’s not to say that high-tech solutions are never called for. But balance the rosy vision of the problems solved by the technology with a thorough exploration of the new problems it might create. A client who wishes to bring the benefits of peer coaching to a geographically disparate team might want to use a video-coaching platform. Though the platform remedies the distance problem, it exponentially increases file-storage needs—and, potentially, personnel hours—to ensure that learners receive prompt feedback and responses. That’s not to say that you should necessarily advise against the platform; it may well be worth the investment. But ensure that it’s the simplest solution before advocating for it.

As you develop your recommendations, think about learners’ work environments and how to reach them there. If you can’t visualize the learners or their spaces, ask the client for permission to interview some of their learners. These interviews don’t need to become a full-fledged design-thinking initiative—unless your client is open to it—but listening to learners talk about their needs, in their own spaces, is incredibly powerful, and helps you along the way to becoming a trusted advisor again.

Above all, begin with the minimally invasive. Learning and performance support solutions shouldn’t require lots of different apps to be downloaded and systems to be logged into. It’s healthier for learners to select from a simple menu of staples than load up on isolated single servings. A very real part of our value as professionals lies in steering our clients away from shiny objects—and empty calories.

Tiffany Vojnovski

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