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Hiring Your First Customer Education Team Member

“Who should I hire as my first Customer Education team member?” is a common question faced by many software companies starting an external training program. Often the skills needed to define and select for this role do not exist in many small to medium sized SaaS companies. This can lead to a reluctance to invest in an external Full Time Employee (FTE) or potentially worse, hiring the wrong person for the role.





There are often two interpretations of this question related to your first customer education hire. It’s worth describing both separately, as the answers are different depending on your situation.


The two interpretations of who to hire first for customer education are:

  1. Training Program leader does not exist

  2. Training Program leader does exist


You can see how the same question can be asked in both situations. Some people interpret the first hire as someone to lead the program. They want to bring someone on to launch and scale their capability. The other situation is where someone is already doing the program management and the organization interprets the first hire as being “the first person we bring on to support this training program leader.” Let’s look at both of these separately.


Note: These assume the reader is working in technology or software. If not, the requirements for experience in software is muted somewhat.



I don’t have Training Program Manager yet

This scenario is common when a company either wants to hire someone to lead a Customer Education initiative from scratch or, more likely, had someone leading this program ad-hoc who either took a new role or recently left the company. In both cases, the organization is starting from a position of recognizing the value of this leadership position and wants to bring on someone who will likely be instrumental in hiring the rest of the team.


In this case you want to hire someone with the following qualifications:

  • Senior Instructional Designer

  • At least 1-2 previous training roles in SaaS

  • Some experience managing people or programs


Let’s dig into this a bit.




Experience or training in Instructional Design

Instructional Designers know the various methods and modalities for packaging information for use in training. They will know when it’s appropriate to use each of these modalities and be able to roll up their sleeves to develop the content using whatever tool fits your budget.


One of the tasks for this leadership position will be to establish some process around taking requests from across the organization and prioritizing them. Then with a prioritized backlog of activities, applying the correct method for delivering that content to your customers. It helps for this person to be intimately familiar with the tools, delivery options, and conceptual frameworks used in customer education. This will increase the likelihood that you don’t spend time experimenting with projects that don’t yield results. Hiring someone without this qualification means there will be quite a bit of on-the-job training and experimentation in skills that can be easily identified on a resume.



At least 1-2 previous training roles in SaaS

When opening a job req for a Training Program Manager, many applicants will have a background in primary, secondary, or higher education. They tend to have skills related to instructional design, curriculum development, and instructor-led training. Though these applicants make for great Instructional Design team members, it is often preferable to have someone launching your program who has at least one Customer Education program under their belt.


Why?

Familiarity with SaaS business team structures, measurements, and development cycles will help this program leader integrate quickly into your operation. Knowing what common SaaS functions are and how to leverage them can save a lot of time when establishing the program. These initiatives take a village to be successful, which often means asking for contribution or collaboration from the rest of the organization. Knowing how to get things moving in SaaS will save time, especially when so much of the success of these programs revolves around defining expectations and managing process changes.



Some experience managing people or programs

It helps to hire a leader. Familiarity with training processes is a great start but ideally your first program manager will know how to hire, procure, and budget for growth. They should know what good looks like when it comes to people and processes. As well, someone with program management experience often can integrate more easily into communicating results and needs to executive leaders. You want this person to have a seat at the table and comfort with leadership positions in their recent past will help them walk into your organization and establish this transformational program.


So what if you already have your Training Program Manager and view the “who should I hire first” question using our second interpretation? Let’s discuss what that first supporting team member looks like.




I already have a Training Program Manager

This scenario is maybe the more common of the two situations. Typically someone from Customer Success or Marketing or Product will have launched a program after spotting the need for delivering information to customers more efficiently. At some point it becomes their full-time job and the company has recognized either the workload required or opportunity to scale, or both. They’ve given this program manager some budget to hire someone to help them out.


So in this case, who do you hire?


As with many things in program development the answer is: It depends.


The “it depends” part of this is related to the type of content you are producing, the goals of the program, and where the existing program manager is getting overwhelmed. Let’s explore these different options and make a recommendation on what that first hire should be for each of them.


The product or support teams need documentation

I typically advocate for the Knowledge Base to be owned by the Customer Education program. This is a double edged sword. It enables the program manager to have a broader view of knowledge assets and customer issues, but also can be a formidable task to take on. It is not uncommon for knowledge bases to be relatively unmanaged or uncurated. This means whoever owns it also inherits a sizable content governance challenge.


If your program manager has a background in instructional design and is keeping up with the core content production activities, then I recommend taking over the Knowledge Base and hiring a technical writer. The nice thing about this strategy is you can often hire a contractor to do this initially. This allows your program manager to scale this technical documentation capability up and down to meet the demand, often going up when large product releases are happening or when servicing large client requests.



The Program Manager doesn’t have a background in Instructional Design

This isn’t uncommon. Your Training Program is being led by someone who saw the need and build a foundation. Often these initial program leaders don’t come with a formal background in training. In this case, it helps for their first hire to be someone with solid Instructional Design experience.


This accomplishes two things:

  • Your Program Manager will now have a partner to help define the work based on best practices

  • Your program now has some succession planning options. Hire this Instructional Designer with the intention of having them lead the program someday.


Note: I still think you can take on the Knowledge Base in this scenario and hire that contract technical writer to manage it. If you only have budget for one person, hire the Instructional Designer and then use your budget authority to get a contractor to help with technical writing.



The program is tasked with building a certificate or enablement solution

There are a variety of program outcomes that require specialization. The common ones are:

  • Certifications or credentials

  • Sales Enablement

  • Partner programs


In the event your program capacity needs to expand to achieve one of these specific types of educational outcomes, then it helps to hire someone who specifically has this experience. Often these people will also be Instructional Designers, but it’s important to make a distinction that each of the aforementioned outcomes are programs all in and of themselves. You will want to hire someone to both lead the creation of that content and manage the program after it’s built.


In the case of certifications, for example, you will want to hire someone with a background in launching certificate programs. They should be able to tell you with some degree of specifics about how long it will take, the cost, and what tools are needed.



Customer Education Team Org Guide

If you are interested in seeing how these team structures look when they scale, take a look at the Customer Education Team Org Guide. You can download it here. It illustrates the common development of these teams.