Introduction

‘Customer Onboarding’ is an umbrella term that’s often used to describe the entire process that users go through when they start their journey as a customer of your product or service. The onboarding experience can define the ongoing relationship your customer has with the product. In other words: It’s critical.

Think back to the last time you tried to add a new habit to your life.

Perhaps you thought “this is finally my year to learn a new language.” You downloaded an app, felt the thrill of practicing for 5 days in a row, and then…life happened. One day you had to stay late at work, so your evening was rushed, and you fell into bed without practicing. Then you tried that new show everyone is talking about and watched the whole season in one weekend.

After a while, your motivation fades and the excuses become more prevalent.

If you relate to any part of that scenario, chances are you’re a human. We’ve all tried building new habits, to varying degrees of success. It’s no easy feat.

The thing is, learning and incorporating a SaaS app into a workflow is no different than learning a language, hitting the gym, or sticking to morning meditation. When a person signs up for a SaaS free trial, they’re faced with building the habit of using that product consistently.

We know that building habits is hard, so your job as a SaaS company is to support a new user as much as possible during those initial weeks. This is where customer onboarding comes into play. Let’s explore.

What Is Customer Onboarding?

I. At its heart, customer onboarding is the process of getting new customers familiar with your products and your services -- so familiar, in fact, that they become your advocates, promoting the use of your SaaS within their operations, broadcasting the success they've had and the difference it has made to the business. This level of engagement represents an investment in customer retention. And, as McKinsey has emphasized, over the process of two years, "a retained customer [delivers] significantly greater profitability than a newly acquired customer." Achieving this level of enthusiasm on the part of your customers calls for a lot of different activities.

II. First, you need to make sure users are trained on your software for the roles they have in their organization. Not everybody needs the same type of information. You have to find out what their various goals are. Then you can organize users into more specific "personas," based on their unique needs and customize and target the training appropriately.

III. Second, it's your job to come up with training plans for those different personas that are as concise as possible. Nobody wants to waste time sitting through explanation of features or functions that don't matter to them. As technical enablement expert Pat Durante points out in "The Ultimate Guide to Customer Training," these days, users are accustomed to going right to video platforms like YouTube to get their own help, and the shorter, the better. Their perspective: "Tell me what I need to know right now and then get out of my way, so I can do it myself."

Third, in early days, make sure people are engaging with your SaaS. If they're not logging in, you need to follow up and find out what the delay means. Start off with automated outreach -- via email -- and offer the human touch, such as a brief Zoom or Skype session, to help them get over the initial hurdles.

IV. Fourth, keep track of early success (and by this, we don't mean your success but the customer's). Getting 100 percent of users to log in at least once may represent success for you, but that doesn't really mean anything for the customer. What they care about is speeding time to order completion, expediting a greater number of trouble tickets at tier one support, increasing the number of leads or whatever it is they're using your software to accomplish. The faster they obtain these goals, the more engaged they'll be with your product.

V. Recognize that onboarding is a continual process. As new people come into the customer organization, it all begins again. As Barry Kelly, CEO of Thought Industries, points out, you can use new hires as opportunities for re-engaging with customers on regular basis. The message he suggests: "We'd like to bring back the whole team for training and product updates. It's been a year and we've released a lot of new features and updates. Why don’t we take you all through a half-day of training to get everybody re-acquainted and up to speed on all the new stuff?" The work invested in that is a whole lot easier, he points out, than starting from the beginning with a new customer.

VI.  In an environment where customer onboarding becomes an evergreen process, is there ever a set time when it actually begins and ends? For the purposes of monitoring your progress, the answer must be yes. According to Donna Weber, the duration of your onboarding phase will vary depending on what kind of product you produce: "It might be 90 seconds for a mobile app, or 90 weeks for a large enterprise software tool." In the case of most business-to-business software companies, a "good timeframe" is about 90 days, she says. This is the amount of time you have to do what it takes to ensure the loyalty of your customers. Without that, she adds, the likelihood of renewal "could drop to as low as 10 percent."

Mistakes to Avoid

1. Too many things screaming for users’ attention

Most people feel overwhelmed when they have too many choices. It’s time-consuming. The clutter messes with your head.

The same fundamental applies to customer onboarding too. When the app throws a thousand options at you even before you’ve warmed up, things are most likely to go south.

Imagine a welcome screen with multiple elements battling for your attention - product tour, hotspots, tutorial videos, pop-ups for email subscription, notifications about the latest blog post, CTA buttons screaming special offers, etc. That’s just too many things in one go!

Most customers at this stage would like to start using the product and not go on an exploratory tour. They will skip the whole customer onboarding process or simply postpone it for later. You had your moment, and you confused them.

Not really a great start to the relationship, eh?

How to ensure this doesn’t happen?

Very simple. Do not overwhelm them. Here’s how you should go about it:

1.1.  Focus on core features first

Most users sign up for a product to solve a problem, and not because the product is loaded with bells and whistles.

What’s the point of introducing all the features at once? Not only is it unnecessary, it is too much information for a new user to process.

Design a customer onboarding process which directs new users to your core features first. Tell them how it works. Point them to use cases. Re-affirm their purchase decision.

Always keep complexities for later. Let users get used to the product first.

The content marketing tool, Snippy, follows a neat approach. Their onboarding process is designed to help users create their first Snip (which is their core feature) - a subtle call-to-action that you can add to every page you share. That’s that. That’s all it does.

Keep it simple. The lesser, the better.

1.2. More stages, less at each

As opposed to popular belief, an overload of instructions and pop-ups do not really make things easy for anyone. All it does is cause distraction.

For all you know, the user would postpone the sign up to a more convenient time, which indirectly amount to a loss of interest.

Take it easy. Build more steps. Do not overcrowd a screen.

The popular communication tool, Slack, does a great job at this by highlighting one feature at a time and fading the rest.

2. Thinking it’s too early to take feedback

Not all unhappy users will bother to complain.

Some would have found a way around the problems themselves or gotten used to everything that they didn’t feel the need to complain. While others would have just left without bothering to say anything.

Striving for customer support excellence? With Hiver's Shared Inbox, you can delegate support tickets in seconds, track every email, and get data on team performance. Know more.

If you are waiting for customer complaints to optimize the onboarding process, you will keep losing them.

How to ensure this doesn’t happen?

Get on the front foot and start collecting their feedback. Ask for their opinion of the customer onboarding process itself, if nothing else - how helpful was it, whether they understood how the product will help achieve their goals, and more.

Don’t stop there, go further. Analyze the user behavior, find out how they interacted with your product by implementing analytics.

2.1. You can collect customer feedback by asking pertinent questions:

  • If a customer hasn’t completed the onboarding process, find out why:
  • If they have completed it, send them a quick survey:
  • If they’re a big customer you’d love to have, ask if you can call them:

Head over to our post for more on this.

2.2. How to collect data without involving the customer?

  • Use Heat maps. They will help you analyze how customers behaved during the onboarding process - the areas they viewed the most, the links they clicked the most, and more. Popular heat map tools: Crazyegg.com, Zarget.com.
  • Use Session replay tools. They record and replay how customers interacted with your app. For instance, you’d know how much time customers spend on each section of your onboarding process. Popular session replay tools: mouseflow.com, luckyorange.com
  • Use Funnel analytics. They track the customer's progress through different stages of the onboarding process. It will help you identify the area’s most customers are getting stuck at. Popular funnel analytics tools: Kissmetrics.com, Mixpanel.com.
  • Identifying at-risk customers is a great way to prevent churn. For instance, Kiss metrics' People Search option helps you identify users who signed up but never used a particular feature or users who have stopped using your core feature.

3. Thinking all users need the same thing

Do you think a graphic designer will sit through an intro video for MS Paint? Do you think an HR executive would be interested in a tutorial video of a feature meant for salespeople?

We simply cannot offer the same onboarding experience to all the customers. Their needs, motivation, knowledge, skills, and capacity all vary.

This kind of mismatches can be fatal. It hampers customers’ progress and this loss of momentum can easily cause abandonment.

How to ensure this doesn’t happen?

Tailor the customer onboarding process based on the customer data available. It will make the experience a lot smoother and engaging.

Here are a few ways to do it:

3.1. Set-up the customer onboarding process using the data you collected earlier

Most sign-up forms ask for basic user information, such as name, country, role, and company. You can use that data to customize the initial customer experience.

For example, Harvest automatically populates a few vital fields based on your location:

Always remember, the lesser time they spent setting up the account, the faster they will be able to get down to the business.

You can use the available customer data to identify trends relevant to them. It could be based on their location, language, profession, interests, age-group, gender, and more. Tailor the customer onboarding experience accordingly. This will make it easier for them to relate to the product.

Pinterest is a great example of this. They updated their onboarding process after a lot of new users complained they were getting lost. They came up with a personalization system that identified and displayed popular content based on users’ preferred language or country.

This made it easier for them to connect with the app and move along.

3.3. Personalizing the customer onboarding process based on their needs

As we discussed earlier, customers sign up for your product for different reasons. Some might require all of your features, while others may require only one or two.

It is crucial that we understand what they are looking to achieve with our tool. Personalize the customer onboarding experience based on that. This will make it easier for them to reach the ‘aha moment’.

We, at Hiver, created a personalized customer onboarding process that varies according to the landing page from which they signed up.

For instance, if a customer signs up from the Shared Inbox landing page, the onboarding process would guide them to set up a Shared Inbox in Gmail. Here are the steps involved:

And, if a customer signs up from the Shared Labels landing page, they will be introduced to the Shared Label setup process first. Here are the steps involved:

This small tweak reduced the time taken by customers to set up their accounts by almost 43%. Not bad, eh?

3.4. Tailor the customer onboarding process based on their level of expertise

For a customer onboarding process to inspire confidence, it has to respect the customer’s level of expertise. Otherwise, they will either start doubting their own ability or the product’s capabilities. You don’t want that, do you?

Prototyping tool, Justin mind, lets users select onboarding flows based on their level of expertise. Users who choose the ‘expert’ mode will be given access to the full user interface immediately. Whereas, users who choose the ‘beginner’ mode will be given an interactive tour of the product with links to their support pages and YouTube tutorials.

This is a great way to prevent customers from feeling overwhelmed or underwhelmed.

4. Designing a customer onboarding process that makes them work hard for ‘first success’

People get turned off when the customer onboarding process is cumbersome, rigid, or too technical. Afterall, most people adopt SaaS tools to make their work easier - don’t make them work hard for it.

The longer it takes to see results, the less convinced they will be. This breeds uncertainty and a feeling that they wasted their money and energy on your product.

How to ensure this doesn’t happen?

A study suggests that minimizing the time span between a customer’s acquisition of a SaaS product and their first success with that product leads to that customer sticking with the product for the long haul.

The best way to minimize this time span - create a customer onboarding process where every step is designed for success.

Here are a few ways to prop your customers to their goal quickly:

4.1. Focus on benefits rather than features

A customer onboarding process that merely explains the product is as good as a boring monologue. If it doesn’t tell customers what purpose each feature serves or how they will contribute to the ‘first success’, why would they bother to stay?

You can’t expect them to figure out a path to the ‘first success’ on their own. Most customers will deem the product not worth the time and move on.

5 SaaS Onboarding Best Practices to Ensure Success

1. Align with Sales

2. Optimize for Time

3. Do Your Research

4. Create Value Quickly

5. Reinforce Goals

6. Align with Sales

A great customer onboarding experience starts with sales. The expectations set by the sales team about what will happen in the first few days, weeks, or months after purchase can greatly help or hinder onboarding progress and time to prove value for your customers.

Misaligned expectations can be as simple as how quickly the customer will speak to someone after they buy, to something as large the time investment required during the onboarding period. A major reason for onboarding going off-course is a disconnect between what is promised, customer expectations, and reality.

In order to ensure there is no disconnect here, I advocate for spending time working on pre-sale content, speaking to prospects, and regularly training and reminding sales teams about what your onboarding and customer success programs look like. It sounds simple, but requires consistent time and effort, and it gets much harder as you grow and scale.

Create Content

A scalable way to set expectations about what your onboarding and customer success services look like is to create web pages, downloads, and tools that explain it. Companies invest a lot of time and money into content to market their products, and this should be no different for your onboarding process.

If you are creating content, my advice is to keep the resources as visual as possible. GANTT charts, timelines, or other visual resources will avoid any wrong interpretation your team or the customer.

Speak to prospects

I'm always surprised how little I see this happening in the customer success world. Speaking to potential customers before they even sign up is a great investment of your time. It builds credibility, helps set the right expectations, and gives onboarding teams a greater sense of the concerns and hesitations customers have before they sign up.

But there can also be a hesitation from sales to invite customer-facing teams to meetings and calls with prospective customers. There's a sense you might distract from closing conversations or be "too honest." There's a fine line to walk here, so I'd advise meeting with the sales rep beforehand to go over strategies and your approach to positioning onboarding -- before the sale even closes.

Build customer success modules into your sales training

Your new sales hires should be exposed to the work your onboarding teams do. Training doesn't need to be formalized, but reps can join or shadow meetings and calls with the onboarding team.

Balance the training with the types of conversations your team has, success stories, and roadblocks and problems you run into early on. If you position your onboarding services as a value-add that sales teams can lean into to help sell, you're much more likely to build their trust.

Optimize for Time

When a customer makes a purchase, we'd like to think that they're happy and excited about that decision. To capitalize on this excitement and keep momentum going post-sale, you have to make some sort of connection with the customer within the first 24 hours. Otherwise, that motivation can dwindle, and other projects and priorities may come across your customers desk. In the worst case, that customer may even experience buyer's remorse and start to question their purchase decision.

Build "new customer welcome time" into your CSMs or implementation teams' schedules

Initially, this requires digging into numbers. By looking at the trends and numbers of customers you sign up each month or quarter, you can predict how much time needs to be put aside on the teams' schedule to welcome new customers.

Where possible, always default to prioritizing new customers. With existing customers, there's at least some level of trust and they may understand if you need to reschedule. There's zero trust with new customers, and if you let them down early, it can take twice as much effort to get them back on track later on.

Automate some of the process

Scheduling calendars across your team and your customers' teams can be time-consuming and an unproductive way to spend time early on in your customer's lifecycle. When a deal closes, an automatic welcome email should be sent to the customer that includes: next steps, their points of contact, and information about how to book time them.

Create Value Quickly

When we discuss onboarding in the freemium world, we often talk about the "aha moment" and getting your users there as quickly as possible.

This shouldn't be any different with higher-touch onboarding. It might not possible to arrive at the full "aha moment" when working with more complicated tools or enterprise software, but you need to look for opportunities to show "micro-value" as quickly as possible when your customer signs up.

I've seen way too many customer success teams spend their first onboarding sessions simply welcoming the customer, discussing goals, and scheduling next steps and calls -- without getting something tangible done. Those topics are, of course, important, but even if you can complete something as simple as turning on one tool or ticking off one basic task, the feeling of making progress can put the customer at ease.

Reinforce Goals

This one sounds obvious, but when a customer starts working with a new tool, it can be confusing as to why they are doing certain things in a certain order. Without a lot of context, it can be difficult to see how everything ties together when you start using new software.

On the other hand, customer success managers usually know exactly why they're recommending certain tasks or action plans -- because they know what it takes to make a customer successful. With that in mind, every task you assign or work on with your customer during onboarding should be backed up with the "why."

This is why it's so important to understand your customers' short, medium, and long-term goals and priorities. The ability to justify your actions by falling back on those goals helps build trust and reduce a lot of anxiety in the beginning of your customer's life


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