Thoughtfully designed customer education programs are helping companies move the needle across all stages of the customer lifecycle, from brand awareness to renewals, and according to a report by IDC and Thought Industries, 42% of companies increased their investment in this initiative in 2022.
Whether you’re leading the customer education team or acting as a partner, L&D can play a major role in its success. Learning technology company Thought Industries suggests pooling resources and knowledge between the customer education and L&D teams. In fact, learning modules created for your customers can also be used internally, as reference materials for sales and customer success teams and in training programs for your new hires.
It’s important to keep in mind that while L&D’s adult learning theories and instructional design approaches may translate to customer education, the business strategy and the motivations of your external audience will differ. Senior Executive L&D spoke with three customer education leaders, revealing eight tips to follow when developing your own program.
1. Determine your company’s customer education business strategy and KPIs.
What is your business trying to accomplish by developing customer education? Will it be made available for free or leveraged as a part of your company’s revenue stream?
At LaunchDarkly, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform for developers, B.J. Schone, director of learning and enablement of LaunchDarkly Academy, says they offer customer education for free. “That’s our philosophy because we just want people to be more successful, achieve more, get more out of the product,” says Schone.
LaunchDarkly’s customer education program launched in September 2022, and includes regularly held virtual trainings and Q&A sessions, more than 40 video-based courses, and several certifications for its customers and prospective customers. As a newer initiative, Schone says his team is currently focused on user activity and user confidence metrics. For instance, over the last quarter, customers completed more than 960 hours of training and signed up for more than 2,400 courses; learner confidence with the company’s products averaged 8.0 on a 10-point scale.
Looking ahead, user data will help them understand the business impact the program is having, such as its correlation to new feature adoption and renewals. For more details on LaunchDarkly’s L&D metrics, including the average course session time, read our recent Q&A.
In 2012, HubSpot launched its customer education program with similar intentions: to help people learn how to use its marketing software. “We were seeing that our customers were having that struggle of getting started and really thinking about how to use [our products] together,” says Courtney Sembler, director of HubSpot Academy. “An idea was formed internally of, well, what if we took a lot of the training we have for our internal folks, sort of flip it externally, and do some live webinars — just come and learn for an hour, 100% free.”
The first version of the company’s customer education program, which is now called HubSpot Academy, offered webinars several times a day on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Sembler notes that the initial business strategy was to reduce the amount of time customers spent onboarding and gain a better understanding of the software products. Success measurements, therefore, were focused on how quickly new customers got set up and their software usage.
The program has since evolved into an established education hub with more than 40 certifications and 1,000 courses on the company’s customer service, sales, and inbound marketing software. Today, Sembler’s team focuses on three key business objectives:
- Attracting new users to the business
- Reducing the amount of time sales representatives spend with prospects
- Delighting customers so that they talk about HubSpot with others
Key performance indicators (KPIs) include: customer dollar retention and revenue retention. For example, Sembler’s team has found that if an account with multiple users has at least one user with an active certification, they’re more likely to remain a customer.
Meanwhile, Fidelity Learn’s program is organized into learning paths on the topics of financial essentials, investing and trading, investment products, and advanced trading. The Fidelity Learn customer education website houses more than 1,000 pieces of free content, including articles, guides, podcasts, infographics, and live webinars.
At the financial planning firm, head of content Jennifer Barrett says that her team primarily looks at metrics on newsletter subscriptions, use of new features, and engagement-to-action ratios. For the latter, since a site redesign in early 2023, the team has tracked an increase in new customer accounts among users who visit the Learn site while on Fidelity.com.
2. If customer education will be part of your revenue stream, consider pricing.
Most companies don’t yet charge for their customer education programs; however, a 2022 study by training software company Skilljar found that 61% plan to monetize their program in the future. If you choose to monetize yours, the goals and metrics you track should match accordingly.
Collaboration and work management platform Smartsheet monetized its customer education program Smartsheet University in 2017. Its offerings include a certification program; a-la-carte options for various training materials; and as of 2021, a subscription model available to enterprises. The company tracks active users and course sign-ups; product adoption and usage; product licensing upgrades; and of course, revenue from the customer education offerings.
In a case study on Smartsheet University, the company’s former senior manager of customer education, Stephanie Barbee, recommends leaders test paid options but avoid setting the price too low. She says prices can be discounted, but customers will ultimately attribute value to the program based on the price you set.
3. Meet with sales and customer success teams to get insights on the right content to develop.
Crucial in creating customer education, Sembler says, is “being really clear [on] who you’re serving and what they need. The persona piece just can’t be talked about enough.”
Lead initial and ongoing discussions with your sales and customer success teams, and let that information guide your content strategy. At LaunchDarkly, Schone says his team spoke with about a dozen of the company’s customer success managers to gain insights from conversations with customers on their goals with the product, use cases, and pain points.
Schone also advises speaking directly with your customers to find out what they would like to see in your education program. After developing some of the training for LaunchDarkly Academy, he worked with an existing client to have six of their employees participate in a focus group. A few customer success managers were also asked to share the training with their customers and get feedback. Most feedback, Schone says, was around wanting to see more or less content on certain topics and preferences for particular formats based on the topic, such as video instead of text.
Once you’ve successfully developed the fundamental content your key audience needs, think broader about whom you can serve. At HubSpot, Sembler says her team is expanding training for a developer audience. “We’re leaning into this new persona, which is the developer who’s either building on HubSpot or doing integrations with HubSpot,” she says. That research led to the creation of the HubSpot Architecture Certification.
Thinking broader also means considering the regions you currently have customers in and those you wish to expand into, which can grow brand awareness. Serving a global audience at HubSpot, Sembler says it’s important her team develops educational content in different languages — English, Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and Portuguese.
“Think about localization five years before you think you’re going to implement [a program] because it’s definitely a lot of work but it has so much business value,” Sembler advises.
4. Ask for customer feedback and user experience insights.
Even after you launch your program, continue to collect customer feedback and make iterations to improve the learning experience. Customer satisfaction surveys, for example, can provide insights into areas users found confusing, lacking, or require more detail.
Sembler prefers to use customer satisfaction surveys at the completion of each certification and course instead of traditional Net Promoter Scores (NPS) since many learners are completing HubSpot Academy training as a requirement for their job. There’s also a bot that pops up throughout a user’s experience to ask for general feedback, such as whether they would like to see the course in a language not currently offered.
Another resource for user insights is your user experience (UX) team. Barrett suggests L&D leaders establish a partnership with this team early. She meets with Fidelity’s UX design and research leaders regularly. This step ensures your online program engages users in the ways you intended and uncovers opportunities for improvement based on activity data.
If you’re developing customer education for products your company sells, Sembler also recommends acting on the user metrics of those products. “When we see lower numbers or pain points for customers in specific tools, we’ll ingest new content with the intention of raising that tool’s usage,” she says.
5. Develop content that can be reused across your program.
Strategically develop customer education content so that it can be reused throughout your program, reducing the amount of work that goes into creating each course or certification. For example, several of HubSpot’s certifications, such as content marketing, digital marketing, and inbound marketing, use shared modules.
“We’re a full modular-based learning platform, so essentially, any lesson can be broken down to its smallest asset, which can be a video or a quiz question that can be repurposed,” says Sembler. “Instead of thinking about every unit as an individual unit, think about how you can build collectively.”
HubSpot Academy is designed so users can check off completed courses, so a learner is not required to take them again for each certification.
Schone also designs modular training that can be used in different ways. The LaunchDarkly for Developers learning path, for example, includes specific modules within its four courses that can also be accessed individually by more experienced users who only need a refresher.
“Avoid long-running examples and scenarios that span multiple sections,” Schone advises. “If you can keep the instructional content compartmentalized, you’ll have much better luck remixing it in different forms, formats, etcetera.”
6. Involve your employees and subject matter experts in the content development and delivery.
The professionals who best understand the topics you’re helping customers learn are often the subject matter experts (SMEs) in your company — SMEs may be financial advisors for a financial investment firm or software developers for a SaaS company. Getting them engaged in the development of educational content is critical.
Barrett says subject matter experts at Fidelity are involved in each step, from developing the ideas to the review stage. They also participate in live events such as the weekly Fidelity Viewpoints Market Sense webinar.
At LaunchDarkly, Schone says SMEs regularly advise on what might be changing in the platform, affecting customer education materials that will need to be updated, and what types of content might be helpful for customers.
Also consider involving your employees and customer success representatives who regularly engage with customers. HubSpot Academy initially had customer success representatives lead courses. “They had that human element of ‘I’ve been there, I’ve tried to do the implementation. I’ve walked someone through this,’” Sembler explains, noting that this can be a great connection point for learners.
7. Offer certifications, digital badges, or communities to incentivize learners.
Unlike employees who may be completing training as a job requirement or under managerial and L&D leadership guidance, your customers are often self-motivated to pursue training. According to the 2022 study by Skilljar, certifications are the most used tactic for engagement, offered by 49% of companies with a customer education program.
LaunchDarkly, Smartsheet, and HubSpot all offer certifications which include an exam to validate the learner’s knowledge and skills gained. Certifications may incentivize employees looking to establish themselves as subject matter experts at their companies or advance into new roles. Recent college graduates may also take the opportunity to grow their skill sets to become more competitive job candidates.
Adding certifications to your program may also help you reach new audiences. “Certifications can be a growth catalyst, particularly when you’re getting started,” says Sembler. “That gets shared on LinkedIn, that ends up on resumes, which means that your brand, your company, your product, your service is in those new spaces.”
Awarding badges for individual course completions and other recognition opportunities is another way to encourage learners to share with their social networks. HubSpot, for example, gives badges for attending its annual World Certification Week, a week-long campaign during which the organization donates money to a charity for each completed certification.
At Asana, a tech company that offers a task management platform, customer certifications and badging are offered through Asana Academy, encouraging learners to showcase their accomplishments. Additionally, the company developed the Asana Ambassador program for employees of enterprise clients who want to become Asana SMEs. Ambassadors gain access to additional learning resources, private webinars and events, a Slack group and forum thread with other ambassadors, and free merchandise.
Finally, consider creating communities for your learners to engage with one another. The Asana Community has more than 400,000 members, including 9,000 ambassadors, participating in six different language forums, offering one another product tips, answers to questions, and support. Learners can also join communities at HubSpot, through HubSpot User Groups, with groups based on geographic region, industry, or interests. Group members can engage in online discussions as well as virtual and in-person events.
8. Train your sales and customer success teams to talk about the program with clients.
Make sure your employees who work directly with clients have a thorough understanding of the educational opportunities available. If it makes sense, have your employees go through the program themselves. At HubSpot, for example, internal employees have long-term access to the certifications, which can serve as resources, mandatory onboarding training, or role-advancement training.
Completing the customer education training at LaunchDarkly helps new hires better understand the product they’ll be selling to customers, while at the same time showing them the education that’s available. Schone’s team developed a Guided Onboarding page that team members can recommend to customers who are just getting started.
At HubSpot Academy, Sembler’s team also communicates new and updated courses with employees internally and builds enablement materials such as recommended courses for different types of learners.
Each week, Sembler looks at the number of sales calls that mention HubSpot Academy and tracks data on how quickly those deals close. She says it’s not always the sales rep who brings up HubSpot Academy. Oftentimes, the potential customer mentions a course or certificate they just completed and their desire to learn more about the products. The number of mentions of the program on customer calls is another great data point to prove the worth of your customer education program.