Why L&D's Customer Is Not the Learner

| Comments

When working with Learning & Development leaders I smile when I hear an emphatic “our customer is the learner!” Mostly because I look forward to the “aha” moment of discovery when leaders realize the majority of the time it is not. This moment brings a sense of clarity and understanding of why they often feel “squeezed” between what the company is requesting and what the learner prefers.

In the Learning Model Canvas (LMC) customers are often segmented into business units, employees, partners, company customers, and based on internal or external groups (e.g. Sales, Engineering, Partners), or roles (e.g. Line, Manager, Executive).

However, defining the customer requires understanding the difference between the requestor, sponsor, learner, and payer of the learning.


  • Requestor – Who requests the learning.
  • Sponsor – Who champions the learning.
  • Payer – Who pays for the learning.
  • Learner – Who participates in the learning.

Achieving clarity about the customer is not complicated if you are forced to answer a challenge question like “who wins?”


I was working with the L&D team for a large telecommunications company who were launching a new product. The L&D, Marketing, and Sales departments began to discuss the preliminary training plan.

Marketing was excited about the new product and wanted 2 mandatory 30 minute eLearning modules. Sales was even more excited but only wanted a product specification document, competitive comparison checklist, and a two minute product demonstration video delivered on a mobile device.

After the meeting, I asked the senior L&D leader “who wins?” The answer quickly identified who L&D considered the customer.

In reality, things may not be as clear as this as the customer may represent all four roles or a combination of the four depending on the business learning model.

Scenario 1 – Separate roles – Requestor Driven

The VP of HR requests mandatory compliance training, the L&D department pays for the training (development costs, etc), and the learner takes the training.

The customer and sponsor in this scenario is the VP of HR, with L&D influencing cost as the payer (because it’s their budget). The learner has little to no influence.

Scenario 2 – Multiple roles – Payer Driven

The Director of Retail Sales requests training for a new sales methodology and asks the VP of Channel Sales to be the sponsor. The L&D department charges the sales channel budget for development and delivery of the training. Employees complete the training.

The customer in this scenario is the Director of Retail Sales, which has both requestor and payer influence because they hold the budget. Learners (employees) have slight influence as subject matter experts and feedback loops.

Scenario 3 – All Roles – Learner driven

Employee requests time management training, selects from a list of company approved courses on Lynda.com, pays the fee on a personal credit card, and completes the self-paced learning.

The customer in this scenario is the employee, which has requestor, payer, and learner roles.

Key Insight: Designing learning experiences for a customer who represents all roles is different than designing for a customer who holds the budget only.

These examples illustrate the L&D challenge of defining and balancing customer needs. Customers as learners and payers have different requirements on interactivity and delivery than customers who are sponsors but not learners. Also, some learning models may have multiple customer segments as well (i.e. internal employees vs. external partner who pay) so identifying each customer segment in detail is required.

Benefits of Clear Customer Segments

  • Discover wants and needs specific to each customer segment.
  • Define success for each role (Requestor, Sponsor, Payer, Learner).
  • Establish proper balance of role influence to assist in making decisions.
  • Align resources (i.e. content development vs. user experience) for successful outcomes.


“Our customer is the learner” is a common answer, though only accurate a small percentage of the time. Understanding the dynamics of customer roles and defining customer segments in detail enables learning organizations to create better relationships, increase their value, and operate more efficiently.

Bonus LMC Tip: An in depth understanding of Customer Segments leads to a more powerful Customer Relationship and Value Proposition.

How have you been successful in identifying the real customer and what was the impact? How have you failed and what was the impact? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.