Episode 3: Kevin Kerlan on Aligning Customer Education with Business Goals

April 13, 2024

In this episode, Kevin Kerlan shares his journey and insights from 14 years of experience in customer education for high-growth SaaS companies including Workato, Sumo Logic and Workday. He discusses the importance of aligning education programs with various departments' goals, using data to demonstrate impact, and tailoring content to different learner preferences. Kevin also highlights the potential of AI in shaping the future of customer education and emphasizes the need to educate stakeholders about the value of these programs.

Kevin Kerlan

Kevin Kerlan has 14 years of experience launching and leading customer education programs at high-growth SaaS companies of various sizes, ranging from tech giants like Google to established players like Workday and Sumo Logic. Most recently, he spent four years at the integration platform Workato as the Director of Customer Education during a period of hyper-growth.


Sham Mahajan: Hey everyone. Welcome to the GTM Spotlight. Our guest today is Kevin Kerlan, who brings 14 years of experience launching and leading customer education programs at high-growth SaaS companies. What makes Kevin's perspective unique is the range of company sizes he has worked at over his career from tech giants like Google to established players like Workday, Sumo Logic, and most recently, Workato during a period of hyper growth as the Director of Customer Education. Thank you for being here, Kevin. How would you describe your journey so far?

Kevin Kerlan: Thanks. No, it's great to be here. It's been humbling. Education for SaaS companies is a field I found myself in through a long process of being drawn to certain types of work. I actually started out trying to be a professional pilot, and the job I landed was for an aviation training content company. And I fell in love with the education production process. That's where I got a lot of my initial chops in the technical aspects of producing education programs. So at the time that was in San Jose, I decided I didn't want to be a pilot anymore, but I had all these skills in a field, and eventually I came to recognize the skills in that field as being an instructional designer. That was what I was doing. And this skillset applied very nicely to larger companies that were in and around San Jose, which of course is software, but it's funny because the field of SaaS and aviation cannot be more different. It's this range of different work environments that excited me from like a sociological perspective. Like how do people work together in different industries? What are the similarities and differences in work culture? And it's just been a really fascinating journey.

Sham Mahajan: Wow. That is such a unique background. I'm sure there's still some very interesting overlap there, which has shaped your approach to customer education. SaaS customer education teams often have to balance many competing priorities and stakeholders. How do you navigate that and ensure that your program is meeting the needs of the business?

Kevin Kerlan: Yeah, so this is the, I want to call it like the holy grail of like any education program, because education has this really hard uphill battle to climb where the metrics that indicate that there is success in these programs is not as straightforward as, say, like increases in revenue, for, say a go to market department, or it's not like renewal as it is for like customer success. But in order to kind of get to the place where you can show the impact that an education program is having or, or the return on investment is by ensuring that there's an alignment of the purpose of the education program to begin with. People or stakeholders hold completely different perspectives when you say words like education or certification. And often without even realizing, for instance, marketing or go-to-market teams see education as an opportunity to reach out to potential clients or prospective customers, whereas customer success teams see education as an opportunity to make onboarding and product enablement for customers a more pleasant process. Whereas partner managers in entirely different department or business development people tend to see education as a way to ensure extended partners are adhering to a strict set of standards set by the core company. In the end, quoting Adam Avramescu, the author of Customer Education, he says, "A well thought out education function becomes the warm blanket that lifts all departments metrics." And the way I've experienced getting people aligned to this philosophy is to identify the vision, what the ideal state of any education program should be, what formats it should come in, what audience it's meant to address, and what the business outcome you're looking to affect from is from its deployment among a few other dozen considerations. And notice I said the word best, but it's not the easiest to get an entire company in different departments a lines of what the vision of any education program should be. So just to give some examples, some CS or customer success metrics and education program can affect our time to value average contract value or a CV net revenue retention or NRR for marketing departments, it can be pipeline generation, it could be first touch attribution and just raw leads of collection. It can improve the metrics for support teams by deflecting low value how-to tickets and reserving the limited resource of personal interaction to more higher value conversations that support engineers can have with your extended customers. And these are just a few of the many different benefits that a well-functioning education team can contribute towards.

Sham Mahajan: Yeah, yeah, it's great to see how customer education can positively impact metrics across various departments. I like how you emphasize it can affect everything from customer success to marketing and support as well. So, what tools and processes have you found most helpful for tracking these metrics and tying them to revenue outcomes specifically?

Kevin Kerlan: And you'll notice I use the word ideally a lot and, uh, you know, no, no organization is gonna have an ideal setup for this. And BI tools, those sorts of things is, is definitely consistent with this. But the most helpful is having some sort of BI tool that links to overarching data from different parts of the company. A well-functioning SaaS company should have a BI tool that democratizes data, including revenue data in a secure way to any and all internal departments that have a legitimate business use case for leveraging it, right? So this could be Looker Sigma, ThoughtSpot, power bi, Tableau, like these are all vendors that are BI tools that you could potentially use to be able to tie these data sources together. Uh, the key here is that you're able to blend data from different sources, different departments like your learning management system and or your survey collection infrastructure and comparing that to user behaviors and products or revenue upsells from one contract to the next, or to know if you're just to know if you're influencing the right behaviors, that your education program is aiming to target in the first place. 

Sham Mahajan: Having a centralized BI tool that can pull data from various sources is certainly the ideal scenario. But, it's good to know that even without that, there are still ways to gather and analyze data to demonstrate this impact, even if it's a bit more manual.

Kevin Kerlan: That's true. And to, to add onto that, in lieu of having this ideal state of data collection, like a lot of times, like your company may not have this, this BI tool, but probably will be able to fall back on developing relationships with other departments and asking nicely for, say, a CSV file of product usage or account activity, like whatever that you can use to compare against the CSV export of your learning management systems and their learning activity using like just spreadsheets and, and Google spreadsheets or Excel. The disadvantage of this, of course, is that it's typically good only for snapshots in time where it's much easier to develop a story and have like kind of a longer term strategy when you have the continuous flow of data intelligence that these BI vendors and data warehouses have built their entire value philosophies on.

Sham Mahajan: Speaking of working with other departments, sourcing content is a common challenge for customer education teams. How do you prioritize what training content to create?

Kevin Kerlan: It is a good question, and when that varies based on whether you have an education program to begin with. So assuming you're making an education program that addresses new user onboarding, if you don't have any education program in place already, the people I would first turn to are customer success managers, support engineers, really like any job role that needs to deal with customers who are experiencing frustration using your platform and compiling the topics they believe, to teach customers that will make their their lives easier, both the employee and the user of your platform. In a well-functioning education program, this is a continuous process of iteration where you analyze the inputs via the conversations that you have with these departments. Initially later on, as you have a well-developed program, you could use survey results. You can also probably use a laundry list of topics your C-suites wants you to cover as you become onboarded in that company in the first place. And then developing an education program that addresses these pain points, be it from your c-suite, your CSMs, your, your support engineers, and assess whether your education program is actually changing the behaviors that these original pain points were highlighted to try and address. So from the assessment piece, that means you have deployed an education program and you're looking to see if it affects the behavior based on, you know, if trained people actually change their behavior by taking your training. This will give you guidance on how you either need to alter your existing courses or educational material or see if they're, if the augmented capabilities of the educated customer base necessitates developing content in a different direction, perhaps covering a more advanced feature subset of your platform, or making the programs more personalized or verticalized to how people in different industries can use your platform.

Sham Mahajan: Collaborating with customer facing teams to identify paid points and knowledge caps is a smart approach. The process that you're describing is probably key to continuously improving and evolving your education program. So, how do you decide the right mix of formats of training to drive product adoption and, uh, engagement?

Kevin Kerlan: So typically you meet the audience where they are, you identify the audience that you're trying to address and, and you try and empathize with them with how they like to receive information in their heads, right? So different types of learners have different preferences for how they would like to learn and what motivates them to learn, or, or if, if your learner doesn't care about getting a credential to prove their personal or professional brand, they may want just in time training or JIT right training made available through systems that recognize that they're trying to do something in context and accommodating them with a short video, a short product or, or links to bespoke documentation or with new advancements in the ai, even co-pilots that might make recommendations to them for what the next step they should take should be. So other learners may want regimented learning paths to support, uh, their learning journeys outside of this, the system that they're working with to get a more holistic understanding of when and why, they're using your company's product in the first place, and receive proof that they have taken the time to get a good foundation of these technical skills required to use your company's product via the form of a credential, a certificate, what have you. So typically your audience will have this range of people who are motivated by different things with different levels of technical capability, and it's your job as an educator to recognize what type of format you should develop to accommodate the diversity of your learning audience.

Sham Mahajan: Absolutely. It's exciting to see how AI platforms are emerging to identify these gaps and align education content with new releases. Looking to the future, how do you see the role of customer education evolving in the context of product-led growth and increasing emphasis on self-service? What trends or technologies do you think will shape the industry in the coming few years?

Kevin Kerlan: It's a big question. So I don't know if I'm gonna be able to unpack like every facet of that particular question, but I'll, you know, I'll try my best to cover as many bases as I can. I see customer education evolving to be its own department alongside or under knowledge management. Typically, customer education has fallen under customer success departments, but it has become clear to more people over time that there are too many different departments that benefit from a holistic education program and shouldn't be shoehorned into only focusing on one set of success metrics that benefit any one department. So, uh, AI is the shiny object that all suites talk about, the thing that LinkedIn is exploding over, and it will change the way content production teams including, and especially education content production teams, will do their day-to-day jobs. This will shift anybody's job role to take on more responsibility in a more diverse set of areas, as, as it frees up some cognitive workload and time from the heads down curriculum development that AI will help out with. And technical writing, anything that requires a lot of focus, AI will, will help become more efficient, help bring up to speed and up to snuff, which will free up your time to do much more strategic and relationship building activities within your company. So companies should use this as an opportunity to improve the quality of education experiences with everything else held constant.

Sham Mahajan: Great advice, Kevin. Educating stakeholders about the value and potential of customer education is obviously very important to the job. Thank you so much for sharing all of your insights and experiences with us today. It was great having you.

Kevin Kerlan: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for inviting me.