Customer Education - The Missing Link to Onboarding Success

Bill Cushard, General Manager, ServiceRocket, talks about why customer education and training programs is required in the customer onboarding journey
Varun Singh
June 7, 2021
Listen on
Varun Singh
June 7, 2021
Listen on

In Episode 10, we have Bill Cushard, General Manager, ServiceRocket. He is a customer education expert and has spent most of his career working in learning management, software adoption, and customer success. He was named one of the Top 25 CS Influencers in 2020. Bill has extensive experience working with startups and high-growth companies.

Here's what Bill talks about in this episode:

  • How Learndot came about
  • What great customer training looks like
  • The maturity model for customer education
  • Companies that do a great job in customer training/education
  • When a SaaS business should invest in customer education
  • Roadblocks in setting up customer education programs in companies

... and more.

Check out the conversation below!

Sri: We'd love to know how you make time for all that you do in your everyday life — Learndot, hikes, and being active on social media.

Bill: There’s no magic to it really. It’s still a daily struggle. I take it one thing at a time — I try to think about one important thing that I can do well and try to do that.  And I schedule things and I wake up very early. 

Sri: What's one unexpected insight that led to Learndot? 

Bill: Back in the late 2000s, ServiceRocket, the parent company of Learndot, was running Atlassian’s customer training (since it didn’t have its own training function). Our founder and CEO, Rob Castaneda persuaded the founders of Atlassian that we would handle training for them.

At that time, we didn't have a tool to manage it. It was all managed manually — calling up customers, selling them courses, and scheduling them without really tracking them. So we built what became Learndot (what we might call an ERP for training) to manage enrollments, payments, scheduling,  and content. That's how it came to be.

Now we offer that as a product — we call it tech-enabled service because we're very high touch and service-oriented — to other software companies to run their customer training functions.

Sri: Tell us a little about your maturity model for training and customer education. What are the key dimensions you look at to judge where customers are on this journey and what great customer training looks like for them?

Bill: If I were to break it down, customers who are low on the maturity scale need training and ask us for it. What we do is react to their request and find the smartest person or people on our team to teach, show, and tell them what needs to be done. It's not organized training but it gets the job done. The problem with this is that it is hard work. It's not scalable or repeatable, and is stressful for everyone involved. Every time a customer asks for training, you need to start all over again — especially if it’s a new customer and you want to help. This is the reacting stage. 

The next level is what I call a performing stage where we decide to create two or three repeatable training topics to be covered. When a customer requests training, we ask them one or two questions (when they bought the module or which stage of implementation they’re at) and we know what to give them. It might not be perfect but it becomes repeatable and we can dedicate a person or part of a person's time to schedule these.

Everything beyond this becomes about having tools in place, building a team to expand our offerings, integrating with other tools in our stack, etc. Beyond the performing stage, you're building it as a function.

Sri: Could you give us a few examples of companies that do a great job at customer training and customer education?

Bill: I'll start with HubSpot. What they did — even before the product was mature— was that they started with training. They wrote a book called Inbound Marketing to define the space of inbound marketing. They also created the inbound marketing certification. What they were doing is educating a market of people to become inbound marketers and invent the concept of inbound marketing. It wasn’t specifically product training although some of the concepts are applicable in HubSpot as well.

Another example is what Cloudera did. They hired a Customer Education role at Employee Number 20 — even before Marketing or Customer Success — because to them, the most scalable thing was to go out and train at their training sites. People who came to these classes paid premium prices and Cloudera kept raising the price of their training courses because everybody wanted to get into their training which soon became a lead source. 

That's all the marketing they needed early on because people would show up at their training events. They’d typically have a marketing person at these training giving out hats and T-shirts. It became a marketing exercise, a teaching-of-the-technology exercise, and even Customer Success because customers would show up at these training courses and learn what's possible in their environment just beyond the functionality of the product. They could learn other use cases from other students/customers/prospects. So, that's another example of someone who started with customer education early but did it in a scalable way by combining Marketing and Customer Success and going beyond just teaching features

 The third example is Atlassian. Atlassian University has numerous offerings from free to privately on-site. They have courses at different price points as different offerings — a beginner Jira class could be free or paid, a private version, or a custom version. They've grown their offerings over time and now they offer them to different customers in different segments in different methodologies and at different price points. That's a good way of looking at it — you can start with one method at one price point and then grow your offerings over time even with the same topic.

What you don't appreciate is how long it took them to get there and the one-thing-at-a-time approach they took to do that. Now you look at it and it generates leads, it's a money-maker, and it helps adoption. You don't wake up one morning and build something that big.  You start small and you build from there. 

Sri: How should we think about customer education in light of the current movement around product-led growth and tech-touch onboarding using self-service tools? When do I need to invest in customer education and how can all of these coexist in the future?  Do you have a framework in mind for this?

Bill: Before I talk about a framework to look at this, I’ll take a step back and say there isn't one way to do it. There is the Cloudera model that started with paid high-touch on-site training. Other companies do self-paced online training. Others might even start with just documentation as a means for helping customers learn the software and that could be successful too, Dropbox or Miro, for example. You have to think about what's going to work for you.

For a framework, I’d look at four items: 

  1. Enabling your customers
  2. Growing your customers
  3. Winning new customers and
  4. Creating markets for customers

If your priority is to enable existing customers, you focus on product training for existing customers and get them up to speed — that includes onboarding, implementation, training, enablement, the communication plan, etc.

If your priority is to grow your existing customers to become bigger or better customers, your training might be helping customers understand what's next and helping customers learn your sticky features. You have to change your priorities, from just pushing all your features to getting them to the next thing they don't even know they can do. 

If your priority is winning new customers, you might have a top-of-the-funnel priority and so your training needs to be out in the public like Cloudera or Atlassian. You shouldn't be gating or hiding it and instead, inviting everyone to your training. This way you gain trust and teach people what your technology is. If you're an advanced, or forward-looking technology, your Sales team could be having a hard time because prospects don’t know enough about the technology. Learning that has to happen before they can even conceive of purchasing from you and such public trainings can help with that.

The fourth part of this framework is if you want to educate the market and create a virtuous cycle of people willing to buy your software. Cisco, Microsoft, and Amazon do this with their certifications. These certifications had become so important that hiring managers put them in job descriptions. By taking a certification approach, you're creating a market of buyers and a virtuous cycle of companies that can buy from you. 

Sri: What are the usual roadblocks in setting up customer education-related programs in companies?

Bill: It's a lot of work to sit down, get your screen-capturing software, and explain things. It can be quick and dirty but no matter how you cut it, it’s time-consuming. You have to think about what has to be taught, and how it should be taught, and then actually do the work. You have to go through the typical process of instructional design where you analyze the need, design the instruction, and then, develop it. If you just start from nothing, it's probably going to take about 50 hours of work to produce one hour's worth of content for training. That means someone on your team will need to spend a full month to produce about three hours' worth of content

It could be lower but it's not going to be much lower than 25 hours of work. It might take you two to five months to do that. But by then, your software could have had four releases, and you would need to go back to the drawing board. You have to be careful with this approach of self-paced training. 

Sri: If you have 10 enterprise customers to onboard in the next two quarters, it might look this way, but when you think about the next 20 customers and repeated training, then maybe makes sense to have started earlier and gotten some of that training work done. What do you think?

Bill: In your scenario where you have 10 customers to onboard in the first three months, my personal bias would be to get someone on your team for Zoom sessions with the customer. Every time you teach something and there’s customer feedback, it’s a way to improve the content. Once you have the content and the learning objectives figured out, not only do you have live training content that can be reorganized and published for other customers, but you also have foundationally strong material that you can build into your self-paced training. 

It is a mechanism to understand your customer well. Not only are you helping the customer learn (because they can clarify things) but you are also understanding what the customer is and isn't understanding, what they do and don't do, etc. This is how you update your value proposition canvas.

As far as I'm concerned, that doesn't mean that's the only way to do it — there are companies that start with a self-paced methodology. Or if you are product-led, or a company where everything is designed to be self-service right from the start, you need to figure out how to do this with self-paced training. You can't do the content too soon because you'll spend too long and you'll miss the mark.

Sri: How do you recommend companies go about creating the customer education function in your team in 2021?

Bill: The first thing is figuring out what you're trying to accomplish. It sounds cliché but you have to know what you want to achieve: 

  • Is your goal to onboard customers faster or better?
  • Is it to make more money selling training?
  • Is it to get people to adopt the software better or more?
  • Do you want to educate the market even though your product isn't ready for prime time?

Once you get that goal, you can go back to the four-part framework we spoke about and figure out what to focus on. If you don't know anything to start with, then just focus on your product training and teach your customers the features of your product. That's always going to work but you’ll be limited at some point because the features always change.

Sri: One of the things we keep hearing about in customer education is the train-the-trainer model. Is that good enough for adoption and for getting your customer to use your product well? Is it just about the product or should you go beyond that?

Bill: Since you rely on the customer to train their people, you are diffusing responsibility to somebody else. It makes sense if you do not want to take on the responsibility and invest heavily in the people, technology, and processes to do it. Train-the-trainer can be very good if your customer is set up for it. 

Software companies do this with their partner programs all the time. They train their partner network and then, the partners run training and implementations and sell the product. Partner networks are great as a means of scaling. However, if your customer isn't already set up for that, I wouldn't even bother bringing it up. This is why you need to have training offerings that your customers can sign up for if they don’t have trainers capable of learning and teaching. This is why you create your own software university on your website with the catalog, the schedule, the e-learning modules, the videos, etc. Then, you can tell your customer to send their employees there. You can create private and scheduled live classes, or private e-learning classes just for some customers.

You can do this all year long so when customers lose employees and hire new employees, it's planned out and scheduled and usually, customers are happy to pay for that.

Big enterprises may have their own technology training or L&D departments that are capable of training. If that's the case, then, by all means, take advantage of that. I would focus on building a partnership with the person who's in charge of learning and development so they're almost an extension of your team. In other cases, you might need a learning management system that you host and their instructors can be booked in through that, or their content can be plugged in. Or, they may ask you to give them content to put on their learning system, in which case you’ll need to use certain learning standards. You have to be good at your e-learning standards if you're going to do something like that.

Sri: Can you expand on the standards for e-learning you just spoke about?

Bill: Sure. There is an e-learning authoring standard called SCORM (Shareable Content Object  Reference Model) and most LMSs are designed to speak to or interact with content created in that standard.

Thankfully, most of the time, the LMS and the authoring tool are designed to the SCORM standard and what you produce can be put in almost any LMS and it will work. But of course, there are unknowns and issues could still crop up. For example, someone's LMS could have an update that could cause the tracking between the completion of two modules to break.

Sri: How do you make things stick from your training? What are some tricks to prevent customers from going back to zero after you finished all of your training?

Bill: There’s a really broad concept called What's In It For Me (WIIFM). Instructional designers have a guiding principle that whatever content they are creating needs to answer that question for the learner.

That's a challenge in enterprise software because normally, the person who purchased the software is not the person who needs to use the software. What this means is that you have people who are used to working in a certain way who are now told to work in a new way. You have to analyze what the job of that person is, and then design the training in such a way that it helps them make the connection with their actual jobs. You have to go back to value proposition design and look at the customer profile on the value proposition canvas to analyze what jobs the user has to do, what gains they're trying to accomplish, and the pains they want to avoid. 

Most software training is all about features but nobody cares – because they don't even know what the software is for or how it fits into their job. We end up leaping into the how and never talk about the why. The instructional designer needs to take some responsibility in getting into the head of the customer — and the best way to analyze and design training with the jobs-gains-pains exercise of building a really good customer profile. There's no magic formula for this. It is all about getting into the heads of your customers and making it relatable for them. 

Sri: I guess even using actual examples throughout the process might help, don’t you think?

Bill: That's a really good point. Customers are going to tell you everything using real-life examples. Why would you not want to talk to them and use that? They will say things and use language that you can use in your e-learning with other customers to make it relatable. For instance, if someone says, “My VP wants me to get reports out every week and these reporting tools are so hard”, you could use that in your training to say “We know reporting is hard, but if you understand the data model it makes things easier. Let's talk about that”. 

That's the magic of talking with customers. It’s what Steve Blank says in his Customer Development Manifesto: There are no facts inside the building, so get the heck outside. I'm a huge fan of that and I think training live on Zoom is just one of the best ways to do that.

Sri: You said earlier that customer training is a force multiplier. Why do you say that?

Bill: Force multiplier is another way of saying scalable. If you put one input into something and get five outputs split up on the other end, you have a multiplier effect. If you oversimplify it and go back to the Cloudera example of hiring for a Customer Education role before Marketing/CS, then doing a lot of live training, and treating it as Marketing/Training/Customer Success, you could see how training yields outputs that include:

  • revenue (because Cloudera sells training)
  • leads (who show up at the training sessions)
  • teaching people how to use their product
  • enabling existing customers to learn things they didn't know they could do

That's four outputs from one input, that's a force multiplier right there.

If you go beyond that and look at data, you can figure out if customers are using the product more or logging in more often, adding more users, or spending more time. You could go one step beyond that and see if the customer's renewing, what the net revenue retention is, and if customers are spending more money on the product – because they're buying more modules or they're adding more users. That’s seven outputs from one input,

I think Customer Training is just as much a growth function as Marketing/Sales/Customer Success that helps the business grow as a whole.

Sri: It’s now time for our rapid-fire section. What's the best book you read in 2021?

Bill: I read a lot of books but I’d have to say it is The High-Speed Company: Creating Urgency and Growth in a Nanosecond Culture. Here’s what surprised me about this book: I assumed that with a title like that, it was going to be about working faster and harder, but it was not that at all.

If you look at the table of contents of this book, it talks about purpose, mission, values, principles, transparency, etc. It says that if you focus on these things, people in your company will know what to do and won’t have to sit around waiting or having six months’ worth of meetings because the principles are defined, there's a purpose, and because people are trained well. Things will just go faster and you don't have to work harder or faster to do it. That, for me, was the genius of this book.

Sri: What's one trend that you foresee going forward in the Customer Education and Training space?

Bill: I think software companies need to think about the school they are going to build to educate people about their domain, way beyond product training. If I sell project management software, I think it's crazy that I’m not teaching the world the way to do project management. Why project management software companies aren't trying to own how project management should be done is beyond me. Simply because every project management software vendor/ company/founder has an idea in their head about how projects should be done and they built software to do that. That works for any domain, for example, Salesforce could have redefined how people sell and not just sold software to do that. 

I just think that if you're going ahead without thinking about educating people about their domain, that’s a missed opportunity right there. Look at Udacity, Cloud Academy, and other online learning companies that teach customers about DevOps or autonomous driving engineering or AWS, etc. The attention and the eyeballs are on them. I think that's a missed opportunity for software companies to own the education of people on their point of view in a specific domain.

Sri: I think you already gave us a great example of HubSpot that does this. Drift also does something similar … 

Bill: Totally. Communication/chat ops/conversational marketing is a marketing discipline that Drift owns right now. Anyone that comes into that space is going to have Drift on their mind when they need a chat-based sales and marketing solution.

Sri: Let’s move to the questions from Preflight, our online community for customer onboarding, and our audience on Twitter and Linkedin. First question: Companies in SaaS do implementation for free but you say that we should charge for training. At what stage does this flip over?

Bill: There is no stage for it, it’s completely strategic.

Cloudera did paid training from the beginning. Now Cloudera is an open-source commercial software company, so services are a revenue stream built into the DNA of what they do.

There are plenty of SaaS companies that make seven and eight-figure revenue streams from training. You don't have to do paid training only at the end. You could do paid training first. I think it's a mistake to assume you have to start for free. It's much more difficult to raise your price than it is to lower the price later. You should especially do it if a customer wants something private and personal and just for them.

If they want something for free here, you can point them to your e-learning courses or webinars so there are always choices. So there isn't a stage for a company, the point is that it's a strategic choice to value yourself and to deliver a value and to capture some of that value.

Sri: What are some of the KPIs you track to know the success of your training program?

Bill: Sales, since that's the primary objective. The second would be enrollments and forecasting. You could do completion rates, the number of certifications delivered, etc. 

The really good part is how you connect that with your business outcomes by looking into your CRM and looking for metrics for customers who take training: 

Are they buying more?
Is the value of the opportunities in your CRM higher for those people than for people that didn't take the training?
Are people renewing at higher rates?
Are people expanding their renewals and buying more modules?

You also have the product use metrics — logins, adding users, spending more time on the product, and using other modules or functions in the product.  So you could go that way too. There are numerous metrics you could look at.

Sri: What do you do when your trainees aren't very serious about your training session?

Bill: A good instructor or someone who knows training delivery methods will have the skills to work that out — say by getting people involved by asking questions, anticipating questions, or even calling people by their first name. There's an art and science to the instruction which pulls people in — the personality, the likability, anticipating questions, and understanding people with empathy. 

Then there is the instructional design part that ensures that the course is getting into the heads of the people in the class and making it relatable for them.

There's the third element where you don't care about the ones not engaged and instead, focus on the people that care. Simon Sinek recommends a ‘diffusion of innovation’ approach for any change initiative. He suggests excluding people and inviting/including the early adopters, the innovators, and the visionary people for such change initiatives. This way, you make sure only those who will be engaged are called. This also makes it aspirational — where everyone else also wants to be involved. In fact, Workplace from Facebook uses defining the champions and getting them involved first as one of the five steps in their implementation process. 

Sri: What's your advice for future customer success leaders responsible for Customer Success and Customer Education?

Bill: Frankly, it's value proposition design because if you are running Customer Success or Customer Education or Professional Services, the time you spend understanding your customer is time well spent.  Taking the time to do this and understanding the jobs they're doing, the gains they want to achieve, and the pains they want to avoid, helps you figure out what the customer needs.

That could be training or feedback to give the product team or customer success plans that address implementation needs or ongoing needs.

This way, you don't go in with a pre-ordained solution to a problem.  For instance, I might say the solution to every problem is training because that's my bias and yet if I do a value proposition design process, I might just find out that better documentation could solve the problem. Value proposition design to me is an unsung skill that not enough of us are using. 

Sri: Thank you so much for joining us on the show, Bill! It was super useful and super fun chatting with you today.

Bill: It was great. I enjoyed it, thank you so much for having me, Sri!

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