The solution was e-learning. After a period of trial and error, the company discovered how to successfully deploy training and messaging via the Web.
Customer surveys revealed a desire for more Web-based learning. At the same time, management in the support area realized the staff was so committed to helping the customer that they sometimes didn’t realize when the training they were providing over the phone amounted to billable consulting. These two streams blended to result in the launch of a suite of new support services, including short and affordable e-learning for customers.
Pre-launch, customer support representatives were educated about the distinction between support offered by the company’s maintenance contract with customers and training that fell outside of that contract, or billable training. Customer support representatives’ close contact with customers allowed them to identify the likeliest topics customers needed short training on. The facts of the layoffs—the training department staff had lost its director and about 10 of its trainers, ending up with one trainer and one coordinator—and the representatives’ expertise resulted in them both creating and recording the sessions. For many customer support representatives, this was a chance to explore new vocational areas. The final internal step was developing the in-house infrastructure with MIS and finance to support the sales of the recorded training sessions on the company’s Web site.
While sales of these online training sessions in 2003 were modest, customer satisfaction and repeat purchases have increased revenue by 40 percent and unit sales by 47 percent in the first six months of 2004.
Employees benefit from these e-learning sessions as well. The company places the recordings on its intranet, allowing employees worldwide to obtain training from the subject-matter experts when and where they need it. Though any SoftBrands employee may view the training, it is most applicable to approximately 60 employees worldwide who support the Fourth Shift product.
The next task Fourth Shift tackled was getting out the word about products and services to customers. Fourth Shift had a loyal customer base that it needed to keep informed about the latest releases, products and services. At the same time, the marketing department had lost its director during the layoffs, along with much of its budget. A staff of two remained, one covering internal requests, and the other handling customer training and education.
Based on another department’s success with conducting user groups virtually, Fourth Shift deployed the company’s first free, informational e-learning webcast in May 2003. However, the project wasn’t as successful as expected.
Reflecting on the rush to get the messages to customers, the webcast team (of two) slowed down. They returned to the established methods of ensuring success with customers: They asked them what they wanted.
First, they formulated the questions:
- What are the topics you want to hear more about in the sessions?
- When do you want these webcasts to be offered?
- How do you want to hear about them?
- When do you want to hear about them?
Next, they came up with three ways to solicit the customer feedback:
- E-mailing the self-service focus group, a core group of savvy self-service users among users of the Fourth Shift software.
- Asking participants during live, face-to-face sessions at the company’s international user conference in Orlando, Fla.
- Polling webcast participants periodically at the start of the sessions—right after the introduction but before the guest speaker’s presentation.
Some of the findings were surprising. For example, e-mailing the focus group yielded the least success. Out of about 15 recipients, only one or two responded from what is usually a responsive group. After further study, the team realized that their haste had made waste—they had not obtained buy-in from the focus group members to expand the scope of requests for feedback.
Face-to-face interviews at the user conference sessions and polling during the sessions yielded the best results: specific and concrete information, which the webcast team was able to implement immediately.
As a result of direct customer feedback, within a month, Fourth Shift made several changes to the webcasts, including:
- When they e-mailed the first invitation (Mondays).
- When they e-mailed the follow-up reminder (morning of the webcast).
- When they offered the half-hour webcasts (Thursdays at 1 p.m., avoiding month-end close).
- Focusing on webcast topics customers requested.
The resulting webcasts were (and are):
- Short and informative.
- On topics requested by customers.
- Offered at times of the day and month that work for customers.
The webcasts do not:
- Make attendees submit registration forms.
- Function as lead generation (though the company doesn’t mind if that happens to occur).
- Result in anyone badgering participants with follow-up phone calls.
About 15 percent of Fourth Shift’s North American customers joined the monthly webcasts. While that percentage seems small on the surface, the webcast team knows their customers tend to view the webcasts in small groups with their coworkers and managers. Given this fact, they conservatively estimate that hundreds of customers actually participate in these online events.
These webcasts wouldn’t happen without today’s technology, but they wouldn’t be a success without the right content and approach.
After one recent webcast, one customer said, “I really appreciated today’s session. You are the first software company that I have dealt with that took the time to review the Web site, not to mention in a convenient and time conscious way.”
SoftBrands’ nearly 500 employees benefit from the education these webcasts provide as well. Many of the topics are covered in an overview fashion and on subjects relevant to all employees, such as Sarbanes-Oxley and RFID and UCCNet. However, employees on the manufacturing side (about 400) are the most likely to view these webcasts.
Fourth Shift’s support office in Tianjin, China, recently launched a similar initiative.
The Tianjin office works closely with managers on the North American support team, so it seemed to be the most logical choice of all the company’s worldwide offices at which to build on the webcast foundation. The region is experiencing a great deal of growth generally, which Fourth Shift has seen reflected in its business there. This would provide a great deal of opportunity for success of new initiatives like e-learning.
First, the Tianjin team discussed how to provide customers value by using Internet technology to deliver online events. They figured out:
- This technology is not very popular in China yet. People still do not have a clear idea on how seminars or training delivered via the Internet will proceed.
- In the beginning, Chinese customers aren’t likely to go for recorded sessions they could purchase, unlike their North American counterparts. The fear, the Tianjin team believes, is rooted in Chinese customers’ concern that pre-recorded sessions mean they can’t ask questions; they fear they won’t get the training they need.
- There are potential needs that online training could meet, particularly on specific topics. The online training can focus on the specific application functions that can be covered in one or two hours. And customers needn’t travel all the way to the SoftBrands office to get the traditional classroom training.
Ji Zhe, manager of the Tianjin team, had already solicited customer input several months earlier at the Asian Users’ Conference on the topic of Web events. She made printed cards available, which asked customers what topics they would want covered in online sessions. Ji Zhe selected topics based on that input. So far, this is not so different from what her counterparts did in North America, though the Tianjin team was able to avoid the pain that the North American webcast team experienced as a result of making assumptions about what users wanted to hear.
The key difference was getting Chinese customers familiar with the technology.
Based on this, the Tianjin team came up with a plan to use the monthly webcasts as a springboard to fee- and Web-based training. This would get Asian customers comfortable with the format and the technology. Then the China support team could record live sessions and, later, offer a catalog of e-learning options available for purchase online or via more traditional methods such as purchase orders.
The Tianjin team felt the first webcast they offered to Chinese customers should be designed to get them comfortable with the technology. Fourteen Asian customers logged into that first session, all by invitation.
Here, the approach differs from that employed in the North American organization. The latter broadcasted a general invitation to the entire customer base, assuming a general comfort with navigating around Web tools used to deliver online training. Additionally, the first session was a meaty one, full of information.
In contrast, the Tianjin team spent that first session getting their Chinese customers comfortable with the technology. Feedback showed they were successful: At the end, one customer typed on the electronic whiteboard, “Very good.”
They also used the polling feature to ask questions to find out if they were accurately understanding customers’ perceptions of the new services. The feedback was very positive.
On the same day, encouraged by customers’ positive comments, the member of Ji Zhe’s team who delivered the first session, called each participant and told them how much training via the Web would cost. He also solicited topics they would want, and in the process received the first fee-based online training order.
To continue making Chinese customers comfortable with the Web technology, the Tianjin team’s monthly webcast topics focus on three online support options that the company currently offers:
- The Support Web site.
- The Enhancement Request system.
- The Knowledge Base.
Additionally, the team decided on this fee structure:
- Monthly webcasts—free.
- If webcasts related to the product—fee-based.
This is different from the North American office offering the webcasts for free. That office sees the value in increased customer satisfaction and making it easier for customers to learn about products and services they might want to buy from SoftBrands. Two of the most recent webcasts resulted in six sales leads, a great success, but one that is hard to measure. Additionally, the webcast team acknowledges it’s hard to go backwards; customers are used to the free, monthly webcasts, and it would be hard now to switch gears and start charging for them.
However, the North American webcast team has evidence that customers find these monthly webcasts valuable. One of the two hosts of the webcasts invites customers during the online events to contact her via e-mail with questions, and they often do, inquiring about products and services. She first replies to the customers, then forwards the e-mail to the appropriate business solution advisor. As a result, she now has a personal, trusted relationship with many customers. When customers see the e-mail in their inbox from the webcast team, they open it because they believe that it’s of value.
Plans are underway to leverage Fourth Shift’s success with e-learning and webcasts to another SoftBrands’ group, hospitality, which serves the software needs of hotels and spas throughout the world.
Karen Lound manages Web-based services for SoftBrands. Fourth Shift manufacturing software is a product of SoftBrands, a global supplier of enterprise application software to more than 5,000 customers in over 60 countries.