Customer Education: 6 principles to build a successful program

July 27, 2020

This article is a deeper dive into the Customer Education Manifesto, our short and sweet summary of six principles that modern Customer Education professionals follow as we build our programs. If you haven’t read it yet, check that article out and sign it if you agree! We’ll be here waiting for you.

How many thousands, or millions, of dollars has your company spent trying to get customers to adopt your product? To use it in a meaningful way? Renew? Expand?

How much time and effort have you thrown at marketing activities to entice them? At ad-hoc training sessions to “enable” them?

How many people have you hired to bombard them with emails, with drip campaigns, with requests for their time that go unbidden because the customer just doesn’t have the time?

Unfortunately, many companies raise millions in funding and hire hundreds of employees before they realize this central tenet: Your customers don’t succeed if they don’t learn.

Customer Success is a journey that many customers won’t complete

We believe that learning a new product is like taking a journey into parts unknown. Learning a new feature is like wandering a new city; mastering a product is like exploring an entire country! On the customer’s journey, you are their guide.

Perhaps their goal is to get from Point A to Point B.

Maybe they’re at Point A and have no idea what Point B even looks like.

Or instead, they think they’re going to Point B, but then get waylaid when the eight-lane freeway degrades into a twisty dirt road.

Look out, there’s a family of deer crossing the street, and no one knows when they’ll finish crossing.

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With that many obstacles for your customer, and the destination hazier than you’d like it to be, we’ll say it again: your customers don’t succeed if they don’t learn.

Surprising yet inevitable. If you’re in the business of creating and selling products, you’re also in the business of customer success. You’re responsible for making every customer as successful with your product as the early adopters who “just got it” — the few individuals who felt like your product was just made for them. 

When your customers just get it, you don’t need to run expensive marketing campaigns or hire an army of customer success managers to keep your customers healthy. That’s the case for most startups, especially in the age of user experience design: products just work and customers just get it. Until they don’t.

They just get it, until they don’t

So if your newer customers don’t just get it in the same way that your original customers did, you may be tempted to hire that army of customer success managers and support agents. You may be tempted to throw expensive marketing campaigns at them. And you wouldn’t be wrong to use those tactics, but your strategy is missing a crucial component.

What your strategy is missing is Customer Education.

So don’t get us wrong, you will be doing activities that educate customers. You’ll be sending out informational emails, writing help center articles, running webinars, and performing scads of ad-hoc “101” trainings. 

The path forward

Let’s return to the analogy we used before. As an example, if you’re guiding the customer on a journey, those activities could resemble giving the customers a free road atlas. You might be the gas station attendant giving some turn-by-turn directions without writing them down. At worst, you could be providing an out-of-date map showing routes that don’t exist anymore! And these small issues will add up as the road trip turns into the monumental task of exploring an entire country.

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Instead of trying these activities, what if you could provide your customers with a high-quality GPS? What if you could give them topographical maps so they can see how steep their climb will be? What if you can give them real-time traffic reporting so they can take an alternate route? Just like Google Maps changed the game for travelers and commuters, Customer Education changes the game for customers, helping them get to where they need to go in the most efficient way possible. This, at its heart, is what Customer Education is all about.

Customer Educators, unite!

This is a call for a modern Customer Education function. This is a call for strategic, high-performing Customer Education professionals to come together and build the types of programs, not just activities, that truly drive the success of their customers and their businesses.

We live in different departments. 

Some call ourselves customer marketers;

…customer success managers;

…growth product managers;

…learning & development or customer enablement;

…and some are lucky enough to call ourselves Customer Education professionals, officially, because our companies have invested in formalizing our roles.

We come from different backgrounds.

Some are former teachers entering the corporate world;

Corporate learning & development professionals making the switch to customer-facing work;

The rock-star customer success managers or support agents who love training and want to do it full-time;

Education services professionals who have built entire training businesses.

We play different roles.

Some of us are called in to build Customer Education from the ground up.

Others will continue to be generalists.

And many will specialize: in facilitation, in instructional design, in certification or credentialing, in program management, in system administration, and in areas we can’t yet imagine.

But we have the same calling: to make customers wildly successful at their jobs by using our products.

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As our industry grows, we hold the opportunity to unite as Customer Education professionals. We must become strong consultants to our businesses and develop strategic Customer Education programs. But what does that mean, exactly?

A vision and definition of Customer Education

What is Customer Education, and what makes it a strategic program instead of a series of ad-hoc activities?

How is it different from the worlds of learning & development, sales enablement, “extended enterprise” LMS, or education services?

Put simply, Customer Education is a key business function that ensures that customers get the skills and knowledge they need to be successful with our products — and we do it at scale.

We believe that to be modern and strategic, Customer Education accelerates growth for customers by changing behaviors, reducing barriers, and improving the way they work.

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Customer Education is a strategic function

Let’s unpack that a bit: this means that Customer Education is a function, a department, a practice — not just a series of ad hoc activities. You don’t have a Customer Education function just because you run webinars. Or because you do trainings. You have a Customer Education function when you implement a strong core program based on sound Customer Education strategies.

Customer Education also ensures that you educate different personas: it’s not just about educating your prospective buyer, or an end user. It’s about creating defined learning paths for all of your customer personas: the buyers, the users, the admins, the developers, the champions — the whole account. 

And we do it on an ongoing basis. Think about it: if you train your customers when they first buy your product, but all those users leave the company by the second year, how will any of those users be trained?

We’re in the business of changing behavior

If it’s done right, we change behaviors. We don’t just pull skills and knowledge out of our heads and jam it into the customers’ — we accelerate their growth by motivating them and providing them a more defined path to success.

We also remove barriers to success. Are there sticky wickets that make your product hard to use? Customer Education to the rescue. Does your customer need to understand something fundamental about their industry to get more value about your product? That’s a job for Customer Education, too. Ultimately we don’t just teach them features; we teach them something about how they do their jobs.

In doing so, Customer Education becomes a scale engine for your customers’ success.

Not just Customer Success, the department, but the success of your customers. Full stop.

A Customer Education Manifesto

That’s what led us to write our Customer Education Manifesto. In our manifesto, we argue that modern Customer Education professionals must:

  • Guide customers to value, versus educating them on every feature
  • Build a core program that scales, versus customizing every time
  • Lead with data tied to business outcomes, versus measuring our activity
  • Use agile practices to ship solutions quickly, versus perfecting our content
  • Design experiences we’d actually want to learn from, versus building safe, dry learning
  • Serve customers in their moment of need, versus making them do the work

And with these six principles, we believe Customer Education becomes the Scale Engine that powers our customers’ ongoing success.

So let’s dive into some of the principles in this manifesto to unpack them.

Customer Education is a Scale Engine

As your business scales, and you serve more customers, Customer Education is the engine that drives self-sufficiency. Like an internal combustion engine converts fuel into mechanical energy, we convert expertise into powerful, ongoing programs that keep our customers moving forward.

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For software in particular, the term “growth” is largely synonymous with “scale” (or scaling up). Rather than throwing bodies at a problem of educating more and more customers one-on-one, Customer Education converts that wealth of product knowledge into one-to-many offerings. 

We create programs that help customers become self-sufficient with products, and explore new ways to use them, so that the smart and compassionate humans who work directly with customers can focus on getting more strategic.

For startups, everyone plays a role in educating customers — often via individual heroics. We’ve often said, “We are all educators.” But while early stage companies can build relationships with customers by training them, they will inevitably reach a point where team members can only do so much with the time available.

While it’s necessary that most Customer Success professionals educate customers, it is not sufficient for them to be your only educators. We argue that everyone plays a role in educating customers, but only a centralized team will net you the benefits at scale.

Only through a defined Customer Education program can your Customer Success Managers find time to become more strategic, your support reps to become more efficient, and your services teams to deliver more value on projects.

Customer Education Principle #1: We focus on value, not features

Customer Education teams may be asked to train on every feature of the product, but we look beyond that request to find further value. Modern Customer Education professionals know that our job is, first and foremost, to guide our customers to value by using our products and features.

Customer Education closes key gaps for the customer. Gaps between…

buying a product and getting value from it.

being able to stumble around a product vs. feeling like a power user.

…casual, organic usage and strategic usage that makes a real difference.

using a product because it looks interesting and using it because it will advance your career.

Our mission is not to duplicate the role of a product team. If there are gaps in the product itself, or it is hard to navigate, a good product designer will know how to find solutions to make the product easier. Customer Education can help reduce pain and frustration, but our real goal is to lead the customer to meaningful value.

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Customer Education Principle #2: We build for scale before we customize

Many of us will reach the point where we will develop custom education programs for large enterprise customers. As you serve larger customers, it’s only natural that their needs will become more complex and more bespoke over time. This is why many Customer Education teams eventually offer paid education services.

It’s a fantastic opportunity, but it also comes with risk: what happens when you start serving large customers with complex, custom work? Do you forget about your smaller customers, or do you have the right educational solution for them too?

Segmentation and scale

We believe in building a foundation of content that will scale before you start customizing. Build accurate, user-friendly docs; an onboarding academy that helps new users looking to find value; 3-5 minute videos on core concepts; webinars or virtual trainings that can serve many customers at once. That way, you’ll have a core of solid content to serve your customers who can’t pay for premium services, and you’ll have an approach to customize from when you serve your large customers.

Building a core of open, scalable content allows you to focus on customization when it’s actually necessary. People are increasingly comfortable searching for the information they need, so let’s empower them. For customers who don’t want or need premium services, there will still be a great set of scalable docs and training content to help them move forward, and we won’t need to hold their hands every time they need to learn something.

Put simply, we want to teach our customers how to fish — even as we serve our “whales.”

Photo by Jottaneto from nappy.co

Customer Education Principle #3: We lead with data

Speaking of whaling, Return on Investment is the Moby Dick of Customer Education programs. It’s our white whale; our holy grail. We spend years and careers justifying the impact of our programs so we can prove what many feel intuitively: when our programs are working well, they do more to drive customer adoption, reduce customer churn, and aid retention and expansion than it costs to staff them.

But ROI is elusive, and you won’t have the full story when you’re just getting started. So what do you do instead? Start gathering the data you need to show your impact and make decisions.

Customer Education data is inherently messy. Because customers get educated at the same time that other activities are going on, it’s difficult to prove that we caused a benefit to the customer. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start telling the story of how our programs drive real impact.

Because we seek to measure impact, we must reject vanity metrics that only show our activity. Our businesses don’t really care how many trainings we delivered, or how many people attended, or how many pageviews your content got. Sure, that data is easy to collect — but it’s not going to show the impact of Customer Education at your company.

Making data-driven decisions

That said, some of these metrics will actually help you make decisions. For example, you can look at discoverability metrics like pageviews and attendance to understand what your customers are looking for, and whether they’re finding it. What are your most popular courses or articles and why? Use that data to form a hypothesis. What are your highest- and lowest-rated courses or articles? Use that to inform your priorities.

It’s not enough to simply collect easy data; you must use it to make decisions. For example, when content is highly discoverable but low value, that should be at the top of your list to fix. When content is neither discoverable nor valuable, it’s time to stop maintaining that content.

Use data to focus your activity, not simply to report on it.

Along the way, keep focus on building the dashboards and tools you need to collect more meaningful data: the type of data that shows the impact your program has. Eventually, you’ll want to show how trained vs untrained customers adopt your product, churn, renew, or expand over time.

Notebook work with statistics on sofa business

To do this, you’ll need to plant the seeds early to put the right systems in place and connect them to your data warehouse, but these integrations can take months or years. To mangle a proverb, the best time to integrate your data was years ago; the second best time is today.

Customer Education Principle #4: Stay agile and iterate

Taking a data-driven approach means we get plenty of opportunity to experiment, rapidly prototyping and getting feedback from our customers.

Customer Education professionals have a calling to serve customers, and to offer the best experience possible. At best, this means we can go above and beyond to create innovative experiences. At worst, this means we can let perfectionism get the best of us.

We believe a job done well doesn’t mean a job done perfectly. Although we keep quality in mind while designing experiences, we reject the dragon of perfectionism.

In Customer Education, our subject matter changes frequently. Many times our products change faster than we can create or update materials. That’s why it’s important for us to stay as agile as our products. 

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Stay agile and rapid

We believe in rapid prototyping, putting learning solutions in front of customers early and iterating quickly.

Break work into smaller units — some call this “microlearning,” others call it “chunking” — so we can deliver content more frequently and get feedback in real time.

We aren’t afraid to share our work with customers in beta or prototype states. Or to share a part of the larger whole to get feedback. It’s okay create an imperfect live course to get feedback before we turn it into something more scalable. It’s important to refine solutions before we move to higher-production-value versions.

By staying agile, we can keep pace with our rapidly changing products, and we can structure our content as experiments. This way, we refine our programs using qualitative data instead of hyperbole and conjecture.

Customer Education Principle #5: Design learning you’d actually learn from

In Customer Education, we talk a lot about “engagement.” This can mean literally how a student engages with material — whether they pay attention, whether they tune out, and whether they actually engage with the curriculum enough to learn something from it. But we’ll also add that learning should be engaging

Gone are the days of boring, multiple-day classroom lectures where a subject matter expert unloads dry technical knowledge into the brains of unsuspecting and unengaged learners. Gone are the days where online learning looks and feels like the required security or harassment training you need to take to check the compliance box.

Today’s customers aren’t learning because they’re forced to; they’re learning if they want to. It’s on us, as Customer Educators and Learning Experience Designers, to design the types of experiences that learners will actually engage with. In other words, let’s design the types of learning experiences that we, ourselves, would want to learn from.

Photo from nappy.co

Clean interfaces. Easy navigation. Storytelling techniques. Some fun and games. A dash of emotion (who says Customer Education can’t be emotional?) Shorter, punchier, and more digestible content. Video content timed in a few minutes, not hours. Today’s learners aren’t being forced to consume your content, and if you can’t engage them, they’ll be gone.

Customer Education Principle #6: Customers aren’t lazy, they’re busy

Because customers are hard to engage, often we treat them as lazy. We make implicit assumptions like, “Why can’t they find this content? It’s easy!” And instead of meeting them where they are, we make them do the digging.

But our customers aren’t lazy; they’re busy. And with limited time and attention, they won’t simply find our learning programs.

Unlike the Field of Dreams, if you build it, they won’t come. As Customer Educators, we are our own best advocates to bring our educational products to the masses. 

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We believe in bringing our educational materials to our learners by meeting them where they are:

…in our products, by creating sharp in-product tutorials surfaced through easy-to-find tooltips.

…when they’re having trouble, by surfacing educational moments when customers run into errors.

…in places they already look for education, like Google searches and YouTube videos.

…even in their email, through nurture campaigns and promotions.

And once our customers find our educational materials, we make it dead simple for them to find the next step.

Don’t be afraid to make it public

We ignore the objection that exposing our training in public forums will give our competitors an edge. Bringing education to the masses will give our companies a competitive advantage. We’ll win by out-educating the competitors.

Modern Customer Educators don’t shy away from marketing what we’ve created, and driving attention to high-value content that is undiscovered.

We think in funnels, like marketers. After all, what’s a common instructional model like Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Evaluation if not a funnel? They reacted well, but did they learn? Okay, they learned, but did they apply it? Now they applied the skills, but did it drive actual results?

We think in value propositions, like marketers. After all, what’s a well-designed learning objective if not a value proposition for the learner? By the end of this course, you’ll be able to solve a real problem that you’re experiencing in the world.

We’re not afraid to be provocative. We’re not afraid to think differently. This is how we move Customer Education forward and give our customers an edge.

This is just the start

In our Manifesto, we offer six key principles that modern Customer Education professionals use to frame our thinking. If we’re just starting our programs, these are things we prioritize.

If you’re a Customer Educator in the 2020s, take these principles. Memorize them. Pin them to your wall.

Of course, we’ll expand over time, but these are our “main things,” and we challenge ourselves daily to focus maniacally on those things before we expand. We avoid the shiny things that seem like good ideas but are actually distractions.

Focus on the main thing

Modern Customer Educators don’t get distracted by “flavor of the day” initiatives. We don’t worry about whether a passing trend is the future of education. Let’s prioritize building for our customers over building for other groups. Don’t be afraid to brutally curate our content and cull it down when necessary. We don’t build more complex programs than we need to. We’ll future-proof what we can, but we don’t add more complexity than we can digest today.

Our individual solutions are transient. We can fix or scrap what isn’t working. But we can’t be semi-okay at everything; we must be great at the right things.

With this focus and these principles in mind, we can build programs that make our customers wildly successful at scale, and that move the state of the Customer Education industry forward for years to come.

Looking for more guidance on how to start a Customer Education program? Buy a copy of Customer Education: Why Smart Companies Profit by Making Customers Smarter by CELab co-founder Adam Avramescu.

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