What is Customer education? Good question. From a high level, customer education is a strategy you can use to improve the customer experience, product engagement, retention, churn, and more through educational resources. Here’s a no-nonsense guide that covers it all. Keep reading to learn more.
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Whether you’re B2B, B2C or B2XYZ, your customers have higher expectations and more choices than ever.
In the business of digital technology, the barriers to entry get lower every day. As a result, your customers are on the hunt for the best tech with the most features—at the best price (obviously). One wrong move and yours could be headed the other way. With competitors popping up left and right, it’s never been more challenging to hold onto existing customers. For this reason, customer experience is moving to the forefront. Today, it must be at the heart of everything you do. In our opinion, this is the last true competitive moat for digital technology companies and one of the most reliable ways to develop a defensible brand.
Customer education or customer training helps companies onboard, train and retain new and existing customers. These resources provide value to customers by fostering their success, ultimately increasing loyalty. The best customer education programs impact measurable business metrics such as product adoption, customer retention and LTV.
We already mentioned that some of the benefits of customer education are product adoption, retention and CLTV.
Before we get into more benefits, let's take a step back.
What's causing the surge in customer education?
A few things:
Looking at these a layer deeper, they tell a compelling story.
Every single person on Earth buys something — whether it's a product or service — to fill a need or solve a problem.
Someone downloading a budgeting app wants to organize (and hopefully save) some money.
Someone using Instacart and other gig services wants access to products whenever and wherever they need them.
A marketing leader who just bought HubSpot's Marketing Hub wants to attract the right audience, convert more visitors and run inbound campaigns at scale.
The list goes on.
If someone doesn't see this value, they'll move on.
They download another budgeting app or give another grocery delivery service a try.
Delivering this value is precisely what customer education aims to do — show people value quickly and continue to do so long term.
The increasing competition is also why differentiators are harder to come by — gone are the days when a flashy marketing campaign or a few new features was enough to sway buying decisions. They certainly still help, but they're no longer the be-all-end-alls they once were.
Companies that can show their customers (and prospects) that they have their back will stand above those that view customers as nothing more than a number.
We’ve covered the fact that customer education is booming, but how, exactly, does it benefit your bottom line? After all, getting and maintaining leadership buy-in relies on your ability to demonstrate clear business value to the decision-makers.
From a fundamental level, customer education aims to increase product adoption, engagement, and retention. It does this by decreasing time-to-value and empowering customers to learn whenever and wherever they want. Customer education also benefits internal teams. For example, it can improve marketing-sales alignment.
Knowledge is the cornerstone of success.
Your Sales team, for example, won’t be able to sell if they don’t have the product knowledge to effectively communicate to customers and prospects. Similarly, your Customer Success (CS) team can’t be a strategic partner to your customers if they don’t know the nitty-gritty details of your product. And if your customers don’t understand how to make the most of your product to reach their business goals, all the work you’ve put into product development is for naught.
This is why enablement materials (i.e., providing your teams with the information they need to be successful), is paramount. With the proper knowledge, these teams will fulfill their duties and promises to your customers.
Customer education is a driver of product adoption and engagement. When your customers know about your product, what it’s capable of, and how to make it work for them, they’re more likely to use it, gain more value and promote it within their network.
The key is to start at the birds-eye view.
Demonstrate the value of your product or feature first and then explain how it works down the road. The reality is that most of your customers don’t want to read an instruction manual for something they know nothing about. However, once they know what they’re dealing with, most are happy to dive in. Help your customers imagine what’s possible first, don’t describe the nuts and bolts.
Onboarding, often considered the most critical part of the customer journey, is, by extension, a vital part of any customer education program. A competent customer needs less hand-holding. They’re more likely to achieve successful outcomes on their own and less likely to eat into your support resources. An investment in customer education can translate into considerable savings in support costs later on.
The rest of your customer education program can also function as a “supplement” for more traditional onboarding processes. When you provide customers with self-service resources, you can reduce overall time spent in the onboarding phase and accelerate their time-to-value.
The sales-marketing relationship is often under fire. Historically, these teams work in friction-filled siloes void of any semblance of an effective and efficient revenue-generating program. Customer education — specifically Northpass for HubSpot—breaks down the walls and bridges the siloes.
Northpass for HubSpot is the first advanced learning platform to integrate into the HubSpot CRM, which means you can take the learning data in your LMS and bring it under the same roof as your CRM data in HubSpot. For the first time, you have the unprecedented ability to get your Marketing, Sales, Services, and Learning teams walking in lockstep.
Your customer education initiative seeks to add value for a specific audience through informative content. The key here is that content is geared toward customers and a wider audience referred to as potential customers. Companies like HubSpot and Compass do this well.
Such public-facing academies offer high-impact content relevant to their industry. Hubspot Academy primarily focuses on supporting marketers, while Compass’ courses are geared toward real estate agents. This type of content positions their academies to simultaneously improve the experience for existing customers while attracting new customers organically over time. Nothing is stopping your academy from doing the same.
For a customer education program to succeed, it’s important to involve stakeholders from across your company. No two customer education programs are the same, so the ideal team will differ from business to business. Still, there are a few key roles all customer education programs should consider:
It’s this person’s responsibility to get the customer education program off the ground and fully operational. They’re leading the charge.
Your executive sponsor should guide you to ensure your program fully aligns with the business’s strategic priorities.
The subject matter expert is the brains behind all of your content
They translate the concepts identified by your subject matter expert into content and courses that enable your customers to learn successfully.
If you want to deliver a fully integrated learning experience, you’ll need someone to handle the nuts and bolts.
With all that said, don’t let a small headcount stop you from getting started. Kicking off an academy as a one-person show is possible—just be strategic and make intelligent decisions, cutting out anything you really don’t need. Before you know it, you’ll start growing. With real business value in your back pocket, resources will follow and so will a larger team. Trust us, the effort will be worth it.
Now that we’ve covered the five major benefits of customer education, let’s take this one step further.
If we map these benefits to the customer lifecycle, you’ll notice something pretty neat: Customer education can generate measurable business impact across the entire customer lifecycle.
But where to start?
What, exactly, is it going to take to make this happen?
Here's how to launch a customer education strategy in 4 simple steps:
To launch a successful customer education program, you need to understand the strategic business impact of your program. To figure that out, you’ll need to align yourself with every company level, setting realistic goals every step of the way.
Business Goals: Talk to leaders at the top of your company (e.g., the C-suite, the board (if applicable) and so on) and ask them about customer acquisition, lifetime value (LTV) and other metrics they may use to make strategic decisions. Without buy-in from the top, your customer education program won’t get very far.
Departmental Goals: Customer education’s impact is felt across the company, impacting, to different degrees, Sales, Marketing and Customer Success. As a result, you must consider what they’re using as proxies for success and how customer education will help them be successful.
Team Goals: Team goals are all about your impact—think user-level metrics such as engagement rates and course completion.
If you take one learning away from this step, make it this: Different team members use different metrics to measure success. Despite the variability, customer education needs to be built in the middle. When you’re aligning on goals and prioritizing for impact, remember that you need to show how customer education can be a win-win situation for everyone involved.
The reality is that you’re not going to reach your dream state right away. Optimizing your customer education initiative for the unique needs of your business and customers will take time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get started. While you may view a lack of resources as a disadvantage, there are steps you can take that’ll set a solid foundation for the future state of your academy.
Focus on Gains, Not Gaps: Don’t fixate on world-class academies like HubSpot and Compass when you’re starting. Instead, focus on any gains you can make right now. What can you do immediately to move the needle in the right direction? If you’re constantly obsessing over what you could have, you’ll struggle to get off the ground. That said, it’s ok to have a wishlist of features and capabilities you’d like to implement when resources are available.
Borrow Resources: Building your academy doesn’t necessarily mean that the tools and resources required must come from your budget and constraints. Ask around and see if other departments have expendable resources you can use. For example, maybe the marketing team has an intern with video experience you can use for a week or two.
Communicate Often: Don’t discount the power of words. Sit down with executives and get them excited. Schedule coffee dates (even virtual ones) with friendlies all around the company. Host topical events that bring different departments together. Heck, you can even print out fliers and hang them up around the office (or plaster them on your slack channels... gifs and memes welcome). Eventually, this visibility will create momentum.
You already know what sort of business outcomes you’re hoping to drive, so the question becomes: what kind of objectives can you help your customers achieve—through educational resources—that’ll ultimately lead to the business outcome you’ve identified? We call these learning objectives. Once you’ve nailed down your learning objectives, you can begin to map out the learning journey your customers will take to achieve that objective. When you’re doing that, consider the following:
The Subject Matter
What are you going to educate customers about? For the sake of this example, you might present instructional materials, case studies, interactive modules, or all three. Your subject matter experts (SMEs) should lead this charge and help guide the content creation process.
The Content Mix
Decide on the type of content you’re going to produce. Learners don’t respond well to a wall of words, so consider adding videos, slideshows, infographics, and quizzes that create an exciting and dynamic learning experience.
The perfect content mix will only get you so far. The reality is that most of your customers don’t have time to sit back and spend hours learning, which is why you should keep your lessons short and snappy. Six short sections are easier to consume than one long lesson.
The Delivery Method
For learning to be effective, it must happen at the right time and in the right place. Assemble a tech stack that allows you to create contextually appropriate experiences for your customers. We know that customers are no longer tied to their desks. Make sure your academy works as well on mobile as it does on desktop. That way, such as they can access training wherever and whenever it works for them. Then, determine how you’ll notify your customers to drive engagement.
Once you have this mapped out, it’s time to deliver the content. Delivery is about developing systems and processes that help you scale your customer education program. To do this, you’ll need to integrate your technology stack to operationalize your customer education program. Connect your business systems so that you can deploy the educational resources you developed earlier. Engage your customers according to the journey map you created and let the learning begin.
Your job doesn’t end once you start delivering content. It’s actually just getting started. Once you get the ball rolling, it’s time to measure performance.
To this end, gather feedback — both qualitative and quantitative — to improve your program. You really want to get to know your learners, so keep the door open for feedback. And keep it open. Send surveys, ask for feedback in the last section of courses, give them your email. Whatever gets them talking. Then you can assess the feedback. For example, are your customers telling you that your webinars are too long? If so, answer the call and iterate. You can also conduct surveys and interviews. What are their motivations? What about pain points? You can also dig into your learning data to determine any bottlenecks or problem areas within your program.
You can go a level deeper, too, by looking into the following:
Education makes your learners more proficient at using your product. So, by giving them resources and guidance when and where they need it, you enable them to perform their work at the highest level. In short, you must help your customers know how to excel, which you can track via improved response times or lower cancellation rates.
Name any operational objective—attracting more talent, decreasing onboarding time, getting new hires into the field—and you’ll realize the best way to reach those goals is through education. Accessible learning content within any platform helps your potential learners get comfortable, confident and out into their roles as quickly as possible. Look toward time taken to onboard, lead volume, changes in workforce size and time to productivity as proxies for success on this front.
Your employees are the face of your brand, its values and standards, all of which can be woven into and encouraged by education. Customer satisfaction (CSAT) is an early indicator of loyalty and increased customer lifetime value (CLV or LTV). You should also look at your customer satisfaction scores and the number of positive reviews before employees start engaging with training and see if there’s an increase as time goes.
The ultimate success of customer education is measured in increased earnings—for both the employee and the business. In a traditional business, one standard metric is revenue-per-customer. Another metric you might use is the average earnings-per-employee. Instructional videos and brief learning modules influence earnings by imparting fundamental knowledge, showing ways your platform can make employees more successful. In addition to helping them grow revenues, online learning demonstrates your commitment to assisting providers in succeeding and keeping them in the fold.
Expenses associated with support services are also impacted when you introduce a training program. By enabling your employees to become more efficient in delivering the service, the demand for support services plummets. Once adequately trained, your customers have less need to reach out for guidance.
Data and analytics is the objective pillar that drives every successful business. Its integration into every department helps teams reach success and contributes to higher-level revenue goals. Every piece of data you collect eventually comes together to form your North Star. Use it to build the best customer academy possible.
There are many learning management systems out there, which is a strong indicator that there’s value to be had.
But, this is a double-edged sword.
The vast landscape also means you have a lot to sift through. Doing this manually would take ages, preventing you from realizing the value of customer education. Reading the rest of this section will only take a few minutes
As your company grows and you need to onboard more customers, your customer education software will have to keep up. As a result, having a reliable and flexible LMS engineered to easily add more courses, for example, is mission-critical. If you have to jump through hoops every time you need to switch things up, your academy will lose value quickly.
The success of your customer academy relies on one factor: your customers using it. If your customer education software doesn’t have an easy way to make your customers’ experience as intuitive and straightforward as possible, you'll struggle. To get the engagement you need to reach your goals, you always have to put your customers first. This means making your academy as mobile-friendly and intuitive as possible, which you can do by using supported integrations.
An LMS with a customizable design gives you control over how the user interface (UI) looks to the end-user. Nearly every LMS will let you change logos and colors; however, some, like Northpass, will give you total control over every aspect of the learning interface, including the home screen, events page, login screen, profile page and more.
Between the rise of remote work, the "on-the-go" lifestyle and the gig economy, your customers, workforce or partners will access some — or all — of your content on their smartphones. This is why your LMS must be able to optimize your content for mobile devices, allowing your learners to learn whenever and wherever they are.
Certificates allow people to test their knowledge and show off their accomplishments.
Certificates can be offered in a couple of ways.
Here are two examples from HubSpot to illustrate the point:
The first certification is for HubSpot customers and helps them get the most out of its software. The second one targets anyone looking to learn about content marketing (an industry related to HubSpot's core business).
LMS APIs and integrations bring your learning platform together with your tech stack (internal and external).
For example, integrating your LMS with HubSpot can power your Sales, Services and Marketing teams with learning data they can use to automate workflows and add learning into their content strategy.
At the same time, integrating your LMS with Gainsight allows you to see how learning impacts your customer health score and retention.Analytics: Measure the impact of your learning programs and optimize accordingly.
Authentication: Keep your academy secure with these connectors.
Certifications: Create product experts and give your brand advocates something to cheer about with newly acquired credentials.
Communication: Keep your team in the know about learning activity and webinar registrations, directly in the tools they're already using.
CRM: Track your progress, create automated workflows and more to deliver learning-based value throughout the customer journey.
Customer Success: Better manage the relationship between you and your learners.
Help Desk: Arm your support team with learning data they can use to tailor conversations and personalize guidance.
Workflows: Automate tasks and collaborate across departments so that you can focus on the high-value, strategic insights.
So far, we’ve covered just about everything you need to be successful with customer education. But what about once it’s up and running? What’s it going to take to achieve long-term success and sustainability? By now, Northpass has helped hundreds of companies empower their customers with the knowledge they need to deliver consistent service, consistent experiences and consistent results — and we know exactly what it takes.
Here are proven and time-tested best practices for customer education you can’t live without:
Micro-learning is an aptly-named approach to workforce training that utilizes short, “bite-sized” learning segments designed to help learners achieve a particular goal. This training style is preferred by on-the-go learners who don’t have time to sit down and invest in prolonged online courses. The key to a high-performing micro-learning strategy is to offset the reduced length of lessons with increased frequency and interaction. When done right, micro-learning can improve retention, engagement, flexibility and comprehension. To do this, you can simply take a one-hour-long online lesson and divide it up into smaller mini-lessons. You can also use questions and short quizzes to strengthen the memory of your learners. This forces the brain to recall information. You should also encourage learners to complete the lessons within a given period to build on the momentum of each mini-course.
Viewers retain 95% of a message when they watch it in a video compared to 10% when reading it in text. This puts a premium on visuals, so use them whenever possible, which will help with content comprehension and retention. Plus, using images instead of, or paired with, shorter text, quiz responses decrease burnout and are more pleasing to the eye. (gifs welcome!)
You need to deliver your content in an engaging way—this is the only surefire way to get your customers to retain knowledge. To do this, make training feel more personal and relevant. An easy start is to include their names on the welcome screen. You should also consider building groups, which will allow you to segment audiences and provide them with a more tailored experience. You can even customize the end-of-course screen to make a great final impression. This also helps create a more seamless transition in their workflow and helps alleviate any confusion or uncertainty about the next steps.
The reality is that the majority of your customers will access your content via mobile devices, which means it’s imperative that you optimize your content for these smaller screens — think bullet points, short videos and courses divided into short 2-5 minute modules vs. hour-long lessons (microlearning).
The increasing prominence of customer education in the business world means that the technology powering these programs should be able to work in tandem with the technology other internal teams are using, namely your CRM. By integrating your LMS and CRM, you're instantly aligning your efforts with Sales, Marketing and Services, allowing you to all walk in lockstep.
Looking for some inspiration and a glimpse into how some companies are using customer education to power their business? We’ve got you covered.
Shopify is a leading eCommerce platform helping 1,700,000 businesses build, organize and manage an online store. To ensure all of these customers are successful with its technology, Shopify implemented an advanced customer education program that proactively delivered educational content to help its growing customer base be successful. Since launching its academy, Shopify has seen its monthly learner usage increase by 491%, leading to more product adoption and better retention.
SPS Commerce simplifies the retail process by providing cloud-based supply chain software services for suppliers, retailers, third-party logistics providers and partners. SPS’ products help these parties spend less time managing systems and chasing partners, and more time serving customers and selling products. Creating a customer academy that provided its customers with contextual learning experiences helped SPS Commerce increase customer retention by 30% in just one year.
Evergage, acquired by Salesforce in 2020, is a real-time personalization and CDP provider, helping companies integrate and synthesize disparate data, extract insights and make real-time decisions to truly engage their customers. Evergage uses online education to train its customers (as well as its employees and partners) on its products, services and everything in between. Specifically, the company uses online education to onboard new customers and teach them how to be successful with its technology.