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Customer education in SaaS: how to grow user competence, confidence, and capacity for change
Customer education is why I live in a jungle.
I’ve never been a green thumb, and I wanted to change that. I started researching easy ways to keep my plants alive with as little maintenance as possible. I ended up learning (from the Tikitytok) about a plant medium called LECA (lightweight expanded clay aggregate). The clay pebbles absorb the water, and the plant roots essentially feed themselves when they’re thirsty. The self-sufficiency that LECA affords my plants means I rarely need to water them. Hence, how I came to live in a lush garden oasis – or overgrown jungle, depending on who you ask. So, how does this relate to customer education?
While I’m sure there’s some analogy to be had here about planting the seeds of knowledge and so forth, I’ll spare you this time.
What inspired me to improve my gardening skills is the same catalyst that inspires customer education, and most positive actions: a desire for change. As Rosabeth Kanter, Harvard Business School professor and best-selling author who specializes in strategy, innovation, and leadership for change, puts it: “Change demands new learning.”
To keep my plants from dying, I needed to make a change. To make a change, I needed to learn something new (i.e., low-effort ways to better care for my plants).
The same principle applies to customer education.
To get your customers to learn and adopt your product, they need to make a change. In this instance, change is two-fold which makes it a bit trickier to achieve. Because not only are you trying to teach customers a brand-new product, but you’re also teaching them to unlearn their old working habits and behaviors that are engrained in how they operate.
Now, at the risk of stating the obvious, change is hard. We as human beings fear vulnerability and the unknown. Change triggers these insecurities, raising our doubts and defenses.
But the way you get customers to overcome their fear of change is by educating them. Customers need to be competent in your product, so they feel confident making changes. They need to not only understand how to do something, but also why they’re doing it (what’s in it for them?).
By investing in your customers’ education and articulating its benefits, you make change easier, and therefore, customers are more likely to put down roots and grow with you.
In this article, I share my mantra for learning that guides my work, as well as how to ensure your education program engages students and drives lasting change.
How software competence creates customer confidence
While I currently run Customer Learning and Education for ChurnZero, my background is rather diverse, spanning from theater and retail to real estate and software. However, there’s a common thread throughout my past professions, and that is my love for helping others learn how to do their job and do it with success.
A previous leader of mine told me that “competence creates confidence,” and that has not only become my mantra for education, but also for my work and personal life.
I’ll give you an example of how I apply this mantra to my teaching. Whenever I walk into a training room with new students, I like to start the session by level-setting. I open by saying something along the lines of “Competence creates confidence. We’re all here because we need to learn something new. Learning something new can be challenging, especially learning new software. New challenges can be intimidating. I think it’s fair to say that no one likes feeling intimidated. Which is why it’s important to remember that when you face personal or technological challenges, you must have patience in your learning journey. And know that if you stick with it, you will come out more confident on the other side. Your newfound confidence will shift both your perspective and power. Now, future challenges no longer intimidate you but excite you. Let’s get started.”
This mantra is effective because it adjusts student’s personal expectations and gives them authority over their learning journey. To truly engage your customer-students, they must take ownership of their learning and be held accountable to its pursuance.
But in the SaaS world – where users rely on technology to make their life easier – if users have to fight to understand the tools that were purchased to help them, they can quickly lose faith in them. Customers may grow to resent the product for not living up to their expectations. This can lead to customers mistaking a lack of customer education for an intrinsic product-fit issue. That’s why customer education is absolutely essential to preventing churn in SaaS businesses.
Using customer education to drive product adoption that lasts
As a SaaS business, you sell products that will either solve a problem or address a need. Your Sales teams will do a fabulous job selling the benefits of your product. Your customers will hear all the promises of the product’s ability to solve their problems or address their needs. But what happens when those expectations are not met? Customers will leave you and search for another product. So how can you set your customers up to achieve the expectations you’ve promised? By prioritizing customer education.
Based on my varied experience managing customer education, here are my main three pieces of advice to ensure your education program engages students and drives lasting change.
1. Focus on your customer’s frontline decision-makers.
You may think your customer’s decision-maker is the person who swipes the credit card or the individual administering the software. But in my experience, the actual decision-makers are the individuals on the frontline who use your product every day. When your customer’s frontline employees suffer from software intimidation or frustration, they stop believing your product will make their lives easier. They tell their administrator, their administrator tells their executive, and their executive wants to keep employees happy. The executive then must choose between losing the software that their people hate or keeping the software and potentially losing people.
To avoid ending up on the losing end of this decision, try customizing your product training based on different roles within your customer’s team. A more targeted curriculum ensures team members are only trained on use cases that are relevant to them. By increasing the relevance of training, customers are more likely to understand its value, and more importantly, how it benefits them and makes their job easier.
2. Make learning wildly convenient.
The change process of adopting a new software can be challenging because tenured employees are already well-accustomed to legacy systems. Even if they dislike the system, at least they know how to use it. Not to mention, embracing a new product means adding another task to their already full plate.
Establishing and providing customers with ongoing educational resources – such as a knowledge base, webinars, an LMS, or a community – makes learning your product more accessible and that much easier to adopt. Customer convenience should be a top factor when building out your learning assets. If accessing a resource requires customers to sign in multiple times or click through several links, you’ve lost them.
You can also cross-promote your educational resources which has the added benefit of both convenience and self-service learning. When you host a webinar about X topic, invite your student audience to take their ideas to the community to start a discussion. When you post a tutorial video, include a few knowledge base articles that relate to the topic. By cross-promoting assets, you expose students to additional learning materials, and by default teach them how to find them in the future. That exploratory nature we have as curious individuals opens the door to materials you may not have introduced. In this case, curiosity cures the cat.
3.) Start small. Scale later.
Starting is the first step. With any unfamiliar endeavor, we tend to ignore this incredibly simple notion. Instead, we summon every excuse we have to not start. It’s the wrong time. We don’t have the right people. Our budget is too small. We need the latest, high-end tool. You can always find a reason not to start, but your desire for change and progress has to be stronger.
Most often, I hear from customers that scalability is the reason they’ve delayed their customer education initiatives. But to get started with customer education, you don’t need to have an entirely scalable system in place. It would be naïve to think that everyone can wave a magic wand and *poof* you’ve got yourself an entire self-service LMS.
Start with what you already have: your Customer Success Managers, advisors, and frontline employees. They are your change agents and they’re already educating customers in every conversation they have.
Then, make it manageable. Build as you go, adding a little bit at a time. Lean into microlearning; ask one of your CSMs to record a three-minute product tutorial video and post it to your YouTube channel. Host a few foundational, evergreen webinars such as Getting Started, Going Advanced, and Ask Me Anything (AMA).
Education is already happening; find it and use it with intention. Then, when your program has gained its bearings and has some momentum behind it, pay or promote someone to scale and manage it.
Education equals empowerment
When I first started with LECA, pioneering my new “plant parent journey,” I was hoping to keep just one plant alive. I was intimidated by a plant medium I had never heard of, yet I knew I had so many learning resources at a click’s distance. I joined Reddit groups, watched YouTube videos, messaged other plant experts who built my competence in this product. And wouldn’t you know, I now live in a jungle.
Sure, I had hurdles to overcome. But the challenges of being a novice green thumb excited me. I knew that with the help of my community and the abundance of resources available to me, I wasn’t in this alone. All I had to do was decide I wanted a change and take action. And now, having lived in a jungle, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to conventional soil again.
So in summary, this blog is really about becoming a green thumb (just kidding). But it’s important to appreciate that customer education is more than knowledge acquisition; it’s the key to driving change that lasts. By providing customers with ongoing education, you create confident product enthusiasts. In turn, customers will see that you value building their competence and they’ll be confident that they’ve made the right decision.
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