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Choosing a training consultant: the basics

Choosing an external training consultant or provider is a tricky task. We are faced with a host of questions, few of which have simple answers.

  • Where to start looking? Who to ask? How to network? Large training providers, local networks, or sole traders? How to judge their experience and expertise?
  • How to interview the consultants we invite in? How to explain clearly what we want? How to judge whether they are right for the job?

Choosing a trainer means setting up a contract. Here, we'll look at three stages in that process.

  • Defining the contract
  • Doing the preparatory work
  • Interviewing the trainer

Let's begin at the beginning.


What do you mean, 'contract'?

A training contract is a social contract. Although it's a good idea to write it down, the essence of this contract is the relationship between you. If the relationship works well, both sides will benefit.

Like any contract, a training contract contains two key elements.

  • Mutual consent
    Mutual consent means that both sides enter the contract freely. Everybody operates under constraints. Yours may include regulations, budgets, management fads, and other managers' assumptions: about needs and costs, your role, and what training is. Trainers have constraints, too: constraints of time, budget, size, availability, company policy. If you explore the constraints, you will achieve mutual consent more easily
  • Valid consideration
    Valid consideration is the exchange of something valuable. You will probably be most concerned with what you want and what the trainer can offer: advice, expertise, solutions. But you should also discuss consideration in the opposite direction: what they need and what you can offer

Typically, any training provider will need:

  • some operational partnership;
  • access to people and information;
  • other people's time; and
  • the opportunity to offer new ideas.

Doing the preparatory work

There are three key elements you need to cover when you are preparing to choose a training provider.

  • Identifying your training needs
  • Finding a range of training providers to choose from
  • Drawing up a shortlist

What is the training need? The key questions are:

  • What areas of the organization are involved?
  • What level of management needs the training?
  • What do they want the training to provide?

Many managers find it hard to define these needs clearly. It's an essential part of your job to help them. Compare your definition with all the various 'product descriptions' that training providers use. It's easy to mismatch simply because client and trainer use different words to describe the same thing. A course outline should help to explain.

How do you find a range of training providers to choose from?

Always aim to find more than one candidate for the contract.

  • Network with colleagues in your organization, and in others. A personal recommendation is probably the most common and effective way of finding a new provider.
  • Go to local organizations for help. TECs and Chambers of Commerce usually hold lists of training providers, many of them local.
  • Think local. The training industry is notoriously fragmented; plenty of excellent trainers work in small local consultancies or as sole traders. You are as likely to find what you want locally as in a large, national organization.
  • Involve the trainees. They can help you clarify their needs and match the trainer to them

Increasingly, training professionals are using the web to find information and exchange ideas. You should be using at least a few websites as a matter of routine. Look for directories and discussion forums where you can post enquiries and recommendations.

Using the web

The internet and world wide web are constantly changing. In the past few years, a few important sites have emerged as centres of interest in training.

The first place to look, of course, is:


And drawing up a shortlist? Marketing material or initial conversations can only give you a limited idea of what a trainer can offer. You are probably looking for a number of different elements.

  • Range of training subjects or competencies covered
  • Style of training
  • Qualifications
  • Size of organization
  • Experience

Any competent training provider should be offering this information in their marketing material as standard.

Why choose a large training provider?

A large organization may offer a number of advantages over a smaller consultancy. A large organization should be able to:

  • Offer a deep and wide range of expertise and experience
  • handle a large contract more easily, particularly over multiple sites or a range of training areas;
  • offer a consistent philosophy or approach in the training;
  • provide a consistent quality in the work and support materials;
  • offer a range of trainers to choose from;
  • readily provide references from satisfied customers;
  • provide access to an extensive information network, either explicit or tacit;
  • offer cover for illness or sudden incapacity;
  • support a training programme through your organization's 'payment gap' (which should, of course, be as short as possible!)

Always distinguish between the individual and the organization. If you are talking to a large training provider, ask to speak to the person who will be delivering the training.

  • Examine the range of training areas covered. Look for coherence in the portfolio. The training areas should sit together comfortably, and reflect a common approach.
  • Seek out signs of the trainer's style. Look for evidence to support trainers' claims. For example, if a provider describes their training style as 'experiential', ask them what they mean by that word.
  • Treat qualifications with care. There are no established standards by which you can assess a trainer's competence. Membership of a professional body like the CIPD may give some indication of quality; but a lack of such membership most certainly doesn't indicate lack of skill. Similarly with qualifications. A degree, for example, may indicate a level of intellectual knowledge, but is no indication of practical know-how.
  • Size isn't everything. This tired old cliché is especially true in training. Big most certainly does not mean better. Never judge a provider solely by size or location. Always seek out some smaller consultancies, networks and individuals to balance the bigger providers.
  • Look for real experience. Don't be fooled by marketing hype. 'List of clients' may include organisations that the trainer has visited only once; 'specialist areas' may include subjects where the trainer has limited expertise. And lack of experience is not a sign of lack of skill. Many new trainers can offer energy and commitment that more experienced trainers may lack. 


Small can be beautiful.

Smaller consultancies, networks and individuals can offer specific advantages over the larger providers.

  • They are often more energetic and highly motivated than large providers.
  • They are more likely to want to establish a close and considered relationship with their clients.
  • They often network amongst themselves and can usefully cross-sell.
  • They aren't hampered with costly overheads.
  • They are less bureaucratic.
  • If they have survived for any length of time, they are probably doing a reasonable job.
  • They are likely to be more forward-looking and innovative.


Interviewing the training provider

It's at the interview that you will work out the contract. The interview has three stages.

  • Establishing the need
  • Exploring the possibilities
  • Mapping out a plan

An effective interview will complete each of these stages, in this order. You may, of course, not complete all of these stages with every provider.

Establish the need. Explain:

  • who is to be trained;
  • who identified the need;
  • the objectives of the training;
  • the desired outcomes of the training; and
  • when and where the training is to happen.

The trainer should be doing two things at this point: listening and asking questions. If they are listening hard, taking notes and asking careful questions, they are doing a good job.

Explore the possibilities. Now it's your turn to ask the questions. What can the trainer offer to meet the need? Explore the trainer's approach on three levels:

  • the specific actions they would take in this situation;
  • the attitudes or values that inform those actions; and
  • the beliefs or philosophy that underpins their approach.


Concentrate on concrete examples. "How might you approach this work? What might the programme look like? What would you do if…?" Ask for examples of other contracts in other organisations. Check to see whether these might form the basis of a personal reference.

Look also for the trainer's ideas. It's the ideas that you are paying for. Always ask how the ideas translate into practice. Challenge buzzwords and jargon.

Map out a plan. You are aiming now for:

  • a programme design;
  • a fee structure (with or without expenses?);
  • the trainer's needs to fulfil the contract ; and
  • possible references from other clients.

You might want them to put it all in writing. Explain your requirements clearly and let the trainer design the proposal.

What is a realistic fee structure? It depends: on your budget, on your industry, and on the individual trainer. Some trainers will underprice themselves in a desperate effort to get the work; others will trade on an international reputation to ask monstrously inflated fees. Large training providers tend to know the going rates and will demand a fee that is probably roughly competitive. You can then examine the reasons for any fee that is grossly different.

Finances: the small print

  • Beware catchall expense phrases like 'sundries', 'miscellaneous costs' or 'added expenses'. Ask for them to be itemised.
  • Clarify the difference between 'preparation costs', 'administration costs' and 'delivery costs'.
  • Explore the possibility of a discount for a large contract.
  • What happens if the trainer fails to deliver - because of sickness or any other crisis?
  • What are the termination arrangements? Will you incur any costs or fees if you want to cancel?
  • What about insurance: indemnity, safety or other kinds of protection?


The elements of a consulting contract

Any training contract will probably contain these elements.

  • Scope of the training
  • Objectives of the training
  • Deliverables
  • Information access
  • The trainer's role
  • Time schedule
  • Venue
  • Confidentiality
  • Post-training feedback
  • Fees and expenses


What would the trainer need to fulfil this contract? The answers might include equipment, a certain number of people on the course, a particular kind of space, or access to information in your organization. You might want to discuss a confidentiality agreement.

Finally, ask them how they feel about doing the work at this stage. A competent trainer will be honest in their response. If they have genuine concerns about their ability to deliver, they will say so. You may be able to offer some support if you feel that their performance so far encourages you to hire them.

Agree action. What happens now? What will the trainer deliver by way of a formal proposal or programme? What's the deadline? What will you promise in return?

Finally, this may seem obvious, but:

It's a good idea to write the contract down.

This article © Alan Barker October 2014



Contributor: Alan Barker @

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