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The customer education growth framework

Written by Bill Cushard

Published on May 7, 2021

The number one CEO priority in 2021 is growth. According to the PWC CEO Survey 88% of U.S. and 73% of global CEOs say organic growth is their top priority. A Google search on the topic will reveal numerous sources confirming this data, and even in a practical sense, if you look at the business models of SaaS startups. growth is often prioritized over profitability, especially in the early years, before NRR takes over and revenue from renewals exceeds revenue from new business. Since growth is a priority, customer education teams need to align ourselves with this growth mandate and make it our priority as well. 
Customer education teams know this, but I argue that we only address growth indirectly. Our approach is to engage in activities that help customers learn our software with some future hope that growth will follow. "Educated customers are good customers," we say. But we don't necessarily think in terms of driving growth. 
To add to our challenge, the cultures in most of our companies reflect that growth comes from sales and marketing. Maybe product management. And if you are in the rarified air of enlightened companies, customer success is a growth contributor. Customer education teams are generally not put in the category of a growth team. This is why I believe we ask ourselves, "How can customer education get a seat at the table?"
We do not have a seat at the table because we do not have a framework for communicating and delivering company growth.
I propose a framework that all customer education teams can use to figure out how to drive company growth. Here is a summary of what we are calling the customer education growth framework.
The framework has four phases:
  1. Enable customers
  2. Grow customers
  3. Win customers
  4. Create markets
Orange 2021.06 Growth-Framework
In each phase, we list ideas for what activities you can perform. This is not an exhaustive list, but a starter kit. You will like have more a better ideas. Add them to your list.
Each phase of the framework also has a measurement bar; a way to answer the question, "How do we know if we succeeded or how do we know if we are making progress?"
There is no prescription about where to start or how to progress through the phases. You could start anywhere. And do ay or all of them. The main point of this framework is to help you think about how you would structure an intentional strategy for driving growth at your company.
If you need help figuring out how to define growth, this blog about forecasting is a nice companion piece to this framework.
Now that we understand the high level framework, and how we might use it, let's go through each phase.

Enable customers

Our first priority in customer education is to enable customers to use our product. This is the foundational task of customer education. When we enable customers, we believe they will be capable of using our product to perform the job they hired us to help them perform, or otherwise achieve the outcomes they are after.
There are many ways to enable customers:
  1. Product training: This is the functional use of the product; what you'd expect to teach customers. For example, how to use product features.
  2. Onboarding: This is not just about training. This is also about getting customers kicked-off, implemented, and set up to be self-sufficient.
  3. Teaching customers your methodologies: There are two methodologies that are relevant here. First is the job methodology your product was designed to address. Every software product was designed to address a certain way of doing something. CRMs changed sales processes. Project management software changed how project management is done. Chat software changed how people communicate in organizations. Your method for the new way of working needs to be taught to customers. Second is your roll-out methodology. You know how successful customers implement your software. Teach that to customers and set them up for success.
How will you know if you have enabled customers? What will you measure? In general, you should measure product use: whether, how, and how much a customer us using your product. Ultimately, you want to also measure whether this "use" is leading towards the value metrics your customer set to accomplish when they bought your product.

Grow customers

Growing customers is about helping customers grow in their use and adoption of your product. That could be more use cases, more products, more integrations, more teams, more outcomes, more projects.
There are three ways customer education teams can help grow customers.
  1. What's possible: Here we help customers learn and understand all that is possible with our product. Not all at once, but over time. Most customers bought your software for a small number of core use cases. And even if they bought your software for everything it can do, customers often fall into habits and use the minimal number of features or use cases. Our job in customer education is to help customers learn not only what is possible but also what else is possible.
  2. Jobs to be done: We should help customers understand all the different jobs they can do in our product. This is different than use cases. Reporting is an example. Your project management software product is not a reporting tool, but every one of your customers will have to run reports and present the data in meetings. Help customers do that job.
  3. Challenge customers: You should help customers work the right way. Most of your customers have habits and ways of working. They try to fit their existing way of working into your software, which was designed for a new way of working. Help your customers see this new way. Challenge them to work differently. Think differently. Your training content should communicate, "You are used to doing things this way. It's actually better to do things this way. Here's why. See, look at how much better life can be if you do things this way."
If you do these things, how do yo know whether it's working? Expansion. If your customers are growing, they should need to buy more from you. This could be reflected in NRR, additional product, purchases, more users, premium support add-ons, and professional services to name a few ideas. You want to measure expansions.

Win customers

Win customers is the third phase of the customer education growth framework. Here we help people become customers by offering training to non-customers. Training is a form of sales and marketing in the sense that, we create education content about our product, the technology, the domain, and/or the jobs to be done, and then promote these to interested parties who may become customers. We invite everyone to our training courses.
Everyone who attends a training courses is a potential new customer. Not only are we educating the market on our product, but we are earning trust by helping people learn something new, something they can do differently, and better, in their work.
How do we know if thus works? How do we measure success? Two ways. First is with closed deals. We should look at how many opportunities we are winning among people who complete public training. Second we should measure sales velocity. Do deals close faster with people who take our public training? 

Create markets

If we can help create new markets, we can create new demand for our products. This is the ultimate place to be and customer education teams can have a direct impact on generating new demand. With certification programs, we can help create a virtuous cycle of:
  1. People who want to earn a certification and put it on their Linkedin profile;
  2. Hiring managers who list your certifications on their job descriptions;
  3. Companies (software buyers) who send people to your certification courses, so they can get the most our of their investment in your product.
Look at any credible list of top technology certifications and ask yourself whether someone can get a job in those domains without one of those certifications. That's how valuable the certification is.
How do we measure this? Two ways. By counting the number of people we certify, and counting the number of job descriptions that list our certification in them.

Make this the outline of your slide deck

The customer education growth framework is a tool for designing a customer education strategy that aligns with the growth priorities of your company. It also gives you a means for how to communicate your strategy to your executive team when they ask, "What else can we do to grow our business?"
Faced with that question, you can answer: 1) Implement customer education; 2) here's the plan; 3) first we enable customers; 4) then we grow existing customers; 5) then we win new customers; 6) then we create new markets of customers that need to buy our software.
I can picture your slide deck now.
Get to work. 

Originally published May 7, 2021 2:02:03 PM, updated Jun 4, 2021