E-businss pulse: Train your customers

In a tough economy, training is often the first line item slashed from the budget. But be careful how you wield the knife around e-learning -- the word used to describe training that takes place over an intranet or the Internet. So far, e-learning is done mostly within corporate walls to pump out training programs to in-house employees. Now in an interesting trend, companies are extending e-learning to their customers and trading partners. Here's the idea:

An educated customer is a more powerful customer, so optimal CRM systems will include education. E-learning can be used to introduce new products, educate customers in self-service techniques, inform customers about products or services, compare competitors' products/services, and so on. Indeed, customers have already begun to look for such value-added services when choosing among competing providers.

Barnes & Noble Inc. provides an early example of what can be done. On bn.com, you can take online courses for free in a variety of subjects; Barnes & Noble makes money when you buy course materials (books), and when you become a loyal customer.

Any company serious about e-business should have e-learning on its radar screen. That company should look at how e-learning might enhance its processes, improve customer retention, and solidify links with business partners. One company I worked with, a manufacturer of auto parts, is using e-learning to provide information to distributors about its online order-entry system. This company is no giant, and it didn't have millions to spend, but it has invested in e-learning.

No discussion about e-learning would be complete without a fair warning: E-learning is not a panacea. The technology is not simple to implement. Most vendors sell "point products" that cannot do everything you'd like, and the quality of the currently available prepackaged content is iffy at best. Building your own content has its own issues, not the least of which is that your company probably doesn't have on staff a cadre of course designers.

Many organizations will opt to use a hosted model for their e-learning infrastructure, usually taking one of three common forms.

-- "Skeletal" Web sites allow a company to contract and self-brand an infrastructure to deliver simple, browser-based courseware on a pay-as-you-go basis to their clients.

-- Web sites package and deliver the most-popular vendor or industry-specific courseware, such as IT-vendor training or regulatory or certification courseware such as health and safety courses.

-- Full-function Web sites can provide training content but also allow subscribers to track detailed information as to who has taken which courses, and so on.

Regardless of how companies get there, they will find that as they share business processes with other companies, they also will need to train that other company's employees. As for customers, companies will face the prospect of either training them or watching someone else do it.

Barb Gomolski is a research director at Gartner, a Stamford, Conn.-based research firm. Send her e-mail at BarbaraGomolski@earthlink.net.

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