penniesI recently had a conversation with a prospect that rocked me back on my heels. He was looking for helping putting together product knowledge training for his sales team. As is often the case, serious budget constraints were in play.

On the one hand, he had a lowball bid from a vendor he had worked with before. He knew this vendor would create a poorly designed page-turner e-learning course. But, the price was right. On the other hand, he wanted to do something that would actually be effective. But, money was tight. In short, he had to either justify the one or figure out the other.

Like so many before him, he followed the path of least resistance and chose the low-cost option. His justification? “Well, it’s better than nothing,” he told me

I completely understood where he was coming from. He’s a busy learning professional in a demanding job. It was quick and easy to come up with his justification. In contrast, it would have taken time and effort to come up with an effective approach that was within his budget. Time and effort he didn’t think he could afford.

Was he right? Is doing something, anything at any level of quality, really better than nothing? And, if so, under what circumstances?

I don’t believe that wasting learners’ time and the company’s resources on something you know will be ineffective is better than nothing. How could it be? You’ve spent time and invested money to get exactly nowhere.

That said, you don’t have to blow through your budget to create effective training. In fact, it’s possible to over-invest in training. Many years ago, the L&D team at one of my clients came up with a glossy magazine-style design for the participant guide for one of their courses. It was beautifully done. Quite impressive, actually. And, there’s no doubt that the idea was clever. But, how much did the high production values contribute to the actual learning over and above what would have occurred with a simpler, less expensive format? I suspect very little if at all.

So, what are the bare minimum requirements of effective training? Turns out there are four.

1) A clearly defined, concrete course objective. You must define in observable, measurable terms what people will be able to do as a result of the training. You should be able to describe this goal in a single sentence. Here’s an example. “By the end of this course, you will be able to answer questions about XYZ product with 99% accuracy.” It’s clear. It’s succinct. And, you can check to see if this actually happens. How? One of my clients actually sent secret shoppers into their stores to ask questions and record the accuracy of their sales team’s answers.

2) Essential and important information people need to know to meet the objective. Now that you know what you want to accomplish, you can identify and select the right content. This is what people need to know to achieve the objective – no more and no less.

Ideally, you’ll organize this content in a way that mirrors how learners will use it on the job. In the case of my prospect, since the sales team would be using the product knowledge gained from the course to answer customers questions, both proactively and reactively, I recommended that he present the content in a Q&A format rather than topically. This mimicry between the training and the job helps learners transfer what they learn to their work. This is because they don’t have to take the extra step of mapping topical content to real life situations.

3) Activities that mirror the job. The purpose of activities is to provide learners with a chance to translate new knowledge into new skills. It’s one thing to know about something and quite another to be able to do it. Activities should represent a “day in the life” of learners. In the case of my prospect, learners might be creating sales presentations, responding to objections, answering questions, and finding and sending supporting content, to name just a few activities. This means that learners should have a chance to do all of these things during the training.

Doing is only half the story, though. Learners also need feedback on and coaching to improve their performance so it is up to par.

4) Accountability. We can all be a little bit lazy about implementing new skills, especially when we feel overwhelmed and stressed at work. Optimizing our performance is the least of our worries. We just want to get through the day. Plus, if we don’t apply what we learned right away, we are likely to forget it, or forget enough of it that it makes application challenging. This is why it is key that you build in accountability.

Building in accountability can be as simple as sending secret shoppers out to “test” a sales team’s product knowledge, having managers review a rep’s sales presentation to make sure that it conforms with standards, or spot checking prospects to ensure that they are satisfied with the answers they received to their questions. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It just has to happen.

Now that you’ve got the meat and potatoes of your training, you need to determine the best way to serve it. If you’ve got a tight budget, you can’t afford the luxury of getting too attached to a specific delivery method. My prospect wanted e-learning and only e-learning. Yet, putting together a webinar might have been more cost effective and allowed him to spend more money on effective design rather than on delivery development.

One last piece of advice. If you are working with an outside firm, don’t blow your tight budget on revisions. Settle disagreements between subject matter experts in-house. Consolidate edits before passing them off to the vendor’s production team. And, make changes early in the production process. A change to a storyboard in PowerPoint is a lot cheaper than a change to a narrated e-learning course.