The Essential Guide to Customer Onboarding

May 7, 2018 Emma Dupon

The Essential Guide to Customer Onboarding

Onboarding, a fresh beginning for both the "onboarder" and the "onboardee". It entails new relationships, new opportunities, and the bright aspirations of a young and budding customer that you want to bring to success. Most importantly, it marks the new beginnings of a customer’s journey, in which they are easily affected by any information and behavior that is given to them.

Above all, onboarding is a process, one which is full of constant communication, feedback and performance measurement - all keys to loyalty and success. Always remember the impact that onboarding has on everyone who is a part of the process.

Karin Ronde, Manager of Customer Success for UberEats identifies onboarding as the single most critical contributor to long-term success: “the better you onboard a customer and implement the new relationship, the longer you’ll see benefits in return. The customer who’s successfully onboarded will come back with fewer issues because they got the info they needed early on, not halfway through”  

With that in mind, here are some things to consider for onboarding:

  1. Why onboarding matters
  2. Quick tips (Do’s and Don’ts)
  3. Deciding between high-touch and low-touch
  4. High-Touch Onboarding and Goal-Setting
  5. Low-Touch Onboarding for high volume
  6. Building your onboarding program
  7. Creating and Revisiting Onboarding Content
  8. Driving Onboarding Success


Why Onboarding Matters

The first 90 days of implementation are critical. Customers have high expectations of your product’s value and how quickly they’ll see improvement come to light. The CSM needs to establish credibility and work fast to reassure any customer worries. As a CSM, this is where you can start influencing customer outcomes.

While you’re helping your customer through onboarding, you need to collect as much of their product usage data as you can, including account information and engagement mechanisms. These elements will drive your CSM’s actions to customer success. And, if they don’t inform their actions with relevant history, they’re flying blind which means they are unlikely to achieve business outcomes.

But onboarding isn’t just about the first 90 days. There are four parts to the user journey: becoming a prospective user, transitioning as a new user, evolving into a power user, or being a lagging user. Customer adoption is triggered before the initial purchase even happens, and it continues beyond implementation and onboarding. Yet, onboarding plays a special role in driving said adoption. During onboarding, the customer is hyper-susceptible to any good or bad news. This is why most drop-offs happen during this time. To prevent it, Customer Success Managers need to spark customer motivation both in the product itself, and through their relationship.

If your users are lagging during onboarding, it’s of utter importance to get them back on track. Find out where they are dropping off, why, and implement a solution. Onboarding is where most churn happens, so it deserves to be your customer success organization’s number one priority.

Need an Onboarding Game Plan? Build Your Playbook


Quick Tips

Onboarding a new SaaS customer heralds new beginnings and is a time when they are enthusiastic about beginning their customer journey. This is why it’s the most essential time to build trust and drive product adoption.

To get you started, use these tips for SaaS onboarding:

  • DO start With a Plan. Especially for complex implementations, you need a plan so you know where to navigate and so your customer can follow along. The plan should include info on timelines, deliverables from company and customer, and needed knowledge for each onboarding phase. Once the plan is in place, then you can decide whichever way you want to implement it.

  • DO cover All Your Bases. While calls and training sessions are good for most customers, some want to explore your product at their own pace. Providing on-demand training options can help here, and related resources if you have them. Include training options in your onboarding plan as you transition your customer out of the sales process.

  • DO stay Data-Driven. If you evaluate progress through the lens of data, you’ll be able to identify actionable trends like risk indicators and adjust accordingly. For instance, if you review training data closely, you’ll be able to pinpoint where some customers are struggling. See which parts of your onboarding program work and don’t work, and then tailor your approach.

When a big customer cancels their subscription with you, you have to set some time to consider why. Chances are, it might be time to reexamine your onboarding process for any bumps in the road. If onboarded incorrectly, your customer’s chances at success grow dimmer and dimmer. There are some common onboarding mistakes that are easy to avoid.

Here are the 4 common onboarding mistakes and how to avoid them:

DON’T set Unrealistic Objectives: the worst thing to do is over-promise and fail to deliver. Not only does it make you look bad, your customer will know that you failed them and look for another solution. Combat this from the very beginning. When you schedule an introductory call, gather any information from the sales process to prepare yourself. Ask your customer what they want to accomplish and be honest about your product’s capabilities.

DON’T deliver False Value: onboarding is always an exciting stage because the novelty hasn’t worn off of your product yet. Show them that your product is fashionable and functional, not just the former. While it can be good to mention your product’s features, it’s not good to put them on a pedestal. Instead, emphasize the benefits it can provide your customer, and let them experience it through training.

DON’T forget to Follow Up: while it is good to let your customer experiment with your product on their own, they do expect to hear from you. You should respond to their questions and complaints as soon as possible in this timeframe, because it will affect their decision later in choosing your product over someone else’s. Set periodical check-ins with your customer to ensure they’re on track for success.

DON’T ignore Data: Ignoring valuable data that’s easy to collect and analyze is like deep-sea diving past a chest overflowing with diamonds and pearls. It’s great that customer A was happy the last time you spoke with them; how does that compare with customer B or C? To gain an upper edge, work with your product and finance teams to see if there are any specific actions your customer takes or specific features your customer leans toward.


Deciding Between High-Touch and Low-Touch

In building a solid onboarding program, there are 3 routes to consider:  self-service, low-touch, and high-touch. Some customers are best suited for a DIY approach, whereas others will want everything handed to them on a silver platter.


This onboarding experience works for straightforward products and high volume of users. Think of this as going to the grocery store, buying the ingredients, and cooking the recipe. Your customers are going to use your product on their own and use features to achieve the goal they have in mind.


The low-touch customer success approach doesn’t necessitate much hassle, but the customer doesn’t get full service from your CSM team. There are some options available, with some personal attention delivered at critical touch points, but a lot of self-taught options continuously delivered. This kind of onboarding is best for customers who need some degree of guidance but will grow to achieve full value on their own. It’s merely a gentle nudge in the right direction for your customers.


The high-touch onboarding is also thought of as the white-glove onboarding program. When a new product significantly changes a user’s daily workflows, the high-touch service would be most appropriate. This onboarding approach usually compliments and extensive implementation process. While this isn’t a form of hand-holding, it does ensure the customer is able to keep up with a steadily-streaming wealth of knowledge.

Poor Onboarding Is The Number 1 Cause of Churn


High-Touch Onboarding and Goal-Setting

If you’ve decided to go with a high-touch approach to onboarding, whether for that’s for all of your customers or just a segment, the main point of reference is goal-setting and behavior change.

So, how does a CSM start helping people and organizations change? They need to engage with everyone on a personal level and stop applying a one-size-fits-all approach. The more individual attention you give customers, the more value they begin to see in you and your product.

One of the first things the CSM needs to do with the customer is to learn about their goals and set realistic expectations about achieving these. Take these goals and lay them out on a defined roadmap. The roadmap starts from day 1, moving through go-live, driving user adoption after and then analyzing ROI. Key things include:

  • Identifying who within the customer’s organization is responsible for ensuring long-term user adoption and ensuring business goals are met.

  • Determining the organizational and people issues that need to be addressed to drive and sustain user adoption over the life of the system.

  • Defining the specific actions that need to be taken before, at, and after go-live in order for the customer to achieve their business goals.

Wynne Brown, Director of Customer Success at Seal once told us “Success is nearly unattainable without set goals. In most cases, Customer Success has to be based on measurable goals and without that, it’s impossible for customers to know if they’re on track to capturing good reasons to keep on purchasing your software” and there’s no time when this is truer than during onboarding.


Self-Service and Low-Touch Onboarding

Low touch onboarding is a different story. You need to understand how to connect with users at scale to drive adoption across use cases and customer profiles.

In SaaS customer success, two of the most important aspects of adoption is the onboarding and training periods. With complex SaaS, these stages often become challenging, both for the customer and Customer Success Managers.Onboarding should focus on winning the race to the customer’s desired outcome, the lag between the customer’s ‘buy’ moment and when their ultimate need is served.

Thus, it’s your duty to see that the customer achieves this value as quickly as possible, by investing time and people into this effort. Justin Oberbauer, VP of Customer Success at ProsperWorks recommends doing this in 6 ways:

  • Keep up the momentum: your tactics should be designed to propel your customer through the stage that happens right after the deal closes, and right before the onboarding process. For each new customer, all the interactions with them will plant the seeds for this momentum: get the first meeting on your calendar 24 hours within the sales deal closes, use a calendar app so customers can self-schedule, provide resources for assignments that customers are to complete before the first call, and review the sales notes so you can leverage that in your first email and call.

  • Establish ownership: as soon as the sales team closes the deal, that customer is now owned by CS. Make sure you communicate quickly and consistently, and even though automation comes in handy here, you still want to emphasize quality interaction. Emails to customers should come from the consultant and never from a no-reply address to keep that quality alive.

  • Nail the transitions: offer a steady stream of communication between your pre-sales to post-sales owners. Make sure to establish the CSM as the new contact as early and clearly as possible and start developing the relationship right off the bat. When you nail the transition, you eliminate virtually all customer friction, which can be done by capturing all sales notes during the sales process (eg. key buying decisions), and review the account ownership successions with the customer (sales > onboarding > CSM) so they know who to contact and when.

  • Automate: I think you’ve noticed by now that to execute the last 3 steps expertly, you have to leverage data and automation wherever you can. This frees your team from transactional, repetitive tasks so they can focus on polishing the higher value interactions.

  • Combine one-to-many tactics with one-on-one sessions to max time vs. quality: the biggest challenge with onboarding small customers is time- you can’t spend the same amount of time with customers with a $1500 ACV compared to one with a $15,000 ACV. In this case, the customer has to take on some responsibility for their success. Before the one-on-one suggest they study up on the basics and leave the more complex topics for the session.

Continuously measure effectiveness: all CS teams should be focused on outcomes instead of details and should be measured through KPIs like:

  • Product adoption at day 60-90: adoption is something that is established and nurtured over time. measure it well after the process has been completed so you can study it from beginning to end, from different angles, and from the highs and lows.

  • Onboarding CSAT: survey your customer as soon as they exit onboarding to gauge their exp and identify any possible problem areas. Incorporate feedback where it’s relevant, with the intention of sticking to the overall goal.

Building an Onboarding Program is Tough - Watch the Replay


Building your onboarding program

There are threes keys to onboarding success are people, process, and product.

People: Nail the hand-off with your customers. Explain to them who they’ll be working with and what their roles are. As for your team members, train them in referencing articles, talking points, and templates.

Process: Establish a commitment. The first step to this is identifying the stakeholders on the customer side and gathering their information. Now you have to focus on your actual customer and identify what they should be doing at the beginning, and send them regular reminders for it. And if you need to fix a part of the process, devise a check-in process for it.

Product: Provide multiple ways for the customer to use your product to let them decide which parts work and which don’t. This is mainly done through working with the CSM, training, and FAQs. When you can, tailor your onboarding process and training for them.


Creating and Revising Content

Map out your overall content creation plan first. Seeing everything from a wider perspective will make the process easier to understand. With your map in place, ask yourself: What does my customer need to do or know in order to achieve their goal? What content do you have that you can teach this? What new content will you have to make? Who could you ask for help? It might be worthwhile to keep these questions near your map and answer them when you can. And don’t forget: if you’re ever stuck for writing content, make it a habit to review your support tickets to see what customers are struggling with, and convert those into helpful articles.


Driving onboarding success

The most crucial way to make your customers successful is to engage them. When you train them, it’s helpful to have a healthy balance of text and visual-based training to prevent boredom. Keep it short and sweet, and fun to look at.

During training, incorporate SMART goals with them when they’re ready to tell you about what they plan to achieve. SMART goals are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Establish baseline metrics that align with their goals. The important ones are product adoption, customer churn, and renewals, as well as registrations and completions. With product adoption, compare the time spent in your product and the time spent training. For customer data, pay attention to how many people renewed/expanded versus who trained and who left.


Now To You

Always remember that onboarding really is both an art and a science: it requires a healthy balance between creative content and a strategic, data-driven approach. In building your onboarding program, always iterate and adjust in order to drive better results. Onboarding is arguably the single most significant contributor to success, and as such, it deserves your effort and dedication.


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About the Author

Emma Dupon

Emma Dupon is the writing intern at Amity. When she isn’t indulging in competitive gaming, she’s busy drawing or playing piano.

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