Q&A with Thought Industries VP Product Marketing Brian Childs

Thought Industries VP Product Marketing Brian Childs
Mike Daecher
September 29, 2021

Lessons from the Frontlines of Customer Learning

Thought Industries recently appointed customer learning industry veteran Brian Childs to Vice President of Product Marketing. In his new role, Childs will focus on helping organizations derive more value from their online customer learning programs.

Thought Industries VP Product Marketing Brian Childs

Childs is no stranger to helping solve learning challenges and has seen firsthand the measurable impact of successful learning. We recently sat down with him to get his take on customer learning today and what organizations need to consider for implementing successful customer learning management (CLM) programs, along with where he sees the emerging CLM category heading in the future.

Q: Brian, you have more than 20 years of experience building vocational and customer learning programs for organizations at all levels of growth and across many industries. What’s notable is your time spent in aviation—from flying planes to serving as a flight instructor. What does that have to do with customer learning, and how has it impacted your approach?

My experience in aviation has more to do with customer learning than you might think. That industry is focused on two primary objectives: operational efficiency and safety. As a flight instructor and captain, it was my responsibility to constantly seek ways to improve those aspects in my operations. We used data to evaluate every aspect of our performance, and the way we adjusted behaviors to unlock those performance improvements was through training. At the macro level, there are standardized procedures and regulatory bodies, like the NTSB, that look at the statistics around accidents on an annual basis, and the industry is constantly evaluating how to drive down these issues with extreme specificity.

This vigilance around the use of data to drive outcomes was just something I took for granted as a pilot. After flying in Afghanistan and Iraq, I left aviation and transitioned into tech. What I observed was a comparative lack of data-driven decision making, and I asked myself: Why can’t we apply the same principles used in aviation around accident reduction to the reduction of customer churn? Aren’t they the same issue, in essence?

Marketers are laser-focused on conversion rates and optimizing campaigns using a variety of tools, but time and again, I would see huge top-of-funnel activities like delivering free trials to customers, only to have an equally large churn occur in the first few months of the customer lifecycle. That’s the equivalent of accidents in aviation. Imagine if 5 percent of flights crashed every month, month after month, and no one did anything about it. As is the case with diagnosing and solving the accident problem in aviation, the answer lies in using good data and delivering impactful training. In my enterprise software experience, I realized the equivalent questions should be, what’s impacting customer churn, where are we losing people, and why?

Organizations spend tremendous amounts of money in marketing and they shouldn’t accept churn as a normal and expected occurrence. There are steps we can take to mitigate it, and much of it comes down to building the right tech stack so you can see your issues from a customer-centric perspective, and establishing the right CLM programs to truly have an impact.

Q: You’ve acknowledged there are ways to rethink the role of customer learning in an organization and its impact on ROI. What does that look like in practice?

For starters, it requires reframing how we think about what “learning” really is. Traditionally, learning management systems (LMS) have been relegated to certain areas of an organization, and often used for internal training purposes. CLM is different. It consists of customer learning software and services that can serve as a digital platform for learning, integrated with other systems in your tech stack. It puts the customer at the center, and then treats them as learners, instead of buyers or users.

This new ecosystem focuses on providing value to these learners at every stage of the journey. That means asking at every point along the way, who are they, and what do they need to know? And if you can’t identify the ROI or can’t prove that something is valuable, people often don’t proceed along the path you’ve laid out for them. This means they don’t adopt your product into their lives and literally don’t discover the full value of what you’ve built. By refocusing the experience to align with customers’ perspectives and needs, across all your touch points, you can really start to see change, and you can actually tie business goals to customer learning. Then, the opportunities for improvement are seemingly endless.

Q: You’ve said CLM puts the customer at the center, and you have experience establishing successful customer learning programs. What do customers expect?

I’ve seen a big shift in what customer learning means over the past couple of years. Initially, much of what I saw entailed taking the best pieces of learning and development software and piecing them together. It worked from a delivery perspective but for the learner, it left a lot to be desired. Maybe more importantly, tying the data from all these systems together was extremely hard.

CLM factors this in and provides consumer-grade learning experiences, meeting customers where they are and providing them with the same experience they expect when they interact with any other software and technology. It recognizes that people learn across multiple platforms, and that measuring change requires a whole-company approach. A company’s learning program should bring that same level of intuitiveness and serve information up to me just as easily. And doing that can often be transformative to companies that reorient their teams and processes to align with the production of great users to the same degree that they think about building great products.

Q: What do organizations stand to lose by not considering an online customer learning program? 

Without a comprehensive customer learning program integrated into your tech stack, your customers are likely going to be missing out on most of the value of your products. Many applications see customers only interacting with a tiny fraction of their features. This means they are paying for something they don’t use, which isn’t a good recipe for retention. Another measurable experience is the challenge of finding supporting information. Every minute a user spends looking for how to use your product is a minute they are not getting value from it. In fact, it’s a penalty for trying to use it in the first place. Customer learning programs help drive more comprehensive experiences and enable users to unlock more value from your products.

Customer learning is no longer simply a matter of sharing a webinar and hoping customers learn from it. We’re instead providing a digital platform to improve learning and capture data for a constant feedback loop so organizations can reorient their processes around the customer as needed. Ultimately, this can increase satisfaction and reduce churn.

Q: What’s next on the horizon for customer learning? 

It’s not necessarily a matter of what’s next, but more a matter of how serious an organization is about applying customer learning to every step of the customer journey, and how deep they want to go once they have the right pieces in place. Customer learning isn’t a walled garden, and the barriers that have traditionally surrounded learning management are being torn down as people’s expectations about learning content change.

Once an organization establishes its digital platform for learning, it’s simply a matter of taking advantage of all the potential learning opportunities to drive more meaningful customer experiences. That means asking things like, where do people learn? How do people learn? What can I do to improve their learning experience? And ultimately, if you’re a customer, how can I actually give you the value of this thing—tool, software, etc.—that you believe is going to help you do something?

If I’m asking and answering those questions, and then constantly adjusting as needed, I can take my CLM program as far or as deep as I want to go. There really are no limits with the right building blocks in place.

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