Maybe you’re familiar with this frustrating scene: you sit down with a prospective client to figure out how you can best work together, but your contact is hung up on checking a box. They need to run a leadership development initiative. HR for the organization needs to allocate their budget for the year. Maybe they just like working with you, and want to keep that relationship going.

As nice as that is, it doesn’t describe a true business need. To be fair, plenty of money is spent every year on leadership development initiatives that check off boxes, spend budgets, and make people feel good. But for the vast majority of those programs, there is no clear return on the organization’s investment.

Often, even when you push a client to talk about the deeper need, they struggle to relate their needs to a quantitative metric. Maybe they feel they need to run a diversity initiative, or noticed a dip in their employee engagement scores on their last survey. That’s getting a bit closer, but still doesn’t give you data to measure, or a real problem to solve.

“A leadership development program” is not a business need—seeing leadership as a key lever in creating a consistent customer experience is. “I’m worried about millennials,” is not a business need—building a strong talent pipeline to ensure succession over time is. “I want my team to like each other,” won’t get you very far—creating a plan to break down silos or integrate newly acquired teams are needs that can be addressed.

The best way to create initiatives that address a true need and provide demonstrable ROI is to tie your service to a specific problem or pain point and associated metric. There may be problems that a client wants to solve, but digging into tangible business outcomes will help you to identify the problems they truly need to fix.

Sometimes you’ll have to push your clients. When they offer up a soft goal like “improving engagement,” push them with the question: “where is low engagement impacting your business?” It could be high turnover, a dip in leads in the pipeline, or lagging customer response time. The connection might not always be immediately apparent, so it’s important to ask the question. You can also employ the power of a pause: when your client is finished discussing the challenges they are facing, take a deliberate pause before you respond. Most of us are uncomfortable with silence, and will start talking to fill it. By encouraging your client to keep speaking and thinking, you may find that they reveal some important information.

Once you have established your clients need, you can create a plan for addressing it. The following three questions will help you create a frame for your plan:

  1. What metric are we going to improve?
  2. How will we measure it?
  3. What happens after this is a success?

We’ve written about the ways the learning landscape is shifting at an incredibly rapid pace. Technology is evolving, budgets are shrinking, clients are becoming increasingly concerned about the ROI of their learning initiatives, and content is mattering less while context is taking over. Tying your offerings to business needs, and drilling down into the metrics your clients want to improve, is an effective way to increase your impact in an uncertain and shifting landscape.

Of course, there are always going to be people who just want to check a box and move on with their day. And to be fair, there are plenty of scenarios where clients need to check boxes—compliance training, regulatory requirements, effective onboarding, etc. are all real needs that must be addressed. However, these needs also present an opportunity to think about how other business outcomes can be improved—which will increase your impact with your clients.

At your next meeting, encourage your clients to think beyond what they want, and drill down into the metrics that they need to improve, and build your plan around that.