LMS Ghost stories – The truth will scare you

Posted by

Everyone has hobbies. Fun things they like to do.  For me, one of my hobbies is staying in allegedly haunted hotels and inns.  If I hear about a place that is allegedly haunted and does not possess rats walking around the rooms, I’m likely to stay there.

Whether it is out of sheer luck or stupidity, I often get either one of the most haunted rooms or floors in the place.  Most people I know would probably make a B-line right out the door, the moment they heard chatting their bathroom door slam and the windows are not open.  Or you hear the sound of a bowling ball going across the floor – in your own room.

But what you rarely hear, is something I have often been hearing, which isn’t going from any spirit, rather it is coming from some LMS vendors.  It is a sound so unbearable, a phrase or two so strange and misleading, you would think you were hearing it from…..the salesperson’s mouth (or via e-mail).


For the very first time, I have picked up these strange sounds and noises, capturing them just for you in print.  Each one has been rated from highly worrisome and outright fear, to do not run to into your closet.



Tell us your story..


If you want to instill fear, the first thing you need to do is assess your prey, err potential customer.  There is no better way, then the try and true method of the use case study/situation.

It starts out harmless.  Ask a few questions about your situation, what you are trying to do, accomplish, the number of learners/students (aka end users) that will be using the system, either daily or monthly.

Perhaps they will expand their questioning under the guise of any additional insight you can “give us”.  Here is where it begins.

A good vendor will take that information and apply it to your demo (you want one), inquire for additional questions if needed – after they have had time to review it – post-call; and most importantly as a cornerstone to your pricing.

But, for others, that information turns into a pumpkin and its not even midnight.

  • Your demo is vanilla – In the trade this means it is a generic demo, without your skin on it or at least some colors.  Any vendor who sees you as a potential customer, should go to your web site and grab the banner/header or colors and place it in your demo before you begin.
  • They show you all and focus on nothing – As it relates to you.  In other words, you just spent an hour on a call, telling them your story, and identifying items you want to see in a system and need.  Rather than then showing those items as important (i.e. priority), they ignore them and just follow their usual process.

What makes this even worse, is that they tell others that they always customize their demo by focusing on the areas the customer needs or wants.

Another add to the “tell us your story” is the ol’ evil yarn of “to see if you are a good fit for us and for you”.


Good fit


In a house I was actually renting, I would often hear footsteps running up and down the stairs and moving items, when no one else was at home (besides me).  A good fit for me?  You bet.  For others, uh, let’s just say, no.

But this isn’t about footsteps running or kitchen drawers opening, nope, it is about the famous phrase in the history of LMS vendor assessments, “to see if you are a good fit for us and a good fit for you”.

I have known vendors who will let everyone know that they focus on Fortune 500 and then if you are breathing and have money to spend, they will take you (and you are not in the F500).

I have also known vendors who will be very specific about their verticals and then when a potential customer inquires that is not in any of those verticals, rather than politely declining, accept them.

The whole good fit thing, is debatable.

For the honest vendors, after hearing your story, they should quickly identify either yes or no.  The rejections are because they truly adhere to a vertical or specific verticals (and you are not in any of them), they provide a system for internal training only (and you are not doing that) or B2B (and you are not doing that), they focus on small business and you are 10,000+ learners or they focus on a min. of 1,000 users and you have 300.

That is fair, reasonable and honest.

But for some vendors (more than you realize) – the whole good fit thing is as relevant as whether or not your check will bounce.

I have always stated that before any call, at a minimum look at the vendor’s web site, go through the page(s) and see what you can extract.  Seek additional resources before just either blasting a RFP out to everyone or picking up the phone, because you saw their name.

And let’s go back to that RFP for a second.  How many times have you sent a RFP out to someone only to realize afterwards, upon checking, that they are not in your vertical, your employee or business size, etc.?  And how many times have you found that despite this, they respond?

I see it all the time.  Here is how you can tell if the vendor will take you, despite to the contrary of their specific vertical(s), business approach, your training/learning/educational focus, learner size, etc.

  • Check to see if you have a pulse.  If you have one.  Congrats, you are half way there.
  • Check to see if they are still talking to you, despite providing contradictory information.  If they are, congrats you are nearly there.
  • Check to see if the features they have are not 90% of what you need now or can wait a year for,  and see if they continue to pitch that their system will still work for you.  If it does, congrats you are just about there.
  • When do you get there?  When they get you on a call or a face to face to show a demo, despite everyone red flashing signal going off in your head.




There is absolutely nothing worse than hearing this banshee sound of “estimate”.  An estimate is understandable for home repairs.  For a LMS, after you just spilled your guts on to them on that lengthy phone call with user numbers, is nothing but sheer evil in my book.

I never understand (ok, I do) why some vendors love to use this as though you are a Zombie with a brain made of mush.

The only items that should ever be listed as estimates are:

  • API integration between the LMS and whatever you want to tie to – and it should be listed as a line item in your pricing – as est. between blah and blah, depending on blah blah blah
  • Interface – between your LMS and your ERP, HRIS, CRM, SIS and so on..If you are interfacing between A and B, then it is fair to give an estimate, since the vendor does not yet know how simple or complex it will be.  If you want to try to narrow them down, you can try to.  Some vendors will give a range, others won’t
  • Mass customizations – You want the LMS but it requires major customization beyond what they provide to their customers at no charge (as part of their service), again realistic to get an estimate.  But at the same time it is more than fair to get an idea on how many hours it would take.

What should never be pitched as an estimate

  • Your price based on number of users –  The seat rule exists here.  First off, there is no secret formula for calculating seat price.  I don’t care what your vendor told you on that.  The numbers are arbitrary in that they set some pricing and whalla stick to it.  For some vendors if they can get you to pay $60 a seat, they will do it and have no problem laughing after they get you off the phone or emailing to their boss with glee. 

I spoke with a vendor last week who told me another bogus line of “we need to take to your client first” (a trick – especially if you provided all the info already to them) and then proceeded with we can only give you an estimate. 

I tell you what, let me give you an estimate on how long I am going to be interested in your solution.  Wanna guess?  Of course it is only an estimate.

Setup fees, user pricing, support and training can all be hard numbers provided based on your previous conversations with the vendor and sharing them your story.  If they cannot give you solid numbers, move on – sans the above estimates that are acceptable.   Another item I hate is the range for setup fees.

What that says is, “we can increase it for no reason, but tell you a reason and you will believe it.”. 

I say no reason, because when I see a range for setup, it says to me that the vendor is going to pull a fast one.  Maybe they won’t, but I have seen a range, where the vendor will say, “okay, it wasn’t 8K, but really 6K, so I am only going to charge you for that.”

Nor do I rarely see where it actually falls at the bottom of the range.  So, if they say well it will cost between 10-20K, amazingly 10K never seems to be dead on (does it happen? Sure).

The point to the whole matter, is that unless they just completed project management 101, pricing 101, running a business 101 all MOOCs by the way, then they should know their setup fees.  Vendors who push this through always will use the “well, your setup might be different or we don’t really know until we get into the system”.

My retort – I just gave you everything in my story.  Give me a hard number.  Again, if a vendor can’t do it or doesn’t want to – RUN.  Over 640+ vendors out there, and trust me there are plenty, hundreds even who will give you hard setup numbers.




When I was on the side of the house getting a system (during my corporate days), I dreaded the proposal.  I could provide specifics such as “no longer” than x pages and invariably, vendors would ignore it and write a thesis.

I could state that I wanted them to provide specifics on what they can do for me – unique to me – and instead get was clearly a cut and paste job.

Talk to anyone every looking for a LMS, regardless of their job role or department and they will tell you the first thing they look at is the price page.

And where to vendors stick it?  Towards the back of their proposal book.   In many cases it is the last pages.


I often ask myself that, because I guarantee you that if they were receiving a proposal for whatever, they to, look at the pricing page first, so why do we have to suffer the agony of clicking through (via a PDF which has page numbers but they are not active hot links) to see pricing?

Do they think that if we read all their garbage first and then see the pricing we will go, “Wow, this isn’t close to my budget, but hey, they had Wally’s Bean Bag as a client and their servers are made of gold, so let’s do it”.

Of course not.  Nor would anyone including Frankenstein go through their proposal and after staying awake reading the whole thing, see their pricing which is not even close to their budget and rather than light a fire to it, say, “geez they have been in business for ten years, have 1,000 clients and will give me an ice cream for signing”, and then sign up.

Which gets me back to why.

A proposal consists of lots of pages that exist on some directory at their company, which is pulled together as part of it (inserted).  It also includes an intro page which in many cases just needs a tweak or two and whalla it is yours.  Recently I got one, that instead of my name, it said X and then went into its diatribe.

Now if that doesn’t say we love you, nothing does.

Next after that garbage, some will add a listing of their customers (don’t care), their life story (don’t care) and so on.. Lastly, they will go into their pricing.

I am in awe when they send their 20 page plus proposal in an e-mail, that included the environment message of don’t waste paper. 

Biggest proposal I ever saw? It went over 50 pages.  The average size proposal I see today, between 20-26 pages.

What should it be?  Maximum 10 pages. 

Number of vendors who have put their pricing on the first page, in over 16 years I have done this (either on the biz side, ed side or now as a consultant)?  One.

One vendor.  I called and thanked them.  I should note this was in 2002.  And their proposal was six pages and contained everything I needed.





Bottom Line

Scare tactics in the industry are nothing new.  But what makes the above statements so frightening is the alarming rate of increase in just the past year.  Money or more specifically the allure of money will do it.  Too much money at stake and with some vendors that is the key.

I have found vendors whose salespeople are all over the board. So pitch a few of the phrases, others don’t.  When that happens I have to ask myself is the vendor themselves behind telling their salespeople to do this, and those that are not, just don’t want to OR is it a case by case decision?

I do know that in a few vendors that do this often, it is part of the message which comes from the top of the company (especially when the senior execs or saying it).

Which is what scares me the most.

Not seeing a large orb inside a red covered bridge during the day or seeing an evil face at a location where one person murdered another.  No, it is hearing these statements as if they were essential in order for the customer to get the right system.

We shouldn’t live in a constant state of fear when dealing with any LMS vendor.

But for some vendors, that is what it all comes down to.

And that’s not a ghost story.

E-Learning 24/7






  1. “We’ve” allowed the vendors to act the way they do. As (probably) first time buyers, prospects are ill-prepared to ask the right questions and/or are being forced into a RFP by their Procurement office. Very few L&D practitioners have the battle tested experience required to keep the vendors honest. My favorite (recent) RFP question was “does your system support IE 6?” to which every response was “yes.” Funny – Microsoft doesn’t even support IE6 so why did the vendors knowingly lie? Because they know the conversation would have ended.

    The “trick” to dealing with the vendor process is first defining your business goals, not the LMS functional requirements, but the pain points you’re experiencing with your current or lack of a LMS. Then use your USE CASES to see HOW, not IF the platform can meet your needs. Also, and this is kind of important, understand that NO SaaS solution will fit 100% with your current (and outdated) business processes. Know that you may need to change SOME things to achieve the desired outcome and probably in a more efficient manner. Every vendor will tell you that their platform CAN do what you want, but they probably won’t dig deep (unless you ask) to understand if it does it in a manner of HOW you want.

    Nice article… good and accurate depiction of the state of affairs… only an educated practitioner can help sort through the landmines and select the right system. Then we can really scare them when they find out that selection was only 20% of the problem. Implementation is where the rubber really meets the road! 🙂

Comments are closed.