How to Negotiate for Better Learning Outcomes

Strategies for negotiating with the key players—management, outside consultants, and learners.

If you’re an internal Learning & Development professional, everyone looks in your direction to ensure that training initiatives produce meaningful outcomes. You direct the action among the key players—management, outside consultants, and learners—who bring different perspectives.

Enter negotiation skills—not to “win” while the other side “loses”—but to reach agreements that benefit everyone involved and help maximize return on investment (ROI). Here are some strategies for negotiating with each of the three parties.

1. Management

Why does this course cost so much? Can we do it in less time? What are we getting out of it? To address these types of questions and help ensure the success of the training, be proactive and talk to the C-suite from a position of strength. Among the recommended steps:

Ask for commitments—and make them accountable. Never let management de-value training or your role as an L&D professional. For example, if a senior executive had agreed three months ago that 10 vice presidents would enroll in leadership training, but then informs you two days before the course that four of them won’t be attending, don’t just accept it—because you’ll weaken your position.

Make that executive commit from the start, while you set conditions. In this case, you could stipulate that for every vice president who cancels within two weeks of the course, an additional 50 percent will be charged back to each of their departments.

Set limits and be ready to trade. Know ahead of time what aspects of the training are out of bounds. So if an executive asks you to chop a full day off a three-day course for middle managers, respond by saying that this only would be acceptable if the managers would agree to two 10-hour days with no breaks. By proposing this unrealistic offer, certain to be rejected, you demonstrate your unwillingness to compromise the value of the training.

But what if the executive presents a more reasonable request to cut the course from three days to two-and-a-half days? If you simply agree, you’ll open the door for more giveaways. Instead, ask for something in return that’s important to you, with this type of proposal: If you agree to give me a seat at the upcoming quarterly planning meeting, then we’ll complete the course in two-and-a-half days.

Be curious and uncover real needs. Find out what’s behind a request for a particular training. For example, if your division head wants you to schedule a teambuilding course for operations managers, ask probing questions: What type of behaviors have you observed that led you to suggest a teambuilding training? What better outcomes are you expecting? How will we measure the results?

Through answers to these questions, you’ll be able to explain to the division head whether the course will meet these objectives, and, if necessary, recommend alternatives. Plus, you’ll be more likely to develop a program that links outcomes to business results, producing a higher ROI.

2. Consultants

While management is on your back about spending too much on L&D, the coveted instructor you’re about to hire for a six-month program is unwilling to lower her fee. To get through this all-too-common dilemma, you need to employ solid negotiating skills based on how you value each training initiative. Some suggestions:

Don’t get fixated on price. If the trainer is not flexible about price, don’t push it and risk degrading her expertise and alienating her. Remember, you want nothing less than 100 percent of the value of this program. Find out the areas for which she can be flexible. Maybe it’s three more training days over six months, a two-hour coaching session with a senior executive, or job aids tailored to your business goals. Then you can propose an agreement that delivers superior value for the dollar—and be confident in justifying the investment to management.

Bring consultants and management together. If you intentionally keep outside instructors away from management, even for an important training, you may be sending the wrong message—that you’re threatened by a high-caliber consultant and aren’t confident enough in your role as an L&D professional. Plus, you’re weakening your negotiating position with both parties.

By encouraging meetings between outside trainers and internal executives, you not only gain more respect from both sides, you’ll be better able to uncover your organization’s critical objectives and tailor a successful training program that satisfies these needs.

3. Learners

It’s always a challenge to motivate certain participants, who, for whatever reasons, don’t complete required forms, fail to show up on time, or don’t recognize the value of training—or pretend that they don’t. Some tips for negotiating with learners:

Link responsibilities and outcomes. Before the training begins, be explicit about each person’s responsibilities and explain how fulfilling them will improve personal outcomes. For example, before a three-day training on a new customer service software, explain why completing a lengthy questionnaire about their client experiences will allow the course to be better tailored to their needs—and ultimately enable them to serve more customers in less time.

Don’t just comply with requests. How many times have leaners in your organization asked to be excused from several hours or even from an entire day of training, with seemingly reasonable excuses like a last-minute assignment, a doctor’s appointment, or a co-worker who just called in sick? If you simply comply with their requests, they’ll keep asking for additional concessions.

So be ready to trade with this type of proposal: If you agree to meet with the instructor privately for 30 minutes in the morning on the final two training days, then you can miss that time. Remember, don’t give anything away without getting something of equal or better value in return.

With Effective Negotiation, Everybody Wins

As a Learning professional, you should view negotiation not just as a way to make you look good, but as a strategy that will help uncover needs, tailor a training program to specific objectives, and link outcomes with business results. And all parties should agree to that.

Marty Finkle, CPT, is CEO of Parsippany, NJ-based Scotwork North America (, part of the world’s largest independently owned negotiating skills training and consulting firms. Industry expert Finkle leads the team of negotiators who serve more than 100 companies in various industries. He is one of fewer than 1,000 Certified Performance Technologists worldwide. Contact him at or 973.428.1991.


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