Friday, July 29, 2011

Expectations, Or Keep the customer satisfied

But when it comes to writing courses (especially for Learning Tree International who I've done most of my course development for), I've noticed that I worry a lot about "participants' expectations."
Learning Tree makes every attempt to "set participants' expectations appropriately" as early as possible. On the company's website and in the course catalogs that are distributed to customers, Learning Tree describes courses in some detail: Who should attend, what topics will be covered in the course, what activities participants will be involved with. Sales staff who talk to customers (and customers themselves) also have access to the "Q&A" sheet for the course which lists some of the more common questions that customers have and provides answers. When participants arrive in the classroom, the course always begins by laying out the course's objectives and list the chapters that make up the course. Learning Tree has always been willing to make changes to the course descriptions to help ensure that, when participants show up in the classroom, they will get what they expect (even if that means limiting the number of customers who might be interested in the course).

Nonetheless, at the end of a course participants sometimes tell us that they had expectations that the course didn't satisfy.

My advice in these situations is always the same: Give the participants what they want. It's just easier that way and, besides, these are paying customers who should get what they believe they're paying for.

But....there are three issues with this approach. There are some cases where the course author is confident that there is something that participants MUST be taught. In that case, the author has to devote some time to convincing participants that they should value this material. The only way to do that is to tie the author's topic to things that participants do value (and know they value). Of course, there's the possibility that the author will fumble this, that the instructor won't convey this well in the classroom, or that the material will be tied to things that participants don't value. And, of course, the time spent on making this connection is time that can't be spent on the topics that participants know they want. So I always question the belief that a topic must be included even if the audience is deeply uninterested. The key question here, as always, is: What will participants do differently after hearing this information?

The second issue is when the expectations among the participants are not homogenous: When the course is taught there are often multiple audiences in the room (what, at Learning Tree, we call the "split audience" problem). While some authors try to satisfy all of the audiences in turn (a little bit for this audience, a little bit for that audience) my impression is that doesn't usually work. The right answer is, instead, to concentrate on only those topics that all of the audiences in the room value. There may not be a course there or, if there is, it may be a very short course (the audiences don't hold much in common) but that's your best hope for a course that the participants will value. You can, at best, once or twice a day, spend five minutes on a topic that's of interest to only one of the audiences (if, for no other reason, then to build up credibility with that audience). Any more than that and you risk the other audiences feeling that their time is being wasted.

The third issue is the most interesting: When the audience has no well-defined expectations. This is especially true of courses covering new, "hot" topic or courses built around buzz words. The first thing to recognize is that there may be no course there: that the topic for the course is "unwriteable." Think, for instance, of a course around "driving": driving a car, a horse, a motorcycle, a plane, a submarine (at Learning Tree that mythical course would be called "Driving: A Comprehensive Hands-On Introduction"). This course is, I would say, plainly unwriteable--the audience interested in driving the car is going to be bored rigid in the sections that address driving a submarine; further, there's no common material that would be of interest to all the participants.

If the course is writeable then the solution for "fuzzy expectations is to spend the initial stages of the course developing a set of expectations with the participants. Obviously, by the time that the course is being taught, the course is already written. So the initial stages of the course must develop a specifici set of expectations: ones that the rest of the course satisfies.

You can't, unfortunately, tell participants what they should be wanting so this is best done interactively.What works best is to present the participants with a series of problems that the participants believe they will face (at work or in life). These must also be problems that the participants want solutions for. From that, you can help the participants develop a set of expectations around what would solve those problems. Your course can then deliver those solutions which, presumably, the participants will now value.

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