When it comes to our customer education strategies, most of us are in reaction mode. We know that we shouldn't be. But often...we react to customer requests. After all, that new enterprise customer is our biggest one yet, so we should do anything to make them happy. When that customer says "jump," we should say, "How high." Of course, this can get us into trouble because we make promises that are difficult to keep, work quality can suffer, and we could very easily neglect existing customers.
The only way to avoid getting caught up in reaction mode is to proactively develop a customer education strategy that is aligned with the most important goals of the business. Only when we focus our efforts on what is most important, do we move the business forward. And I am sorry to say this, but providing the best learning content might not be what is most important to a customer education function, to the business, or even to customers.
As you know, software companies have many goals they can pursue. Revenue growth, increase margins, user growth, increase retention, speed up product roadmap, innovation, etc. Even though a business could pursue all of these, well-run companies focus on a few. Knowing this, the question you need to ask yourself is:
"What can customer education do to help drive the goals that the business cares about most?"
The answer to this question will lead you to develop a customer education strategy that will help you be more proactive and help you make decisions about what programs to put in place and which ones to ignore.
Wouldn't that be nice?
Back to the question: "What can customer education do to help drive the goals that the business cares about most?" As you begin to answer this question, think about all of the possible goals that customer education could pursue:
- Educate the market
- Increase the number of marketing qualified leads
- Speed up the on-boarding process
- Achieve a revenue or profit goal from training sales
- Reduce calls to support
- Reduce time that services spends training (so they can focus their time on implementation and consulting work)
- Increase produce usage (more frequent use and/or more feature use)
- Increase renewal rates
- Upsell into higher user tiers
- Increase purchases of additional product features
- Improve customer outcomes
How's that for a list of things that customer education can impact? Yes. It does look overwhelming. We need to narrow down this list to the essential goals we want to pursue. This will inform our strategy. For example, if our number one priority is to "educate the market," we will take on an entirely different strategy than if our number one priority is to reduce support calls. The secret is to determine which of the above goals should be your top priority and then focus on that one priority until it is achieved, then move on to the next one.
Not an easy task, but a necessary condition, to be sure.
The best way to determine what your priority should be is to take a customer-centric approach.
The Customer Success Lifecycle
Developing your customer education strategy should begin by examining the major phases of a customer journey from prospect to each renewal. We call this the Customer Success Lifecycle. At each stage of the Customer Success Lifecycle, there will be different needs, and it is vital to uncover them. The remainder of this blog post will introduce each stage of the Customer Success Lifecycle and how to started in using it.
Customer Success Lifecycle
Too often training is seen as something that new customers should do. But learning occurs at many staging during a customer journey, including during the time before they become a customer. Before someone becomes a customer, they go through a three phase process:
- Discover they have a particular problem that might required a solution
- Find products like yours
- Find your product
During this process there is a lot of learning going on. The more new and disruptive your product, the more learning is required. The main question you want to ask here is whether you can accelerate the buyer journey during the pre-sales process by helping prospects learn about the problem they have, how to solve it, and what product they can use to solve it.
You may not know this is a need. Which is why it is important to spend time in a discovery process. One way to discover if the pre-sales process is an area where customer education may help grow your business is to set up a meeting with your marketing and sales development teams and ask certain questions:
- How do prospects find us?
- How do they learn about our products?
- How do they request to learn more?
- What questions do they have?
- When SDR speak with them on the phone, what objections do prospects have?
- Why do they decide not to move further in the sales process?
Answers to these questions could lead you to discovering needs that customer education should address.
The next step in the Customer Success Lifecycle is the sales process. Once a prospect is qualified the sales team takes over and begins the process of helping the prospect figure out if there is a match between customer needs and product capabilities. During this process prospects have lots of questions and so do account executives. There is a more detailed discovery process occurring. Moreover, prospects have objections because they do not fully understand that they have a problem, do not fully understand the nature of the problem, and/or do not understand how your product will solve their problem.
Here is an example, a few years ago, when OpenStack gaining traction, several companies sprung up to commercialize it. As with many new technologies, it was easy to sell to early adopters, but when it came to selling to the early majority, it was a challenge. Account execs would often hear from prospects, "I don't understand the technology. Why would I replace what I am doing now, which is working?" Hear this enough times, one might think that educating potential customers on the underlying technology might be a good strategy to accelerate the sales cycle.
This is why is it important to examine the sales process to uncover such needs. Spend time with your sales team and ask some of these questions:
- What are your biggest objections?
- What are reasons customers do not buy?
- What are reasons customers buy?
- What do you explain to customers over and over again?
Answers to these questions could lead you to discovering needs during the sales process that customer education should address.
On-Boarding: Services, Training, Customer Success
In most enterprise software buying cycles, there is a handover to a Services and/or Customer Success team, who's job it is to on-board and help the customer implement your software. This is the most popular and obvious time when most companies would offer training. However, at this stage of the journey training might not be necessary, a form of training you don't think about may be needed, or you may discover training is definitely needed, confirming your assumptions.
To discover which it is, the education professional should gather the services and customer success team and ask the following questions:
- What makes an implementation successful?
- What derails an implementation?
- What does the current on-boarding process look like? What happens when it is successful? What happens when it is not successful?
- What do you wish customers knew going into an implementation / on-boarding process?
Answers to these questions could lead you to discovering needs during the on-boarding process that customer education should address.
Support organizations are the motherlode of data for any customer education needs analysis. In support organizations you can listened to phone calls, read customer emails and chat messages, interview support engineers, and read call-type reports. If you do all of these, you can easily identify the top reasons customers contact your organization for help, and then you know exactly what training is needed because you want to target training at those reasons people call.
Consider this. There are four broad reasons people call for support.
- The feature does not exist in the product.
- There was an error message.
- Someone does not know how, or otherwise does not know whether an action can be performed.
- Someone cannot remember how to perform an action.
Not all of the reasons above can be solved with training, but some can.
For example, the first one can be solved with a change to the product, assuming there is no suitable workaround and the software company makes a decision to add the feature. But training will not help. Example two is a legitimate reason to call support. Training is not usually a solution to this problem unless the user is causing the error by using the tool incorrectly.
Numbers three and four are examples of call reasons that can be solved by training or good documentation or both. Training and documentation can both be used to help customers remember how to perform certain actions, know whether such an action can be performed in a product, and how to find the procedure in the documentation.
Support receives requests from customers every day and have deep knowledge of what customers need help with. So, you should strongly consider talking with your support team to conduct your training needs analysis.
Here are just a few questions, you should ask support.
- What issues do customers call most frequently about?
- What do you wish you do not need to explain over and over again?
- What is the hardest thing for customers to understand?
This is just a short list of question that could be asked. But you should meet with your support organization and ask these and other questions you come up with.
Renewal (back to pre-sales)
Perhaps the most important point in the life of a SaaS product is the renewal. If SaaS companies don't make money on a customers until year 3 or beyond, getting renewals is the key to long-term profitability. When it comes it educating customers, one strategy could be to offer ongoing training so customers can keep their skills up and continue to know how to use your product, as features change and as customers hires new employees who become users. Of the many reasons customers choose not to renew, not using the product us one of them. And one reason customers do not use a product us because they don't know how and do not understand why they should use it.
By asking certain questions, you could discover that training could be used to improve renewals, which is definitely in strategic alignment with the goals of any subscription business.
- What are the reasons customers choose not to renew?
- What are the warning signs that could predict a customer will not renew?
- Why do customers renew?
- How do we communicate products changes to customers?
Answers to these questions will help you determine whether the renewal stage deserves attention from your customer education stragegy.
Start Developing Your Customer Education Strategy
Certainly a blog post is no place for an in-depth look at developing strategy. We run workshops with customers and prospects around this process and dive in deep to uncover customer education needs and priorities. However, this post should help you get started. My advice is to use the questions in this post, ask the right people, and make a list of all of the answers. Take a stab at prioritizing the list, then validate that with your management team. If you do this, you will be on your way to developing your customer education strategy.
Another way to inform your strategy development is to assess the current maturity level of your customer education function. Until you know where you are in the journey, it is difficult to set a target and set out to achieve it. We wrote an eBook that we recently revised called "Level Up: A ServiceRocket Guide to Using the Enterprise Software Training Maturity Model to Build Your Customer Education Business." In this book, you will learn about the four maturity stages of a customer education function, how to determine your current state, and what you need to do to get to the next stage. Click on the button below to download it.
Call for Comments
- What needs does your customer education function focus on? What are your priorities?
- Do you have a documented customer education strategy?
- Are your customer education initiatives aligned with the business goals and priorities?