Next-Gen Customer Success: Digital Education as a Key Strategy

Steve Cornwell


SVP of Strategy for Customer Education


Steve Cornwell
Steve Cornwell

Episode Summary

Today on the show, we welcome Steve Cornwell, SVP of Strategy for Customer Education at Gainsight.

In this episode, Steve shares insights into the transformative role of digital education in Customer Success. He discusses the shift from traditional customer engagement methods to innovative digital strategies in today's dynamic business environment.

We delve into practical ways digital tools can be used to build stronger customer relationships and enhance overall customer experience. Steve also emphasizes the growing role of online communities in creating a more connected and informed customer base.

Tune in to learn about the innovative ways digital education is becoming a key strategy in customer success, and how it's changing the game for businesses and their customers.

Mentioned Resources



Evolving Customer Success Strategies00:05:17
Digital Customer Success in Practice00:06:42
Starting Digital Customer Success Initiatives00:10:01
Implementing Customer Education Programs00:12:52
Marketing and Customer Education Synergy00:17:36
The Value of Certification Programs00:20:09
Building Online Communities for Customers00:23:41
Strategic Approaches to Digital Customer Success00:26:04


[00:00:00] Steve Cornwell: No matter how good things are, even in the best of times, there's still just stuff you got to deal with. And as not only the CEO, but the founder, these things were deep passions of mine. And so there was never a break. Even a vacation wasn't really a vacation because mentally, I was very present in our business and in our startup.

[00:00:26] VO:  How do you build habit-forming products? And you saw this different… Don't just gun for revenue in the door.

[00:00:31] Andrew Michael: This is, the podcast for subscription economy pros. Each week we hear how the world's fastest growing companies are tackling churn and using retention to fuel their growth.

[00:00:44] VO: How do you build a habit forming product? We crossed over that magic threshold to negative churn. You need to invest and customer success. It always comes down to retention and engagement. Completely boost strategy profitable and growing.

[00:00:54] Andrew Michael: Strategies, tactics, and ideas brought together to help your business thrive in the subscription economy. I'm your host, Andrew Michael, and here's today's episode.

[00:01:08] Andrew Michael: Hey Steve, welcome to the show.

[00:01:10] Steve Cornwell: Hey Andrew, it's great to be here with you.

[00:01:12] Andrew Michael: It's great to have you. For the listeners, Steve is the SVP of strategy for customer education at Gainsight, customer success and product experience software that empowers companies to increase revenue, decrease churn and drive advocacy. Prior to Gainsight, Steve was the CEO and founder of Northpass, which was very recently acquired by Gainsight. So my first question for you, Steve, is how does it feel post-acquisition? What has been the biggest change for you to deal with?

[00:01:40] Steve Cornwell: Oh, wow. It's been, I mean, it's been amazing. So it's been about six weeks or so since the acquisition closed. So I'm still kind of fresh off the acquisition. It's been just fantastic. You know, I had a vision and founding North Pass to really elevate customer education, make it a mission critical function of every company. And we made a lot of progress on that at North Pass over the years. You know, incredibly grateful for the growth journey that we had. Now at Gainsight, we just have the opportunity to accelerate that growth so, so fast. I mean, we're talking to companies and prospective customers that we never would have had a chance to talk to as an independent company and we're innovating products now in a highly integrated way with the full suite of customer success tools as just being a standalone learning management system. And so I'm so excited and feel incredibly fortunate that we are where we are today.

[00:02:39] Andrew Michael: Very nice. And I can see a lot of the interesting aspect now and the power of Gainsight being able to be wrapped in there and speaking to customers you know, whatever. But on a personal note, has there been anything changed for you? Any relief of stress or pressure or do you feel it as much and still going at it on all cylinders?

[00:02:56] Steve Cornwell: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I mean, you go from founding and bootstrapping for a long time and then taking on some kind of a light level of capitalization from venture groups and having a board, right? And as the CEO, you're responsible for cash and customers and personnel and there's no matter how good things are, even in the best of times, there's still just stuff you got to deal with, right? And as not only the CEO, but the founder, like these things were deep passions of mine. And so there was never a break, right? Even a vacation wasn't really a vacation because mentally I was very present in our business and in our startup. That really changed pretty much overnight at post-acquisition and still as motivated as ever and working hard to push our vision, but just mentally.

[00:03:45] Andrew Michael: With less of the end the pressures.

[00:03:47] Steve Cornwell: Yeah, it's just not that.

[00:03:49] Andrew Michael: Have you been on a holiday yet? Or where's the first destination that you're going to go just to completely switch off, maybe for the first time in a very long time?

[00:03:57] Steve Cornwell: So yeah, we did too. So I have four kids, little kids. And so shortly after the acquisition, my wife and I were actually coincidentally celebrating our 15th wedding anniversary. So we just we took off up to Nantucket for a couple days, just the two of us. It was wonderful. Timing couldn't have been better. And then last week, actually, I live in New Jersey and I took my kids to one of the barrier islands, the Long Beach Island in New Jersey and all six of us just had a blast with the kids. It was so fun.

[00:04:27]  Andrew Michael: I don't know how you do it. Building a startup and four kids. I think that's an insane feat on its own, right?

[00:04:35] Steve Cornwell: It was really two startups. It was a personal startup and a professional startup.

[00:04:39] Andrew Michael: Exactly. I mean, I have one at the moment and I know how much work it is and I see friends like they have three. And that's crazy. And four is just like next level. I don't know. Like my brother likes your jokes with that. He's got two kids and he's like, people are three cause it's irresponsible. He's like, it's actually like two, you can handle if they go off at each other. Like one of you can each take one, but three, what do you do with the third one then, where do you, where are you going to go? I think it's irresponsible. So what do you think? Nice.

[00:05:09] Andrew Michael: Gainsight has acquired Northpass. What's the plan there? What are you seeing in the market and where do you see things going from here?

[00:05:17] Steve Cornwell: Yeah, sure. So I think Nick Maeda, the CEO of Gainsight, and I saw the world the same way, but from two different solutions, coming up the problem from two different solutions. And I think now the worlds have converged and it's really exciting. And so ultimately what our vision is, is that customer success teams we're going through like the next generation, the next evolution of customer success, where kind of version one was very customer success manager led, right? It was let's get people in place to take care of these customers, do our renewals, do our expansion. And it was tremendously successful.

[00:05:57] Steve Cornwell: Now, I think catalyzed by some of the rising customer expectations from a lot of competition, customers just have more choices, and they want things their way, they demand things their way. Plus the recent, I'd say like economic reset to reality, right? Coming off these insane multiples and these historically low interest rates, coming back to a more normal economic rhythm, companies have to become a heck of a lot more efficient and productive. And so we have to really rethink the way customer success is done. And the way Gainsight thinks about it is we need to take advantage of a new digital layer that we can put out there for the customers that solves two problems.

[00:06:42] Steve Cornwell: One is it gives customers the ability to self-serve the way they want to pay. Everything we do today is on demand, we order food on demand, we order cars on demand, why can't we get customer success on demand. So let's do that. Let's give it to the customer the way they want it. And that can come in the form of community and education and knowledge bases and cert certification programs, collaborative workspaces, etc. So there's that layer. And then internally having this digital layer allows the customer success managers to be a lot more efficient, a lot more effective. So one, you don't need as many. And two, the ones you have can do a lot more high value work. So that's where we're taking the business and education plays a really central role in furthering that vision.

[00:07:29] Andrew Michael: Very interesting. I think as you said, sort of we're in this economic climate now where people are being forced to be a lot more effective in the execution and the delivery of the work, but then at the same time, customers demands haven't really dropped and they still expect the same level of service and the way of working with companies. So what are some of the interesting ways that you're seeing companies adopting this new environment and if you were in the shoes of a company now, like trying to adapt and move into this new next level of customer success, as you put it, where would be some of the first areas you'd want to think about getting started?

[00:08:03] Steve Cornwell: Mm-hmm. So I've hosted some really interesting roundtable conversations to poke at that exact question. And one of the trends that I'm seeing, which is really exciting, is that earlier stage companies, meaning, you know, sub 20 million are actually making the investment in digital customer success ahead of having the human element there. And so early on, in their lifecycle, they're bringing in community, they're bringing in education, and they're bringing in in-app guidance, for example, and they're bringing in this digital layer, ahead of bringing in a high value person to really drive those relationships. And that's a really big change.

[00:08:55] Steve Cornwell: Because even when I was founding North Pass, you know, all of my founder peers were bringing on customer success managers very early, like at the first customer, right? And I'm not seeing that now. And I think it's a really positive thing for profitability and productivity of businesses. And frankly, I think it's the way the customers want it, right? Not every customer wants to call, he wants to get on a Zoom with their customer success manager all the time for everything they need. A lot of them would rather just get it on demand.

[00:09:25] Andrew Michael: Absolutely. And I definitely, I think is changing in terms of the interactions and the way that people want to interact with service providers and their software at the moment. So you're seeing this as like a table stakes or the way companies earlier stage startups are getting started. But how do you suggest a company starts to think about this approach? Let's say they've gone ahead, they've got a decent sized customer success team now. They wanna try become a little bit more efficient in this new age and they wanna be able to deliver the same level of service. How do you suggest companies get started with this?

[00:10:01] Steve Cornwell: Yeah, for sure. The way to get started is to really first spend time with your customers and assess what they want, right? Just go point blank and ask and go talk to 10, 20, 50 of them and just say, "Hey, here's some of the things we're thinking about. Can you tell me how you're interfacing with your CSMs today? Where do you want to interface with your customer success managers? Where would you rather have things self-service and just learn?" And just learn firsthand because I think every company's customers are going to say something a little bit different.

[00:10:33] Steve Cornwell: And so I think based on that feedback, then look at internally with the customer success team, where are they spending their time? For example, when we talked to a lot of our customers before they were using Northpass, now Gainsight customer education, their customer success managers were very often spending 30% of their time doing repetitive education and training. And so I think by talking to the customers, by talking to the internal customer success managers and getting feedback, it's going to inform how companies go about making this rotation.

[00:11:06] Steve Cornwell:  But generally speaking, there's a general blueprint for it. I would say that you want to take the essential but routine tasks, like education, for example, and begin offloading that from the customer success teams or the pro serve team or implementation team, whoever's doing it, and present that digitally to the customers online and on demand, and then integrate it into the customer journey. So when the deal closes, provide them with some onboarding educational material so they can go through that material, get prepped and educated on the basics and the orientation of the product.

[00:11:49] Steve Cornwell: And then when they get on the call with their CSM, they're a lot more productive because they've done the pre-work, right? Lead them to a certification program. We've seen that at Gainsight just in our certification program for admins who have gone through it is dramatically higher MPS than those that haven't. So I think that feedback and learning from internal and external interviews, and then generally speaking, just putting forth more of that self service environment for the customers is a big way.

[00:12:18] Andrew Michael: Yeah. And so when you're talking about custom education from your perspective, it's nothing really to do with support docs and how to use the product, but more how to extract value from products and how to maximize the efficiency of the service. How are you recommending teams get started with this? So like I just said, typically, maybe today, customer success managers walking through during onboarding, giving a demo, how you can use the product. How do you suggest companies think about putting together an education program for their business and what are some of the areas, the first places that you would start?

[00:12:52] Steve Cornwell: Yep. So the first thing is I've helped advise company, hundreds of companies on this. And I think the very first starting point that is critical is appointing someone as the lead on this. It's really, really important. It's not just gonna happen. So appointing a lead on this and it doesn't necessarily have to be a professional educator, it needs to get there in time as the program scales, but to get it going, you really need someone who's just really good at project management, cross-functional leadership, someone who understands the products, someone who understands the customers, and someone who can really get things done. And so that lead needs to be appointed.

[00:13:31] Steve Cornwell: I think from there, that lead can spend time figuring out where to go next. But I think we always advise that the first thing to do is go talk to the customer, get their feedback on what are the common points of education that they really need. And when do they need it and start there. And we often tell our customers, hey, you can go look at something like HubSpot Academy or Salesforce Trailhead and easily get overwhelmed by the amount of content and richness of those educational programs. But those took like a decade to get to where they are. So start small, you know, get the customer feedback, and just build for one use case one problem, solve one problem, and get the… put the content together, get it out there, get feedback and then iterate from there.

[00:14:13] Steve Cornwell: So get the lead in place, talk to the customers, iterate quickly, and then get cross-functional buy-in. Get support from marketing to assist with content creation and promotion of the educational content. We see companies that get the marketing team involved and build a banner on their website and send it out in an email, promote it on social as such and such companies do Academy get a lot of adoption and a lot of hype and buzz around that very quickly. Those that just kind of set it and forget it. It takes a lot longer to take off and then get support from product as well. Because a lot of customers want to learn where they are, which is what it's in the product and so get the product support as well and have the educational content be available there. So I think those are some of the more kind of tactical ways to really get started and then just iterate, iterate quickly, iterate in short loops, and eventually the program will grow really beautifully.

[00:15:15] Andrew Michael: Yeah, nice. And thanks for doing my job today as well. I think it's, you do some really good recaps after every time you mentioned something. So I don't need to do it. The thing I think as well is interesting, sort of you mentioned is finding that lead just to get started, like picking somebody who's going to take charge of it. And the other point you made as well of just getting started, like not having to look at these HubSpots or the Salesforce and they realize, okay,  wow, we have a mountain to climb and really figuring out what is that first piece of valuable content you can deliver.

[00:15:46] Andrew Michael: But at the same time, let's take Northpass, for example, you're putting together a learning platform for customer education. How do you avoid things looking quite bare in the beginning then when it's just literally like one or two courses that you're providing or one or two videos, even in the very beginning, just getting up and running. What are some of the ways to avoid that so that it looks like you're still adding value at the same time, but it's not just like someone arrives and what is this?

[00:16:12] Steve Cornwell: Yeah, yeah, for sure. Yeah, what is this empty academy I'm coming to, right? I think that's such an important point. And that actually is one of our product differentiators with our product. And so most learning management systems out there have that experience. If you have just one course, it looks like an empty academy. We have a very portable content system so that you can just embed that single course or single lesson in a website, in a blog, in the app, in app guidance widget, in a community. And so you can bring the content to where people are. And until you have a more built out academy, you can bring more pointed and contextually relevant content to where people are. And that's how we always advise our customers to start a much higher adoption and much better presentation.

[00:17:07] Andrew Michael: Yeah. And definitely it doesn't look like you said what is this? It's more like it's part of the experience and I'm learning in the environment where it makes most sense as well. I like that. And then, so you found this person, you start building out a few pieces of content now, and you mentioned as well, like from the marketing perspective, it's time to launch this education program. What are some of the activities that you see that marketing partners up with the education team effectively to promote these new services?

[00:17:36] Steve Cornwell: Yeah, for sure. So first of all, marketing, I think is intrinsically motivated to have this educational content because it's very premium content. And the marketing team always wants some premium content, some additional calls to action. So I think it's good for the marketer to have this initiative because it really helps them with their KPIs as well. I think some like specific areas that they can really lean in and collaborate. One is on the content development, right? The marketing team generally has is the content powerhouse and can really assist in that too, is they have the keys to the website and the blog and the social handles and the email channels. And so those channels all need to be unlocked and the educational content needs to be embedded in there. I think that just as with any good piece of content, more content can spawn from that.

[00:18:36] Steve Cornwell: And so oftentimes we'll see the marketing team promote the course and then follow up with a webinar about that topic, right? And then they can begin to drive more traffic. We'll also see the marketing team not only use that promote that course to the customer base. But for many types of educational content, it's applicable not only to the customer base, but to late stage deals. So it can be a deal accelerator.

[00:19:09] Steve Cornwell: And for other types of educational content, it can be even applicable to higher up in the funnel when you look at certain types of educational content that is like industry thought leadership, take HubSpot's inbound marketing program, right?  That's a big educational component for them. And it drives a lot of leads and a lot of companies have a similar type of methodology, their own flavor of that. And so it can be used for even in the acquisition.

[00:19:34] Andrew Michael: Nice. And you mentioned as well, then at some points, I think it was Gainsight Certification Program, and you see that people that have actually gone through that the engagements and the satisfaction is very high. I'd assume as well those accounts tend to be a lot more sticky and retention is high at that point. And I came to think and hear your thoughts on when is a good time to introduce a certification program for a business. So you started building out the learning and education side of it, but at one point, does it make sense actually to qualify users as that's like gain sight experts or specialists?

[00:20:09] Steve Cornwell: I think that it really depends on the type of company and the type of product offering, and I'd say the maturity of the product and the maturity of the industry. So can you say it's obviously a very large company, very sophisticated multi product company. And so its certification carries a lot of weight on its product set, the certification on the beginning type product carries a lot of weight.

[00:20:31] Steve Cornwell: There's another customer that we work with, and they're probably 80 employees. And they introduced a certification program a year ago, not about their product, but about the role of their admin. So this is a company that specializes in competitive intelligence software. And pretty like new up and coming field. So they didn't build a certification on their particular product, they built it on the field of competitive intelligence and how to become a competitive intelligence professional, and they're small, fast growing startup, and it was a hit, it was a huge hit for them. So I think it just depends on and they did that because they want to build the category, right, they want to grow the category of competitive intelligence.

[00:21:12] Steve Cornwell: And so I think it just depends, but I'd say generally, if you're trying to build up a category trying to bring new people into new careers and inspire them into develop new skills and new promote this new role, it makes sense to do it early. If you're in the enterprise and you're in a mature category and you have a mature product, people already know generally what to do with it, but they need to learn your tool set and it's an extensive tool set. Probably makes sense to do it a little later when you're a little more mature. So the spectrum there.

[00:21:46] Andrew Michael: Depends on the goals and what you're trying to achieve at the time. I think it is definitely an interesting way as well to build new advocates for the product and to for new lead generation in its own rights. Like people start putting a certificate on their LinkedIn profiles and all of a sudden now it's a new channel for exposure for you as well as a result. And then you mentioned HubSpot's inbound certification program. I think that was like you have a lot of people taking that program and not even using HubSpots. Like it's just because the content was that good that it was a new way to learn how to do marketing. It was a new form of marketing. So at the time, I think that was really revolutionary to some degree as well. The content they're putting out. Nice.

[00:22:30] Andrew Michael: And so customer education program, one of the ways to increase efficiency now in this new wave is how can we digitize a lot of the services that we were doing manually previously with customers and CSMs. What are some of the other areas that you're seeing now as well, like having this vantage point within Gainsight that companies are adopting to become more efficient?

[00:22:50] Steve Cornwell: I think that community is a really big piece of this, a really, really big piece of this. Northpass before the acquisition, we weren't a huge company. You know, we were fast growing, approaching some good scale, but even with that size company, our customers wanted to be in community with each other, wanted to be learning from each other, and in many cases would rather learn from their peers than from us. And so I think communities are really, really big piece of this next layer of digital customer success. And that's something that we have in our product suite and we're really, really excited about. We're actually doing a lot of work to bring education and community and in-app guidance together in a really tightly integrated solution.

[00:23:41] Andrew Michael: Nice. Yeah, I think community is one of those things like, it's extremely hard to do well though as well. And it seems like quite difficult to get up and running, but when it does work, it works extremely well. So I can think of a few really powerful communities and I've seen them grow over the years. Well, I think the Webflow one is one that comes to mind for me as well of how they've developed and worked with that. Eventually it becomes also like a very big retention driver because you've built up this loyalty and love for the product and the community itself.

[00:24:13] Andrew Michael: So how, how does this new product work? How do companies get started setting up community? Cause there's not just thing, are we going to launch a community? No, like there's... you first need to find people, then you need to have mutual interests, then you need to be delivering value, and then it needs to be growing in a consistent pace so that everybody continues to extract value to be coming back to it. It's almost like building a marketplace business in itself, it's incredibly difficult. It's like what comes first.

[00:24:39] Steve Cornwell: Yeah, yeah, yeah, for sure. You know, admittedly, I'm not the community expert. It'd be really cool to bring that person on your show and talk through some of the nuts and bolts. But from my observations as a founder and going through this as a user in building a community, a lot of it started the very same way that the education program started. A lot of it started with just making sure you have a really solid point person. Doesn't have to be their full time job, but 25%, 50% of their job. So he's really passionate about bringing customers together, really passionate about just getting stuff done, and working cross functionally to make it happen.

[00:25:21] Steve Cornwell: So I think education and from what I know about community, education and community have a lot of similarities. and how you get them started. They don't just turn on overnight. Like you buy Slack and you turn it on and it's there. It's like, okay, great. It works. But with education and community, it takes some content development. It takes some organization. It takes some promotion and integration. And so you really need to have a good driver of the program.

[00:25:43] Andrew Michael: And it requires that focus. I think as somebody dedicated to doing that specific task, it's not something you're just going to bolt on and expect to work or again, to grow on its own. Very nice. What's one thing that you know today about churn and retention that you wish you when you got started with your career?

[00:26:04] Steve Cornwell: I probably have 25 of those. But I think so much of it really does come down to the product fitting the market neat or the product market fit. I mean, if you have extraordinary product market fit, you will have extremely high retention and if you don't, then you know, I think that at the lowest, kind of most atomic level, I think that's the greatest learning.

[00:26:33] Andrew Michael: They're nuts and bolts. Yeah. If your product's not delivering value in an extreme amount of its users, you're at risk of them churning and leaving their business. Very nice. Well, Steve, it's been a pleasure chatting to you today. Is there any sort of final thoughts you want to leave the listeners with or anything they should be aware of to keep up to speed with your work?

[00:26:51] Steve Cornwell: Hey, I think, you know, keep pushing our industry forward and this community is incredibly inspirational and just love everything that's taking place in the space. And thank you and your team for continuing to produce really amazing content so we can all learn.

[00:27:07] Andrew Michael: Thank you, Steve. It's been a pleasure hosting you today. For the listeners, everything that we've been discussing will be in the show notes so you can take a look there and catch up to anything we mentioned. Thanks a lot for joining, Steve. And I wish you best of luck now going forward. Maybe with a little bit more peace of mind post acquisition as well.

[00:27:23] Steve Cornwell: Thanks so much, Andrew.

[00:27:24] Andrew Michael: Cheers.

[00:27:31] Andrew Michael: And that's a wrap for the show today with me Andrew Michael. I really hope you enjoyed it and you were able to pull out something valuable for your business. To keep up to date with and be notified about new episodes, blog posts and more, subscribe to our mailing list by visiting Also don't forget to subscribe to our show on iTunes, Google Play or wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you have any feedback, good or bad, I would love to hear from you. And you can provide your blunt, direct feedback by sending it to Lastly, but most importantly, if you enjoyed this episode, please share it and leave a review as it really helps get the word out and grow the community. Thanks again for listening. See you again next week.


Steve Cornwell
Steve Cornwell

The show

My name is Andrew Michael and I started CHURN.FM, as I was tired of hearing stories about some magical silver bullet that solved churn for company X.

In this podcast, you will hear from founders and subscription economy pros working in product, marketing, customer success, support, and operations roles across different stages of company growth, who are taking a systematic approach to increase retention and engagement within their organizations.


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