Podcast 45: SMB Customer Education – With Steve Cornwell

How can small and mid-market companies leverage customer education to scale their business and gain a competitive edge? Listen to this episode of The Talented Learning Show!

Podcast: How can SMB customer education help companies scale their business and gain a competitive advantage? Listen to independent learning tech analyst talk with Northpass Founder and CEO Steve Cornwell on The Talented Learning Show!


To learn more about this podcast series or to see the full collection of episodes visit The Talented Learning Show main page.



If, like me, you’re trying to grow a business, this is one conversation you won’t want to miss. Today, I welcome Stephen Cornwell, Founder and CEO of Northpass – a learning platform focused on helping small and midmarket companies scale their customer education efforts.

As with many innovators in the extended enterprise learning space, Steve doesn’t come from a classic instructional design or employee training background. Interestingly, that may be one reason why Northpass is gaining so much traction.

Join us as we discuss the challenges and opportunities he sees in the SMB customer education realm.



  • Every company has customers of some sort. Even if you’re company is small, customers depend on you to help them learn about your products and services.
  • Increasingly, small and mid-sized (SMB) companies are discovering the strategic value of instructional guidance through every stage of a customer relationship.



For those who aren’t familiar with Northpass, could you start with a brief overview?

Absolutely. In a nutshell, Northpass is a learning platform. And we specialize in helping small and mid-size organizations set up and run external education programs. Predominantly, these are online customer education programs, but we also play a meaningful role in partner learning and contractor learning as well.

We both founded our companies at nearly the same time, eight years ago. What led you to the learning systems space?

I founded the business because, essentially, I was a practitioner with a problem. I was managing a SaaS company that was growing fast and scaling really well. But we were struggling with onboarding and educating our clients.


When I looked around, I found some amazing learning platforms. You know, the Cornerstones, the Sabas, the SumTotals of the world.

But it was abundantly clear that those systems weren’t going to help us turn learning into a product and make it a central part of our brand.


Then we were acquired by a Nasdaq company. And of course, they also acquired our customer learning problem, but at a hundred or a thousand times the scale.

So I realized that this problem was actually fairly significant. And eventually, I started Northpass to get after this problem. Now we serve hundreds of customers and millions of users.

How do you define customer education?

The definition can be very broad. But we think about customer education as an enabling function across the entire relationship life cycle.

In other words, it is the combination of processes, tools, techniques and strategies a company can use to make people aware of your solution, to help them start using it, to help them become brand advocates, and to drive that whole experience throughout the customer journey.

Nice definition. So, what do you see happening these days in the SMB customer education market, specifically?

All companies, regardless of their size or industry, are transitioning to digital-first customer experiences. Inherent in that is a shift to more subscription-based business models. And in those environments, customer education is critical for retention.


The pandemic has been another major catalyst. Since 2020, we’ve seen companies of all stripes embracing customer education as a growth engine because, suddenly, everyone had to figure out more digital-first ways to connect and engage with customers. Prior to that, customer education was often highly underutilized.


Plus, we’re seeing another cool trend. Technologies that typically were reserved for enterprises – application technology, analytics technology, low-code/no-code, platforms – all of these have moved down market.

Now, the most sophisticated technology is no longer reserved solely for big elite companies. So all of the functionality and automation in CRM platforms, business intelligence systems and data pipelines can be accessed economically by small and mid-market companies, as well.

And learning is no different. Learning platforms are now accessible to small and mid-sized businesses too. The overall tech stack is coming down market and that is driving more and more interest.

Democratization of technology…

Yeah. And it’s accelerating.



One final point is that the whole product-led growth/PLG movement is driving rapid adoption of customer education, particularly in the small and mid-market space.

These companies don’t have huge onboarding or customer success teams. Instead, they’re using their product and self-service mechanisms to drive all their growth.

We’ve seen huge, runaway success from companies with no sales team at all. For example, Atlassian.

Interesting. So you’d say that SaaS-based technology companies are driving the growth in SMB customer education?

Certainly, we see digital-first SaaS companies and gig economy companies setting the pace. But traditional industries are also transforming to more digital-forward customer experiences. So they’re getting on the customer education train, too.

Because everyone’s got a product. Everyone’s got a customer. And everyone needs to train their customers on that product.

And everyone has a COVID problem…

Yeah. So, we see HVAC installation companies that need to train their dealers and installers in a digital environment. Or real estate companies looking to train all external franchises and agents online.

What does the typical technology stack look like for SMB customer education?

Everything really starts with the CRM platform. CRM systems have become so functional in nature and so deeply integrated with the rest of any company’s tech stack, it all starts there.

Then, various customer education building blocks are added. For example, on top of the CRM, we may see a blog platform. That’s a great form of customer education, particularly for best-practice learning with a library of articles. You know, “Five ways to do this” or “Seven ways to do that.”


We also see help centers for highly nuanced product instruction that answers specific questions like, “How do I do this?” or “What should I do next when this happens?” In addition, we see in-app walkthroughs and tutorials to help guide users through a product.

Then the next level is when more formal education programs kick in. And that’s where an LMS typically comes into play, with course content, learning paths and certification programs.

And now, all of this ties back to the CRM and intelligence about the customer journey.

This “building blocks” approach is a neat way to think about it. As an LMS guy, I always assume that the LMS comes sooner in the life cycle. But there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit that needs attention early in the customer journey.

Right. And for SMB customer education, this is your product. This is part of your brand. So it can’t suck. Every aspect of the learning experience has to contribute to a great customer experience.

A CRM is so important to the process. I know because I use one every day for our company. Could you talk about that a bit more…?

Sure. A CRM pulls together all of your customer data and provides a 360º view of your whole customer journey. And it has become not only a database but an actual ecosystem that connects all of your subsystems or peripheral systems to your core first-party customer data.


The connection between your CRM and your learning platform is incredibly powerful. Because the promise of customer education is that it improves the customer experience.

And how do you measure that? It’s in the CRM. So it’s really important to push learning data back into the CRM to ensure that those outcomes are actually occurring.


Not to mention working in the other direction, where it triggers a contextually aware learning experience. In other words, to push relevant content to the right customer at the right time, you need related data, and all of that is in the CRM.

It knows what products your customer bought, how engaged they are, when you last interacted with them, where they’re experiencing problems with a product, and so forth.

Using this kind of CRM data to push the content to the right person at the right time is a key ingredient in providing a relevant and really contemporary learning experience. And now, this kind of capability is within reach for SMB customer education providers…

So, what kind of CRM systems work best for SMB needs?


About John Leh (242 Articles)
John Leh is CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning and the Talented Learning Center. John is a fiercely independent consultant, blogger, podcaster, speaker and educator who helps organizations select and implement learning technology strategies, primarily for extended enterprise applications. His advice is based upon more than 25+years of learning-tech industry experience, serving as a trusted LMS selection and sales adviser to hundreds of learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $100+ million and growing. John would love to connect with you at@JohnLeh or on LinkedIn.

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