Hiring a New Customer Education Leader? Start Here.

December 26, 2018

With the rise of Customer Education in SaaS companies, many Customer Success, Marketing, or Services leaders are in the position of needing to make their first Customer Education hire. But who do you hire?

Do you promote your rockstar CSM or support rep? Do you bring in an experienced Education Services leader? What skills are you looking for?

When you’re looking for your Customer Education Leader, you can choose someone who’s been in your business or function (like a great CSM, who has Customer Success experience), someone who’s led Customer Education for a company with a different business model than yours (i.e., on-prem instead of SaaS), or someone who has competency in a key skill like Instructional Design but hasn’t done it for customers before. So you end up looking for someone in a Venn diagram kind of like this one:

For smaller companies, your first Customer Education hire will often be doing the job solo for a few months. This means you’ll need someone comfortable being a player-coach: someone who “has done it before” but also “still wants to do it.”

More established companies may already have trainers or content developers in place — they just haven’t formalized a Customer Education function yet, and now they’re looking for a leader. Here, you have more options. You can potentially promote someone on the current team, or you can bring in a leader from the outside.

There’s no one right solution to these challenges, but if you’re intentional about whom you bring in, you’ll be ahead of many companies!

The Accidental Customer Education Leader

Little kids don’t grow up saying “I want to be an instructional designer” or “I want to be a customer education leader for high-growth SaaS companies.” (If your kid says that, I’m both impressed and frightened.) Unfortunately, this also continues into higher education and into the first few years in the workforce, so instead of coming out of Master’s programs in instructional design, many people practicing in L&D and Customer Education are “accidental instructional designers” or  “accidental trainers.” This phenomenon is pervasive enough that Cammy Bean, VP of Learning Design at Kineo, wrote a book called The Accidental Instructional Designer.

In our work with SaaS companies, Dave and Adam often see something similar: the accidental Customer Education Leader. This happens most often when someone from a completely different role, like CSM or Support Agent, has a knack for explaining things for customers. They do something that the company calls training, and then at a certain point, their boss says, “Hey, we need to do more customer training. Do you want to be our Customer Education person?”

Now that person is the de facto Customer Education Leader at their company. They’re the only one with Customer Education in their title, and they’re expected to go and figure it out.

There are plenty of good reasons to promote this person: they know the business, the product, and the company. But they probably don’t actually know much about Customer Education.

Okay, hold on — are you saying don’t promote passionate people into Customer Education? NO! I’m not saying that at all. If you have a knack for training or designing instructional materials, then Customer Education can be a great career path for you! But unfortunately, many companies don’t set up their accidental Customer Education Leaders for success. They don’t know what they should be doing, or where to turn for resources. They don’t know about instructional design, or how to measure education, or any of the things that they’re eventually going to have to figure out.

And no one at their company knows, either. So instead of learning how to become a great Customer Education Leader, this passionate individual gets burned out in an onslaught of random activities.

If you’re this Accidental Customer Education Leader, what should you do? First of all, find your people! There are now places where Customer Education professionals can connect and share best practices, including Customer Education Meetups, the Customer Education Heroes community, CEdMA, and more.

Second of all, get reading (and listening)! In addition to the Cammy Bean book I linked above, there are some other good books that will help you to attain the skills you need. A few I recommend include Telling Ain’t Training, Design for How People Learn, and Make it Stick. Not to mention, there are podcasts like CELab, Helping Sells Radio, The Talented Learning Show, Leading Learning, and a bunch more instructional design ones out there.

One great thing about Customer Education Leaders who are new to the field is that they have fewer preconceived notions about the way things should be. There’s a lot of received wisdom and “best practices” in the field of Learning & Development, and many practices that are simply outdated now. I’d suspect that someone who’s new to the field but great at critical thinking will outperform someone who’s been doing it for a while but hasn’t sharpened their skills.

That said, whether you’re new to the field or a seasoned veteran, ignorance is no excuse. Part of your job is to stay on top of developments in Customer Education, Learning & Development, and other related fields. As the old saying goes, you have to learn the rules before you break them.

The Hired Hand

There are a fair number of experienced Customer Education (or Education Services) leaders out there who have built programs before. If you’re looking to hire someone who already has experience building and scaling a program, you’re probably looking for someone who has vision and perspective on what to build and how to build it. They can speak the language of education and the language of the business. But not all experienced leaders are created equal.

One thing to note, especially for SaaS businesses, is that Customer Education is changing rapidly along with the rise of Customer Success and SaaS. The way you used to do Education Services isn’t necessarily the way that you’ll do Customer Education today. Because every business model is slightly different, don’t assume that just because someone built or led a program before, that they’ll be a perfect fit for your business.

And, as we alluded to earlier, don’t assume that they’re sharpening their saw. Look for someone who has either led a program in a business model similar to yours, or who has a perspective on how to adapt their skills and strategies to your business model. For example, it used to be very common to run Education Services on a P&L, with goals for bookings, margin, and revenue. While many companies still do it this way, an increasing number of SaaS companies look at the role of Customer Education very differently.

One more caveat: If you’re a startup or growth-stage company, you’ll also want to focus on people who haven’t just done it before, but are comfortable doing it again. Some seasoned leaders would prefer not to enter the trenches again, and that simply isn’t an option for many businesses.

If you’re an experienced Customer Education Leader looking to make a change into SaaS, make sure that you’re current not just on new developments in instructional theory and cognitive science, but also on Customer Success, Customer Marketing, and Customer Education for SaaS businesses.

Three Key Traits of a Customer Education Leader

Dave and Adam believe that while every Customer Education Leader brings different superpowers and talents to the table, there are three that stand out to us:

  • Curiosity: Customer Education Leaders are in the business of curiosity. We have to get curious about our product and technology, about our customers’ problems, about our team members’ growth, and about how our space is evolving. Curiosity will often lead us to challenge ourselves to think about a problem in different ways, or to focus on solving root causes and not just symptoms.
  • Empathy: Customer Education Leaders should be obsessed with the customer. We can’t build perfunctory, ugly, unengaging content anymore. We need to understand their problems and design with them in mind. We also need to empathize with our teams and our stakeholders. How do we best support our teams’ growth or our stakeholders’ business problems? Customer Education is collaborative, and we can’t collaborate until we can empathize.
  • Storytelling: Adam recently had a conversation with Christine Souza, who led a large and successful Customer Education team at AppDynamics (among other companies). She pointed out that Customer Education Leaders are often asked to “speak the language of the business,” and so we end up repackaging our boring old training activity metrics and calling them “KPIs.” This is now how we speak the language of our businesses. Instead, we need to be able to take the things we care about as education leaders and marry them to true business impact. We need to be inventive and selective about what we measure, and intentional about how we tell the story of business impact. If your CEO doesn’t care about how many people you sent to training or what your training revenue looked like, you’re probably not telling a compelling story about what you’re doing for your business.

Learn more in Episode 004 of CELab: The Customer Education Lab.

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