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3 keys to launching a Customer Education Program

These three practices will help you establish a successful Customer Education Program

When launching a Customer Education program, you’ll have a thousand decisions to make. In most cases, it will be like starting a small business that exists inside of another company. You’ll be building content, advocating for resources, delivering training, and enlisting support from other teams who might be skeptical of your vision. It can be overwhelming.

What tends to happen is new program leaders get stuck focusing on the day to day (hour to hour?) tasks needed to keep their program alive. It can be difficult to know which bigger processes or structures to invest in that will help get them over their first hurdle of growth and establish their programs.

This article describes the top 3 best practices that new program leaders should enact as part of their launch plan. These help establish your program early, making it easier to get buy-in and resourcing. It will list them first and then go into detail about each one.

Top 3 best practices for new Customer Education teams

  1. Establish a backlog

  2. Schedule a recurring SME council meeting

  3. Take ownership of the knowledge base

Establish a backlog

This is a simple but powerful practice to setup. In the very beginning of a customer education program, you might feel “no one even knows I exist.” This won’t last for long. Several teams in your company are likely involved in some form of training. Sales needs to train new reps. Support needs to train and scale their technical team members. Product needs to train customers on new features. And Success needs to train and onboard new users.

New program leaders often get overwhelmed with these requests. The most important thing to do is to bring transparency to all these different projects. This accomplishes two things: It will illuminate how much resourcing is needed to actually complete the work and it helps you elevate the conversation to your senior leaders about prioritization. It gives you a reason to be at the table.

How to establish a backlog

  1. Create a sharable spreadsheet (Google Doc or similar)

  2. When new requests are made, add each as a new line in your spreadsheet

  3. Be sure to include the following information:

    1. “Goal” of the request … what action or behavior is being influenced?

    2. Date request was made (to report on how long it takes to respond)

    3. Name of person making request (so you can follow-up with more questions)

    4. Team making the request (for showing where the demand is coming from)

    5. Internal or external audience?

    6. Brief description

    7. What type of content is being requested (Video, article, training, etc)

  4. Encourage people to add any / all requests … it is okay if there are duplicates. It is more important to capture all requests rather than try to make each unique.

You might be inclined to create a form that feeds into a spreadsheet and have people fill out the form to make requests. This usually doesn’t work. People just tend not to use the form. It’s easier to simply maintain the list yourself and just ask people these aforementioned details when the requests come in.

You might be familiar with the statement: “Ideas are cheap.” Keep this in mind. People will come to you with requests that are little more than ideas. The easy way to spot these are the ones that don’t have a clear goal or that lack a meaningful description. If people can’t define why the content is needed or what it is for, then you can start prioritizing these against the ideas with more defined outcomes.

Schedule a recurring SME council meeting

Once you have a backlog, you need a method for prioritizing work. For new programs, you typically don’t have dedicated resources, which means you need to be deliberate with your time. A “SME Council’ is a way to accomplish this while also elevating your role in the organization.

Subject Matter Experts (SME) in your organization are the people who everyone goes to for answers. These aren’t necessarily the most senior people on their teams. A good way to find them is to ask people on the support, success, and sales team: “Who do you go to for questions about the product?”

After you get a few names, then go ask those people the same question. Sometimes they are actually just conduits for information from other sources. More often than not, you’ll find that most teams rely on the same handful of people who seem to know all the answers. These are your SMEs.

SMEs tend to know the product and customers. They often have good relationships with everyone because they are constantly helping teams out. They have a lot of goodwill and insight about what is going on. You can capitalize on this goodwill while also helping them raise the awareness of your Customer Education initiatives.

How to setup a SME council:

  1. Setup meetings with about 5-10 low / mid-level personnel on the Support, Customer Success, Sales, and Marketing teams. These are people who need to respond to customers, not necessarily the most senior people in the org.

  2. Ask these people the following questions

    1. Who do you go to when you have complex questions about our product?

    2. Who do you go to when you want to learn about our customers?

    3. Are there any resources you reference regularly? (to determine who built them)

  3. Create a list of names of people who are considered “experts”

  4. Go interview those experts and ask them the same questions

  5. Compile the list of these names and note what subjects people go to them for

  6. Setup a meeting with the managers of these SMEs and explain you’d like to get their help once a month prioritizing work in your backlog. You’re asking for their resources’ time.

  7. With this approval, setup a monthly recurring 1-hour meeting with no more than 5 people in attendance. If you have more than 5 people, you should create a separate meeting since it means you likely have too broad a scope.

  8. During this meeting, show the backlog of activities you’ve developed & ask the SMEs to help you prioritize the work.

  9. Ask these questions

    1. Which of these tasks do you think will have the greatest impact on the business?

    2. Are there other tasks that you believe will have a greater impact which are not represented here?

    3. For the high priority tasks, who is the best person to speak to for information about that subject?

    4. How would you measure the impact of these high priority tasks (find out where the data and reporting resides in the organization)

  10. Decide on the top priority projects (based on your resourcing) and then communicate these priorities to your team leader. If necessary, include some rationale about why these are your priorities and the impact they will have.

By establishing a SME council you will crowd-source prioritization and elevate the impact of your work. It also gives you some credibility when you need to push back on competing priorities. Over time, you might begin assigning work to the SMEs to help you build out rough content that can be sent to your instructional designers.

Take ownership of the knowledge base

Once you establish a backlog of requests and begin reviewing them with SMEs, you’ll find that many of the tasks on your list aren’t actually best served by training content. In fact, a majority of projects often are better served by a simple article or job aide. Because of this, it’s really helpful for the customer education team to own the knowledge base and the prioritization of it’s backlog.

Support articles are essentially one type of customer learning content. The goal of the customer is to learn how to do a task, troubleshoot an issue, or get started with a feature. These are very similar to the outcomes impacted by customer education. In fact, you can use the same information architecture for both your knowledge base and your academy content, which is outlined here: How to Structure a Knowledge Base.

There are two common scenarios you’ll encounter:

  • No one really owns the knowledge base (“It’s owned by several people”)

  • The knowledge base is owned by either the support team or the product team

The first scenario is probably the easiest to contend with initially. People will be happy that someone is stepping in to bring structure to the content. In this case, you will find that the knowledge base is often very disorganized. Start by defining an information architecture and then conduct an audit of the content. Some recommendations:

  • Use Google Analytics or similar to determine which articles get the most traffic

  • Evaluate on-site search results to see what people are searching for

  • Plan on consolidating multiple articles into one to reduce clutter

The second scenario can require a more tactful approach. In this case, you will likely be taking over work from someone else who may or may not want to retain ownership. It’s important to illustrate that the knowledge base serves more than just support functions and should enable proactive reduction in support escalations. In this case, plan on partnering with the current owner and working over the course of a few months to begin slowly aligning the information architecture of the learning content with the knowledge base content.

Final thoughts

Launching a Customer Education program requires perseverance, vision, compromise, and grit. You will likely be taking over processes that are owned by other teams. The faster you can raise the awareness of your program and get buy-in from senior leaders, the faster you can move past departmental territory disputes. The best way to accomplish this is to show how much work needs to be done, enlist the support of well-respected & influential minds in your organization, and to start impacting high profile challenges that are easy to measure with dollars; such as reductions in support tickets by maintaining better knowledge content.


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