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How to Develop an Impactful Customer Education Strategy
December 12, 2022

In order to develop a successful customer education strategy, it is important to find the point where the needs of the customer and the goals of the business intersect.

Written by: Bill Cushard

When it comes to 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.

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.

The Right Question

As you know, software companies have many goals they can pursue. Grow revenue, increase margins, grow users, 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:

The answer to this question will lead you to develop a customer education strategy that will help you be more proactive and 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:

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 start using it.

Pre-Sales

Too often training is seen as something that new customers should do. But learning occurs at many stages 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:

During this process there is a lot of learning going on. The more new and disruptive your product, the more learning that 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 such as the ones below.


Answers to these questions could lead you to discovering needs that customer education should address.

Sales

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 was 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 executives 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 it is important to examine the sales process to uncover such needs. Spend time with your sales team and ask these questions:

  • What are customers’ biggest objections?
  • What are reasons customers do not buy?
  • What are the 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, whose job 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 can derail 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 and on-boarding process?

Support

Support organizations are the motherlode of data for any customer education needs analysis. In support organizations you can listen 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:


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 has 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 a few examples of questions to ask:

  • What issues do customers call most frequently about?
  • Is there anything you wish you didn't have to explain repeatedly?
  • What is the hardest thing for customers to understand?

This is just a short list of questions 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 customers until year three or beyond, getting renewals is the key to long-term profitability. When it comes to educating customers, one strategy could be to offer on-going training so customers can keep their skills up and continue to know how to use your product, as features change and as customers hire new employees who become users.

Of the many reasons customers choose not to renew, not using the product is one of them. And one reason customers do not use a product is 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.

Start Developing Your Customer Education Strategy

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 achieve it.

Contact us to learn more about improving your organization's maturity model and customer education operations.

Originally published: May 18th, 2016

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