Unlike most articles on customer product training, we’re not going to tell you that training your customers is a must in every situation. Sometimes training is a must; other times it’s not.
As Sean Barry, Director of Product Engagement at Mediabrands, says, “Some products don’t need training. A delicious Honeycrisp apple is pretty self-explanatory to customers. But other types of products aren’t as simple.”
B2B payroll software.
Automated IV pumps.
Industrial duct tape.
These and countless other products require customer training due to product complexity.
“A specialized B2B software, for instance, usually has a specific purpose that’s unfamiliar to most people,” Barry says. “Even experienced customers encounter new versions or features as products evolve.”
Thinking more holistically, The 5 Moments of Need® Methodology identifies five moments of learning need:
If you’re reading this article, you’ve likely identified a need to develop a customer product training initiative. But maybe you’re not sure where to start. Or maybe you’re looking to apply or deepen your existing knowledge. Either way, this guide will help.
Keep reading to learn:
If you take nothing else away from this guide, let it be this: the better your customers understand your product and how to use it, the more value they’ll get out of it.
On a basic level, there are three concepts you should understand in order to build the kind of training that drives meaningful business results:
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, time to value (TTV) is a metric that measures the amount of time it takes a customer to realize the value they were expecting from your product.
At Intellum, we like to think about time to value as “time to love.”
Customer product training helps you to build a good relationship with your customers and decreases customer churn in the long run, but not all companies get this right.
We surveyed 445 workplace education professionals and found that 60% agreed with the statement: “Within my organization, we are good at selling the dream to our prospective customers, but not good at helping our paying customers achieve their desired outcomes.”
Overpromising and underdelivering creates a leaky customer funnel.
You can combat customer churn by closing the customer-product skills gap.
Don’t wait to train your customers; start early. As explained beautifully by Donna Weber, onboarding matters.
Deeper learning: See what a product onboarding course looks like: Check out Intellum 101.
When we think about “stakeholders” our minds often go directly to internal stakeholders (our fellow employees across the company). But as Barry points out, external stakeholders must be included in building customer product training.
“The most important group, not surprisingly, is customers,” Barry says. “They’re who the products are for, and they’re the reason many businesses have dedicated customer success functions. A product can only be as successful as the customers who use it, so it’s really important to capture their needs when building product training.”
If you’re developing product training, think of yourself as a bridge between business goals and customer wants.
Don’t underestimate the importance of securing leadership buy-in.
If you have an executive sponsor who oversees all company education programs, that person can help you to secure necessary resources (budget, talent, or technology).
The same study mentioned above found that companies with education initiatives that have a dedicated executive sponsor are 19 percentage points more likely to exceed their business goals, as compared to companies with no executive sponsor in place.
Ideally, the people who do the actual building of your training materials have a background in the science of learning. Common roles include instructional designers, learning experience designers, and learning and development (L&D) specialists.
Additionally, you might need to lean on creative talent (i.e., video producers, graphic designers).
What if you don’t have the talent you need in-house?
Not to worry. Many companies partner with external vendors (instructional designers, video producers, etc.) to help them bring their vision to life.
Deeper learning: Read about how Jaclyn Anku, Director of Community and Education, built Gusto Academy, or watch this video to learn more:
Customer product training is a collaborative effort that generally requires input from employees on the product, sales, marketing, and customer success teams.
“Working with these other groups allows us to build forward-thinking product training that brings customers along with the products as they grow,” Barry says.
At Intellum, we recently launched a new version of our gamification feature. As we built the feature set, we also built the customer product training.
Our education team worked in tight collaboration with our product and product marketing teams. We had so many conversations:
Rather than rely on internal stakeholder assumptions, our product manager, Leah, shared the product with our beta testers (customers), and had many early conversations with that group. She brought their feedback to the team to inform product development and education.
Early documentation for beta users and employees eventually morphed into full-fledged product guides, workshops, and other forms of product training.
There are four must-haves you need to secure before you get started:
“Above all else, you need to identify a clear and valid purpose before building training,” Barry says. “Start with identifying the purpose, then define the best solution, and identify how you’ll know whether you achieved your goal.”
The Intellum Methodology™ is a strategic framework you can apply to all types of organizational education, including customer product training initiatives. The methodology contains eight strategic thrusts, or steps. Step one, Business Goals, enables you to build with the end goal in mind:
As mentioned above, our education team collaborated tightly with product and product marketing while building our new gamification feature. That said, in order to build product training, the product feature must be at least 85% complete as product training typically includes live demonstrations, video walk-throughs, and product screenshots.
Just as you’d roll out a new product feature to a beta audience, you should roll out your product training to a small group of trusted stakeholders before releasing it to all of your customers.
As an example, when we were building our gamification workshop, we delivered an early version of it to a group of employees. We shared slides, resources, and a rough sketch of what we were building; this helped us to spot how best to teach the material while also enabling Customer Success—so they’d be ready to support clients when questions come up.
Engineers might think they’re making a small product update, but in reality, the update might require major documentation updates or a major change management effort.
Likewise, it’s best to get the team aligned around what product education will look like so everyone has time to prepare for and plan their piece of the puzzle.
It’s time to start a customer product training initiative when there’s a knowledge or skill gap standing in the way of customers unlocking your product’s full value.
But HOW do you know exactly what your customers need to learn? First, conduct a training needs analysis, and then create systems for ongoing analysis.
Step one of the Intellum Methodology includes a training needs analysis—a systematic process for determining and addressing needs, or “gaps,” between a current state and a desired state.
Of course, learners don’t exist in a vacuum; they exist within a business context. Workplace instructional designers must uncover the “sweet” spot between:
To do this effectively, you’ll need to define audience parameters. Because the ultimate goal of customer education is to deliver the right content to the right learner at the right time.
Your mission here is to define audience segments and learner personas:
This way you’re not just building a generic product training, you’re building personalized learning journeys for each unique learner group. Think about it: Would you rather sign up for a general training about a platform you use? Or a personalized training for people with your job title who have a similar problem to yours?
Once you’ve identified your audience segments and learner personas, you can finish your training needs analysis.
Let’s say customers are using just 30% of your platform’s functionality, on average. As a result—and as stated in NPS surveys—customers feel they’re not seeing sufficient ROI.
Your goal, then, is to encourage customers to use more product features in an attempt to reduce churn. You document your goals as follows:
Next, you conduct a training needs analysis to identify which learner personas are impacted. In doing so, you interview stakeholders only to discover that your customer-facing employees aren’t adequately trained on the platform’s full functionality. You’ll build product training for your customers and your customer-facing employees.
In addition to conducting interviews, you conduct a task analysis:
Note: Education isn’t a cure-all. You might find that the product needs improving—and no amount of training will decrease churn. Part of the discovery process is uncovering contributors to the problem and identifying whether or not education can help.
When Anku designed Gusto Academy, she and her team conducted deep research to identify learner personas, pinpoint learner needs, and build out personalized learning paths for three distinct audiences:
Barry follows a general framework when building customer product training initiatives.
“At the highest level, you can think about customers in two groups—one of which is a subset of the other. Visually, this can be represented by two concentric circles, with one entirely encompassed by the other.
The larger circle represents customers who need to know about your product (which is all of them). At the most basic level, they should have a clear understanding of what your product is, what it does, and the main benefits it provides. For some customers, that level of knowledge is all they need.
The smaller circle, which is usually the majority of your customers, represents customers who will use your product. Users need to know how it works, how to use it correctly, and how to tailor its functions to meet their specific needs.
Using this framework, we’ve designed our curriculum around Essentials and Users.
Essentials focuses on a product’s value, features, and benefits, without getting into the operational aspects. For Users, we include the Essentials concepts, but dive further into a product’s structure, optimal workflow, and best practices.”
But that’s not all, folks.
You also need systems for ongoing analysis—so your training stays relevant.
Some places to pull learnings from include:
At Intellum, we pull weekly reports to view reviews and ratings on our customer education content that lives within the Intellum platform. We also use our Insights Module (our visual data dashboard). We look for patterns and common search terms within each initiative. These inform future workshops, and help us make informed decisions about training. We also look for learners to apply and transfer their knowledge; if we see an uptick in product usage among customers who have completed product training, we can see that the education is working.
Barry adds that you need systems in place that answer the following questions:
Barry adds, “One question that underlies all of these: When does a deeper understanding help customers unlock greater success with your products?”
As we said earlier, the ultimate goal of customer education is to deliver the right content to the right learner at the right time.
By this point, you’ve identified which learner personas you need to train—and what exactly they need to learn. But what KIND of customer education content would be most effective? And does it matter what order you deliver it in? Oh, and speaking of delivery, what delivery channels or platforms are best?
Let’s tackle this section in chunks:
Like Barry says, you can categorize the “what” of customer training into buckets:
Bucket one: Training on the product itself
Bucket two: Training on related topics
Bucket three: Training on how to solve problems
A lot of times these buckets blend together. For example, you might need to give context for a feature. Adult learners want to know: Why is this important? And why does this matter to me?
There are two primary types of educational content within an organization:
Formal or curriculum-based content: Outcome-driven education that builds conceptual understanding and teaches specific competencies.
Just-in-time or reference material content: Education that enables customers to get the answers they need—in their moment of need—without reaching out for help.
Additionally, workplace social learning supports knowledge gain and learner engagement.
Highly successful customer education programs, and product training initiatives, use both curriculum-based content and reference material content. The blend is needed.
Likewise, a blend of content types is needed as well. You might share educational blog posts on social media or share a white paper with a client via email to deepen learner understanding.
Barry’s favorite types of learning media are in-app education or custom web apps.
“I love designing solutions that have a functional purpose, solutions that people can utilize rather than just consume,” he says. “It can be something simple like a checklist that serves as a job aid, or something more advanced like a web app that enhances some aspect of your product while also performing a training function. Other formats are great for delivering information and building skills, but I get most excited when I can create dual-purpose learning/operational tools.”
Deeper learning: Check out some training Sean Barry built throughout his career as an instructional designer.
Barry suggests thinking about this in terms of Bloom’s taxonomy (see graphic below).
“Media formats that strictly deliver information (i.e., words, pictures, or videos) are better suited for lower levels in the pyramid,” Barry says. “For instance, if the purpose is for people to follow the procedural steps in completing a task, a text-based help article is often enough. If the product has some significant visual aspect, images will help. If it’s visual and it morphs and changes in front of your eyes: video. If instead, the purpose is to develop higher order thinking (i.e., drawing conclusions, synthesizing information to make decisions, creating things), it’s not enough for people to passively receive information. They need to explore and practice new concepts in order to develop these skills. In these cases, interactive modules or discussions will be more effective.
When we designed a recent internal product training for Intellum employees, we prioritized application of learning over remembering knowledge. Their final assessment wasn’t a quiz. Instead, we had them build their own Intellum site—like a mini academy—then screen share and record themselves showcasing what they had built.
Deeper learning: Learn about Merrill’s first principles of instruction.
How you sequence your content and training assets depends on two things:
Let’s say I’m building an Intellum Essentials curriculum for our eLearning academy. I might create three short learning paths so that the course is modular and flexible. This gives learners’ choice; they can dive in where they want.
Additionally, you can let learners test out of some or all of the training. In this case, if a customer had prior experience using an LMS, they could test out of the first learning path.
Is there any prerequisite knowledge required to use the product? For example, say you’re training customers to use your new AI tool, and users are expected to know how to do basic editing.
If a learner group does not have that prerequisite knowledge, you can include links to a knowledge base or a short video resource before they dive into the course.
Alternatively, you can sequence course modules so that prerequisite skills training is served up before product-specific training.
Deeper learning: Explore Webflow’s Webflow 101 course, in which modules on basics like HTML and CSS are presented before learners take the intro to Webflow module.
Think beyond completion rates. For product training, aim to capture product metrics and then draw connections to training.
On an individual level, you want to know whether someone is seeing success with the product, and to what extent training contributed to that success.
“You can start with comparing trained and untrained users by adoption, usage, time to key events, support requests,” Barry says.
Other common product training metrics include:
Deeper learning: Read 5 ways to measure customer training ROI.
Barry’s been doing product training for nearly a decade, and says it’s interesting how much this craft has evolved. We agree—and we also love that he calls product training a craft. To us, a craft is something that’s lovingly made with a skillful touch.
“I’ve watched product training go from a relatively obscure concept to something much more common and recognized,” Barry says. “It’s more integrated into various aspects of the business and there’s a lot of innovation happening as a result. What an exciting time!”
Continue your learning with the following resources: