“Should we offer certification?” I’ve been asked this question frequently, along with “What should we include in the certification? When do we offer it? How do we design it?” These questions are evidence of a common lack of understanding among customer education professionals as to the definition, value, and application of certifications in customer education. Let’s unpack what certification really is, whether it’s the right fit for your customers, and what to consider when designing a certification program.
It’s easy to conflate the word “certification” with “certificate.” The latter is simply a document that attests a certain fact. So you may see certificates of completion or certificates of participation. Now while certification may indeed include a certificate, professional certification attests that an individual has demonstrated proficiency in competencies that indicate they can perform a job or task to expectations. The only way to measure this proficiency is through direct observation, evaluation, or assessment. Typically, organizations certify at scale using digital certification assessments.
Certifications can be a great addition to your education program. Customers who are proficient in your organization’s tools are likely to get much more out of them, leading to increased retention, loyalty, and advocacy. Offering certification allows you to clearly and consistently measure that proficiency and map it back to business impact.
However, certifications aren’t for everyone. You might ask yourself, do your customers want or need certification? Your organization may be part of an industry where your customers are required to show their employer that they are proficient in your solutions. This is the case in digital advertising, for example. In some fields, it’s common to expect certain certifications on a candidate’s resume. But it’s important to note that not all customers care about certification, as it takes time to study and prepare for a formal assessment. Some of your customers may be more interested in learning just what they need to know as they go, or attending live classes that appeal to them. It’s important to conduct a thorough needs analysis at your organization to understand your customers’ learning needs, goals, and motivations to determine if certification is the right fit for your education program.
If you do decide to move forward with offering certifications, your next question is likely to be, where do I start? Recall that certification is about assessing an individual’s proficiency in certain competencies. So the absolute first step in designing the certification is determining and aligning on what those competencies are - and, you’ll likely have more than just one set of competencies. You may have different competencies for different customer segments or roles, or you may have competencies categorized by tool or platform users. In all cases, you’ll want to determine who you’re certifying and toward what goal.
As an example, let’s say your organization specializes in banking systems. After you complete a needs analysis, you determine that there is a customer segment of financial advisors who would benefit from a certification on your system. You then assess what competencies these advisors will display when they are using your system to its full potential. Perhaps it’s a complex system, and you determine there are different levels of proficiency. You can break out the competencies into three levels: “Banking Basics,” “Banking Master,” and “Systems Expert.” Now you’ll have three certifications that financial advisors can complete. Later on, you may determine there’s another customer segment that would benefit from certification, but they use the system a bit differently. You’ll do the same competency exercise to see where and how these competencies overlap with the financial advisors’. You may find that the “Banking Basics” certification applies to both segments, but you’ll need to design a different advanced certification for the new segment.
Once your internal teams have aligned on the competencies to be measured, you’ll design the corresponding curriculum. Consider multiple ways to provide training and preparation for the certification exam, such as on-demand e-learning, live virtual sessions, and study guides. Note that participation in the training shouldn’t be required to attain certification, but rather thought of as an option for exam preparation. You may have customers that have been using your solutions for years and just want the opportunity to demonstrate their proficiency via the exam.
Of course, you will also need to develop the certification assessments that directly measure the competencies. (Some educators believe in designing assessments before developing the content. Either method can be used here.) It’s outside the scope of this article to cover the techniques used in writing assessments, but at a high level, the questions should map directly back to the same objectives covered in the training curriculum which support the competencies being measured. This is one key component to ensuring the validity of the assessment.
All in all, certifications can be a powerful addition to a customer education program if there is a mutual benefit to your organization and your customers. If you do offer certifications, consider defining early what certification means at your organization. Your certifications should stand out clearly from your other educational content and participation badges. You’ll want to establish credibility and value of the certification by requiring a formal exam, with proctoring where possible, so that attaining certification truly does indicate that the certified individual has met your organization’s standards for success.