Unless you intend to build your training business around serving just a handful of customers, you can expect to automate much of the operations for managing users, training content, data, and other aspects of the operation. Otherwise, the manual effort will quickly overwhelm you and put you behind even before the organization is really off the ground. Fortunately, the customer success segment is rife with programs and services ready to address any aspect of your work. This chapter does two things: First, it offers a lay-of-the-land for the various kinds of software (and leading examples) you'll want to consider for building a solid foundation for your customer training business. Second, we offer guidance to help you make the right choices as you're building your technology stack.
The layers of the customer training technology stack
The different types of software for customer success and training can be divided into a few broad usage categories:
Used for overseeing the customer lifecycle;
Used for managing the learning processes; and
Used primarily by you and your customers for the sake of communication and collaboration.
Customer lifecycle management
These products are designed to help you oversee some particular segment of the customer lifecycle: collecting information about prospects, managing your leads, marketing to them, turning them into paying customers and keeping them happy. Some companies, such as Salesforce.com, have programs to address every aspect of the customer lifecycle. Others focus on their specific task and offer features that encroach on the other groups. For example, companies classified as marketing automation may also consider themselves players in the customer success category.
Customer relationship management
Take every lead you can drum up and plug them into a system to track through the sales cycle from every angle—individual, division, company, industry. That process includes managing renewals, gauging the temperature of your customer, and recording every interaction you have, which is all exactly what a CRM is made for. Salesforce.com is the granddaddy of customer success, but there are many other CRMs that share most, if not all, of the same features.
While the best learning management systems include features to help with marketing, this category is dedicated to the job and has gained ready pickup among marketing pros in training businesses. Among the activities these programs handle is lead generation and nurturing, email campaigns, lead scoring, and data analytics for tracking success and failure. Prime brands include Marketo, HubSpot, and Oracle Eloqua.
The newest category of application among those profiled here, the basic idea of this product type is to help you stay on top of your customers throughout the entire lifecycle. By doing that, you'll retain them longer, discover what drew them in to facilitate finding more prospects just like them, and help them become successful with their goals. As a result, they can be expected to buy more from you. Or, as the Technology Services Industry Association succinctly expresses it, the right customer success technology can "reduce churn, lower costs, and improve customer loyalty." Prominent examples include GainSight, Natero, and Totango.
Otherwise known as help-desk or support systems, these programs provide a means for giving help to the organizations buying your training and the individuals receiving it. The best offer a combination of services, including chat, a knowledge base for self-service, a ticketing system, service level agreement views, and reporting to let you stay informed about support metrics. Two examples are Zendesk and Kayako.
The learning management system
The LMS lies at the heart of digital customer training. First, it serves as the way station for learners—where they head to get their assignments, view alerts, receive notifications, take assessments, receive evidence of learning, and communicate with subject matter experts. Second, on the administrative side, the leading examples of modern external learning solutions (such as the Thought Industries Platform) provide a myriad of features:
Content authoring tools to create lessons and assemble training modules from text and graphics, video and audio, quiz questions, gamification scoring, simulations, animations, and other types of learning materials;
A learning object repository for storing lessons, videos, PDF documents, and other resources;
The ability to embed a "virtual lab" inside the LMS for hands-on training and allow people to use the software they're learning;
Communication components to continually "tickle" learners, as Pat Durante, president of the Computer Education Management Association (CEdMA) puts it, to remind them about the next lesson, encourage them to keep going and upsell them to the next phase of their learning;
Data management for capturing details about delivery, user engagement and consumption of training;
Certification and digital badging management, to keep users on top of their progress and automate the issuing of credentials as they're earned them;
E-commerce components that enable you to bundle your training into modules or collections and sell them online; and
Front-end and back-end reporting to keep learners informed of their own progress and enable you to track learner progress behind the scenes.
Communication and collaboration
These programs enable real-time and non-concurrent communication and collaboration.
This is also known as a virtual classroom, video conferencing or webinar software or virtual instructor-led training (VILT). Some programs are better suited for pulling people together with video, audio and whiteboard for a virtual meeting session, while others are intended for slideshow presentations with audio. Some companies offer both flavors of services. "There are times with customers where you want to bring them together in a live environment so that they can ask questions," explains Claire Schooley, analyst and researcher in the field of workforce growth and development. By meeting in a virtual classroom, "you can follow along with them and see if they're having difficulty and then talk about it." Examples include Zoom, BlueJeans, Webex, ON24, and GoToMeeting.
Chat windows, otherwise known as messaging or instant messaging, are common on software homepages, asking if you need help before you've purchased a product. Chat is also a useful mechanism for on-going customer support. It is essential to the stack because people would rather chat by text on a web page than pick up the phone and talk with a support rep. Frequently, these are available as an add-on to help desk— Zendesk Chat or Kayako Messenger—or customer relationship management programs— Salesforce Service Cloud.
These products serve as a targeted form of social media. They give people a place to go to ask and answer questions and help each other. Even though answers may come from customers, the company should expect to check responses to make sure they're correct or add additional insights, advises Schooley. As the information piles up in the program, it serves as an FAQ, allowing people to search for information without posing a question at all.
Every serious company has a blog these days, as a forum for sharing news directly with customers, promoting upcoming events, broadcasting new case studies, and sharing advice, feature how-tos and other kinds of information. Now blog software has also turned into content management software, serving as the platform for creating entire websites. WordPress, with both open source and commercial versions, leads the way with most of the global market. Oftentimes, as John Leh, LMS selection consultant, points out, the functionality of typical blog software will be included in marketing automation programs.
Other useful programs
Believe it or not, the list above isn't complete. There are a few other lingering programs you may consider including in your technology stack. Sometimes the features provided by these "one-offs" are also encompassed in one of the platforms we've already covered, but that'll vary from vendor to vendor.
Make sure you have the ability to run customer satisfaction surveys. SurveyMonkey is the favorite here. Not only can you quickly set up stylish surveys to check on how happy people are with your latest customer support help, but you can use it to query new customers about why they haven't really done anything with their trial product or find out what it would take to get them to try the latest features you've unfurled.
Until you have full-fledged marketing automation software in place, you may rely on a dedicated email marketing service such as MailChimp or Constant Contact. These programs serve to help you stay in touch with your training prospects and customers.
THREE STACKING TIPS FROM THE PROS
Now that you understand the various kinds of technology that make up a winning customer success and training operation, it's time to begin building. But first, here are three stacking tips from the pros that will save you time, money, and frustration.
Interoperability is important All of the programs we've listed here generate their own data, but it's just data in a silo unless you can integrate it to make new discoveries. An advantage of working with the big names in each category is that they follow industry standards that will enable you to connect diverse systems, says John Leh. That can be done by connector, application programming interface (API), or a dedicated third-party tool, such as Zapier.
Choose best-of-breed While some of the companies referenced here would like all of your customer success and training business, they're not all best at what they do, suggests Thought Industries Sales Engineer, KJ McGowan. Spend time mapping out your technology needs to cover the big areas of your operation, sort out what portions of the spectrum your existing software already addresses well, identify the gaps, and run trial versions of software that could help close them. Where you see overlap, go with the services that appear to have staying power, explain their data privacy options clearly, and play well with the other services in your stack.
Remember, you're a customer too Your customers expect certain things in the training they buy from you, advised Claire Schooley: service that's mobile to work on any device and while on the go; that's browser-based so it's always available; and modular and video-based so they can learn just what they need and rapidly.
Make sure any service you subscribe to as part of your tech stack offers the same feature set: mobility, browser-based, and outfitted with video training so you can quickly pick up what you need as you need to learn it.
About the author:
Barry Kelly is the CEO of Thought Industries, a leading learning management system company that introduced the Thought Industries Platform, a system specifically designed to streamline the online experience and automate customer onboarding and customer education.
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