According to the 2020 Global Knowledge IT Skills and Salary Report, 87% of IT professionals have at least one certification, and learning new skills or getting certified can result in a raise of more than $12,000 each year. It’s time to pay attention to the types of certifications for customer education.
Our recent webinar was a fascinating conversation between Debbie Smith, Vice President of CEdMA, and Daniel Quick, our own VP of Learning Strategies at Thought Industries. We looked in-depth at certification, and asked the question, what’s the point of certification, anyway? If you missed the live event – consider this your overview!
Understanding Different Types of Certification for Customer Education
First up, it’s important to think about the different kinds of credentialing programs, and if you’re paying attention, you’ll see that there is a bit of confusion around the language that’s used in the industry. The three main phrases you’ll hear are certification, certificates of completion, and digital badges. Smith described how each is used for different purposes, and explained how they play really well together when needed. Here’s a quick description of the three terms.
Certification: This is a legally defensible credential, and it falls under specific labor laws and will have its own process for achieving. You can use this for hiring purposes, and it will need to be proctored, too. You take a test, and you pass, and then you’re certified. You don’t even need to go through training, for example, if it’s something that you already know, and you just want to add the certification to your toolbelt. However, if your company wants to offer a certification, you ought to have a means to prepare for the exam.
Certificates of Completion: In contrast, certificates of completion are tied closely to training. These show that you went through a specific set of coursework or learning. Sometimes there may be an assessment, or a work product to complete, and other times it’s just about sitting through the training.
Digital Badges: Badges are used to prove any accomplishment, or even to highlight other digital honors like 'customer of the year,' or employees who show specific values, for example. They’re also awarded more traditionally in response to achieving certifications (or certificates of completion) and can be displayed on LinkedIn, for example, to represent the accomplishment. The digital badging ecosystem is rapidly growing, even replacing the need for higher education in some instances.
Why is Certification So Important Today?
Over the past few years, certification of all kinds has been growing in popularity, and Smith explained how you can see the value with the impact metrics that you use. “Certification can impact so many things! It can impact product adoption, recurring revenue, annual contract value, and active users. It also helps to create brand champions who really advocate for your product, enhancing the loyalty of your existing customers and helping with retention.”
On top of this, in today’s economy, with education at a premium, micro-skills are incredibly important to prove to companies that you know what you’re doing, often in lieu of a degree. Micro-credentials give credibility so that employers know that people have invested in learning and have the skills necessary to do a new job.
How to track the impact of certification
Whatever certification you choose, you’re going to want to keep track of the impact. You can track the outcomes of certification on both the company side, and on the side of the learner. Think about questions such as, After certification, did learners get promoted? Become more productive? Get a raise? And for the company, Has certifications led to an increase in revenues or Lifetime Value?
To identify and analyze these impact metrics, you need to be able to tie the data from your certification to your CRM, to look at both your customer base and your partner base. You have to be able to make that connection, whether it's through your modern LMS, or directly into the data warehouse. You can then look at how job titles change, or how company revenue changes over time. You can also augment this with qualitative information from customer interviews, which enables looking at the results from two different angles.
How to build effective certification programs
Two common ways to build out certification programs are by using role-based certification, or product-based certification. Some people will use a multiple-choice certification at the base level, and then add a performance-based certification for the second level. It’s important to think carefully about using role-based certification because there can often be a lack of clarity around roles. You may see your role one way, and the customer or your partners see it totally differently. If you do choose role-based certification, you need a really clear definition of that role for everyone to agree on. Instead, to make things easier, you might choose to do level-based or skill-based certifications.
Either way, the first step in the process is to define all the tasks that everyone needs in order to be minimally qualified, which is also a term that needs agreement across the team. Then, a great best practice is to complete a job task analysis survey. This survey enables you to get some great insight into how difficult your customers, partners, and employees believe certain knowledge and tasks really are. From the answers, you can start to create a blueprint for what’s going to be on your exam.
Best practices for creating certification exam questions
Next, it’s time to start building out those certification questions. We can’t fit Smith’s entire development plan into this recap, (trust us, we wish we could!) but here are three top takeaways for creating successful certification questions:
#1: Clear, Concise, and Accurate: You will often find that if you ask any four people in your company, they will all describe the exact same part of your product differently. So, when you create a certification program, it’s really important to think about unification of language. This means eliminating inconsistencies and making sure that you’re very clear about the terms you’re using.
#2: There IS Such A Thing as a Bad Certification Question! Certain types of questions will give the game away! For example, using “all of the above” or “none of the above”. This usually means the author couldn’t think of enough wrong answers. Another ‘tell’ is when one answer is much longer than the others. In a similar vein, steer clear of true or false questions! Not only do these have a 50/50 chance of the learner getting it right through guesswork, even if the customer gets it wrong– you don’t have any more information about what they actually know.
#3: Try Scenario-based Certification Questioning: These take a lot more work than simpler forms of questions, but can help to get a view of how customers think about and use your product. Scenario-based questions start with the business use case. So, they say what's going on in the business? What's the current technology that you’re using? What's the problem that you’re facing? And how can the customer solve it with your technology?
Gather feedback about your certification program
Of course, your certification should not be a set it and forget it kind of project. You want feedback from your customers on how they’re finding the tests, and while you won’t get customers saying how much they loved being tested, you also don’t want them hating it and finding it much too hard. Aim for a satisfaction score of about three out of five.
With feedback, you also may be able to make relatively small changes that make a big difference, such as adding on time, or taking out just one question. Feedback can be qualitative through interviews for example, and can also be quantitatively driven, by using item analysis on the questions that are hardest or easiest.
Our highlights were just the icing on the cake! The full conversation about certification includes:
How to determine your ideal cut-off score, including why you don’t want 90% of people getting it right.
Using item analysis to improve your testing over time, refreshing certification, and managing recertification.
Should you charge for certification? The surprising benefits of a price tag, and how to get your customers to buy in, literally.
Practical assets that you can use to communicate the value of a certification program to your users.