Recently a client that manufactures and sells interactive whiteboards to schools reached a tipping point with customer training. As its customer base grew, the company was unable to meet demand. Its clients needed a clearly delineated learning path that included start-up training as well as learning opportunities for experienced users. While the company had many learning resources online and some available through face-to-face workshops, the training process was not scalable.
To solve this problem, we developed a certification program to leverage district trainers. We also built a distinct, parallel authorization program for commercial training professionals who charge a fee for their services. Our approach addressed the needs of the company to deliver better support for its customers while creating a superior learning experience for trainers that motivated participation. As a result, the company has built stronger relationships with its school customers, identified new product champions, and generated actionable market feedback from hundreds of classroom teachers.
Certification programs are not for every company that sells to schools. They are a significant step beyond traditional training as part of an overall approach to marketing to schools. They work best when:
Customers need ongoing support.
A company’s products or strategic solutions require in-depth training and real-world professional development.
There is concern that current customer training solutions are not consistent, sufficient, or scalable.
We all know that “Just Do It” is a philosophy that seldom works when it comes to preparing educators to use technology products. Recognizing that fact, it’s rare for companies in today’s educational technology market not to offer some level of customer training. Training programs offer numerous benefits, as pointed out in Theresa Ziolkowski’s article “Dogs Get Trained. Teachers Get Professional Development” (on SellingToSchools.com). In a very competitive marketplace, high-quality training and professional development can give your company a sales advantage. By preparing teachers to use a technology solution effectively in their classrooms and labs, organizations provide a service that builds brand awareness, customer loyalty, and long-term relationships.
In many instances, though, teacher training is addressed with unorganized elements that may include sessions led by sales representatives, jargon-laden help files, online manuals, one-off webinars, YouTube-quality videos, and slide shows. Only the most motivated users will wade through unconnected material to learn to use a product effectively. It’s fair to say that educators want professional development experiences that are structured around real-world examples that provide better learning environments for their students.
Adding to the challenge, the economic recession decimating state and district education budgets puts pressure on funding for teacher training. Even when the general economy recovers, education budgets will lag. Consequently, it’s an uncertain time for companies whose sales strategies depend on well-trained customers.
How, then, to ensure that educators receive consistent training, especially when schools have limited funds to pay for professional development? As the interactive whiteboard manufacturer discovered, a viable long-term approach may be to leverage in-district trainers. Most school districts have training resources available to them. Among them are the following:
Teachers who offer professional development as an add-on to their classroom teaching responsibilities
District trainers who develop and offer professional development workshops
Discipline-specific person in the district who provides training (e.g., the reading or technology coordinator)
Local trainers are a vital resource for schools. They understand district and state mandates and customize workshops to address the disciplines and grade levels of their professional development participants. It’s a good strategy to identify local trainers and build relationships with them. But busy district trainers rely on their own experiences to build their workshops and guide their examples. They can miss or misrepresent important features, making products appear to be more or less powerful or complete than they really are. It also means that training experiences are inconsistent.
A trainer-certification program is a chance for a company to create a powerful learning experience for in-district trainers and, by extension, the teachers in their district. A certification program can ensure that teachers receive training that accurately reflects how a product can be used in a classroom, provides valuable educator professional development, and ensures consistent end-user experiences. It can position trainers to offer replicable workshops and webinars using the features and examples that are fully vetted and backed by the company while being tailored by certified trainers to meet local needs.
In addition, a certification program allows companies to scale their customer training programs more quickly to address changing product capabilities, new market opportunities, and the expectations of more sophisticated customers. Once a certification program has been created, with all its reusable components, resources that would otherwise be allocated to frontline training can now be used to develop higher-level customer learning interactions, including a full syllabus of workshops. And a well-designed certification program embeds communications to in-district trainers through webinars, recognition programs, training updates, and social media.
An in-depth certification program requires an investment of time and resources. As a result, certification programs should be considered part of an overall strategy for marketing to schools, not a stand-alone or short-term sales promotion or customer-service initiative. They need to be seen as a way to build long-term relationships and ensure smooth implementation for educational technology.
School district leaders benefit, too, for several reasons, primarily by better strategic knowledge transfer. When an administrator in a school district makes an investment in a particular solution, he or she will want ongoing support. A certification program will:
Give a district access to finished curriculum, including professionally written, tested training materials they may not have time to create
Provide valuable support and professional development experience for the trainers
Build local capacity
Give access to the thinking and insights of a larger community of trainers
If your company decides to build a certification program, here are guidelines to consider:
Build the program with customers. Identify a few of your best customers (they’ll appreciate the recognition) and ask them to identify the professional development resources they need from you. Use these customers to provide feedback about your certification program plans and to react to the training materials during the development process. Once your program is built, identify another group of customers to test it. This second group of customers will provide fresh eyes as they participate in the initial rollout of your certification program.
Develop the program with input from the sales, marketing, and product teams. It almost goes without saying that whenever there is a new initiative that involves customer interaction, sales and marketing managers and staff should be involved. An effective certification program can reinforce sales and marketing goals and will benefit from the help of frontline sales reps to identify individuals and districts that are viable candidates for the program.
Assign a dollar value to your certification program. I suggest you establish a price for your certification training program. When you do, the program will carry more perceived value, inside and outside the organization, especially when responding to bids or when including it in a bundled offer. How you price your offering should take into account individual attendees, multiple attendees from one district, equipment needs, room rentals, and so forth. While you may never actually charge for the certification program, setting a price is an important step in determining its value. And it provides greater flexibility to charge for the program when appropriate.
Build resources for the trainer, not for your organization. In-school trainers face numerous obstacles, including time constraints, limits on copying costs, and inconsistent training facilities, to name a few. It’s important to create flexible training resources that can be assembled and shaped to meet local demands and that are flexible enough to be used in a variety of environments. Further, training resources should be available electronically so that trainers always have access to the latest, most up-to-date materials and information. In addition, consider putting the materials in a password-protected area on your company’s site. Doing so will emphasize the importance you put on the materials and underscore the trust you’re building with the trainers.
Build in rigor. Professional development programs should change behavior. Create a certification program that challenges the trainers. In turn, the materials created for classroom educators should also include sufficient rigor. Some suggestions include creating pretraining assessments, writing assignments, pre-prepared presentations, in-depth reading, and expectations for ongoing coaching.
Limit certification participants. Have a selection process that allows you flexibility in deciding who should be able to participate. Selection criteria can include demonstrated expertise, school district purchasing levels, third-party recommendations, and so forth.
Assume that district trainers want training. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over the years is that in-district trainers often have little formal adult trainer preparation. Building a true train-the-trainer component into your program, one with time for practice and opportunities for feedback, is a value that district trainers will appreciate and remember.
Collect data to assess the efficacy of your offering. Data collection is an important element in assessing the effectiveness of any training initiative. Clearly, you will evaluate the certification training experience. The real challenge is to encourage the certified trainers to collect and share with you data they collect from the teachers in their workshops. Consider ways to collect pretraining, in-training and post-training data. Collect demographic as well as performance data. Even by using simple online survey tools, it’s possible to collect data that will give you frontline feedback from classroom teachers sorted by any number of demographic, discipline, or grade-level variables. From a marketing perspective, workshops are great laboratories for discussing technology solutions and to influence learning.
Support the trainers and encourage them to support each other. Districts are characterized by organizational silos and the resulting professional isolation. The opportunity to intermingle with like-minded trainers from other districts is always welcomed. Use webinars before and after formal train-the-trainer workshops to build a network with and among district trainers. District-based trainers can become an extension of the market research your company conducts, and each webinar can become a focus group about your product or product enhancements.
A professionally developed offering gives district-based trainers the skills, experience, and confidence to deliver valuable professional development to those who need it. It allows them to provide real-world, relevant training consistently, which makes them valuable assets. For companies that sell to schools, certification is a competitive advantage. Having well-informed users enhances implementation, builds long-term relationships with those who influence buying decisions, extends company resources, and provides a deep trove of valuable education marketing information.