Best Practices for Creating a Hot Certification Program (that Makes your Product Stickier)

Joe Cannata
Aug 28, 2018 12:01:00 AM

There's nothing like a certification program to prove that your company has a robust ecosystem of partners, solution providers, and other experts— internal and external—ready to help customers deploy, integrate, and train on your technology. But not every organization is a Microsoft or a Cisco.

How do you know when your operation is ready to introduce a certification program? Here we explore the link between customer success and certification, dig into proven approaches for developing a well-structured program, and provide details on an alternative that nearly any company can adopt as a lower-cost, lower-effort option.

Why add certification to training

There are multiple reasons why companies add certification to their training operations. A primary one is to validate the skills that employees and individuals in your partner network possess, to show the outside world that they know what they're talking about.

Also, customers who choose to pursue certification in your technology become more self-reliant. They learn how to use the product more effectively, make fewer basic calls to tech support, and tend to be happier with the implementation—which means they tend to buy more. Frequently, you'll find certified individuals working in the corporate center of excellence or other units where best practices are developed and embedded into the rest of the organization.

Another big driver is brand loyalty. People who have achieved a credential by going through extensive training and passing multiple exams, for example, are less likely to switch to another company's product line on a whim. They have a deep investment in the current one and are proud of what they've accomplished. Their certification sets them above and apart from others working with your software. That translates into stickiness for your products and services. Then there's the link to the value of your training program itself. Earning a certification after training Demonstrates a tangible return on investment for that effort. Plus, studies have shown that employers are more likely to hold onto staff that has been certified. This is because people appreciate the investment the company has made in their personal and professional development.

4 TIPS FOR BUILDING YOUR CERTIFICATION PROGRAMS

  1. Start with the strategy 
    A certification program needs two ingredients to succeed: Executive commitment and a reason for existing. Frequently, those go hand in hand. Is certification meant to turn training into a profit center? Claim huge numbers of certified experts? Reduce support costs? Nail down what your C-suite's goals are for your program, manage expectations, and keep them informed as you make progress. Once your certification work has gone live, feed them relevant metrics. If they ever begin to appear disengaged, that’s an indicator that it may be time to have new conversations and reconsider the strategy.

  2. Lack staff? Contract with the expert
    The most ambitious certification programs are carefully crafted by certification experts, people who have worked on training and certification in other companies. Two such organizations, CEdMA, the Customer Education Management Association, and TSIA, the Technology Services Industry Association , are great sources for identifying vendors who can provide these services and getting references from people in the field regarding reliability, quality, and cost.

  3. Keep people hungry
    Like a popular video game that pushes players to "level up," the best certifications reward people by recognizing their hard work and encouraging them to continue pursuing additional titles. If you have a level one exam, for example, make sure you have plans at some point to introduce a level two and even level three—when the timing is right. Bundle exams into a mastery credential. Then, reward them when they've reached the goal. Grant customers or external experts special access to company insiders or technical resources, present them with wall worthy certificates and logos, provide company swag, add a ribbon to their conference badges, and recognize them on your website and in your promotional materials.

  4. Get help from other departments to make your program succeed
    Besides management buy-in, you'll need support from multiple business units:

    - Finance because it can be expensive to build a certification program
    - HR which will want to include your credentials as required or nice-to-have skills in job descriptions
    - Marketing and communications to make sure your logos, messaging, and outreach efforts fit into company guidelines and reach further than you could on your own
    - Product groups where you'll find subject matter experts who can help you develop the contents of your certification and be the first in line to test the exams you create.

The certification alternative: Microcredentials

Microcredentials or "digital badges" are the newest form of certification. Typically, they don’t require the level of training that a full credential requires and they fit well into a digital format. Microcredentials may emphasize specialty aspects that aren't part of the base product or service, such as add-on apps or useful soft skills. They could also emphasize specific, crucial skills.
Whereas a full certification exam may last 90 minutes and have 60 questions, microcredentials may have half as many questions and tend to be less expensive to earn. Rather than receiving a certificate for their feat, learners who pursue a microcredential do so for the digital reward: a badge they can immediately put in their email signature or post to their online professional profiles.

For companies developing microcredentials, the investment is less than for a standard certification program and visibility may be greater because of the social aspects of badging.


Certification as stealth marketing

Think about certifications as a form of stealth marketing. People will pay for the training, they'll pay for the exam, and, in return, they sit through a 60- or 90-minute commercial in which they hope to answer questions about your product or service correctly.

A well-designed certification program is another way of telling customers and prospects that there's value in getting to know about your company and learning about your products.

About the author:

Joe Cannata has many years of expertise in the development of training and certification programs for some of the world's largest tech companies, including Hewlett-Packard and Brocade. Most recently, he serves as the certification director for Kinaxis and as a board member for CEdMA, a leading professional association for training leaders

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