Getting Them to Use It: After the Sale, Keeping Customers Happy

Over the past year, in chats with many of you, I’ve became acutely aware of how critical it is for you to have satisfied customers actively engaged with your products and how, even with excellent product and support, making it happen is no small undertaking. In this Heller Report article and two more to follow, I’ve pulled together insights and actionable tactics from a number of industry executives very much concerned with this issue for their firms. You can probably guess the list of factors they’ve highlighted. In this article, we look at market trends, defining and measuring usage, training and professional development, and price point. In the subsequent pieces, we’ll look at customer service, social support, product design and updates, user incentives, leadership (especially change management), and implementation planning. It’s no understatement to say that “getting them to use it” is critical to the health of your business. It’s not just about customer retention either. How you do this has a major impact on customer acquisition too. Read on to see if you agree.

Big Picture Insights on Usage From Some Market Veterans

“An image of quality, having staff well immersed in the domain and being known for moving users up the adoption curve are critical to product usage,” Jim Marshall, President, Promethean, told me. “I don’t mean the normal bell shape adoption curve, either,” he added. “The key is to have an upside down pyramid where the majority is advanced users, fewer are intermediate, and the smallest group is novices.” For Marshall , “empowered engagement” is its own incentive for teachers to embrace and use technology. To drive up engagement and achievement means tackling full integration of the technology into curriculum. Marshall’s vision is that of re-engineering the classroom dynamic in what he calls a “post 1:1 world, where every student has a device, a laptop, mobile phone from home or a learner response device that connects them to the lesson the teacher is leading.” Keeping the teacher as the students’ focus encourages usage and creates an integrated, engaged learning environment with individual ‘portholes’ for each learner (a theme-park ride analogy Marshall likes). He sees the growth of Promethean Planet, their online teacher community, as a major indicator of usage of their products, now with over 1 million users.

Jonathan Mann, co-founder and CEO of Sublime Learning, said, “It isn’t that unusual to see companies, even with high market penetration and millions of installations, where large numbers of ‘users’ don’t use the product. Having a hot product concept and good reviews can get you in the door and can even keep sales afloat, but without paying attention to effective integration, you’re building a foundation of sand.” Sublime’s online, on-demand professional development aimed at curricular integration is a new product category the firm envisions as the missing link, a necessary resource for virtually every vendor.

Sandy Fivecoat, co-founder of  WeAreTeachers, reminisced, “From my ‘old Apple days’—we always focused on ‘ease of use’ as a key metric for technology decisions—claiming ‘that which is too hard to use WON’T be used.’ And the reality is that when a teacher closes that door, he/she is in charge, and utilization becomes the decision of the education practitioner inside that classroom.”

When I asked Tom Greaves, President of The Greaves Group, about “getting them to use it,” he observed that for schools, “big companies often seem unapproachable and inflexible, and little ones seem risky to rely on,” so the big problem for any firm is how to change that. Vicki Bigham, President of Bigham Technology Solutions, Inc., added, “Schools don’t want to buy problems—they want to buy solutions. You must make it easy for the customer … including each customer stakeholder in the organization. There is incredible bureaucracy in schools. And it’s not fair or perhaps logical that your company must do so much hand-holding of customers. Yet, successful implementation efforts focus on making things easy for the customer and never considering ‘it’s their fault.’”

Market Trends

Let’s start by looking at the extent to which current market conditions are impacting product usage. I asked my sources if budget or staff cutbacks, infrastructure issues, personnel turnover, changes in regional or district services, or any other factors making a difference compared with a year or two ago, and if so, how?

Brett Woudenberg, COO at Gaggle, a provider of safe online learning tools (including student email), told me, “Without a question, current market trends are impacting usage. Many districts no longer have funding for ‘champions’ or ‘evangelists’ or for project managers to keep a focus on implementation goals. The same often goes for budgeting for professional development so key to coaching integration into the classroom to maximize student gains. Woudenberg feels that as stimulus infusions are discontinued and budgets are challenged for other reasons, the real lasting impact will be felt even more for the 2011-2012 school year than in the heat of the recession. In some cases he’s seen, districts are making knee-jerk reactions to simply cut technologies unilaterally to balance their budgets based on perceptions of usage and value.

On the plus side, Gaggle is finding districts in general continue to invest in their infrastructure motivated in part to allow their web-based solutions to perform even better and without the costs of maintaining locally hosted solutions. In many cases, districts are reallocating their tech budgets even more toward cloud applications, which are less hardware intensive and require fewer resources to support.

Another motivator for web-based solutions for a lot of districts is a growing focus on the ability to extend the classroom beyond the traditional school day, facilitating professional development and training as well as opening the door to after-hours—as well as regular hours—gains in student achievement and engagement. In fact, Gaggle points to extending the school day as a value proposition feature. For example, some client schools previously supported after-hours work with flash drives to move content. Gaggle’s solution suite includes web-accessed digital lockers for students and faculty at no extra cost with their basic subscription. At upward of $10 to $12 per drive and regular losses of the gadgets, the savings are obvious. Along the same lines, the firm is moving to include more blended learning tools in its suite since schools are increasingly averse to the cost of complicated LMSs and are open to more classroom-friendly tools bundled into the Gaggle suite at its flat rate. Looking to avoid a potential third rail in some districts, Gaggle is focused on simple-to-use online learning support tools and on blended learning and not self-study, which is seen by some to threaten teacher jobs.

Commenting further on funding’s impact on product usage, Jonathan Mann added, “If they didn’t use a product before budget cuts, then the usage situation won’t be any better now. But, on the plus side, connectivity matters—if you can deliver just-in-time 24/7 support over the web, you can better overcome cuts in school staffing and personnel turnover. Without it you’re limited to what personnel know.” Sandy Fivecoat has another take on this trend, “The biggest market shift we’re seeing is from LAN-based communication, print, and regular PCs to web-based cloud resources and the advantage they offer schools and vendors of being able to know how often programs are being used. While staff cutbacks and reduced budgets are short-term hurts for our industry, the long-term impact may be positive as schools get smarter about how and what they use. From what we’re seeing, because schools have to do more with less and cope with larger class sizes, there’s growing openness to use more technology.”

“Yes, trends matter,” Alvin Crawford, CEO of Knowledge Delivery Systems, told me, “but product usage is much more about change management than market trends. Districts are always inundated with too many projects. The success of projects involving your products is about whether you can get the district or the stakeholder to prioritize them based on why they bought it. Most districts are great at finally buying something but very poor on follow-through during implementation.” (In the third Heller Report article of this series, we’ll explore the connection between usage and change management in considerable detail.)

Defining and Measuring Usage

If you don’t know whether your products are being used, you’ve no gauge of where you stand. I asked my sources what guidance they could offer about defining and measuring usage and how to decide how much effort is “enough.”

Brett Woudenberg observed, “Measuring usage and adoption is a hot issue for every district today. Most have either been burned by shiny new solutions that promised the world but were not implemented in a sustainable fashion, or they know a peer in another district that was burned. Though many definitions of usage exist for each solution, they’re still often very high-level or based on inputs and don’t adequately drill down to meaningful key performance indicators (KPIs) that relate directly to specific goals for student achievement and engagement.” In Gaggle’s case, for example, districts tend to focus on logins and basic activities (such as email quantity), but those are vague macro indicators. The firm is finding its more successful districts are aligning their KPIs to specific usage measurements which align to curriculum and are part of a thorough implementation plan. “We don’t leave it to chance, either,” said Woudenberg. “We use certified project management professionals (many are educators themselves) to help ensure the plan is sustainable with progressive milestones designed to help customers reach their desired outcomes.”

Alvin Crawford told me, “Defining measures of success up front is critically important as is identifying the key stakeholders responsible for success, especially in tech-related projects. You might have a reading initiative that requires an upload from IT and then find IT hasn’t prioritized this in their plan. It can easily become a nightmare. On the measurement side, if you’ve laid out a foundation for success which includes metrics, then it’s easier to report against it to determine success or plan mid-course corrections.”

For Sandy Fivecoat, ASP and cloud models are the wave of the future for measuring usage because they allow much more tracking of online behavior. “It’s about more than usage information,” she added. “The education industry can learn much from the consumer industry about feeding usage data into iterations of product development.”

Once the measures are set, Tom Greaves suggests providing the usage numbers to both a designated person in school leadership, since more usage always correlates with better results, and to the salesperson, too, because they’ll affect odds of repeat and referral sales.

Training/Professional Development

One standard strategy for supporting high product usage is to make sure the users are skilled in how to use the product and how to integrate it into their work routine. I asked my sources about the pros and cons of on-site, synchronous, asynchronous, or on-demand product training and whether these are best bundled with the cost of the product or priced separately.

For Jim Marshall, giving educators and administrators training and support to meet their needs is how you start changing the bell curve on adoption rates. “This may be a series of face-to-face sessions, seminars, or just-in-time online courses. The key is creating opportunities that inspire and empower educators with the knowledge and confidence to teach differently.” At Promethean, one of the most successful support programs is a peer-to-peer support system where former classroom teachers rotate through a region offering support and hands-on training to teachers and administrators. “From our experience, this type of support is critical to helping teachers evolve their instructional practices, and they welcome the opportunity to share their frustrations with a peer—an educator—who can relate to the challenges of the classroom.”

Jonathan Mann told me schools could use greater guidance on integrating products into instruction, tending to focus training on how to use product features. “That’s where the idea for our on-demand ‘e-Teachables’ originated, to help provide integration support for teachers after their training. Today’s PD should be ‘professional learning,’ a continuous process served by well-focused online material.” It’s not an easy market now, but Mann feels Sublime is close to revealing some important answers. “We’re finding it’s more about teaching strategies than curriculum. Each e-Teachable is three minutes in length and has segments for both generalized and differentiated instruction to reach all students. To add incentive, Sublime has partnered with CE Credits to allow teachers to use e-Teachables to satisfy continuing education needs.

According to Mann, statistics show U.S. schools have spent $43 billion on instructional technology in the past ten years. Yet surveys show 68% of teachers don’t feel adequately prepared to integrate it into instruction. “Traditional PD doesn’t work because it’s usually focused on the product, not instructional use. Teachers get so much more out of it when they master the application to instruction.” Commenting on the theme of this series of articles, Mann said, “It’s not really about ‘getting them to use it.’ That’s what we’ve had to date; the real challenge is getting educators to see the learning potential via implementing technology to reach students’ differing learning styles. In fact, schools should really be developing a plan for achieving learning and then buying the technology. Teachers don’t know what they don’t know, and they don’t have time to ask questions.”

Mann added that teachers responsible for technology training are often frustrated because of restricted staff and work overload. Ironically, that person is sometimes sensitive to admitting a need for Sublime’s product, feeling it shows “she’s/he’s not doing her/his job” and has got to convince her/his supervisor there’s a need for it after money has already been spent for the basic product. “Sometimes,” he said, “the folks who need the Sublime Learning tools most may be afraid to rock the boat; it means admitting what’s been bought and taught to date is inadequate. What’s more, the administrators themselves have bosses who have to agree with paying for support like Sublime’s service.”

Sandy Fivecoat concurred on the importance of professional development but noted that today it’s harder to deliver in traditional face-to-face formats. To counter this, “you need to create professional learning networks (PLNs; some call these professional learning communities) around your products. Years ago, at the Lightspan Partnership (subsequently acquired by Plato Learning), our biggest implementation issue was the need to have an on-site staff person for training on use of SonyPlaystations. Many companies still haven’t caught on to the power of online training. The easy part is how to use technical features of products, but to get beyond that, the only way is to get teachers talking to other teachers about use issues.”

For Brett Woudenberg, “Training personnel on any new technology will almost always impact usage for multiple reasons. First, an investment in training and professional development tends to produce champions and evangelists that are key in supporting the success of a new software solution. Secondly, professional development allows educators to see hands-on how the solution can effectively integrate technology into the classroom to engage students safely, extend the classroom, and boost teachers’ productivity so they have more time for students.”

Gaggle aims to provide as many options as possible to meet each district’s unique needs for training. In many cases, they use their own solution to facilitate it, so many of the support and training tools are included in the cost of the product. Going beyond the basics, they even provide courses on cyber safety for teachers and students. Highlighting training’s importance, Woudenberg said, “In our organization, we’ve experienced professional trainers on staff that undergo ongoing professional development of their own and participate in organizations, such as ASTD, to make sure we’re applying best practices for maximum efficacy.” If possible, Gaggle trainers have classroom teaching experience so they understand the challenges educators face and that training must be relevant to daily classroom activities.

“For those who cannot afford training or professional development,” Woudenberg said, “we provide world-class customer service resources.” At the end of the day, many of their users would still rather call and talk to a real person “just in time” when they need specific help accomplishing a task. Though training and professional development are helpful tools in a successful implementation, he added, “We challenge ourselves to reduce the need for training and development by making sure our work flows and interface design are intuitive. In a perfect world, none of our users would need training or professional development. In reality, however, that’s a holy grail we’ll probably always be seeking.”

Commenting about product usage, Tom Greaves said, “The most obvious thing is PD. Too often sellers forget PD. Sometimes schools buy something to get salesmen to stop bothering them.” For whatever reason they’ve bought it, he added, “PD should be built into the cost of the project to raise the likelihood that it’ll be a part of the implementation.”

Alvin Crawford agrees that PD should be built in and that a combination of online and on-site is the most helpful. Online provides the necessary scale for repeatable components of training in a just-in-time job-embedded way. “Face-to-face should be more focused on coaching and mentoring in classrooms to maximize impact. And bundling is more effective in trying to get people to buy it, rather than hoping to up-sell the customer post-purchase.” He says PD is “the insurance policy.” In his experience, most training is traditionally train-the-trainer and woefully inadequate. Drawing on evaluation studies, Crawford said, “The data say that 49 hours of training are required to change teacher practice. It’s usually never 49 hours.” What’s more, there’s the trade-off between product training and pedagogy-related training. “Take data systems, for example,” he said, drawing on experiences gained from his previous affiliations, “districts will implement a data system and provide staff with four hours of training on how to access data. As a result, too often teachers never understand why or how to use the data and later on aren’t very motivated to even log in.” Often districts underfund this area, he observed, “which is why the EETT grants had a 25% PD mandate.”

Price Point

Regardless of price, the buyer of a product or service needs to be satisfied with it. I asked my sources in what ways having a customer of a $10 product not using it is different from the same with a $100,000 system.

Sandy Fivecoat said, “It’s not a function of price, but price affects how you respond. Treating a $10 customer with ‘inexpensive love’ has big potential. With the low-priced mobile apps of the future, we’ll need to achieve broader utilization to make decent revenue numbers. That means we’ll need more crowd-sourcing and best practice sharing among online communities to scale because traditional customer service support models won’t work at this volume.”

About price point, Brett Woudenberg said, “From our perspective, there’s no difference. We originally built our business catering to small and medium districts, so all customer satisfaction is important regardless of whether they’re using 10 licenses or 100,000. We pride ourselves in providing a solution that creates value many times the cost of our product. However, as a partner in our customers’ success, if the product isn’t used and the value isn’t realized, we all lose. At Gaggle, a high percentage of our customers renew each year, and that loyalty is essential to our ability to keep reinvesting in the technology to make it even better.”

For Tom Greaves, “For lower-priced, less than enterprise-wide solutions, help has to be built into the product. This goes beyond service and training issues. For example, some curriculum developers have gone to great lengths to find out why users stopped using their products and then worked those insights into a product development process.” As an extreme case, he cited early Sesame Street programming: when they were building their first television programs, they monitored kids’ involvement with a distractor to the side of the TV set. If kids quit, they reworked programs. This isn’t a new concept—he also pointed to Alfred Bork’s 1993 development of his scientific reasoning program for public libraries, where developers checked where kids abandoned using it and then made changes to take advantage of gained insights.

Alvin Crawford added that when the price is low, it’s important that the district is still willing to make the investment in the implementation and adoption of. “Too many pilots and ‘freebies’ fail,” he said, “because the buyer has very little skin in the game and consequently doesn’t take the implementation seriously. If you pay a lot for a project, you’re likely to care about how well it’s implemented.” On the other side of it, though, higher ticket systems generally take more time to implement, which “raises the stakes on your ability to manage change, to ensure you get from sale to implementation to launch and, finally, to continuous improvement around usage. The challenge here is respond with four critical plans: a Communications Plan, Implementation Plan, Policy and Incentive Plan and, finally, the Professional Development Plan.” In many effective instances he’s seen, there’s an over-riding Success Plan that encompasses the other plans identifying the owners and responsibilities on both sides to ensure the success of the project.

Usage Is No Accident

In this first of three articles, we’ve seen that it’s no understatement to say that “getting them to use it” is critical to the health of your business. Here we’ve had a look at the impact on usage of current market trends, defining and measuring usage, training and professional development, and price point. In the piece to follow next month, we’ll look at customer service, social support, product design and updates, and user incentives, and finally, in October, we’ll tackle leadership—especially change management—and implementation planning. As each of these will show, usage isn’t just about customer retention either. How you do this has a major impact on customer acquisition too.

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