How to handle a client's "cram-on-demand"

Your mission is to train these 25 employees in three days. Problem? It's a five-day course. Robert Brents provides you with his courses of action for dealing with cram-on-demand training requests.

I was contracted to present a ColdFusion course to developers at a telecommunications company. I knew that I needed five days to properly train, but I was told, “We can only release these people for three days. Cover as much as you can in that time." Great! Shoehorn anyone?

Does this “cram-on-demand” sound familiar? As a colleague put it, there’s a conflict between what trainers feel is the "right" amount of time to present course material and the client's edict to squeeze that material into a condensed amount of time. What can we do to resolve these seemingly irreconcilable differences? Here are some methods for working around the dreaded “cram-on-demand.”

Be sure you’re on the same sheet of music
About a year ago I was contracted to develop a custom course for developers on Microsoft Visual Studio 6.0. The book they had chosen as the text, without my input, was 1,095 pages long with no exercises or labs. There was no way I could cover all of it in five days.

When I expressed my concerns to the training manager, I found out that several of the learners who would be attending the course were already familiar with Visual Basic or had previously used Visual Studio. Those who weren't familiar with any Visual Studio tools would be sent to another course to fill in their skill set prior to the training I was providing. By clearly understanding what the client wanted, we were able to create a curriculum that met the company's and the learners' needs.

Now, what’s the fix?
If you want the problem to be solved, it’s up to you to find the solution. The first step is to communicate with the client about the difficulties of a cram session. It’s important to:
  • Show the client what you think can reasonably be accomplished.
  • Contrast that with what the client seems to be asking for.
  • Be clear about how rushing through material can have a negative impact on the learners' experience.

A large ERP software company contracted with me to create a five-day course to teach a very mixed-skill set group of consultants. I was to teach them "everything they'll need to know about InterDev, IIS, ASP, SiteServer Commerce Edition, creating COM components with VB6, and XML so they'll be able to advise our Fortune 1000 clients about selecting and installing our e-Business products." The client had selected no fewer than nine books, including three MOCs, to be used in the course.

I carefully aligned the topics the client wanted covered with specific chapters and modules and then showed the client's training sponsor what a challenge it would be to cover all of that in five days. "No problem," he replied. "We'll just run the class from 8 A.M. to 6 P.M. Then you'll have plenty of time to cover everything." Despite my protests concerning the extended schedule, he was adamant.

You can guess the result: the learners hit the wall about 3 P.M. on Tuesday. Happily, the sponsor was sitting in on the course and saw firsthand what was happening, so it was not difficult to convince him to "adjust" his expectations for the remainder of the course.

What’s the prize behind door no. 3?
Always try to offer alternatives that you think can meet the learners' needs. I'm currently working on a custom curriculum for yet another ColdFusion course. This one is to be delivered to a group of government agency mainframe programmers who have less than the recommended prerequisite skills and experience.

As if that wasn't challenging enough, the client wanted the five-day course taught in just four days. They also wanted me to give the learners "plenty of labs," and create a mega-lab for the last day that would serve as a final exam. After wondering to myself how I could graciously decline this opportunity, I arranged a conference call with the client and the training company that was providing the logistical arrangements. I offered several alternatives:
  1. A reduced scope outline for the four days plus a final exam
  2. A longer time frame for the class
  3. "Parts 1 & 2," with part 1 covering what I thought was reasonable in four days, plus the final exam and part 2 for the more advanced topics.

After some discussion and some excellent sales work on my part, the client agreed to go with the third alternative.

No matter how organized and convincing you are, there will inevitably be times when you and the client (who does pay the bills) won't always see eye to eye about how much time a training course will take.

As for the training situation I started the article off with, the client absolutely insisted we do five days in three. So, what I did was preface the class Monday morning with an allusion to the challenge we faced and solicited feedback from the class participants about what would benefit them most.

The learners gave the course high marks because I was able to work around the restrictive schedule and teach them what they needed to learn.

Robert Brents, Ph.D., MCSE, MCT, is the managing general partner of River Otter Productions , an Internet project management and computer technology training and curriculum development company. He has managed projects for the University of California, Residential Funding Corporation, and Cellphone Solutions and has designed and delivered custom technology training for PeopleSoft, Calico Technologies, Metropolitan Life Insurance, and Merrill Lynch, among others.

You’ve probably encountered the “cram-on-demand” situation yourself. What was the training situation, and how did you resolve it? We’d like to hear from you, so post your comments at the bottom of this page.

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