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How Customer Training Can Increase Engagement and Reduce Churn
Barry Kelly: This is an important topic and I'm excited to be joined by such an impressive guest as Pat Durante. Pat is truly passionate about measuring the impact of training customers, especially with technology products and solutions, which includes increasing customer retention, upselling, and customer success, loyalty and advocacy.
Let’s use this webinar to take a pragmatic approach to customer training and customer onboarding. When should we do it, how to do it, what to measure to achieve a quicker time to value for your customer and really powerful results for your organization.
We'll also discuss how product knowledge training should be closely aligned with the stages of the customer success lifecycle. A trained customer is going to renew at a higher rate, be more engaged and ultimately become an advocate for your brand.
It's really important to understand that customer training starts earlier than you think in the acquisition stage. Some products require a lot more focus early on to get interested prospects up-to-speed where value can be delivered.
We're also going to look at adoption and renewal. How can we measure those areas and how training can help. Ultimately, we're doing this because we want to have a powerful effect on churn, time to value and increased customer engagement.
At Thought Industries I see two types of customer training programs:
Contextual training. This is the very technical training that allows you to understand how to use the product. This is necessary early on, to get your customers comfortable.
Application learning teaches how to use the technology, the software, the product to deliver value, to further business interests. For instance, if it's marketing automation software, how you're using it to increase conversion rates.
The Power of Customer Training During Acquisition
Let’s also look at the customer acquisition stage.
We’re starting to see external-facing teams include training professionals. Take a look at this product complexity scale and its relationship to acquisition.
We don't need to train a prospect on how to open a candy bar wrapper, but with highly complex software technology, there's a lot to learn to be able to evaluate the product. The need for pre-sales education becomes important.
Pat Durante: There is a real need for training during the customer acquisition phase because the complexity of software is high. Customers need education sooner than ever, specifically technical education on our products. This is before they even pick up the phone, or send an email, or fill out a form to talk to your sales team. If you're not out there and in front of this, prospects are getting misinformation.
I'll give you a concrete example from my work at IBM. We had a fabulous product, but the market wasn't ready because they didn’t understand big data technology or what it could do for them.
We had to provide a lot of technical education out-front of any product sale. It was enormously effective because it showed that IBM was a leader in this space - really, really powerful in the sales process.
Barry Kelly: There are five ways that customer training in the acquisition stage builds value:
Build trust with prospective customers: It’s brand trust. Show the individuals making the buying decision what it’s going to look like if they become a customer.
Develop deeper levels of engagement through the training and information exchange. It’s an important data point to see how engaged they are with your learning content.
Establish brand as an authority in your domain. Training content becomes a channel for developing and building brand awareness. Thought leadership establishes the brand. HubSpot is a great example of that.
Identify knowledge gaps and product understanding. This data will help you see the gaps and help you understand the buying process a bit better.
Develop a more educated buyer. Overall, the more educated the buyer, the more helpful it is to the sales process.
Barry Kelly: This graphic looks like something you would see in marketing and sales, not in a training organization. The key difference is that this is all associated with training content and how that is functioning as part of the acquisition process.
Pat Durante: There is no more direct route to the attention of your C-level executives than if you move the needle on their sales pipeline. At IBM, for example, our training was, for a short period of time, the number one lead source for that big data product. We got a lot of attention from executives asking what we were doing and they wanted more of that. Training definitely played a role - real detailed hands-on technical training to get prospects up to speed on a complex concept.
Barry Kelly: You can map training content to the buying journey to get specific results. At certain points, especially the middle of the funnel, we want to see indications that the circle of the buying team is expanding. What type of content is needed and who is adopting? Who is new in the buying team, and what level of interest do they have?
This is a slightly different approach. Longer format content, more in-depth product training, looking at context learning, application learning, and applying those principles early on. Measure, measure, measure and you'll find that training makes a great and sophisticated contribution to customer acquisition.
The Most Critical Phase of the Lifecycle: Customer Onboarding
Pat Durante: Most people consider customer onboarding the most important phase of the customer journey. Most studies I've read show that if you don't deliver measurable value in the first 90 days of the relationship with a new customer, especially a subscription customer, then your chances of renewing that customer go down dramatically.
Training is the key to efficiently driving new customers to initial value. It's really about getting them to find value quickly so that they can show they're making a difference with your software.
I think sometimes we forget the users of our software are not always the same as the buyers of our software. So, at that moment, at that tipping point where you go from a prospect to a customer, you suddenly have a brand-new audience that you have to get up to speed on and hope to drive change within their organization.
The biggest mistake that most companies make is that they rush out, hire a trainer, create some content and start teaching. Well, that may help in the short-term, but if you take a more strategic and systemic approach and fold that training experience into the customer onboarding process, you're going to find more success.
Start by identifying the customer personas that need to be trained. Are we training developers, administrators, end users, analysts, and what do each of those personas need for success in their particular role? Don’t try to teach every feature of the software to everyone.
Of course, you want to have some touchpoints in there to make sure that the training you built is actually doing what it’s supposed to do.
You have to measure effectiveness. We ask questions like, now that you've consumed this training, can you use the software more effectively? Did this training make it easier for you to do your job? Did this training make it easier to achieve your goals?
Customer training doesn't just stop once customers go live because they have new employees who might join, old team members may leave the project. Onboard customers systematically and you’ll have a better chance of driving success.
Barry Kelly: One of the things you mentioned was initial time to value. Would you please elaborate?
Pat Durante: “Time to value” is not a one-time event, it's a many-time event. Initial value is giving the customer a win at launch. What makes their job easier at that moment in time? Maybe there are some things they don't have to do manually anymore.
That's the initial value. Training helps get initial value in this customer onboarding phase by focusing the training on exactly what they need in their role to demonstrate some sort of improvement or advantage to their company.
Barry Kelly: How do you understand what success looks like for your customers? How do you measure it?
Pat Durante: During the kickoff calls we had slides in our onboarding deck that would elicit the customer’s vision of success. Out of that conversation we came away with the who, what, and when.
What does the customer need most in the first 90 days to be successful? You then build your training courses, and your learning plans and pathways to align with those skills that they need to acquire first.
If you can't onboard well, then none of the rest is going to matter much, because this is your chance to make the most impact on the outcome of this customer.
If, through the customer onboarding experience, you can expand their thinking about how this software can help them, then you're on a path to renewal. If you're on the opposite spectrum where the customer is lost and confused, your chances of renewal are going down by the minute.
Customer Adoption: You successfully helped your customer meet initial value. Now what?
Barry Kelly: Let’s look at product adoption, which is the next critical step in the customer success lifecycle. This is where we're making the transition from context training to application learning, where we're saying, now that you understand you have fluency with the technology, let's talk about how you're going to leverage the product to achieve your company’s goals and your personal KPIs.
What are these goals? Growth may mean growth in revenue; it may mean growth in terms of numbers of customers or partners that access the content. It might mean conversion, it might mean marketing leads, and it can be a million different things. But this adoption phase is where technology becomes an important tool for customers reaching their goals.
Pat Durante: The key is to listen closely to your customers. Let's imagine that it takes two to three months to get a customer to “live”, time is moving forward and things are changing inside your customer’s organization.
If you understand what the customer is trying to do with their business, you're in a better position to align both the software and the training to help them achieve those goals.
One of my favorite vendors would start every quarterly business review with a slide that showed the last time we talked, the goals were A, B, and C. What has changed? It's all about driving customer service and success, not about teaching them the advanced features.
Barry Kelly: The success plans are being crafted by your customer success team. These plans become the guidepost for the learning content creation. It’s identifying levels of proficiency or need, and then curating a particular program of learning specifically for them.
Let’s talk about learning experiences and the continuum of learning - outcomes and experiences.
Delivery of customer training is a product opportunity, and this is where we work with a lot of customers in product ideation. We want to make the learning experience memorable and effective.
Where are they? How are they learning and finding information? Do they have time to search? Do they have five minutes, 10 minutes or is it weeks or hours?
Those things are incredibly important in terms of defining the product set that's going to help customers reach their outcomes.
There could be something that's specifically curated for quick product updates, whether those are add-ons to existing features, whether they're new features and how to use them. What's the right sort of delivery mechanism and communication mechanism around that?
Also, the word microlearning has been thrown around a lot these days, but it opens the door to make the content experience happen in a more bite-sized way.
Proximity is really important. Do you have to find an email with a link, or a code to go find the training portal that you have to download? You can't do that and expect users to stay engaged with your product? It has to be right there, a click away.
You have to give the user an easy level of access so they can find what they need when they need it.
There are certain things that you may find are easily delivered, and more effective, in a self-paced way. You will also find that there are some things that are going to be more effective if there is a consultation. Perhaps you might be trying to brainstorm or come up with a particular strategy or approach with a customer on how they solve a particular problem.
Pat Durante: The more you can blend the learning experience into the product experience, the more frictionless you make it during this phase of the customer lifecycle.
Barry Kelly: I want to come back to proximity for a moment. Products like WalkMe and Appcues do a tremendous job of context learning. Show me how I fill out this form. What do I click next? Context and proximity go together, show me where it is, quickly.
Closely linked is the ability to be able to deliver communications in an automated way to that user base. Making sure they're engaged, letting them know to come back and check.
Pat Durante: At a previous company we integrated our LMS with a marketing system to be able to nurture our customers, to encourage them to come back to the learning experience. It might be to learn new features, or about the next step in their learning path. You have to encourage them, and remind them.
Customer Engagement Metrics
Barry Kelly: Let’s dig into measurement - what can you learn from the engagement metrics, the customer training engagement metrics, and how do you layer them with product adoption?
There are a whole set of KPIs that are very specific to you, your organization, your product, your software. For a lot of organizations your LMS or customer success platform will let you know if you are meeting those particular levels of customer engagement KPIs.
Have they logged into your product in a particular period of time?
Have they activated new modules?
Are they generating revenue?
Are they running reports?
Are they integrating with third- party systems?
These are all strong indicators of customer engagement and adoption of the product.
Pat Durante: This is a great place for your product managers to gain insight. Product managers are dying to know if customers are using new features. If you're lucky, your software can report on whether or not customers are using those features.
My experience is that the software doesn't always collect the information you need about usage. So, another way to triangulate whether a customer is interested in a feature is by looking at what training modules they consume.
Plus, you might want to have a conversation with them. Why are you learning about that? What will it do for you and how will it help you?
This is about whether our customers are excited about our direction, about the features we're bringing to market. Product managers need to know this to improve the product. This a way that customer training can drive value to the organization beyond traditional things that we measure.
I think this is another opportunity for training leaders to create positive results for the company.
No one wants to get those renewals more desperately than your Customer Success Managers. Great CSMs will start the renewal conversation 90 days out and have further conversation at 60 days. Maybe even more intense conversations and negotiations 30 days before renewal.
Here’s a reality check we experienced. 45% of our customers would not take a call with a Customer Success Manager to talk about renewal!
If they're not talking to us, then we have no insight into what's going on. Are they looking at a competitor, seeing if the grass is greener over there? Are they unhappy with our solution? One way training helps during the renewal stage is to approach a customer in a less threatening way.
Perhaps the training leader reaches out and says, "Hey, I noticed that you still have five of your 10 training seats available. Do you have anybody who needs to learn?" Or, "Do you have any new people on your team that could use some training?" You'd be surprised at how often I got a response from a customer that the CSMs couldn't reach.
Pat Durante: Renewal is the most important time to measure the impact of training. You do that by correlating customers with their training results.
Everything that I’ve seen says that trained customers are driving impact to business results better than untrained customers. This is the time to show your sales leader, your CEO, that training is bringing significant results to the organization, even if it’s only correlation and not causation.
You really need to make the point that the folks who we touched with training are more loyal customers, they're more regular customers, they're better customers. They have greater long-term value for the company.
That’s the benefit of the subscription model, and the opportunity in the renewal stage.
Barry Kelly: I’d like to add one last thought. We think the road to success, to increasing engagement and reducing churn rate, is to find a customer training LMS vendor that is willing to work in partnership with you, to understand the complexity of your business, how you're looking to grow, how you need to scale.
It’s not just what the technology can do, but the support you get in the long term.