When it comes to transforming sales prospects into brand champions, training is a powerful tool. After all, in order to advance in their journey with a business, customers must have the knowledge and skills to deepen their engagement. A training strategy that aligns with the customer life cycle evaluates the learning needs at each stage of that cycle and provides training that directly meets those needs.
Customer training conventionally focuses on education and training after sales. However, training professionals often have broader skills in instructional design, learning science and storytelling. They also know a great deal about their product(s) and usually have hands-on experience teaching new customers how to master it. Perhaps more than any other professional, they are equipped to develop and deliver learning experiences that nurture customers from prospects to advocates. Working together with marketing teams, training specialists can drive powerful results across the entire customer life cycle.
There are as many models of the customer life cycle as there are business models, but most converge on five distinct phases that are common to the majority of businesses: awareness, consideration, conversion, retention and advocacy. Here’s how customer training can support each one.
Phase 1: Awareness
Sometimes called “reach” or “discovery,” this phase encompasses everything companies do to contact potential customers, including creating ads, optimizing search results or posting on social media. During this phase, the focus is on driving awareness and recognition of the brand and its products or services.
However, it’s doubtful that this strategy addresses any learning needs future customers have. They don’t care as much about the brand as they do about solving problems. What customers need to learn, then, is that there is a better way — to work remotely, protect their data, optimize their conversion funnels, develop their employees … In other words, they need to learn how your product offers a better way to solve their problem.
Customer training teams can leverage their expertise in instructional design and their experience working with customers to design training that addresses this need. For example, let’s say a business helps customers collaborate remotely. While their marketing team can develop ads promoting the product as a solution to remote collaboration, the customer training team can develop videos for YouTube on how to effectively collaborate with distributed teams. Customer training teams are, perhaps, the only members of the organization who both understand the product and how it works and can develop a training module to teach others.
Phase 2: Consideration
Once a business reaches its future customers, it’s time to nurture them into prospects, a phase that is also often called “evaluation,” because potential customers are evaluating whether your product is a good fit for solving their problem. Typically, this phase involves a variety of activities, including emails, phone calls and website messaging.
In the consideration phase, prospects have several (sometimes distinct) learning needs. Some customers need to learn how a business compares to its competitors, while others need to gain a better understanding of what to expect from customer support or professional services. To understand these nuances, it’s important to develop buyer personas that align to differences in pain points, motivations and goals (this kind of needs analysis is a common practice for training professionals).
That said, there is one learning need that all prospects share in this phase: They need to learn how a product or service solves their problem. For many companies, there is no better way to do meet this need than by offering a preview of what they can expect if they decide to move forward. The challenge, however, is in creating a preview that is easy to digest and that makes the value proposition clear.
Customer training professionals can meet this challenge. In their role, they often think about how to make content easy to digest, and when they develop training for products, they know when to emphasize the “why” over the “how.” Using these skills, customer training teams design engaging and effective previews that illustrate how a product solves a problem — for example, a series of short videos showcasing the product in action.
Phase 3: Conversion
In this phase, prospects decide to become customers, activities in this phase are designed around the same objective: Make the sale!
By now, customers have a relatively deep understanding of the problem they are trying to solve and how the business provides a better way. However, before they sign on the dotted line, many customers have one more request. They want to “try before they buy.”
A trial or sandbox can make or break a prospect’s decision to convert — but, unfortunately, most companies don’t treat this experience in a way that fosters delight. Too often, companies throw their customers the keys without teaching them how to drive. The result is that customers crash and then blame the product as too difficult.
All products have a learning curve, some steeper than others. Organizations need a thoughtful approach to training a prospect on the fundamentals of using their product without overloading them with unnecessary knowledge. Customer training professionals are experts can help craft a trial that reveals the right amount of information at the right time, guiding customers to powerful “Aha!” moments. This training is particularly powerful when customer training teams can provide “just-in-time” contextual education in the product itself.
Phase 4: Retention
Once customers have signed the contract, a business shifts its focus from selling to retaining them, beginning with onboarding. Customers need to learn how they can start using the product in a way that helps them achieve value quickly and effortlessly. Unfortunately, many companies treat onboarding as an opportunity to teach customers everything there is to know about the product, which leads to confusion, frustration and cognitive overload — in other words, a poor onboarding experience.
There is no question that poor onboarding is a leading cause of churn. But what does a great onboarding experience look like? Customer training teams know better than most that it’s not just about developing webinars, courses and support documentation. It’s about designing the experience from the ground up with a deep understanding of how customers define success and using that knowledge to determine what they need to know to achieve success. By developing a comprehensive customer education playbook that encompasses all onboarding activities (including the ones performed by customer success, services and product teams), training professionals can deliver a cross-channel onboarding experience that helps customers achieve value quickly and consistently.
While onboarding is arguably the most important area to focus training efforts, it’s not the only one. It’s important to also look for opportunities to drive sustained product adoption, which means looking for consumption gaps. Which features are customers underusing? If these features aren’t useful, product teams should know about it. However, if these features are valuable but misunderstood, difficult to use, or hidden from view, training teams can help. They know how to create learning experiences that clarify benefits, reduce friction and promote awareness of these features.
It’s also critical to have a strategy for teaching customers how to leverage new features as they are released. Conventionally, companies publish “release notes” that customers often ignore or overlook. If more training teams “owned” release notes, we might see more interactive experiences that use animated GIFs or short tutorials that bring new features to life.
Phase 5: Advocacy
Even if companies retain customers year after year, not all of them will become advocates. For customers to make it to this phase, they must not only be satisfied but also delighted. Delighting customers is no easy feat; it requires businesses to think proactively about how they can surprise customers and surpass their expectations. The investment is well worth the effort, however. Brand ambassadors make phase 1 (attracting new customers) more scalable and effective.
What do customers need to learn to become powerful brand advocates? Firstly, they need to learn how they can achieve mastery, both with the product and with the skills they need to use it to solve their problem. Remember, success for customers is not about learning how to use a product but about how the product helps them achieve success.
Customer training teams can help create advocates by developing a learner-centered curriculum that teaches customers how to succeed in their job. For example, if a business sells software for salespeople, a learner-centered curriculum can focus not only on the software but also on sales methodologies and craftsmanship. The customers who are most loyal to a brand are often eager for personal and professional development. Customer training teams can provide development opportunities in the form of certifications, speaking opportunities (guests in a training workshop, for example), and anywhere else customers can demonstrate thought leadership and contribute to the discourse.
Finally, customers at this stage need to learn how they can teach others, which is key to transforming customers into brand champions who can eloquently advocate on behalf of your company. Training teams can empower advocates by developing “train the trainer” learning experiences, providing customers with the resources, collateral, methodologies and incentives to teach the product to others. Doing so will help businesses increase customer retention by exponentially scaling customer training across the entire customer life cycle.