Technical Writer, Technical Trainer & Training Manager

Why Your Customers Need Lab Environments for Learning

Why your customers need hands-on experience with your software product to be successfull - and why many training solutions just don't cut it.
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DisclosureLinks in this article may be affiliate links to which I earn revenue upon purchase of a product or serviceAll of my reviews are based upon our own unbiased experience with a product or service.

Does your technical content provide customers the ability to jump straight into your product and learn what they need to know to be successful? If not, you’re doing both your customers and your business a disservice. Here’s why training and learning material with readily accessible lab environments are essential for both customer success and deep adoption.

The Benefit of Interactivity

Everyone learns differently. Some folks learn well in a highly structured classroom-like environment led by an expert trainer. Others would rather sift through documentation until they find exactly what they need. Many others – especially these days – prefer video tutorials.

No matter the medium, nearly every type of training content can benefit from having accompanying hands-on labs or similar form of interactivity. Labs have been shown time and again to increase customer satisfaction with content. By giving the customer something to do as opposed to something merely to read, you increase their level of engaged thinking with your content.

You also increase the likelihood that the customer will remember what they’ve learned. So-called “muscle memory” helps reinforce confidence and skill at a task by making it immediate and physical.

Why “Bring Your Own Product” Doesn’t Cut It

Many companies realize this. However, many also don’t want to bother with the management and expense involved in offering hosted lab environments to their customers. So they opt instead to tell customers to “bring their own” version of their environment.

Unfortunately, this approach often goes horribly wrong.

Trials

Woman holding discount coupon

Many companies offer time-limited trial versions of their products. At first blush, this seems like a great way to get customers to train up on your product.

However, most companies quickly realize that trials have some severe limitations.

Trials are Usually Time-Limited

Training and learning are (ideally) ongoing activities that continue for months and years. Trials, by contrast, are limited to between 15 and 30 days. Most trial programs also prevent customers from signing up for a second trial. That means trials are only useful for training for a very short duration.

Trials Are Wasteful

Some companies piggy back on their trial programs and generate massive numbers of trials, which they then hand out to customers for training.

And this works…sort of.

The issue is that it’s wasteful of computing resources. Your product, as you well know, doesn’t run for free. It consumes some finite amount of resources in your data centers or cloud providers. Every trial costs your company money.

Let’s say you have a cloud-based product and you want to provide trials for a week-long training session with an expert instructor. So you give a group of 50 customers a set of 30-day trials. Unless you actively recover those trials at the end of the seven days, they’ll keep running for the rest of the month. That’s 50 environments chewing up capacity and cloud costs.

This waste can be avoided if you have a way of killing the trials as soon as the class ends. In my experience, most companies do not. And you will likely still be stuck with the time limit issue.

Trials Run a Huge Fraud Risk

The topic of fraud in lab environments is something I plan to dedicate a whole other post to. For now, suffice it to say that hackers are always looking for free computing resources. And in recent years, they’ve set their eyes on trial offers of software products as a way of obtaining them. Just imagine if you could write a script to generate sign-ups for 10,000 trials on a cloud platform. Think of how many VMs you could spit up for bitcoin mining before someone caught you!

To combat this, many companies that offer trials also include some level of fraud detection to kill a trial if the behavior on the account looks “suspicious”. The problem is that legitimate users who are using trials for training often get caught in these fraud nets too.

Using Your Company’s Version of the Product

So if trials aren’t great, why not just tell customers to use a version of the product that their company has already licensed?

The problem here is that not all companies have a version of your product that’s suitable for training. You don’t want employees using a production version of, say, your CRM system to skill up. And not all companies want to go to the hassle (or expense) of maintaining a test or sandbox version of your product specifically for training.

Offering True Lab Environments

If you want to ensure your customers are getting the skills they need to be successful with your product, then, you need to consider how you’ll get them access to the product for training purposes. This can be tricky, as you want to strike a balance between enabling your customers and allowing them to use your product for free.

In my next post on this topic, I’ll discuss a general architecture for offering lab environments for online software products, and some of the pitfalls you’ll need to watch out for along the way. Stay tuned!

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