Blog Post

What is Customer Education? A Beginner’s Guide

Shannon Howard
August 24, 2021
January 22, 2024
Customer education guide

Are we helping customers achieve the outcomes we initially promised them?

Survey says no. 

We surveyed 445 customer education professionals and found that 60% of respondents agree that “We are good at selling the dream to our prospective customers, but not good at helping our paying customers achieve their desired outcomes.”

Customer education statistic shows that 60% of learning professionals believe companies need to get better at helping paying customers achieve their desired outcomes

This disconnect leads directly to churn. When a customer isn't getting the value they expect, they look for a new solution.

Enter customer education.

Benefits of Customer Education

Forrester data found that 90% of customer education programs had a positive ROI. And the most successful customer education initiatives saw an: 

  • 18% increase in revenue
  • 22% increase in retention
  • 34% improvement in customer satisfaction scores

Need more proof that customer education is worth your time? One study of 502 education decision makers revealed that 59% of companies with formalized education initiatives saw improved customer retention.

59% of companies with formalized education initiatives saw improved customer retention

As the creators of the customer education platform, Intellum knows a thing or two about executing a successful customer education initiative that drives these kinds of business results. But we also know that companies just starting a customer education journey are often left with more questions than answers. 

We’ve created this guide to cut through the noise and answer the most commonly asked questions:

  • What is Customer Education?
  • Who is Customer Education For? 
  • Who Owns Customer Education? 
  • How Do You Launch a Customer Education Program? 

What is Customer Education? 

The term customer education refers to the process of teaching customers how to achieve a specific outcome. Customers buy products and services because they have a problem or a need. 

When companies onboard a new customer, they teach the customer how to use the product or service. Why? Because products alone don't solve problems. Proper use of products solve problems. We need to help customers successfully solve their problems—and that's where customer education comes in. 

Because they learned how to solve their problem, educated customers are more likely to perceive a product or service as valuable. As a result, they're more likely to renew, expand, and refer new customers.

But customer education isn’t only about existing customers. In fact, more and more programs are expanding from product-focused education to include more industry-related education. Take, for example, HubSpot Academy or Partnerships Experience Academy. This type of content serves to capture interest from, educate, and nurture potential customers. And that same content helps current customers grow and excel at their job. 

What Counts as Education Content?

Many customer education programs start out with 1:1 efforts, such as live training programs. But as the function grows and matures, scale is the key to success. Finding ways to educate multiple customers at once—through virtual instructor-led training or self-serve content—is critical.

Which begs the question: What counts as education content?

When we think about online content, it usually falls into three buckets:

  1. Marketing
  2. Thought leadership
  3. Education

Marketing content seeks to build brand awareness and convert marketing leads. Think of your typical blogs, webinars, and case studies that marketers create.

Thought leadership content seeks to build credibility and trust. For example, research reports, podcasts, and whitepapers. This content is meant to position your company as a thought leader in your space.

Education content, on the other hand, drives behavior change. More than an interesting article to read or resource to consume, it should lead to a measurable outcome. Learners should be able to apply the information to achieve a result.

Each of these types of content works together. Customers consume marketing content and thought leadership content as they still find it helpful and interesting. But education content is what will drive impact through business outcomes like retention, product usage, and expansion (upselling or cross-selling). 

Side note: If you’re curious to see real-world examples of customer education in action, please read on. We share examples in the next section!

Who is Customer Education For?

A formalized customer education initiative is ideally suited for companies and organizations with:

  • Complicated products or services that change or update frequently 
  • A large customer or user base
  • A wide range of personas, with unique learning objectives and needs

As for the audience, the education process follows the customer lifecycle. This means that education isn’t just relevant to paying customers—it’s also helpful at the prospecting stage. Educating potential customers and influencers on things like industry best practices, innovation, and how your product fits into the market are all viable ways to engage your audience.

Once a company has become a customer, the focus typically shifts to the onboarding process. Educational experiences during onboarding prepare customers to think critically about how, when, and why to use specific features and attributes to achieve the desired outcomes. 

As an example, check out Google Skillshop, a customer education academy offering online product training and certifications for individuals who want to learn how to use Google products to their full potential. 

DISCO University is another example to help you wrap your head around what customer education actually looks like in practice.

Screenshot of Twitter Flight School, an eLearning academy for Twitter users and paying customers

Editor's note: Both Google Skillshop and DISCO University were built using the Intellum LMS (learning management system)!

Some forward-thinking companies are even experimenting with the role of education in the off-boarding process and using education initiative data to predict at-risk customers and churn.

In many instances, the term “customer education” is a bit of a misnomer. To successfully educate your entire customer base, you also have to consider educating your partners and your employees. These customer-facing teams have an impact on the overall customer experience. If they’re not well-educated on your products and services, that can negatively impact customer retention, product adoption, and revenue.

Who Owns Customer Education? 

In some companies, ownership of customer education sometimes defaults to Sales or Marketing because education has been proven to drive revenue and those teams are responsible for revenue generation. In other companies, the proximity of education content to other customer-facing resources like a knowledge base ties the initiative to Customer Success (CS) or even support teams. 

However, our research found that customer education is most likely to be owned by the education team.

Graphic showing that the education team owns customer education at 47% of companies

Our CXO, Greg Rose has argued that customer education should be owned by Customer Success since the CS charter is to make the individual user as successful as humanly possible. For our tech clients, customer education sometimes lives with the Product team, as they are the most familiar with the users' actual needs. 

Many tenured education experts, including Vicky Kennedy, believe education is bigger than any one department and successful companies will build holistic education initiatives that span the entire organization and justify an all new function area.

While there’s no right or wrong home for customer education, every successful owner has three things in common:

  • They have internal buy-in at the highest leadership level.
  • They’re empowered to use internal and external resources when needed.
  • They have the ability to rally cross-functional stakeholder support (because you will want to leverage marketing, learning and development, data and reporting, and technical or engineering partnerships to create a successful program).

How Do You Launch a Customer Education Program? 

Buying and implementing customer education software is one step towards launching a successful initiative, but it should not be your first step—or your last. Software alone will not deliver the kind of positive behavior change at scale that leads to real business impact. The trick to launching a successful initiative is knowing how to structure and execute a complete customer education strategy.

Just as many programs start out 1:1, many customer education efforts start ad hoc. A webinar here. A help article there. These efforts might be managed by different teams. 

What sets high-performing customer education programs apart from the rest is formalized, scalable, curriculum-based content. These programs typically weave an outcome-based curriculum from a wide range of formal learning content (like eLearning courseware) and informal content (like blog posts and videos). Sometimes the content is self-paced and sometimes it’s directed or instructor-led. Content can be presented through live or on-demand experiences. 

But the biggest difference is how the programs are intentionally designed. Rather than piecing together ad hoc materials or serving customers 1:1, these customer education leaders thoughtfully design a scalable, cohesive strategy. 

Here are four ways to get started building your own customer education strategy:

1. Identify business objectives.

This process should always begin by identifying the business objectives you plan to address through education. Focusing on a specific end goal (improvements in product usage or reductions in customer support tickets, for example) will allow you to hone in on the attributes of each persona that needs to be educated.

When you start with the business objectives, you’re also better able to identify the metrics that matter and content that will make the biggest impact on your company goals.

2. Develop a content strategy.

With clearly defined personas, you can then develop a content strategy that’s engineered to address the unique learning needs of each persona. 

A great place to get started is with a training needs analysis. You’ll discover training gaps and uncover pain points to address through education. In this process, you’ll also identify any existing pieces of content that can be reused or repurposed as part of your customer education efforts. 

3. Drive learners to your education program.

Of course, you need learners to engage with your customer education program. Developing learner acquisition and engagement strategies not only brings users into the learning environment the first time, but keeps them coming back to ensure you’re hitting your goals.

(Check out these real-world examples of customer education marketing for inspiration.)

4. Measure the metrics that matter.

From there you can determine what you’re going to measure to prove the impact of your education initiative, and how you’re going to measure it. Many customer education teams consider how to measure metrics after the fact. Smart customer education leaders consider metrics as part of the planning process.

Once you’re clear on your objectives, audiences, and overall strategy, you can choose a technology partner that supports your approach. 

Dive deeper in customer education strategy with this webinar recording:

4 Things You Need to Know About Customer Education  

It just makes sense that teaching customers, partners, and employees how to successfully use the products and services you sell will lead to big improvements in customer retention, revenue, and support costs. 

But kickstarting a customer education initiative from scratch may not be quite as intuitive. First-time and early-stage customer education owners and influencers need to know four things about customer education:

  1. How to define it: Customer education is the process of developing a formalized education initiative to help customers realize the true value of a product or service.
  2. How to determine if it’s a good fit: Customer education initiatives are ideally suited for organizations with complex products or services, and a large customer base with a range of learning needs.
  3. Who should own it: There’s no right or wrong function area for customer education, per se, but successful owners always have leadership buy-in and the ability to secure needed resources and cross-functional support at critical junctures. For example, Jaclyn Anku sits on Gusto’s marketing team and lacks a formal education background, but she built an award-winning customer education program by securing executive buy-in and necessary resources.
  4. How to launch it: A successful customer education initiative addresses specific business goals and requires both a technology solution and a strategic approach to content, marketing, engagement, and measurement. 

Working through these four concepts upfront will lay the groundwork for the kind of high-performing customer education initiative that drives top-line revenue, performance, and customer retention.

Want to Learn More?

Check out some of the content we've published to help you on your customer education journey:

No matter where a client falls on the maturity model, the Intellum approach is engineered to guide them through the development, execution, and continuous improvement of a world-class education initiative. 

About the Author

Shannon Howard Speaker Headshot
Shannon Howard
Director of Content & Customer Marketing
Shannon Howard is an experienced Customer Marketer who’s had the unique experience of building an LMS, implementing and managing learning management platforms, creating curriculum and education strategy, and marketing customer education. She loves to share Customer Education best practices from this blended perspective.