This post is part of our series of interviews with customer education leaders about their careers and how they’re envisioning the next generation of customer education programs. Be sure to also check out our inaugural interview with Adam Avramescu of Personio, where we dive into more customer education insights.
For this installment, I had the opportunity to sit down for an interview with Lindsay Thibeault, customer education advisor at SaaS Academy Advisors and a founding team member of HubSpot Academy, where she worked for eight years. Her time at HubSpot Academy included heading up a global 12-person paid, in-person customer training team that hosted 300+ annual trainings, as well as leading the initiative to expand the Academy’s content beyond certifications into lessons, classes, and courses.
Lindsay is an active voice in the customer education community and very passionate about this field, so I was pleased to get the chance to chat in-depth about her work and perspective on all things customer education and SaaS academies.
We discuss Lindsay’s time at HubSpot, the difference between “content” and “education,” and why she thinks great customer education moves beyond teaching clients to use a piece of technology and toward driving transformation through educational experiences.
Note: this interview has been edited and condensed.
A career in customer education: getting started
EB: How did you get started in customer education?
LT: It's a great question. I often find myself saying that I accidentally found myself in customer education. But now, seeing where I'm at, this was all very much intentional, and I’m so happy to be a part of this customer education community.
In 2011, I started my career as a marketer, and I was focused on working on a few internal brands. At the time, I was a HubSpot customer, and I found there was a gap between all of the great material they offered to us as a lead or a prospect, and what they were providing for the customer experience.
So I talked to some internal folks at HubSpot. I was really passionate about helping customers learn not only how to use the software, but also learn how to become better marketers. That led me to becoming part of the founding team at HubSpot Academy. I joined in 2013, and at that point, the Academy was focused on live webinar training that was very much related to getting individuals up and running on the product itself. That was the starting point for HubSpot Academy, which is now known for having hundreds of courses and an extensive on-demand library.
I think, throughout all of this, what has really connected me to this space is wanting to help customers not only learn how to use a product or piece of software, but actually develop professional skills. That's always been my big passion: what's behind education, and the transformation that comes from going through an educational experience.
Customer education strategy
EB: I'm curious: as you were building out HubSpot Academy, how did you think about the audience and your strategy?
LT: With our initial start to the program, when it was more focused on live training, we were really filling a specific business need. At the time, there was a clear gap in finding a scalable way that customers could be trained.
We wanted to do this in a way that still stayed true to what customer education is all about and what HubSpot has always been about, which is not just telling you how to point and click and use a product, but actually giving you some strategy and some skill behind it. For example: not just teaching you how to use a blogging tool, but also teaching you how to become a better blogger and how to write your first blog post.
And so, as we filled that need with providing live training sessions, it also gave us an opportunity to test out our training. We could see what was resonating with someone, whether they were able to apply the skill.
Eventually, we found the need to pivot and build out what people know today as this much bigger, active, on-demand library that was able to have a much bigger reach, including beyond the customer audience. This also allowed us to reach a global audience, as we were no longer having to solve for time zones, and were building a library that could be localized and translated. Within a couple of years, we started to pivot our strategy more and more to on-demand.
While doing this, we were always very much aligning with the rest of the business. For example, we started by developing content and education just for marketers. But HubSpot was also pivoting and growing their product options to not just being a marketing product, but a sales and customer success product. So we needed to grow our education in that way, too. I think some lessons we learned very quickly is that these different functions have different training needs. So we had to make sure our strategy also matched. For example, a different type of learner might want something a little bit shorter in length, or in a different format.
As both the Academy and our audience grew, we needed to continuously pivot to different formats while still staying true to what we had always believed in: offering education that allowed for skill development and transformation.
Customer education for real skill development
EB: What do you think is one misconception that people have about customer education?
LT: One misconception is the thought that customer education is simply content that's created to help someone use the product or software. What SaaS Academy Advisors believes, and also what we believed at HubSpot Academy, is that there is so much more beyond this. It’s not just content. What we're creating is education. Again, it’s that idea of a transformation, of real skill development. With customer education, you're not trying to create content that just tells somebody how to point, click, navigate a product.
And that's one thing that we always continue to pull at: making it sure that anyone that's developing this education is acknowledging that it's not just about, I need to learn how to use this software but instead, I need to get better at my job or I'm working toward my next promotion or I'm looking for my next job, whatever that goal might be. Then there's much more of a motivation behind why somebody is learning. The real business impact, if you're building out a customer education program, is going to be founded on this transformational education.
AI and customer education
EB: How are you thinking about the role of AI in customer education?
LT: For some people, there's a fear it's going to take over jobs and roles. And on the other side, there are people who are really seeing the opportunity that AI provides. I am definitely in that latter bucket. I’m feeling very passionate about the opportunities that AI can provide.
We’re at this point, I think, where people assume that AI is going to be able to generate courses and educational content without human assistance. I don't think that's the case. Instead, we can now use AI to supplement our processes. It's all about the inputs that you provide––AI isn't going to naturally spin up what we're describing here as transformational education. This will instead come from the combination of generative AI tools and customer education professionals, who still need to have these skill sets in instructional design, analytical thinking, and creative thinking.
It’s in combining our knowledge of all of these teaching best practices, along with the help of AI as an additional team member, that I’m optimistic we’ll be able to create better education still deeply focused on skill development.
Trends in customer education: telling the story of customer education’s impact
EB: What do you see as big trends emerging in customer education?
LT: The customer education field is growing, and there are more eyes and ears on it than ever before. I think there's a lot of conversation right now around the ROI of customer education. One thing I see with our clients at SaaS Academy is that they’re trying to tell the story of customer education’s ROI.
How to tell this story of the impact that customer education can have looks different depending on the departments that you're speaking to. But this story can be told across the organization, because customer education truly has a way to impact the entire business. There's a way to impact your product. There's a way to impact customer success. There's a way to impact sales and marketing. And so, I think a really big trend is emerging of deepening our understanding of how to craft that ROI narrative in a way that resonates across the business.
Building a SaaS academy: customer education and beyond
EB: I'd also be curious to hear more about the work that you're doing right now at SaaS Academy Advisors.
LT: While working together on the founding team at HubSpot Academy, my colleague Chris LoDolce and I became very passionate about creating customer education––or as we call it, transformational education or transformative experiences. And we've been really passionate about taking all of the lessons that we've learned through building out HubSpot Academy, and bringing that to other customer education and SaaS academy programs.
At SaaS Academy Advisors, we teach people how to build out their program, focusing on a wide range of areas, whether that’s program management, content management, the tech stack they're using, or even people management––really looking at the whole picture of an academy program.
Now that we have a lot of experience working with many new SaaS academies and advising them as they start to develop their programs, we’ve also started working with SaaS businesses at various growth stages of their academies as well.
I know we've mainly talked about customer education here, but a big part of what we did with HubSpot Academy––and what we also teach our clients––is that this isn't just limited to building out education for customers. It's about building out an entire academy of education that will be relevant in the marketing process and the sales process, too. So we're very big on developing academy programs that can reach not just customers, but prospects, partners, and even employees, with that same focus on transformational education.
A huge thank you to Lindsay for speaking with me and sharing her thoughts on building an academy and spurring transformation through great educational programs! Be sure to check out SaaS Academy Advisors to learn more about her work, including a few useful resources like the Customer Education Blueprint and the Academy Growth Model.
Want to learn more about how we're helping customer education leaders leverage AI to scale high-quality experiences to more learners than ever before? Get in touch here and we'll reach out to set up a chat!