COGNITION Virtual Customer Education Conference – Day 1 Recap

Man looking at a laptop
Thought Industries
October 8, 2020

Becoming Agents of Education Change: Takeaways from Day 1

Five keynotes, nine breakouts and 28 speakers later, day one of COGNITION, our first annual customer education conference and user event, was a very rewarding experience. Over 450 of you welcomed us from all over the globe into your homes and offices with an ambitious mission: to hear from experts on how to transform the way you train your customers and build your online learning businesses. We’re grateful to you for taking time out of your busy life and professional schedule to join us at COGNITION 2020.

A lot happened on Day 1, but here is a rundown on some of the key highlights.

The Overview Effect in Learning

Barry Kelly, our company founder and CEO, welcomed virtual attendees with a video sharing an amazing and inspirational fact: When astronauts first went into space, they believed their mission was to learn about the universe. But from the moment they looked out of their rocket’s porthole back to Earth, they came to realize the learning mission was really something else altogether: to help us all better understand our planet from a distance that could erase the borders, the divisions and the differences that divide us.
That cognitive shift, called the “Overview Effect,” is also a reminder to us that we in the world of learning and education have a big responsibility right now: to create learning products that help people “want to” — not “have to” — learn. As Barry noted, the business and process of learning is at an important inflection point.

  •         1.2 billion children have been out of the classroom since March this year, shifting to remote learning
  •         Daily users on Zoom exploded from 10 million to 200 million;
  •         MOOC usage has skyrocketed, with 70 million registered learners taking 4,000 courses on Coursera alone

Practically overnight exponentially more people have begun to understand and experience the power of learning over the Internet. That’s not unlike the Overview Effect, with its cognitive shift in how we can learn.
As Barry pointed out to us, we all have a shared responsibility to be agents of evolution and change, to influence the outcomes of those big changes in learning in positive ways.
How do we accomplish that? The rest of the day’s sessions were spent showing us.

Optimism Means Looking for the Opportunity

We as individuals need to stop thinking of ourselves as optimists or pessimists. Optimism follows a spectrum, and it’s measured by our ability to see the good in spite of the challenge — to look for the opportunities. “There are always flowers for those who choose to see them,” according to Steve Gross, Founder and Chief Playmaker at Life is good Kids Foundation. The foundation, a Thought Industries customer, is a nonprofit that supports childcare professionals and organizations to create life-changing relationships and the kind of environments where the most vulnerable kids can heal, learn and grow.
As Steve shared in his keynote, spreading the power of optimism is the business he’s in. And it has never been more needed — not just to help kids overcome childhood trauma, but to help us all survive a global pandemic, racial injustice, a country divided, and an economy in trouble.
Our brains are built for “exploration and affiliation,” in other words, education. When we trust people and build nurturing relationships, we value ourselves, we feel in control and powerful, able to explore and grow — and thereby learn, Steve pointed out. When those critical aspects are short-circuited through childhood adversity and challenges, the brain wires itself for something completely different — preservation: fighting, fleeing, surviving. Our coping mechanisms are more likely to head in unhealthy directions.
Redirecting those tendencies is possible when we become “playmakers” — that team member who, when we’re on the brink of defeat, has the best shot at making something good happen, the person showing optimism and seeing the opportunity. In the case of children, it’s the one who reaches them at a vulnerable point in their development, whether a nurse, a teacher, an after-school worker, a coach, a counselor. “Every time we help a child to see their inherent goodness, or build a trusting relationship, or see goodness in the world, we are helping to break the cycle,” he said.
But how do you get from there to building better learning? Here’s the link: To become a playmaker requires a combination of two qualities above all else: a professional skillset and a personal disposition. Thought Industries has enabled Steve’s foundation to create an educational platform “that helps people to cultivate their most optimal dispositions as healers.”
Plus, he reminded us, there needs to be a playful element about the work people are doing. As we’re developing curriculum, we have to ask ourselves, how can we make this more joyful, more socially connected, more active and engaging and provide internal control so that learners feel like they’re in charge and have choices? With joy comes optimism. With optimism comes the ability to see the opportunity.
If you didn’t catch Steve’s session and you need a jolt to propel you above the current doldrums, I encourage you to tune into Steve’s entire talk. Here I quickly captured a little snippet in audio format.

Align Sales Compensation with Customer Success

Are you old enough to remember what enterprise software purchasing used to be like? The deal would take a year to 18 months, and the company person who signed on the dotted line prayed that the organization would really end up using it, because his or her neck was on the line for success. The sales person who cut that seven-figure deal? He or she would make enough from that single transaction practically to relax the rest of the year.
Those days are long gone. Now it’s a subscription economy as Mark Roberge reminded us in his talk, “Aligning Sales, Services and Marketing Around Customer Success.” Mark is a current advisor and former chief Revenue Officer for HubSpot, author of the bestselling book The Sales Acceleration Formula: Using Data, Technology and Inbound Selling to Go from $0 to $100 Million, and senior lecturer at Harvard Business School,
“We don’t just buy our software on a subscription. We buy music and our foods and our razors on a subscription,” he observed. On top of that, “every customer has this huge megaphone called social media” to tell everybody else what they think about your product. And when they don’t like it anymore, they leave, they churn.
And yet companies often still compensate their sales staff as if it’s a one-and-done. In fact, it took a while at HubSpot for Mark (employee #4) to recognize the faulty logic in the compensation model he was using. He’d pay a set commission per customer, double that on any sales that exceeded the quota and impose a four-month “clawback”: The commission would be lost for any customer who left before four months was up. As a result, customer churn by monthly cohort would double and quadruple immediately after the four-month mark. Sales people were engaged in that customer’s success up to the four-month mark and dropped out of the picture after that.
Mark did a study and found that the more successful salespeople were those who may have sold fewer subscriptions but who made a whole lot more money for the company by virtue of the lifetime value of the customers. They set good expectations and educated their customers in the program’s functionality that would help achieve specific goals determined by the customers themselves.
Aligning sales around customer success required the company to develop a compensation plan that paid half the commission on signed contract and the other half after the customer had reached the “leading indicator of customer success event.” If the customer didn’t reach that point by six months, the whole commission was lost.
Education was a component Mark drilled down on too, in two ways. First, an important ingredient for salespeople to understand under the new sales structure was the value of customer education as a presales activity, to reduce churn. Second, the popular HubSpot Academy evolved into existence, following the publishing of blog articles and ebooks, when the company realized that educating people on inbound marketing would allow it to own the new marketplace it was creating. Only one credential was dedicated to the product itself; the rest covered the methodology of inbound marketing.
I encourage you to watch the recording of that session to get details on how Mark educated his HubSpot sales team to better understand buyer needs.

6 Essentials of a Truly Excellent Customer Education Program

The dynamic duo at CELabs, Adam Avramescu and Dave Derington, shared a quick-paced rundown on the six principles they believe make up a modern customer education program. According to Adam and Dave, customer education isn’t a bunch of ad hoc activities. It’s a set of well-considered programs with specific elements in place. Without these your customers won’t learn, and without learning your customers won’t succeed.
Principle #1:  Lead customers to value. Forget about educating them on every feature, even if you’re told that’s your job. Focus on helping them uncover the strategic usage that will make a real difference.
Principle #2:  Build a training program with a foundation of content that will scale, versus customizing every time. One approach: setting up an onboarding academy with self-service options such as brief videos on core concepts and webinars or virtual training sessions that serve many customers at once.
Principle #3:  Replace measuring your myriad activities with data tied to business outcomes. That’ll get you closer to ROI and help you develop narratives worth sharing to show your true impact.
Principle #4:  As the adage goes, don’t let perfection be the enemy of opportunity. Use agile practices to change up and ship solutions quickly. Breaking up content into smaller units — microlearning — aids in this process.
Principle #5:  Go for engagement — creating learning experiences we’d want for ourselves: clean interfaces, simple navigation, the use of storytelling, fun and games. In other words, go for content that’s shorter, punchier and more digestible.
Principle #6:  Serve customers in their moment of need, versus making them do the work. Surface your learning content within the product, where it’s needed and make sure it’s also located in places they look for training, like Google and YouTube.

The Advantage of Digital for Delivering Value for Learners

It might surprise you to know that an 85 year old company known for polling people, also runs a robust learning operation, with training for leaders and managers, HR professionals, educators and strengths coaches. It makes sense. this analytics and advisory company produces research, and that research can be used to produce better outcomes. In a conversation with Dov King, an Onboarding Customer Success Manager here at Thought Industries, Buddy Steele, Senior Digital Learning Strategist at said analytics company and self-professed “total digital learning nerd,” shared his insights on how to deliver value for learners through sensible use of the data.
Like many other companies, he has had to convert a healthy in-person training business to online, with a particular focus on manager development. The Boss to Coach Kit is one example. The content — videos and downloadable and printable resources for use in individual and team conversations — guides managers as they learn how to help their teams improve performance. While the content was in development before the pandemic, the global shutdown “kind of amplified that urgency,” Buddy said.
Now the company uses the data being generated through the product to continually improve its content. “It could be as simple as where people are abandoning in a short video. Is the video too long? Is it not the right time?” His job is to take all those different data points and act on them. The tricky part, as both Buddy and Dov agreed, is finding the right balance between accommodating requests from vocal users, what the majority of users need and what the minority have to say.
That’s where the digital environment has a big advantage over in-person training. Whereas you can get a “snapshot” of a learner’s experience in the latter setting through a post-class survey, for example, the actions the learner takes in an online setting provides a continual drip-feed of granular data that can serve as intelligence for better decision-making, Buddy noted. He’s also able to impart that knowledge to business stakeholders, he added. “When an executive is saying, ‘How do we know this is working?’ imagine the power you get just from coming in armed with that level of data and insight. I really get fired up because it’s so important. It really is the key to the kingdom in terms of knowing what people are really doing.”
Use of the data has also come in handy when so many people are feeling “Zoom fatigue,” spending hours a day meeting with clients and co-workers via web conferencing. To counteract that effect, the analytics company has tried to design its learning experiences to fit “the flow of life now.” That requires giving the information quickly, through a friendly, easy interface that works on any kind of device. Delivered through the Thought Industries Platform.
But the learning has to be enjoyable, Buddy emphasized. Otherwise, people won’t bother. “If I’m learning something today that I can put into practice this afternoon or in a meeting tomorrow, if I can really see it working, it creates those kind of small anchor points where I say, ‘Wow! I did it, and it works.’ When you’re able to kind of see that outcome, that’s pretty powerful.”

Defining Customer Education KPIs for Success

Which of these three approaches do you turn to most often to define your customer education key performance indicators?

  1. Developing a hypothesis for how to evaluate success in your programs
  2. Identifying specific metrics you intend to improve
  3. Doing some data mining and figuring out from there where your training is impacting the business

That was a big question tackled by learning leaders and data mavens Tom Studdert from B2B lead company ZoomInfo, (read the Thought Industries ZoomInfo powered by DiscoverOrg success story) Dave Derington from sales engagement platform provider Outreach, and Christy Hollingshead from Heap, which has a leading marketing and sales analytics platform in their session on defining KPIs for success.
In a session led by James Williams, Team Lead for Customer Success at Thought Industries, Tom used a pyramid analogy with five levels. At the bottom, are the “core” metrics — how many accounts and how many users get trained? Above those are standard satisfaction metrics, followed by engagement metrics, such as how often and at what intervals do users engage with content? Are they attending webinars and live sessions? And even more importantly, are they opening and viewing content, finishing courses, getting to the end of certifications?
Above that is usage, pertaining to individual products in the ZoomInfo suite and encompassing questions about uptake, especially among trained versus untrained users. At the top of the pyramid are the impact metrics, which Tom said were the hardest to measure: “Did they do the thing that we taught them? Did they do it better?” That’s the metric, he added, “that I want to be able to deliver to my executive team and our board of directors,” because it answers the question: “Did they get more value out of our product because we taught them something?” Without impact, he explained, “I have to ask, what was the point of the training?” When he’s sharing metrics with company executives, Tom doesn’t shy away from areas that need improvement. In fact, he welcomes their help and input in figuring out what solutions need to be put in place. “That’s what gives us insight into what we can be doing differently and doing better for our customers.”
Christy, who has worked in a number of SaaS companies, shies away from focusing on any kind of “singular magic metric” when she starts a new job. Her preference is to undergo a “discovery” process. “I want to understand the pain points that drove this organization to invest in customer education. And I want to actually directly ask my leaders what success looks like for them,” she said. Once she knows what the business values, she added, she uses that information to build a roadmap — and metrics — that aligns with the goals. By doing so, she explained, “I’m looking for ways that I can quickly prove the potential impact of education.”
Dave reflected that the most important consideration for anybody in customer success to consider is how to draw executive support, whether for investing in new technology or headcount. There are two secrets to success. One is figuring out the ROI of the training business, which in itself requires two elements: First, making sure you understand what customer education is and then help your leadership understand what it is. And second, understanding what data you have and need and understanding what the business needs. The answers will be different for every company, he added.
Click the image below to download The Customer Education Playbook released at COGNITION 2020.

Leading a Scalable Learning Business

Therese Kelleher, Senior Vice President of Customer Experience at Thought Industries, checked in with the learning officers at three enterprise customer organizations on how they’ve scaled up their operations to appeal to global audiences. Here are some of the points that came out of a wide-ranging conversation:
On the “build-versus-buy” decision, Katie Barton, Chief Information Officer for Software Development at an American analytics and advisory company, suggested that there’s always more demand for technology from the internal team than they can accomplish. Therefore, it’s important to develop a strategy to define what aspects of the system will differentiate the company and what aspects can be delivered by partners “that are world-class in different areas.” For example, the learning content and how it’s delivered (through the use of artificial intelligence) is something that’s important for her company to develop directly. Once the build-versus-buy strategy is set, she added, it’s important to communicate out to external groups and the IT team itself, “to prevent confusion about why you went with an external solution that could have been created internally.”
On scaling out assessment, Debbie Cavalier, CEO for Berklee Online at Berklee College of Music, said her school has implemented a number of technologies to help the instructor or facilitator do grading. Many of those are built into the learning system, including tools for:

  •         Providing video or audio critique (important for students studying performance)
  •         Enabling the instructor to see whether the assignment has been turned in on time or not by color coding
  •         Doing automatic tabulation of grades “so that the instructor doesn’t have to be bothered with all the math”
  •         Delivering peer-to-peer grading “based on a rubric the instructor has set up” to offload some of the grading to students, but with instructor oversight

The important point, however, is that the way the course is designed will determine how scalable the grading will be. “If you have three or four assignments to create every week, then that’s the workload you’ve created for yourself,” she said. “If you can do it in a meaningful way with one portfolio-based assignment, then you’re grading one assignment per week per student.”
On high-impact engagement, Danielle Chircop, Head of Platform Development at Kaplan, said her company relies heavily on user experience (UX) research. That includes “heavily documenting” the various learner personas, their learning journeys, and, most importantly, the areas of “friction” they experience. As an example, a big persona at Kaplan is architects. Whereas many other personas prefer to follow a “super-guided plan” where they get step-by-step instructions on what to do, architects don’t follow that pattern. “Architects want to do it on their own, and they want to remove all of those things that we think are helpful.” Understanding the particular needs of that segment of learners, she observed, “helps us keep our learners engaged.” And when they’re engaged, they’ll come back for more. To stay on top of needs, Kaplan will plug a piece of learning content or advice right in the platform and ask learners to rate it. “If it doesn’t rate well, we replace it,” she said. The key “is being willing to accept when something may not be good” and then adapting it and getting more feedback.
The panel provided additional advice on monetization of learning content, how to handle localization across borders, how to work most effectively with integration partners (including with Thought Industries) and plenty more. Check out the on-demand recording for the full, rich rundown when available this October.

More Techniques for Learning Business Growth and Customer Education Success

Be sure to check out our Day 2 recap. It took the business of learning in different directions with coverage of mastering content, iterating on the learning experience, education content diversification, engaging in customer education digital transformation and plenty of other new techniques for improving your learning experiences and growing your learning business.
Make sure you download the Customer Education Playbook as well before you leave. It’s a treasure trove of guidance to bring your customer education programming to the next level.

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