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How to Train Your Customers

The learning and development industry has its hands full educating various levels of the workforce, but customers are often an employer’s largest audience.

Companies such as Apple, Werner, Drivefleet and Franklin Templeton have established initiatives to train their customers, and they’re not alone. A 2010 Aberdeen Group study of nearly 400 organizations found 51 percent of employers trained customers, and another 41 percent trained business partners such as distributors, advisers and vendors.

Research this year from Brandon Hall Group indicates 54 percent of organizations are now doing some form of extended audience training for business partners or customers. “That is a growing statistic, and considerably higher than, say, three to five years ago,” said Stacey Harris, group vice president of research and advisory services at Brandon Hall.

John Leh, vice president of sales and marketing for Meridian Knowledge Solutions, a human capital management software maker, said 30 percent of the inquiries the company gets for learning management systems are intended to train external audiences. “And about half of the remaining 70 percent of those inquires have a component for training customers or business partners.”

The Business Case for Training Customers
Companies take different approaches to training customers or business partners, but Leh said employers looking to train external audiences generally have one of four goals: trimming the time or cost for launching products, reducing dependence on help desks, building brand awareness and generating revenue.

Take Apple, for example. For $99 per year, the company’s One to One program gives new Mac customers access to an in-store tutor who will set up a Mac, help customers sync their Mac with the iCloud and create a training curriculum.

“Apple wants you to see its stores because they are an engaging environment; Apple’s tutoring program is a good marketing device,” said Claire Schooley, a senior analyst with Forrester Research. “Once the customer is talking to the employee, the employee thinks about opportunities to cross-sell.”

Werner, which makes ladders and climbing products, offers free online training programs to its customers. Leaders consider these programs a cornerstone of the company’s relationship with customers and distributors. While its formal training programs began in the mid-1990s, Werner launched its ClimbingPro online training program in 2001.

According to Werner, the reach of ClimbingPro has impacted more than 500,000 users since its inception. But Werner continues to look for ways to spark interest in its products, including hiring Dan Ward to support the company’s upcoming classroom learning program. Previously Ward helped Hollywood safely execute stunts such as those seen in “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.”

Employees are often a captive audience, but that is not always the case with customers. Connecting a customer to development options often begins by understanding the end user’s specific need and desired mode of delivery for learning.

Once that is understood, Brandon Hall Group’s Harris said learning leaders have cleared a major hurdle to developing a compelling course. The mode of delivery, however, is not as important as the customer’s desire for good content and an engaging presentation. To engage customers, some companies build learning that plays out like a game. Others involve animation that visually unravels the intricacies of a system or process. Hiring someone with Ward’s credentials is another way to captivate and establish credibility with an audience.

Delivery: No Single Correct Way
When asked why Werner invests so much energy in developing customer training, Ward said, “The need for ladder safety training is clear … falls from roofs and ladders accounted for over one-third of all work-related fall fatalities [in the U.S. in 2009].”

By employing an online format for its customer training program, Werner can use high-quality videos in Flash format as well as tests. Its customers can electronically monitor the number of employees who take the company’s courses and track how well people understand the ladder maker’s safety messages.

“If the customer expects one thing and you deliver another, there’s going to be a problem. And that goes for training, too,” said Rich Radi, chief executive officer of Drivefleet, which provides training for commercial fleet vehicle drivers and managers.

In a classroom or online, Radi said learning leaders can’t rely on a single mechanism to instruct someone.

“If your approach, for instance, is to use video alone, it can quickly devolve into something like watching TV,” Radi said. “With our online courses, we put drivers in a variety of traffic scenarios, and along the way we’re interjecting questions like ‘How would you handle this?’ and ‘Why did you turn when you did?’”

There is no one correct way to instruct customers. But in the driver-training industry, Radi said in the absence of behind-the-wheel instruction, online learning is more effective than classroom instruction.

Like the cost of a car, the price for assembling customer training varies widely, but he said it’s possible for a company to create a decent 30-second customer training video for as little as $500, if actors aren’t involved.

A focus on inexpensive learning interventions should not take precedence over concerns about quality, however. Radi said two things can lead to bad customer training. “First, a company might look to cut costs and create a customer training course cheaply and easily. And second, a company doesn’t view customer training as a core piece of its product.”

For example, some consumer companies, such as appliance makers, simply place a mix of user manuals or FAQs on their websites.

Paul Schneider, who leads business development at dominKnow, a software maker, said relying on user manuals and FAQs alone is a missed opportunity. If a company makes use of a learning content management system (LCMS), it also can take advantage of content reuse. For instance, if an employer is training employees, some of that material may be suitable for customers too. Schneider said learning leaders also can use the LCMS to target learning for different segments within a business by customizing it for a distributor, dealer or customer.

“You can save a lot of money this way; it comes down to planning and what kind of training you’re doing,” Schneider said. “I’ve seen cases where there can be a 100 percent savings. At a minimum, reusing content for multiple training audiences ought to save a company 10 to 20 percent.”

Optimizing spend could be as simple as having different bookends to a course or breaking up a lesson into different chunks. Reusing content isn’t about shortchanging the customer’s learning experience. Content reuse is about mining the best of what already exists within the learning organization and retooling the appropriate parts for public consumption.

“There are employers who seem reluctant to take what they have in the way of knowledge and package it for their customers,” said Mark Bower, president of Edge Interactive, a workplace performance consultancy. “Sometimes those feelings come from industries where customer loyalty isn’t strong.”

According to Bower, if these employers invested in customer education, they might find an increase in loyalty.

Brandon Hall Group’s Harris said there always will be some risk to offering customer training, particularly if it’s used as a marketing vehicle. It could even lead to backlash in industries such as pharmaceuticals, financial services or utilities.

“Highly regulated industries should carefully think about how they engage their external audience with training,” Harris said.

Global investment manager Franklin Templeton understands this distinction. The company employs 8,500 people, but counts many more thousands of financial advisers among its customers. These advisers are distributors working independently, between investors and Franklin Templeton.

Philip Bensen, senior vice president and managing director of Franklin Templeton Academy, has been with the company for more than 20 years. His charge at the academy is twofold: First, educate independent financial advisers who sell a wide variety of investment products globally. Second, develop the company’s global sales staff.

The company has a long history of educating financial advisers. In the 1950s, the firm’s president and CEO Charles Johnson, now chairman, would synthesize trends about markets, copy his notes with a mimeograph and send it to financial advisers to pique their interest. For 60 years, Franklin Templeton learning offerings have delivered insights and practical knowledge free of charge that is linked to financial trends, not the company’s products.

“Since our products are distributed via financial advisers, building relationships with these professionals is one of our core values,” Bensen said. “As the investment industry grows around the world, regulators want to be sure the people selling investment products know what they’re offering to investors.”

Everybody Wins
If a Franklin Templeton financial adviser is well trained, everyone wins. If, however, training isn’t well done or comprehensive, the adviser will not be comfortable talking comprehensively about investment options. That means the end investor might not hear about all the choices available.

The purpose of Franklin Templeton’s adviser training, which is conducted primarily face-to-face, is not about exploring how the company manages money. “We, instead, talk about value-added things that will help a financial adviser write a business plan or understand an asset class,” Bensen said.

For those who want to deliver customer training, Ward said that first, a company needs to understand its audience and scale a program to fit the specific business model. Start small and focus on conference calls or presentations to launch a customer program because sophisticated online videos might not be necessary.

“Start with the most important training items and then build on it as demand increases from end users, distributors or product development,” he said.

Ultimately, what convinces customers to stick around is the value they see in what’s being taught.

Bill Perry is managing partner for March 24 Media LLC, a marketing, communications and social media consultancy. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

Do you know of an organization that started a corporate university with two separate audiences in mind — internal employees and external customers or partners? Is this a good idea? Join the HCM Network and L&D group to share your insights here.