July 18, 2024

Trials – Learning Systems

Author: Craig Weiss
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After a multi-week business trip, I’m now back and ready to begin anew (i.e. weekly posts), so first off, thanks for your patience.

We are all aware of trials.  Not the ones where you sit in a court room.  Nor the ones, where a med could improve your life. Nope, not those.  I’m referring to software trials, where you get to test out the product, before you buy. 

The e-Learning industry as a whole are fans of trials, well, uh, most of the industry that is. Authoring tools? Trials.  Assessment tools? Trials.  Web Conferencing? Mixed.  Other e-learning tools? Trials.

But the behemoth, the big elephant in the room, learning systems are not fans of trials.  This wasn’t always the case.

Step into my Time Machine

In the early 2000’s right up to about 2012, trials were common in the learning system market. Especially in the 2008-12 time frame, when the economy on a global scale was in tatters.

Not every vendor offered them, but more than enough did and consumers liked that.  Then something happened.

The economy improved.  More people flooded into the market looking for a learning system, without knowledge about the space, and thus unaware of that occured in the past.

People didn’t ask for a trial (as was the old way in the past), now it was just a demo, then decision time.

Elixir for all!

In the good ol’ days vendors listed trials on their web sites OR if you liked what you saw in the demo, you asked them via the phone or e-mail for a trial.  And most complied.  They were aware that if you were in this phase, you were on the more than interested angle.  For the vendor, it was a potential win, way better than no one reaching out to them at all.

With the web sites, the usual approach was your name, company, and e-mail address and then they sent you either a login/password with a sitename.vendorlms.com  or right into sitename.lmsvendor.com and off and running.

The vendor then followed up with you, because they had your e-mail address.  Some asked for the phone number, and at least for me, I always gave them either 867-5309 with an area code of 555, or 555-555-5555, which surprisingly works most of the time, in the sense, they can’t reach you, after all, I prefer e-mail.

The point, however was all about the trial.  I wanted to see the system. I wanted to test it out.  I didn’t care if it was skinned or not, as long as the functionality was there, and if I had questions I could ask (the salesperson) or look them up (with support links or support site), I was fine. 

I always needed 30 days.  Not because I was greedy, rather I had other things to do as part of my job, and looking only at a system in a short time frame wasn’t feasible. This wasn’t a simple buy, this was a big budget item with no room for second guessing if you pick wrong.

Time had to be my friend and the vendor if they wanted my business had to recognize that.  As they say, the rabbit isn’t always the fastest, unless it is being chased by a hawk. Take that turtle.

Present Day

Trials are now uncommon.  Sure they still exist, but most of the times it is because the vendor has a buy now/go live now model, so you can go in for the trial, and if you like it, buy right within the trial.

Other vendors offer a sandbox, but it is only available if you are either about to buy the system or in the final stages and you ask for a sandbox to test out the system. In this regard the vendor might skin and tweak it for you ahead of time OR my drop you into a vanilla sandbox for testing.

It doesn’t have to be this way though.  You can still do a trial at the beginning stage of the whole process.

Why Vendors are holding back from trials

There are a series of factors involved in the “non-trial” aspect:

  • The system is highly configurable and the vendor is worried that the buyer will not understand that, or see it, and as such, just see the system as basic, no frills
  • The trial lacks any type of skin, so it shows up as a generic look, which can turn off buyers (if they are not aware ahead of time)
  • A competitor could be getting a free look at the system (yes, it does happen, but not as frequent as it once was)
  • The fear that unless the vendor hand holds you thru the process, you as the buyer will be confused, dismayed and not see the benefits of the system, especially the functionality
  • Lack of support and/or training that is available for the trial, especially if the vendor is known for having top tier support and training
  • The vendor wants to talk to you – to “qualify” you

Why each of these reasons, are not reasons to hold back from trials

System is Highly Configurable

The vendor sets up their trial with all the functionality the buyer will get (out of the box) for that system. The back-end is what they will see if they buy.  The vendor can upon someone registering for the trial, send them a “Welcome Guide” with some key takeaways, including the configurable angle and steps how you can do it – for trial purposes, best practices on whatever, and an FAQ. 

There can be links to the vendor’s support page including access to “How to” videos.  The welcome pack includes other perks to entice the customer to reach out, if they need help.

In the e-mail, the vendor’s salesperson information is included, and notice that they will follow up in a week to see how everything is going, answer any questions, etc. 

With the welcome pack, the vendor can show screens of what other customers have done with the platform out of the box (showing the power of the configuration).  Or have a link to a video showing the possibilities.  

Using this approach, the vendor not only solves the “vanilla” generic look, but also the reduction of “I don’t understand or how to use or how to reach anyone, because there are enough touch points in the e-mail and welcome guide to solve that.  Will it eliminate everything? Absolutely not, because this isn’t everyone figures everything out.  SaaS software, heck software doesn’t always work that way. 

Let’s be Realistic

Most people will jump right into their trial. They do not click the “Help” section, nor “support” nor anything that can assist them.  They will start to play around.  That chatbot you have on your site? Worthless.  You are better off yelling at the screen or your neighbor for leaving their trash bins outside for two weeks.

This is reality, uh, not yelling at your screen – maybe though your neighbor. It is definitely the reality for SaaS software, heck any software for that matter.  How many times have you played a video game without ever opening up the guide?  What about that Office software?  Or that CRM you are testing out and using in a trial?

Thus, this is another advantage of a welcome pack with direct links contained within and a perk or two, to entice people to look at it as a “pack” and not a manual, because nobody is reading that manual. 

A pack is a few pages, not the next best seller for Barnes and Noble.  The perk?  If they buy, an additional discount.  Or if they end up asking questions on the product, special points towards a discount if they end up buying.  In other words, leverage that “Gamification” approach or benefit to buy our system, with using incentives for folks to utilize your welcome guide.

We are society that is constantly bombarded with perks and points. Why? Because it works.  Do vendors offer it when it comes to anything? Uh, no.  Could they? Yes, and it can be with that trial first off, and their amazing welcome pack or welcome kit.

The Competitor

Nothing you can do can stop someone from looking at your system, even if you choose not to do a trial. Vendors can have a friend, significant other, even themselves masking as someone else, call you, make up some stuff, to see the system, and many vendors will show it to them.  Need a name? Hello, web site yellow pages.  

This is another reality aspect.  Or think of it this way, at the ATD show, there will be a lot of vendors there. I can guarantee you that they (at least one person from that booth) will eventually walk the floor to check out other vendors and if they are competitors, look at their product, ask questions, etc.  Some are honest, others, uh, are not.

But they do it.  So, holding back a trial because you are worried that top competitor is going to check out your product, isn’t a reason.  After all, the buyer you really want, could have been yours, if you had the trial, rather than withholding it for fear.


Once a vendor has your e-mail address, they can contact you. An easy way to authenticate is have a link go to that e-mail address they signed up, and they have to click it, to authenticate that this is their email address.  Findanlms.com follows this mantra, as a way to verify that the person is who they say they are, and not Fred from the Pebbles and Rubble society.  

Many SaaS products follow the authenticate approach as well, as an additional layer of security (which we at findanlms.com do too).  

If the vendor uses a soft touch, they can find out a bit more about you as a buyer, without having to talk to you.  The point of a trial, is for you to look at their product.  Increasing the percentages towards a buy.

Now what consumers dislike is the fill out information and then we the vendor contact you quickly and pester you.  The reason folks are accessing via the net, is they do not want to talk to you right away. 

A soft approach will always work far better than a hard sell.  Nobody likes hard sells, just as nobody likes forced learning (ahem..ahem..)

Let’s Compare to a Car

When you are looking for a car, you will go to a lot or a few and test drive a car or a few of them.  You may not know exactly what you want or maybe you do, but you want to be sure it is the right fit.   Most salespeople these days are very “hands-off”, and as long as you give them your driver’s license, they will allow you to test drive.  

At the end of the test drive, you can walk or you can stay and talk.  In the car industry, they do not want you to leave, because the probability of you returning is small, but unlike the car industry, in the learning system space, you are not testing out the system for a few hours, you are going to have it for a few weeks.

How Long for a Trial?

30 days.  Cornerstone is offering a trial for 14 days for SMB buyers.  First off, that is too short, secondly it says if I am not an SMB, I can’t have that trial, which makes not only no sense, but bad business, especially if you as the customer have no idea on what they as the vendor identify as SMB.

One vendor in the industry, lists 300 plus folks as Enterprise, although at that number you are in small business.  Another vendor lists 2000 as Enterprise and again, in reality that is low mid-size, i.e. the top end of SMB.

Thus, for Cornerstone they could be losing out on opportunities because of the words “SMB”.   Secondly, 14 days is just not enough time.

A trial should be available for up to three folks to test it out, so you the signee are one user, and then you can send out links to another two folks if you want.  That’s it.  No more. This isn’t a trick to try to use the system for free for you and 50 of your friends.

I always had trials and I’d have another person play around in the system too (either my administrator – if I had one or my boss who I knew would never access it in the first place, but asked for access).   Most of the times, it was the administrator.

Even if the trial is only for one person, it doesn’t mean you can’t send the user name and password to someone else to take a look (hence the value of having a couple of seats). 

For some reason, vendors who do seven day or 14-days seem to think, that you are just hanging around having unlimited time in a short time frame to look at their system and make perhaps the most important decision for your learners whether they be your customers, employees, members, students, etc.

And yet, I will hear from vendors who gripe that someone gave them only seven days to respond to their RFP.  So, uh, seven is fine for buyer, but not you?  Exactly.

The trial is always free.  I mention this because Cornerstone made it a point in their announcement to say it is a free trial.  Well, how else will it be?  It is called a trial for a reason.  This isn’t a trial, where you give them your credit card first and then if you decide not to buy in X weeks, they charge you. 

Thus, unless the vendor says otherwise, assume the trial is free.  I surmise many vendors though will cite it as a “Free Trial”, just from a marketing standpoint.

Bottom Line

The learning space is massive in size. Whether you are an LXP, LMS, SEP, learning platform, micro-learning platform, training management system, or other, you need to get folks to look at your product.

Sure you could have them stop by your booth – but they have to attend the show. Or you can market your web site, but then they have to contact you to see it, usually via a form, that may or may not be seen by someone at your company.

Or,  you could offer them a trial, with a quick sign-up, quick authenticate and log in, followed up with your welcome kit/pack, along with some perks to get the buyer seeing you as you want them to see you,

As the only vendor to buy from.

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