If you haven't already perfected your employee training program, here's something to consider. Not only have many top companies nailed theirs, they're quickly expanding into customer training, too. Research from Brandon Hall shows us that more than half (54 percent) of organizations are doing some sort of training for customers or even business partners. And that was back in 2012. Imagine how many more companies -among them likely your competitors- have joined in on this key customer retention and development tactic.

I know what you may be thinking. "If I can't get the resources to train my employees properly, how can I train my customers?" In short, because customer training should directly impact your company's revenues and costs, you simply cannot afford to overlook it. And it might actually be an easier sell to your top management.

Of course, your primary focus should always be to deliver a product or service that is as simple and easy to use as possible, to minimize training needs. But the truth is that without effective customer training, your users may never unlock your solution's full value for their specific situation. And that puts them and their revenue at risk. In fact, 93% of companies responding to a TrainingIndustry survey reported that they saw increased customer satisfaction--and 88% reported increased customer retention--as a result of customer training.

But let's be real. While employees may be a captive training audience, your customers most certainly are not. Based on the experiences of hundreds of Mindflash customers, including Yammer, who use our platform for online customer training, here are a few best practices:

1. Talk to your customers! What do they want to better understand about your product/service? Only with a good understanding your audience can you create compelling training content for them.

2. Test the content ahead of time. First, send it to a beta group of subject matter experts and engaged customers. Then, improve it based on their initial comments before launching it publicly.

3. Offer customer training at your user conferences. Take a page from the likes of Yammer, Salesforce and Box, all of which attach a half or full day of training to their user conferences.

4. Put feedback mechanisms in place. Open channels for customers to share comments during or after the training experience. At Mindflash, for instance, our FocusAssist technology allows for real-time feedback to trainers and instructional designers on what elements of the training are most effective.

5. Plan and resource for later updates. In rapidly changing markets, training content can get outdated quickly. Investment here will ensure that your courses remain valuable and impactful to your customers.

6. Try carrots. Try sticks. Offer formal certifications, continuing professional education credits, etc. to customers completing your training. In some cases, you can require that customers pass training courses before gaining access to your product, or to advanced features.

7. Tie training outcomes to bottom-line business results. Meaning, don't report the total number of training hours completed to your CEO. She doesn't care. What will get her attention (and potentially more resources for next year's training program) are hard stats on customer satisfaction, retention and expansion rates and support costs among trained vs. non-trained customers.

Customer training can be more challenging than employee training. Yet, it's been shown to drive hard-dollar metrics like engagement, retention and revenue--making customer training an important, available and frankly affordable strategy to gain some competitive advantage. What business leader doesn't want that?

Published on: Aug 25, 2014
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.