What is strategy? A quick dictionary search on Merriam-Webster shows it can mean "a careful plan or method" and "the art of devising or employing plans toward a goal". In sports or war, strategies are pretty clear, because no matter what changes during the course of the event, the end goal is the same: to win. In business it's not so clear; in Customer Education (CE) it becomes even murkier.
Why strategy is a problem in CE
The main problem with "strategy" in CE is that is a vague term that can apply to so many things. So when upper management mandates you to create a "CE strategy", you start to sweat. They forget that a "strategy" is made up of a plan + goal and that you can't have a sincere plan without a goal.
A secondary problem with strategies is that everyone's been saying they're "dead" for the last few years. Regardless of the industry it's referring to, the idea of "strategy" is dead because of the fast-paced nature of the world today. Industries are "disrupted" by new players on the scene (think of how Uber quickly supplanted the centuries-old taxi industry), the life expectancy of Fortune 500 companies is now close to single digits (12 years) (when it used be close to an entire century (80 years to be precise). Your competition used to only come from within your market vertical; now it can come from anywhere (start-ups to sub-market competitors that are simply doing it better than you).
What is strategy in today's world?
In his book Strategy: A History, Lawrence Freedman catalogues the way approaches to strategy (military, political, and business) have been shaped by the social context of their times. He observes that most organizations have been caught in a cycle of intermittent and intense periods of focused thinking imposed on people by budget cycles (or mandates from upper management). He suggests that in today's ever-changing world, we must instead look at a wide-view of the world and our market and then make adjustments as necessary. It's become more of an adaptive mindset than anything else; being always ready to shift or pivot as things change around you or in preparation for a change you see coming.
Why is strategy is important?
Perhaps this is why the concept of Customer Success has taken off lately, because companies realize they need to be more nimble in how they react to customers (either in the moment or in the plans they make based on what they see customers doing). It gets everyone involved in the work to help customers, not just the ones who have direct contact with them.
By making the end goal "customer success", companies are better able to devise strategies that will help them achieve it. But it's not just a single strategy, but rather, a series of strategies that speak directly to the activities and tasks for each group that's involved. Yes, an overarching "customer success" strategy must be defined too, but under that, individual department/team strategy plans help them work towards that main goal.
This type of strategizing also helps employees understand how their work affects the company's bottom line, since those target goals are usually company-wide ones like increasing revenues, decreasing monthly churn, and reducing customer support call volumes.
How can strategy work for CE?
So, when upper management tells you to "come up with a strategy for CE", instead of throwing your hands up in despair, use these three tips to create one.
Tip 1: Start with your audience
Before you can even think about a CE strategy, you must understand your audience. What is your audience's strength and weaknesses? Why are they thinking of buying your product? (Or for customers, why did they buy it?) Once you understand who they are, you can start creating a CE strategy for them.
Tip 2: Understand what your business goal is
Next, it's time to understand what your ultimate business goal is. Why did upper management ask you to create a CE strategy? To support a new business focus on increasing leads? Or perhaps generate higher average sales per (ASP) deal rates? Or something else? The point is, you must know what your organization is targeting in order to create a CE strategy that helps out with that.
For example, if you're looking to increase leads, you could offer more of your training for free. This encourages leads and prospects to test out your products before buying. If you're looking to increase ASP rates, your sales team could bundle in training programs with their deals. Offer several options of training (publicly-scheduled training or private training) to increase the ASP rate as appropriate.
Tip 3: Adjust training as necessary
The final tip is to keep your head on a swivel and make sure you're adjusting training programs as business goals change or move. That way you'll be prepared and ready to go when training levels will scale up or when a new product is being launched. CE managers should stay in constant contact with their sales and product management counterparts, so they're not surprised by any new announcements.
So the next time your VP asks you to come up with a customer education strategy, you've now got a starting point. Using these three tips you can develop a solid foundation for a strategy that satisfies their needs and is also nimble enough to let you pivot quickly as you need to.
Have you been struggling to come up with a CE strategy for your organization? Share in the comments so we can hear about your experience. That way we can all share in the struggle and hopefully pull out of it.