As training in soft skills becomes more important and more common, assessing the return on investment for such training is also becoming an increasingly common challenge. But the softer the skill, the more difficult it can be to quantify the benefits of training. Courses in presentation skills, executive presence, public speaking, creativity, conflict resolution, and other interpersonal engagement tools teach critical skills that are most valuable in complex and often chaotic environments, where the few available metrics are particularly difficult to assess and compare objectively. The first, simplest, and most important approach in assessing the results of training therefore is to look for behavioral changes in trainees.
First, we should note that the most common validation tools—subjective assessments and self-reporting of results—are still quite valuable. The most common use of these tools is to survey participants in a training and ask their opinion on its usefulness. There are limitations on such assessments; participants may lack the context to compare the training they just went through to trainings they have not experienced, for example. And trainees often have a very high opinion of the course they just completed right after the last handout has been distributed. Even so, participants are the ultimate arbiters of whether a training was successful, so it’s important to gather and study their feedback.
The availability of objective assessments varies depending on the skill being trained, but often it’s possible to quantify the benefits of negotiation training. Are procurement personnel negotiating less expensive buys? Are salespeople getting better payment terms? Are trainees spending less time negotiating, or generating more thorough strategy documents? Even so, such effects can often be difficult to disentangle from other potential causes—average prices may be declining due to secular economic trends rather than more skilled procurement negotiators, for example.
It is helpful, therefore, to focus on the single most effective predictor of better negotiation results: changes in negotiation behavior. If negotiators are not negotiating differently following a training, it is unlikely that the training is driving improved results. This can be difficult to measure; the change in behavior could be as simple as pausing marginally longer to think more deeply about the relevant BATNA in a difficult negotiation. More commonly it’s expressed through a tendency to create more effective strategies and deploy more productive tactics, and can be perceived both by management and negotiators themselves.
For best effect, these changes should be assessed shortly after training, and again six to ten months out from the training. It is common for changes to start strong and fade over time; repeat training and/or a shift in methodology may be required to create lasting change.
Consider the goal when hiring soft-skill trainers, and focus on the result that really matters: behavioral shifts that generate more value for you.