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The customer education maturity model (REDUX)

Written by Bill Cushard

Published on March 30, 2021

Our customer education maturity model has matured. We have adapted it to the changing times and to provide an improved model for building and operating a customer education business at a fast-growing software company. A lot has happened in the world of customer education since we first launched our maturity model back in 2014. For example, the Customer Education Management Association (CEdMA) published a book (Technical Training Management by Philip Bourne) and launched the Certified Technical Training Manager (CTTM) program, Adam Avramescu and Dave Derington published the Customer Education Manifesto, and we are seeing more software companies mention customer education in SEC filings, indicating the material nature of the discipline. Customer education is growing as an important contributor to software company growth, and we decided it was time for our maturity model to reflect these macro changes.
The purpose of our maturity model is, and has always been, simple: to help you to see around corners, anticipate the future, and create a plan to achieve that future. In other words, to answer three fundamental questions:
  1. Where do I start?
  2. How do I get to the next level? 
  3. When I get stuck in a rut, how do I reinvent what I’m doing and innovate? 
In this blog post, we will describe what has and had not changed, and how you might put this maturity model to use. 
Let’s start with what hasn’t changed.
Learndot Customer Education Maturity Model Redux

What has not changed: The four stages

Each of the four stages of maturity has a story and each story provides a context around the real life, relatable experiences occurring in that stage. Understanding the spirit of each stage is critical to knowing how to apply each to your circumstances. Although all of us have common challenges, we have unique circumstances that require solutions that may only work for us in our current stage. As you internalize the stories in each maturity stage, you can better use the maturity model to make progress in your business. 
Let’s examine the story at each stage. 
Reacting: This is ad hoc hell. What is ad hoc? According to Wikipedia, ad hoc is a Latin phrase that literally means 'to this.' In English, it generally signifies a solution designed for a specific problem or task, non-generalizable, and not intended to be adapted to other purposes. In our language, it means, we treat customer training requests as unique and deliver training solutions that are custom to that unique customer request.
This is the stage at which customers ask (or demand); and we react. We react because we don’t have anything in place. So each customer request is unique and each solution we provide is bespoke. This is not a great place to be. Everything is a fire drill. Every idea adds to everything else someone is already doing. And everything has an unreasonable deadline. 
This is a stressful place to be. 
That’s why we call it, ad hoc hell.
Everything we do in this reacting phase, needs to be in service of escaping it. 
Performing: Performing is a good place to be. It means you are delivering training to customers in an organized and deliberate way. When a customer asks for (or demands) training, you have an answer. Your answer is, “Yes we do. One of these three courses. Here you go.” 
If a customer wants something unique. you say “Sure. Here is an SOW for that”
Your standard courses might not cover every use case to topic or problem or job or improvement a customer wants to learn how to address, but you cover the basics. The 80/20 rule applies here.
Fulfilling these requests are not completely automated, but when a customer asks, you have solid answers. Your customers are pleased with the training.
You are performing.
Scaling: Let’s go to first principles here and define what scaling means: nothing more than growing outputs faster than inputs. The scaling stage of maturity is about putting new inputs in place at a lower rate than that of the outputs you produce.
It is deliberate that the scaling stage of maturity comes later in a maturity continuum. Worrying about scale should not be an early consideration. Paul Graham explains why in his blog, “Do things that don’t scale.” Just read the story of how the founders of Stripe would manually, and one person at a time, sign people up to Stripe. They didn’t just send a link to people. They would meet with people one on one, grab their computer and sign them up and set them up until it worked. They did this over and over again. They didn’t automate things until much later. 
Optimizing: At the optimizing stage, the customer education leader must ask a fundamental question, “What am I optimizing for?" The answer to this question assumes there is a number, or small set of numbers, that the education function is striving to achieve. Once there is accountability to a number, we can make decisions and do things that drive us toward hitting and/or exceeding that (those) number(s). 
When I say accountability to a number, I do mean we should prioritize to a single core number, but there will also be other numbers that complement the core number or support the achievement of the core number. So I don’t literally mean only one number when I say “accountable to a number.” But I do intend to make the point that there is accountability to a core metric. Whatever that metric is for your customer education team, once we have it, we optimize operations to achieve that number. That could mean, redesigning our business model, testing new pricing, creating new offerings, or shifting resources from full time instructors to building an authorized training partner network. 
If the first question of the optimizing stage is, “What am I optimizing for?” The second question is, “What's next?”
Now that we know the stories and experiences we all face at each stage, we can talk about the detail of what has changed in the maturity model. 

What has changed: Five new disciplines

In order to understand the changes in the maturity model, it is useful to understand a few new tools that businesses are using to create more value for customers over time. When I say “new tools,” I mean that most of these tools are new to customer education teams. Though, tools like agile methodologies and product management are familiar to most of you, I’d be willing to bet you are not using business model or value proposition design.So, although these tools are not new, I believe using them in customer education will be new for most of us. 
Let’s talk about each one. 
Business model design: Whether you charge money for training has nothing to do with your business model. A business model is simply how you “create, deliver, and capture value.” And your business model can change over time. In fact, one major premise of business model design is that business model innovation is at least as, if not MORE, important than product (education) innovation. This is a very new idea for most customer education teams, but likely the most powerful new idea in our customer education maturity model.
Value proposition design: The best way to transform how to think about building your training content offerings is with value proposition design. There is no better way to understand what your customers need more than replacing your current “analyze” and “design” stages of your current instructional design process with value proposition design. If you have ever asked the question “What’s the next thing we should build for customers?” then you need to learn value proposition design. 
Forecasting: You really need to learn how to forecast. Forecasting is a skill so massively under-appreciated that I argue it is THE gateway skill to getting that proverbial seat at the table. If you are not building forecasts, you are likely creating budgets. Budgets are for spenders. Budgets are for middle managers who stay middle managers. A budget request means, you don’t have a plan.  
Here’s the different between a budget and a forecast. A budget says, “I need money and head count now, so I can do all this work we need to do.” A forecast says, “We plan to achieve these results, in order to do that, we’re gonna need these resources.” A forecast is by definition, a plan. A budget is by definition, a spend request.” 
Don’t be a spender. 
Learn to forecast. 
Tip: Learn more about forecasting and building your customer education annual plan.
Agile: I know that every already knows about agile. But let me ask you this, if you are doing agile, do you:
  1. Go from topic idea on a Monday to delivering that topic to customers on Friday?
  2. Sell a course to a customer before you develop it?
  3. Get customers to enroll in a course before you develop it?
If you answer “Yes” to these questions, you are probably using agile development methodologies. If you answer “No” to any of these questions, you are not. Remember the spirit of agile (especially scrum): “to get a working version of a course in front of customers in order to get feedback to make the course better.” 
Agile course development needs to be mastered during the performing and scaling stage or you will get stuck. 
Tip: Learn more about practical agile methodologies in customer education
Product management: Product management is about building products that customers want. Instructional design is about creating instruction we think customers need to learn. Instructional design is about us telling customers what they should want. Product management is about creating value for customers. According to Melissa Perri, product management is about helping customers achieve goals (value creation). Customer education teams need to evolve to escape the trap of building course after course and instead starting helping customers achieve their goals. That is product management thinking in customer education. 
Tip: To implement product management thinking in customer education, you need to get your customer profiles right

What (else) has changed: Individual business functions

The primary new element we’ve added to our maturity model is to account for the main business functions of a customer education operation. There are two observations to consider. First, as with any team, there are different functions that work together to make the entire team run. Second, each function within the team, could have an independent stage of maturity. A customer education team might be extremely mature at content development and have an immature technology stack. 
It is useful to think of each stage independently as you assess and diagnose your current state. At the very least, it is useful to understand how a team might progress through the maturity continuum in each function. 
Let’s briefly define each function.
Business strategy and planning: For the most part, I believe that strategy and planning can become a form of procrastination. We can hide behind the work of strategy planning when we don’t know what to do next or we otherwise don’t want to start the hard work of starting. On the other hand, if you don't spend some time thinking through the purpose and the why of what you are building, you run the risk of spinning your wheels in service of nothing in particular.  We must take the time to think about the future, where we want to go, and how we might get there. 
Every customer education team, even the one-person operation, should spend time on strategy and planning. This does not have to be complicated. There are simple tools we can use to see the future and put plans in place to get there. This maturity model is one of those tools. Other tools include business model design and forecasting. 
Content development: A core function of a customer education team is content development. Before we can deliver the stuff, we have to make the stuff. There is no getting around making the stuff, in whatever format you decide is appropriate for your business model. This maturity model does not assign an importance to specific delivery methods. It does, however, help you think through how you might choose and prioritize what type of content you should create and when you should create it, based on your business model. 
Go-to-market and delivery: Once we have made the stuff, a customer education team needs to take the stuff to market. Go to market is the act of positioning, marketing, selling, and delivering our content to customers. To figure out how you will go to market, you must answer the question, “How can we get our content in front of our customers so they can find it and consume it?” 
Technology stack: You work for a technology company. So you understand the need for leveraging technology to operate your  customer education function. It is your job to put in place technology that will help you run your function. But we must remember that technology should be used in service of our operation. In other words, we don’t buy technology to create a customer education function, we create a customer education function, then starting adding technology as necessary to grow what we are doing. Timing matters.

What to do next?

Watch the recording of our recent webinar in which we unveiled the changes to the customer education maturity model. Watching and listening to the discussion might help you internalize the changes and inspire you to put the new model to work in your function. 
View Recording

Originally published Mar 30, 2021 1:44:13 PM, updated May 5, 2021