Depending on the product or service your company offers, a customer training program might be an absolute necessity, or simply an amenity that adds value. Nonetheless, anytime you use a training program or other means to engage customers in an effort to learn more about the usefulness of your product, you create an environment whereby those customers will be more satisfied with your product, more likely to continue purchasing through your firm, and more likely to recommend your firm to others within their own organization and in other organizations.

Specifically, the Gallup Organization reports that customers who are fully engaged represent an average 23-percent premium in terms of share of wallet, profitability, revenue, and relationship growth over the average customer, as "engaged customers spend more, visit a company's stores and websites more often, resist competitive overtures, promote the company's brand to others, and even forgive the occasional service blunder." Furthermore, offering a specific certification for proficiency in a product creates even deeper customer engagement and "brand ambassadorship" that stems from the customer's ego - the desire to have others know of their expertise.

The complexity of use for a specific product, the life span of the product's present versions, and the fulfillment of safety and other regulations are first considerations in the process of building customer training program modules. Next is an assessment of customer requirements through an audience and needs analysis. Naturally, customer input helps to understand how they are using each product so you can design training materials to complement how the product is actually used, or how you anticipate it can and will be used. Evaluation must be implemented at certain intervals during training to gauge the learner's progress and to ensure the desired level of interactivity among customers during each module. Training materials should be pilot-tested with a select audience to determine if the instruction is reaching the desired goals. And training materials should be modified not only after that pilot testing, but throughout the life of each training module, based on constant learner input.

At this point, however, the question for middle market firms becomes this: Which specific means - and how much money - should be used to deliver a training program that exceeds customer expectations, thus serving the dual purposes of educating customers for maximum product satisfaction and also motivating those customers to be brand loyalists and ambassadors?

Here's an example of a firm a bit beyond the middle market, but whose customer training program can serve to help middle-market firms assess their own possibilities for customer training. SimplexGrinnell has about 10,000 employees and $2 billion in annual revenue. Its stand-alone customer-training website notes that "we use a blended approach in our training. We have 120-plus web courses covering our Fire Alarm and Healthcare Systems, available wherever you have internet access. These courses provide the foundational information needed when you attend in-depth, hands-on classroom courses. This blended approach allows you to advance through the basics at your own pace and come to class when you are ready."

So the firm offers on-demand online tutorials; regularly scheduled online training sessions led by live instructors; and in-person, hands-on training at six locations across the United States and Canada. Lastly, the firm's complete training catalog is on the website to allow customers to determine the path they should take towards full proficiency in the specific systems they purchase.

On the other hand, as your firm assesses its needs - and its revenue-enhancing desires - based on the various elements of its product, keep in mind that even something as simple as a manager's blog that answers customer questions on a regular basis might be an effective complement to online training manuals and Web tutorials that, once developed, do not need frequent revision. Furthermore, applications such as GoToMeeting might suffice whenever the need arises for ad-hoc instructor-led sessions - and the marketing effort which publicizes such sessions serves to make a positive impression on all customers in your database, not just those who accept the offer.

In summary, each middle market firm must determine how much training its customers desire for its products and also evaluate which combination of methods could deliver a training experience that exceeds customer expectations while coming in at favorable cost in relation to the loyalty and revenue enhancement the firm will gain in return.

Rob Carey is an NCMM contributor and a features writer who has focused on the business-to-business niche since 1992. He spent his first 15 years at Nielsen Business Media, rising from editorial intern to editorial director. Since then, Rob has been the principal of New York-based Meetings & Hospitality Insight, working with large hospitality brands in addition to various media outlets.