A Field Guide to Customer Onboarding

The Best First Step to User Adoption

March 15, 2018

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The days of handing off customers to an onboarding team post-sale are long gone. With the rise of free trials and freemiums, customer onboarding frequently begins during the sales process and continues throughout the customer lifecycle from product training to new feature introduction and upselling new functionality.

The fact is, with practically no barriers to switching providers, SaaS companies are under constant pressure to engage and delight their users. The customer onboarding process, no matter when it takes place, is a critical first step in establishing relationships with users, demonstrating how you meet their business needs and encouraging software adoption.

Our own CEO, Rachel Orston, has experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of adoption first hand. Knowing that user adoption is directly connected to improved customer retention, she is adamant that companies cannot take shortcuts to retention. Putting in the upfront work on customer onboarding pays dividends on the back end of ensuring users successfully adopt.

Failure to successfully onboard has been cited by David Skok as one of the top two reasons for customer churn. The good news is you can mitigate churn from poor onboarding by — you guessed it — improving your customer onboarding strategy!

Whether your process will be high-touch, high-tech or somewhere in between, a stellar onboarding experience is mission critical to successful user adoption, and ultimately retention, expansion, and advocacy.

The Fundamentals of Building a Better Customer Onboarding Process

This guide will help you reimagine and rearchitect your customer onboarding process. From mapping a process that quickly demonstrates business value to examples of in-app and out-of-app touchpoints, you’ll get guidance on building a process that works for you and your customers. We will address:

  1. Designing a User-Centric Customer Journey
  2. Using “WOW” Moments to Improve User Adoption
  3. Jump Starting Implementation with a Kick-off Call
  4. Engaging Customers with In-App and Outside-of-App Touchpoints
  5. How Data-Driven Improvement Lengthens Your Customer Lifecycle
  6. Why You Need Multiple Customer Onboarding Delivery Methods

Learn more about the importance of onboarding in our introduction blog with strategies, processes, and tools for getting started.

1. Designing A User-Centric Customer Journey

A frequent, yet avoidable, mistake of customer onboarding is putting your product at the center of your onboarding, letting product features and functions drive the process. Successful onboarding requires that you shift your mindset, putting customer needs in the driver’s seat.

Start with a deep understanding of your customer’s needs. You probably have two great sources at your disposal — user intelligence data and your sales team. If you are collecting user and/or product intelligence, you have insight into what users are doing, what features they use most often, where they’re getting stuck or dropping off and more. Use these data points to identify opportunities to engage users, guide them through sticking points, curb drop-off and improve adoption.

This is a great time to leverage your sales team’s customer knowledge in areas such as:

  • Key pain points the customer hopes your product can solve
  • Use cases that are unique to the company or particular users
  • Key contacts and stakeholders involved in the sales process
  • Features about which customers get most excited
  • Opportunities for customer expansion

Validate your learnings with customers themselves. Hearing directly from the customer will confirm your learnings from sales, provide additional context and can even uncover new issues, concerns or opportunities. Monitor what’s happening and how customer behavior is evolving — regularly review usage and activity data to get ahead of changing needs and identify emerging concerns before they become full-blown problems. Periodically check back in with customers to get a pulse check, especially when you noticing changes in user behavior, activity, or engagement.

Observing how a customer uses your product — through data monitoring and direct customer engagement — will help you create an engaging and valuable experience. Observe different types of users — basic users, power users, admins, etc. — to understand how they get from A to Z and everywhere they go in between.

Remember that customer onboarding is not one size fits all. The best processes provide users with customized paths based on their needs and activity. It should also be dynamic, allowing users to diverge where appropriate and then re-enter the path, ensuring they experience critical features and functions.

An Example of a UserIQ Customer Journey Map:

Questions to Consider When Mapping Your Process:

  • Have you identified all the different types of users that should receive onboarding?
  • Are you getting input and feedback from all relevant stakeholders — product, 
customer success, UX, etc. — to ensure a comprehensive view?
  • How many different onboarding paths are needed and are feasible to develop?
  • Will you allow users to diverge from your defined path? If so, how will you ensure 
that they are guided to re-enter the path and experience all critical functionality?
  • To what level can you personalize the user experience? Use case, name, job role? 
The more you personalize, the better your user engagement.

2. Delivering WOW Moments

David Skok, a venture capitalist and successful entrepreneur, believes that WOW moments are critical in converting free trial users to paying customers. A WOW moment is when a prospect suddenly understands the business benefit they’ll derive from your product. It’s the moment they become a believer.

A well-designed customer onboarding process should deliver many potential WOW moments to delight customers and improve adoption. If you’ve done your homework, leveraged your data, observed how users interact with your product, and discussed their experiences, you’ll have real-life examples to bake into your onboarding process. The faster you can get someone who’s “just browsing” to have a “WOW” moment, the shorter your sales cycle and the faster your time to value. A WOW moment within your process can take many forms. Below you can find an example of how the UserIQ platform provides a WOW moment to its users.

Learn more from David Skok about how to identify and leverage WOW moments.

3. Kick-Offs Set the Tone

One of the most important steps in your customer onboarding process is the kick-off call. This is your chance to make sure all stakeholders are on the same page with expectations and goals.

Here’s a checklist of things you’ll likely want to accomplish in your kick-off call:

  • Set Expectations
    Discuss your customer’s goals and what their idea of success is. This is the perfect time to level set on what your product can (and maybe can’t) do or to make sure the customer is clear on exactly why functionality they have purchased.
  • Determine Success Metrics
    Explain how you measure successful onboarding – what you measure, how frequently and how results will be provided.
  • Make Team Introductions
    Understand the key players and their roles in the onboarding process. Introduce your team and make sure customers know who they should contact with questions or issues they may have.
  • Provide Customer Resources
    Make sure users have all of their login credentials and all necessary documentation.

Don’t forget to develop an onboarding kickoff deck that gives new customers insight into how their onboarding will run and how it will lead to success. A great example we love is from InsightSquared which includes a slide on the journey customers will go through with their product as well as a slide on how their customer success plan will help them achieve their business goals. As a bonus, you can download a sample kickoff deck here.

Credit: InsightSquared + Kia Puhm of KIA CX Consulting

By the end of the kick-off, you and your customer should be on the same page about what success looks like and how you’ll get there. In advance of the actual kick-off call, send the customer a “What’s Next” communication to let them know what to expect as they get started.



4. Engaging Customers with In-App & Outside-of-App Touchpoints

A thorough journey will include touchpoints — inside and outside the product — that map to important milestones. Breaking customer onboarding down into digestible chunks and celebrating milestones along the way will improve customer engagement and keep users motivated. It also provides important opportunities to connect with users, creating an overall stickier experience, positioning you for future customer expansion.

In-app touchpoints can be anything from a progress bar within a tutorial to tips and shortcuts that help users make the most efficient and productive use of their onboarding time. In low-touch onboarding models, in-app guidance is critical to user understanding and adoption of core features and functions. In high-touch models, in-app guidance reinforces and supplements your high-touch efforts.

Not sure whether high-touch or high-tech is the right customer onboarding strategy? Our webinar can help you weigh your options.

In-App Touchpoints

Welcome Touches

The first time a user engages with your product might be before they even start the customer onboarding process. They may be taking advantage of a product trial or have been granted access to the product prior to onboarding. If they are not yet fully activated, their ability to interact with the product may be limited. Rather than have them become frustrated, use the opportunity to guide them to a moment that builds their anticipation for onboarding. Give them an example of what to expect.


Credit: Upwork.com

Guided Tours

Step-by-step guides help you lead your customers quickly to value. If you’ve done your homework in the mapping phase, you’ll already have identified their WOW moments and can build a meaningful experience around those moments.

A well-mapped and personalized experience will ensure that users are exposed to the features and functions that drive business results for their particular need or role. You can also mitigate frustration or future support needs by drawing particular attention to areas that users often find confusing or troublesome, improving ultimate user adoption.


Creating quick tips helps you highlight key interest points without interrupting a user’s onboarding experience. Tips can include shortcuts, reminders, quick tips, or hints.

Blank States

Until users are fully up and running on your product, they may encounter core functions that are not yet populated. Use the opportunity to provide them with user-friendly instructions on how to activate or with other actions to complete in the meantime. Empty screens with no value frustrate users and should be avoided.

Major Milestones

Keep users engaged and motivated by recognizing key accomplishments throughout the onboarding process. Users will feel like they are making tangible progress and you’ll provide additional brand exposure and relationship building. Not to mention the associations of success and feeling good that they’ll make with your application.

Outside-App Touchpoints

Welcome Emails

Even before users start the customer onboarding process, you can start building your relationship. Make a personal connection with new users by sending them a “welcome” email. This communication can set the tone for your relationship — make them feel important and let them know you’re glad they are considering or have selected you. Establish yourself as a critical resource for questions or support. Share some simple actions they can take to keep them engaged like a list of resources to explore, next steps in the process or explain how to get started.

Download our email template to help you get started.

Drip Campaigns

By profiling users and monitoring what kinds of content they interact with, you can serve up targeted emails that encourage activation, create opportunities for customer expansion, build customer loyalty and create brand advocacy. You can also measure what emails are generating the most engagement and determine what you should do more of — and less of — in future campaigns.

Credit: Calendly.com

Resource Center

Give your users the ability to self-serve for common requests or issues. A well-stocked resource center is a destination for troubleshooting tips, user groups, blogs, videos and other high-value resources.

Tangible Rewards

If you have a particularly lengthy or complex customer onboarding process, you may consider sending users a token when they complete the process. No matter if it’s a simple card or branded company swag, recognition of a job well done will create a sense of goodwill and connection between you and your customers.

Check out our gallery of templates you can use to inspire your own customer communications.


5. Data-Driven Improvements Lengthen Your Customer Lifecycle

No matter whether your approach is high-tech or high-touch, monitoring the customer onboarding process provides you with a window into the user experience. You should be actively tracking and monitoring usage and behavior data so you can see what users are doing (or not doing). Use this data to celebrate successes and plan your next iterations and improvements.

Monitor valuable data points like:

  • How often users are logging in
  • Where users are getting stuck
  • Where users are exiting the 
onboarding process
  • How much time users spend on 
certain processes
  • Processes that trigger questions 
or support requests

6. Why You Need Multiple Customer Onboarding Delivery Methods

There is no one-size-fits-all customer onboarding method. With the variety of users you need to onboard, you are bound to run into a number of different learning styles. The style may be driven by the user type or by the content. Either way, you’ll want to consider executing multiple approaches:


Some users benefit from an audio-visual presentation. Self-guided videos give them the opportunity to go at their own pace and consume content in digestible batches. Consider a modular approach that allows users to select the content most relevant to them and doesn’t require a linear path.

Live Help

During the onboarding process, users will want access to a live person if they have questions or issues that can’t be solved through their already available resources. You’ll need to determine what kind of contact you’ll support (voice, chat, text, email, etc.), how you’ll staff, what turnaround time you’ll commit to, and what type of escalation plan you’ll need.


Live web conferences allow you to customize the experience for different customers or user types. Interaction helps keep users actively engaged and gives them the opportunity to dive deeper into particular interest or concern areas. Sessions can be archived for future use or with new user groups.

Email Drip Campaigns with Educational Content

For onboarding topics that are not time sensitive or may be considered not critical to day-to-day operations, consider an email drip campaign. You can monitor which emails users engage with the most and apply those learnings to future emails. Email campaigns also offer a great way to re-engage users whose login activity may have dropped.

Are You Ready to Start Improving User Adoption?

Hopefully you’ve learned a bit about the value of a high-quality customer onboarding and the steps you can take to optimize your process. It’s not a small task, but it’s a vitally important one that can improve user adoption and reduce churn. While you may not know what you’re missing with a sub-optimal process, you won’t regret investing in a better one.

Want to find out how UserIQ can help you onboard your new users with ease?

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About UserIQ

UserIQ empowers SaaS companies to deliver what each user needs to be successful in every moment, starting with adoption. As a result, you’ll be able to effectively scale customer onboarding, increase feature usage, accelerate time-to-value, and ultimately drive more revenue throughout the customer journey.

For more information on our platform and how it can help improve your onboarding process leading to increased adoption rates, learn more here.

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