Introduction to Customer Onboarding

Process, Strategy, Tools, & More

Introduction to Customer Onboarding

February 13, 2018

You only have one shot to make a first good impression, and when a better onboarding experience can double trial conversion rates and ultimately reduce customer churn, you want to make sure you do everything you can to get it right. Lincoln Murphy often reminds us that “the seeds of churn are planted early,” and for that reason, customer onboarding is considered to be the most strategic step in the customer success journey. Onboarding sets the tone for your business relationship with buyers and users and ensures strong product adoption, a step upon which a successful customer journey is founded. That’s why creating an outstanding customer onboarding process is a must for SaaS businesses.

We’ve written this guide to help you out in the process of developing a customer onboarding plan for your customers, sharing our expertise and giving you all the resources you need to get started. We’ll explain:

  • What customer onboarding is and why it’s important
  • Strategies for developing your customer onboarding process
  • Best practices and tips for elevating your customer onboarding strategy
  • Valuable customer onboarding tools and solutions
  • And much more!

 

1. What is Customer Onboarding?

Customer onboarding, in a nutshell, consists of proactively guiding new customers through your product so they can learn more about how it works and its value to their goals. What it entails precisely of course varies according to the characteristics of your product and its features. But no matter the nature of your SaaS business, there are some fundamental aspects you can build on, as well as some nuances you should consider. This section explores these points through a series of questions.

Why is customer onboarding important?

With free trials and freemium models now being commonplace, onboarding and adoption is less likely to happen after purchase. Instead, the beginning of the customer success journey takes place during the consideration or decision phase of the sales funnel. That means your team needs to win the hearts and minds of users before they even become your customers.

How does customer onboarding differ from user onboarding?

There’s a somewhat subtle difference between user onboarding and customer onboarding. Both ultimately lead to the same goal, getting new buyers up and running, but customer onboarding takes a more high-level perspective, helping decision-makers or admins to achieve high-level business goals. In contrast, user onboarding is more tactical and focuses on taking actual users through the product, teaching them how it works, and showing them the value they will find on a daily basis.

How is SaaS customer onboarding unique?

The need for smooth, effective customer onboarding is even stronger for SaaS businesses since barriers to canceling subscriptions are virtually nonexistent. In many cases, users can churn at any time and sign up for a competitor’s product in just a few clicks. That’s why onboarding for SaaS businesses must be exceptional to drive adoption, minimize time-to-value, and orchestrate quick wins — instances in which your product helps users achieve their desired business outcomes quickly.

Who should be involved in the onboarding process?

Customer onboarding for SaaS businesses is far too critical to be the responsibility of just one team or department. It should be an organization-wide effort with the active participation of at least the three following stakeholders.

Customer success

Customer success onboarding is typically owned by customer success managers (CSMs). In some cases, when onboarding is more elaborate, the initial onboarding process might be handled by Implementation or Onboarding Specialists as a separate group taking the handoff from sales and then over to day-to-day CSMs once implementation is complete. Their responsibilities include proactively supporting customers to install and configure the product for their organization, anticipating questions and needs with high-tech and high-touch engagement points, and minimizing time-to-value for users.

Product management and development

No one knows the ins and outs of your application and the capabilities it provides better than your product team. In fact, product managers understand the complete capabilities of each feature and how they can be used for specific customer use cases, so they may be involved in the onboarding process to gather feedback and iterate their product’s overall functionality to make it more intuitive, useful, and user-friendly.

Customer support

Customer support representatives are the defensive line of your onboarding experience. They are available to help tackle any weak link in your customer success efforts or product functionality gaps and resolve issues ASAP. Their involvement in the customer onboarding process should also ideally include providing feedback to your product and customer success teams to anticipate common problems and answer FAQs.

What are the top trends in customer onboarding?

The strategic importance of onboarding is critical to starting your users off on the right foot as they implement your new technology into their organization. SaaS-based business models are burgeoning across industries and product categories, and we see three onboarding trends emerging as the industry grows.

Blended high-tech and high-touch onboarding

Customers are not always enthusiastic about automation, but it can help create outstanding onboarding experiences when used in conjunction with high-touch engagement points. For instance, users can learn about the essential features of a product with content and touchpoints triggered automatically 24/7 without any dependence on your teams—allowing customer success managers to prioritize efforts on the advanced aspects of your application and give them more time to build:

  • the relationship with the customer
  • understand needs and goals
  • set and deliver on milestones

In-app onboarding is becoming the norm

Your application is the logical place where users can learn about your features. In fact, in-app touchpoints such as integrated guided tours and tooltips offer the advantage to get customers up and running while they engage with your product and as they need it. These in-app engagements are also a great way to supplement onboarding and training and can even include chat and support documentation that trigger to present users with the right message at the right time in the moment they need it.

Product content is turning into marketing content

In the past, how-to guides and detailed product information would have been sent only to users. Now product content is usually available on most marketing sites since prospective buyers want to know more about a SaaS application before they even consider signing up for it. That means your onboarding efforts can start as early as the first time a potential customer visits your website.

2. The Customer Onboarding Process

Your customer onboarding process consists of the key steps new users need to take in order to achieve their goals through your product. It requires careful planning, high attention to detail, a deep understanding of customer desired outcomes, and should be thoroughly documented and accessible to anyone involved in onboarding—both the customer as well as internal stakeholders. Exact steps will vary from one SaaS business to another, but should cover most of the steps below.

The Customer Onboarding Process
Initial ContactKick-OffTrainingAdoptionRetention
Welcome buyers and users, and give a preview of how to get started and what to expect in the onboarding processDiscuss your product in the context of their needsFocus on minimizing time to valueExplain advanced or premium features, perhaps integrations to considerGet customers excited about new features
Further crystallize the information you already have about desired outcomesDefine expectations and success metricsHighlight specific product features relevant to the customer needsDiscuss feedback on features & value to the customerEnsure ticket maximum is always less than three for each customer
Identify key customer contactsExplain how you will measure successful onboardingHighlight the impact of features on success metricsGauge their preference of engagement with you (weekly, monthly, etc)Ensure an engaged working relationship

1. Initial Contact

These are the first interactions happening between your customer success team and new users. These consist primarily of automated or digital engagement points. What’s essential at this point is that users feel warmly welcome and get a sense of what your product can do for them and how it works. For you, that’s the opportunity to crystalize and deepen the information you’ve likely gotten from your sales team about their needs and the challenges they face as well as how they expect your product to solve those challenges.

2. Kickoff

This step is about providing users with everything they need to get started such as login credentials and relevant documentation and beginning the conversation of how your product will impact their needs and goals. It will also be beneficial to explain how you define what it means for the customer to be “successfully onboarded” so they understand what to expect. By the end of this step, everyone should be on the same page with shared expectations and agreed success metrics and the role of the product in achieving them.

Pro-tip: Identify “quick wins” from the start that will help your users see value quickly. Quick wins generate positive sentiment toward your product and build on your relationship with your customers which keeps their momentum moving in the right direction.

3. Training

This is the stage when customers sign in and start interacting with your features. Supported by your customer success team, they are going to see for themselves whether the functionality you offer is valuable and goes well with their business processes. Your job at this stage is to minimize their time-to-value and realize quick wins with features that have a relevant, measurable impact on the success metrics you defined in the previous stage.

Pro-tip – Have your users “train the trainer” to find out how much they’ve learned and how far they can get without your assistance. Make note of areas where users get stuck as it could signal a gap where you can provide a tour or tooltip to get new users further down the path.

4. Adoption

Adoption begins once users have seen value from your product, how it will meet their desired outcomes, and begin integrating it into their business processes. Expectations are high so your customer success team needs to be more proactive than ever, designing targeted engagement points to explain advanced features, and providing premium support so users can leverage your product’s entire functionality. This is also a critical time for feedback; this helps your customers feel heard by your team and helps your product team improve the application based on customer requests and needs.

5. Retention

Your SaaS application is unquestionably going to evolve as you collect user feedback, identify areas for improvement, and iterate and introduce new features to tackle emerging needs and provide customers with excellent reasons why they should stay subscribed month after month. As such, onboarding does not end with adoption, and your customer success team should think of it as an ongoing process for keeping users engaged with your product over time and, therefore, preventing churn.

3. Customer Onboarding Strategy

Customer onboarding must be part of a plan which is shared and agreed upon by all relevant teams involved in the customer onboarding process. Otherwise, it is likely that your efforts to drive adoption will be inconsistent and dispersed — creating a confusing experience for your users who may not know what to do when they need help. That is why you must select a customer onboarding strategy, or blend of them (which we recommend), based on the unique characteristics of your SaaS business and customer base.

In particular, you should think carefully about the level of personalization you want to offer and whether to lean toward high-tech vs. high-touch customer onboarding strategies. Or you may instead go for a blended approach, which is ideal for both personalization and scalability. In this section, we take a closer look at various options to help you make the right decision.

High-touch onboarding

  1. On-site customer onboarding

When it comes to delivering a fully personalized customer onboarding experience, visiting users on site to get them up and running is as good it can get. However, this approach is not scalable as it’s costly for you and time-consuming for your customers. It may make sense for your customer success team to go on premises when:

  • Your product is complex or highly strategic to your clients’ business processes
  • Users are senior executives who are busy and require fast-track training
  1. Virtual customer onboarding

You may also offer a similar high-touch onboarding experience virtually via a webinar or video call. That’s certainly less resource-consuming for your customer success team since there is no need to travel, but it does still require people and bandwidth. Virtual onboarding is particularly well suited for clients who require personalized attention but have their employee base distributed. Another advantage is that recordings can also be made available later to people who could not attend onboarding sessions.

  1. Champion-based customer onboarding

Your efforts might need to only focus on training a particular subset of a client’s users who will then be responsible for cascading down learnings to their respective teams internally. This approach can be cheaper than working with each user individually and often allows you to build strong business relationships with senior employees from a client’s organization.

High-tech onboarding

  1. Self-service customer onboarding

This strategy is about creating an intuitive customer onboarding experience with top quality materials and advanced digital touchpoints. Doing so can help you scale faster, but it requires an in-depth understanding of users, and the ability to anticipate most questions or doubts they might have. This model though, often leaves a lot to chance because dedicated customer success members remain hands off unless they are needed, and that pushes them into a reactive support role rather a proactive success role.

  1. Milestone-based customer onboarding

Especially when direct interactions with your customer success team are infrequent or if your product has many features, users may not know where they stand in the customer onboarding process or what they are currently missing out. You can guide them with milestones to help them keep track of the progress they make and indicate a precise sequence of actions to follow with regular checkpoints, so onboarding seems more manageable to them.

Segment-based onboarding

  1. Tiered customer onboarding

You do not necessarily have to offer the same customer onboarding experience to everyone. Instead, you could distinguish between different tiers of buyers — such as enterprises, mid-market, and startups — and tailor your approach to suit their needs. For example, the customers in your enterprise tier might receive more high-touch, “white glove” attention with a dedicated customer success manager whereas lower tiers would predominantly go through more automated or self-service onboarding programs.

  1. Role-based onboarding

Consider creating distinct onboarding paths based on the roles users have inside their organization. For instance, senior managers may require admin rights to add and remove users, get access to integrated stats, as well as manage permissions regarding the use of specific features by different employees. Most of that information, however, would be irrelevant to users working at an operational level and they would undoubtedly benefit more from an in-depth training about your product’s functionality.

Common Metrics to Support Onboarding Strategies

Regardless of your customer onboarding strategy, it’s vital for your SaaS business to know how users progress throughout the onboarding process such that you can understand how your onboarding process is working and how to be proactive against potential issues. Monitoring your onboarding efforts will also help you improve it over time and evaluate the efforts of your customer success team. In this section, we review some success metrics you can use for that purpose.

Login activity

Particularly during the onboarding phase, knowing how often users are logging in is valuable to ensure that they are committed to learning how to use your product. Users who frequently sign into your product are surely getting the most of your platform and receive greater value from working with your application. But if login activity is low, it may mean that they do not perceive how your features can help them achieve their business goals, making them more likely to churn.

Feature adoption

This metric measures how many features users are successfully working with on average. Feature adoption should go up during onboarding as your customers learn about your product and its capabilities. If feature adoption is low or stagnating, this could mean users need a little extra help to get started or that some functionality is irrelevant to them in its current form.

 Feature usage

Usage is slightly different than adoption as it does not just look at whether users have worked with a feature, but how frequently they have done so. High usage indicates which aspects of your product are particularly valuable to customers and represent strengths for your SaaS business overall. This data can inform your onboarding strategy, especially if you are using an industry-based segmentation approach. 

Customer sentiment

You can deploy onboarding-specific surveys to ask customers what their first impressions about your product are, whether they find it intuitive in general, as well as collecting detailed feedback and suggestions on the onboarding process itself so you can make improvements as needed.

Trial conversion

One of the most critical success factors for your business is whether users are willing to pay for it. Trial conversion indicates the percentage of users who have upgraded to a paid subscription by the end of their trial period. Unlike other success metrics,  conversions directly link to revenue generation and the financial well-being of your SaaS business.

 Onboarding abandonment

Churn rate in the context of onboarding tells you how many customers stopped using your product before being fully aware of how they can benefit from it. High churn during onboarding could indicate that users are confused or that your customer success team does not deliver quick wins fast enough and should look for ways to speed up the process. It can also mean that your sales team is selling to bad-fit customers or making promises that cannot be delivered on by the product.

Customer onboarding cost

This metric accounts for the time and resources needed for training and supporting your customers during the onboarding process. You can keep these costs lower by implementing more scalable practices, like digital touchpoints, a knowledge base, and guided tours, which reduce the amount of employees and employee time needed to get a new customer up and running.

4. Customer Onboarding Best Practices

After you’ve implemented your customer onboarding strategy, you may want to consider additional tactics and tips that help you elevate your plan and wow your users. Here are 13 best practices in customer onboarding across four categories.

Good Communication

You may have the best product in the industry from a technical standpoint, but users can fail to notice that if the quality of interactions within the product and with your customer success team is suboptimal. For that reason, you certainly want to:

  1. Get personal where possible

Users like and respond to individualized experiences and you can make that happen with personalized messages — e.g., welcome emails and contextual in-app engagements — that include their names, company names, and information tailored to their industry, company, or role.

  1. Set expectations and SLAs

Customers must also be aware of what to expect from your processes and how long tasks can take, so make sure you are specific about the level of support you can provide across segments for each class of onboarding queries and potential incidents.

  1. Leverage relevant success stories

There’s nothing more encouraging than stories that highlight the success of other customers in a similar context with your product. You can include these stories on your website or any material and product training you provide for onboarding purposes. Be sure to include information that lets the customer know why this story is relevant to them.

  1. Be reachable across channels

It’s during the onboarding process that users are going to have the most questions, so they need to know exactly how to contact you — chat, email, phone, or somewhere else — for different types of requests.

Targeted Onboarding Content

Content, no matter whether it’s in-app or not, plays a big part in supporting customers to get started, and it is essential you provide each piece of information when it is the most relevant to them based on where they are in the onboarding process.

  1. Always showcase features and benefits

Features and benefits represent the backbone of how your SaaS application is going to enable customers to achieve their business objectives. That’s why they must be prominently shown throughout content pieces, such that users know and are continuously reminded of what they can expect from your product once they complete the onboarding.

  1. Provide multimedia content

Try providing different categories of written and visual content as some users might be more receptive to videos and in-app engagement points whereas others prefer emails or how-to guides. Offering options to learn about your product allows users to choose what works best for them and facilitate their onboarding.

  1. Avoid information overload

While you want to ensure users have all they need to onboard adequately, a lot of the functionality you offer will be new to them, and you must resist the temptation to provide too much information at once. Excessive details might discourage or overwhelm them and make it likely that they will skip some essential aspects of the onboarding process.

User Engagement

How much users engage with your product and its features is a definite factor of onboarding success, and it can be your best argument when it comes to convincing them to stay subscribed or upgrade to a premium plan. You can use engagement data to:

  1. Encourage early upgrades

You do not have to wait until the last minute to prompt potential buyers to go premium. Instead, you can attempt to drive conversion early as soon as you notice that a user is receiving value from your product, potentially offering a discount or some premium support if they upgrade within, for example, the next five days.

  1. Trigger onboarding events based on user data

Some users might come across an unexpected bump in the road as they learn about your product, and instead of asking for help they may just prefer to stop using it. When you monitor engagement closely, you can schedule check-in times with customers to discuss progress, invite them to additional training sessions, or provide targeted help when you notice usage is low.

  1. Create a culture of continuous onboarding

You need to keep users updated when you introduce a killer new feature or implement a new product version so they can continue to make the best of all the functionality at their fingertips. For that reason, you might design mini-onboarding sessions dedicated to showing customers what has changed since the last time they logged in.

  1. Celebrate achievements

Consider acknowledging key milestones by delivering “high-five” or congratulatory messages to users when they’ve completed a critical step. This is another positivity booster that keeps your users feeling good about their achievements with your product. Here’s an example of a “high-five” email and in-app message we deliver when a new user successfully installs our tracking code:

Onboarding Fine-Tuning

Your customer onboarding process might be good overall, but is it as good as it can get? As time goes by, your customer success managers are going to come up with better ways to get users started and reduce time-to-value even more.

  1. Work with customers directly

Either through their in-app behaviors or NPS surveys, users can tell you a lot about how they have liked your onboarding experience first hand, giving you invaluable feedback and suggestions for improvement and introducing better or new engagement points.

  1. Monitor your competitors

SaaS businesses in your industry are another excellent source of ideas to improve your customer onboarding process. You can quickly check what’s new on their website or maybe even sign up for a free plan to learn about what they do to support new users and improve your onboarding experience accordingly. With competitors just a click away, staying on top of your game is a must.

  1. Learn from SaaS market leaders in other industries

Your company might use the services of other SaaS businesses, and you might also learn from the onboarding experience they have provided you to improve your own. Also, your customer success teams can identify SaaS market leaders in each industry to identify and implement others’ customer onboarding best practices.

5. Customer Onboarding Experience

So far in this piece, we have mostly taken the perspective of SaaS businesses, and what they need to do to make onboarding happen smoothly. But to illustrate why that matters and how onboarding can impact customer lifetime value, it is useful to see the world through the eyes of users.

Let’s look at an example of what a customer onboarding experience could look like in a fictional use case using the previously defined stages of the customer onboarding process. We step into the shoes of Jane Smith, a customer success director, who decided to sign up for Stark App, a SaaS application from Stark Industries, and begin her free trial with the goal of gathering in-app feedback from her customers. 

Figure 2 — An Example Customer Onboarding Experience

Initial ContactKick-OffTrainingAdoptionRetention
Personalized welcome email

Overview of the product & what to expect during onboarding

Opportunity to discuss specific needs

Integration with existing systems

Easy setup for all users,- Multimedia content

Agreed upon success metrics & milestones

Overview of core features

Best practices to speed up time-to-value

Initial results

In-depth learning of advanced features

Personalized training and support,
Excellent results

Improvement and customization

Working closely with customer success

Reasons to keep using the application

Initial Contact

Jane feels enthusiastic about getting started with Stark App after she received a couple of welcoming customer onboarding emails that highlighted the primary benefits of the application that are relevant to her industry and gave her a preview of what to expect during her onboarding process. She was also able to log in briefly and learn about what all the product does through integrated guided tour software. Very importantly, these communications were personalized, taking into consideration that she requires admin rights to add or remove users in the department and collecting some essential details about her needs for the next steps.

Kick-Off

For Jane, it is vital that Stark App integrates with the company’s existing CRM, and her customer success representative from Stark Industries has taken note to send her a knowledge base article on her company’s particular system. Additionally, she provided the list of contacts who will be using the application, so they receive customer onboarding emails to set up their account as well as relevant multimedia content about the next steps and success metrics established with the customer success managers.

Training

Everyone in the team had their account set up and got started thanks to the personalized customer onboarding emails, guided tour software, and customer onboarding survey that gave everyone an overview of Stark App’s core features with just enough information to show why they are valuable and help them see value quickly. After that, Jane and her team worked closely with Stark App’s customer success team, learning about best practices to dive into the product’s relevant features, and that prompted a conversation about a potential early upgrade with extra advantages.

Adoption

Jane has decided to move forward with a premium plan, and her department is now in the process of learning about all advanced features through another series of customer onboarding emails and calls to tackle the sophisticated needs of her company. The customer success team is being of tremendous help with excellent support scheduling frequent product training sessions, designing personalized in-app feature callouts using guided tour software, and demonstrating how the entire Stark App’s functionality contributes to driving excellent results as measured by the success metrics agreed upon in the kick-off. Stark Industries’ customer success managers also set up a customer onboarding survey to gather feedback specifically on the premium features.

Retention

What Jane particularly enjoys about collaborating with customer success managers from Stark Industries is that they always make sure her team receives appropriate support with customer onboarding emails and in-app messages. They’ve also gathered additional information about her department’s needs through different customer onboarding surveys, are very open to product feedback, and, most importantly, act on the feedback gathered going the extra mile to improve functionality. That’s great since it gives Jane the opportunity to work with a tailored solution, providing her with excellent reasons to keep using it over time.

6. Customer Onboarding Tools

You are going to need a supportive tech stack in place to enable a truly outstanding customer onboarding experience for your customers. But the functionality offered across applications varies hugely, and not all of them are right for your SaaS business.

For instance, customer onboarding tools will help you get one aspect of onboarding right, but on their own are often not enough to empower a holistic experience. Customer onboarding solutions, in comparison, are all-encompassing, covering several of the features you’ll need to develop your onboarding process. Here’s an overview of the principal applications available on the market, grouped into relevant categories you might consider to onboard your users.

Onboarding experience

Customer onboarding tools and solutions are valuable to design and implement engagement points for your users, especially as they sign in for the first few times to your SaaS product.

NameDescriptionPricing
UserIQCreate and deploy onboarding guided
tours, feature callouts, and tooltips
Custom
HopscotchFramework for the coding of customizable
product tours in JSON and HTML5
Open Source
grumble.jsDIY tooltips in JavaScriptOpen Source
intro.jsProgress bar to encourage users to
complete onboarding
Free-$9.99/month
WistiaOnboarding videos to inform users about
the app and features
Free-$9.99/month
LeanplumPersonalized push notificationsCustom
iShowUTutorial with audio and videotaping$24-$79/month
AppcuesOnboarding experience creation and
in-app deployment without coding required
$79-$3,000+/month
MailChimpNew feature announcements via emailFree-$199
Close.ioWelcoming users through email$65-$165
Customer.ioTrigger-based emails with analytics$250-$2,500

Onboarding analytics and testing

These are the customer onboarding solutions and tools that enable you to collect quantitative data monitoring users and how they engage in different steps of the onboarding process.

NameDescriptionPricing
UserIQHigh-level and detailed view of product
adoption and support tickets solved
Custom
AmplitudeMonitor how users navigate an application
and identifying which features drive retention
Free/month-Custom
KissmetricsCreation and monitoring of conversion
funnels with segmentation and retargeting
$500/month-Custom
MixpanelSetting up user onboarding funnels with
A/B testing capabilities
Free-Custom
OptimizelyA/B testing based onboarding of
welcome screens and product tours
Custom
ApptimizeMobile app A/B testing using different user
onboarding flows, and written and visual content
$995/month-Custom
TotangoMeasure and analyze user engagement
during free trial to drive retention
$220/month-Custom
SegmentData integration from multiple customer
onboarding tools and solutions
Free-Custom

Qualitative data gathering and surveys

You can also work with customer onboarding software that focuses on gathering and integrating qualitative data to uncover insights about your user base.

NameDescriptionPricing
UserIQCustom onboarding surveys (NPS and
others) deployed in-app
Custom
UserTestingVideo recording of users interacting with
an application
Free-Custom
QualarooGather real-time feedback via targeted
in-app surveys
$199-$2,250/month
TypeformGathers feedback via onboarding surveysFree-$59/month
AppseeTouch heatmaps for mobile appsFree-Custom
ClearbitProvides demographic insights about
users integrating other apps
Custom
DriftNotification when an influencer signs up
for a product
Free-$1,000/custom
HelpshiftPrompt users to leave mobile app rating at
the right moment
$225/month-Custom

Let’s Talk More about Customer Onboarding

At UserIQ, one of our priorities is to enable SaaS businesses to deliver the best onboarding experience and drive adoption and retention, taking into account their users’ unique characteristics and requirements. Would you like to see what this could look like in practice for your company? Drop us a line at [email protected] or schedule a demo.