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Four Dangerous Diversions Every Customer Educator Should Avoid.

TO: VP Customer and Professional Services
FR: Mgr. Customer Education
RE: Your Annoying and Unreasonable Demands

Dear Boss,

Get real! There's no way I'll commit to grow our customer education business 20% next year - not when sales of the products I'm supposed to support have tanked. You should kiss my feet for just staying on the job, you unappreciative jerk.

That's what you'd like to say.

But you want to keep your job. So you acquiesce and decide to forage around for education-related revenue streams that aren't dependent on the success of your core software and systems products business. Just watch out. Following are four "breakout" opportunities that resourceful customer educators frequently get seduced by -- and why they can get you into trouble, big time.

1. Offer Your Customers Other People's Training

If customer appetite for training on your core IT product offerings has declined, why not reload with courses that may address more timely customer training priorities. For instance:

  • Training on SW applications offered by your key alliance partners
  • Executive level seminars on leading edge IT topics User and technical training on popular desktop applications
  • Training on business skills like project management and selling
  • Training on all of the above -- in a one-stop-shopping training portal

After all, you already enjoy a warm relationship with your customers. So surely they'll consider you for their other training needs.

Not so fast! Just because your customers are interested in purchasing training on the above topics doesn't mean that they'll buy it from you. Why buy a sales training course from an IT company when you can buy it from a firm that specializes in sales training? You've got a hard sell there -- particularly since the folks who make decisions about sales training aren't the same people who decide to purchase IT training.

Don't count on selling your customers industry standard IT technical and end user training, either. Chances are this decision long ago migrated to a centralized training purchase authority where you don't have any clout and that a pack of piranha-like competitors has got there before you.

As for selling the training offerings of your software alliance partners, this may sound good in concept. But if your partner has their own customer education function they will fight like blazes to keep you from competing with them. And if you win, you lose. Because you wind up with a tremendous learning curve understanding the intricacies of their layered software solution offset by a meager niche training revenue stream.

High end seminars? It's always chancy for a technology provider to try and sell intelligence on the state of the art. Folks will figure you have an axe to grind. Plus you'll wind up competing with consulting companies that are giving this expertise away. What's more, the half life of these trendy topics is extremely short. So you'll always be behind the curve in keeping your courses up to date.

Finally, for all of the above reasons -- and more -- don't even think about trying to be a training portal. A number of firms have tried to offer a one-stop training shopping experience, and most have lived to regret it. See our "Training Superstore" article in the back issue area of our Website (http://www.sellmoretraining.com/090501.html)

2. Offer Your Training To Other People's Customers

Chances are that 90% of the training you offer is specific to your company's proprietary technology offerings. So you can forget about selling it to firms that haven't already purchased your software or hardware. But let's say that you do have a few courses that could be easily repurposed to external audiences -- for instance UNIX or Linux training -- or training on IT project management skills. Why not give it a shot?

Here's why. Because gearing up to promote to and call on other people's customers will cost you an arm and a leg.

Most independent training companies spend 30% to 50% of revenue on sales and marketing. In moving beyond the comfort of your installed base, you'll have to do that too. Chances are you only budget 5% or so for selling and marketing now. How will your bottom line look minus 40 margin points? Book too much of this kind of incremental revenue and you'll be in the poor house for sure.

3. Sell The Tools You Use To Author, Deliver And Manage Your Training

It's tempting. You've developed a nifty authoring tool that lets you turn around new courses in half the time -- or slick learning management system software to mastermind all of your delivery channels. So why not put a price on them and sell them?

For the same reason that carpenters don't sell hammers, that's why. When training companies start selling training tools they wind up in a totally different business -- the software business.

Oops, the customer wants a feature your software doesn't deliver. Oops, your software doesn't work in the client's computing environment. Oops, your software has a bug in it. Oops, you need a 24x7 help desk to field customer questions. Oops, your software isn't compatible with the latest operating system or Web browser. Oops, your software is a generation behind and needs to be rewritten. Oops, the people you call on to sell training courses don't make purchase decisions on training software. It's not long before the oops and the gotchas begin to mount up.

So, who cares -- if sales are mounting up, too. Problem is, they aren't. Few customers want to buy training tools and infrastructure software from the same company they buy training content from. They are looking for a content neutral solution, and suspect a spin. What's more, there are dozens of independent software vendors out there looking to eat your (and each other's) lunch, and undistracted by the demands of supporting a training content business.

It gets worse. Training content people and training software people tend to mix like oil and water. So you wind up with two opposing cultures competing for resources.

Maybe you will be successful in adding training software to your learning content mix. If so, you'll be the first.

4. Become A Training Consulting And Customization Shop

If your mainstay courses aren't selling, why not help customers with their out-of-the-ordinary needs. Gear up your consulting and customization capabilities and go after the workforce retooling initiatives corporations are fond of undertaking during periods of transition.

Some of these opportunities can scope out at $10 million and more -- which can offset a lot of empty $1200 classroom seats for sure. Plus, here's your chance to get even with your professional services counterparts who have been grabbing those juicy "reskilling" and "change management" assignments all these years. Hey, we can do that!

So you transfer in a dozen program managers your professional services organization was about to lay off, pull your instructional designers and media specialists off of core course development, and hit the road after the Big Ones.

Unfortunately, you're more likely to find Big Trouble. Here's why:

Trying to scope these one-off reskilling projects can be next to impossible. Each time you think you've got a grip on things, the client reorganizes their people and their priorities. Accountability is lost in a maze of self-directed work teams. Nobody can even agree who should sign the P.O.

Soon you have ten $15-million proposals out there, hoping that they don't all close at once. Then you worry than none of them will close. Finally, one does. A fast food chain wants to provide touch screen training to 10,000 short order cooks on how to use a new high tech fryolator.

Uh, oh. The program manager you assigned to the project badly underestimated the dimension of the need. What's worse, the project requires content and delivery expertise you don't have on staff -- so you have to outsource it -- while your own people sit idly on the bench.

Soon you're missing delivery mileposts, wrestling with scope creep and defending yourself against hate letters from your new client to your CEO.

And, providing you are able to deliver the goods without totally losing your shirt, what have you got to show for it? A project that did nothing to benefit your core software or systems business, and that is both unrepeatable and non-transferable.

It's no picnic being a customer education manager. But most of the folks I know who run education consulting and customization shops would gladly trade places with you.

So, where does that leave you? How can you make your customer education goals if the business units you are supporting are in a funk? Here are a few ideas:

a) Call on your software and systems business unit counterparts. Offer to help them dig out of their current period of distress. Explore imaginative ways to use education to help them win new business and more deeply penetrate the installed base.

b) If helping them offers you an uncertain financial reward, try working out a creative quid pro quo. For help on how to do this see "How To Take On Good Works Customer Education Assignments Without Taking It In The P&L."

c) Step up your customer education marketing programs and campaigns directed at the installed base. For example, perhaps you can offer a "Level Two" certification to try and encourage IT professionals to go deeper into your curriculum.

d) Consider reducing your cost base so you can achieve your profit targets on flat or even reduced education revenues. Everyone wants to be "creative" on the revenue generation side. Challenge and reward your people for being equally creative on the cost containment side.

For customer educators, tough times are no time for dangerous diversions. Instead, apply every ounce of your energy and creativity to supporting your core business. You (and your boss) will be glad you did!

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