Complete Guide to Customer Onboarding With Steps, Examples, and Best Practices

Introduction to Customer Onboarding

It used to be that customer onboarding for a software purchase described the deployment process. It began when the sales contract was signed and continued through the application being installed and users getting instruction on how to log into the software and start using it. Job done.

The era of software-as-a-service has changed that progression. As customers have become more proactive in their expectations and demanding of the companies they do business with, customer onboarding must cover a broader band of activities. After all, it seems like there’s always another SaaS company they can move to if they’re not happy with the one they are currently using.

As a result, while customer onboarding must make sure the customer is trained on how to use the application, it also entails making sure the organization subscribing to your software service has received measurable value from its use — something a user can take to his or her boss and say with excitement, “Look at this!” Only then is the customer onboarding phase truly nearing completion.

And the sooner, the better. As onboarding maven Donna Weber has pointed out, a majority of customers (52%) abandon a given product or service within 90 days for one primary reason: a poor onboarding experience that has combined poor customer engagement with poor customer service.

The faster your customer finds success with your SaaS software or service, the more likely they are to continue using it. The outcome of early success through onboarding is threefold:

  • Your customers will remain engaged;

  • You’ll reduce customer churn; and

  • You’ll increase your annual rate of return.

Customer onboarding doesn’t have to be a problem area. After all, most successful companies have figured out how to tightly script their pre-sales cycle. Customers are guided along a buyer journey mapped out with clearly designated touchpoints, milestones and roles. Specialized tools are available to keep the sales and marketing teams informed and working hand in hand, using data to measure each aspect of the buyer’s journey. Why shouldn’t the onboarding stage follow the same methodical approach?

Yet, it often doesn’t. When the deal closes, the journey often comes to an abrupt end. The customer is left on his or her own to figure out what’s next. When the struggling begins, so does the dissatisfaction. And suddenly, the customer has become part of that 52 percent majority.

Table of Contents
  • What Customer Onboarding is
  • Do you Make These 9 Customer Onboarding Mistakes?
  • How to Measure Your Customer Onboarding Success
  • Tools for Managing Customer Onboarding
  • How to Master the Art of Customer Onboarding

Chapter 1. What Is Customer Onboarding?

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.

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.

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.

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.

Fifth, 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.

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.”

Now, let’s turn our attention to the most common onboarding mistakes we see companies make in their customer onboarding processes.

Chapter 2. Do You Make These 9
Customer Onboarding Mistakes?

#1 Its purpose built for customer learning

Blunder #1.
Beginning implementation of the product as soon as the deal closes

Before you start in with implementation, you need to do a proper shift of the customer relationship through a formal “hand-off meeting.” The purpose is to help the customer make the mental transition from the sales team to the “post-sales” team, which involves introducing those individuals who will help the customer work through onboarding. The meeting should assist the internal team in understanding why they bought the product in the first place and what their expected outcomes are. Getting this information up front will aid greatly in the onboarding process and set up the internal team as the go-to resource as obstacles arise in the adoption of the software.

#2 unlock the financial power of customer learning

Blunder #2.
Focusing on operation details

Once a SaaS purchase is complete, the post-purchase process seems consumed with myriad details and transactions — getting data into the system; getting users set up with user names and passwords; and remapping the business processes. Up to this point, marketing has probably done a great job of “shaping emotions,” as McKinsey analysts have put it. But the moment customers are dropped into the lap of post-sales operations, often what happens is that decisions are stripped of emotion and people begin experiencing buyer’s remorse, questioning why they’ve undertaken this troublesome progression of events. A well-choreographed customer onboarding process can go far in helping to deepen the relationship while also getting the information needed to guide the customer through the set-up work to come.

3. We bring innovation to everything we do

Blunder #3.
Providing a bunch of touchpoints and no pathway

There’s a reason new customers often complain about having to drink from the “firehose.” Too often, SaaS companies begin the onboarding process by emailing a profusion of links for their knowledge base and video channel and suggesting customers use search to find the information they need. That’s no way to get people onboarded. As Thought Industries’ Alyssa Azevedo explains, it’s important “to strike a balance” between helping customers understand the specific functionality of the software that will help them reach their goals while also “exposing them to the possibilities of the platform.” One-size-fits-all training really fit nobody well. By providing a pathway that emphasizes what’s important to the customer, you’ll help shorten their time-to-value — the amount of time it takes for a user to gain success or value from your software.

#4 our customers are our partners

Blunder #4.
Telling rather than listening

If you find that you’re doing most of the talking during your conversations with customers — whether in the transition meeting, during support calls or in other venues — it’s time to stop and listen instead. That’s the only way you’ll really encourage customers to tell you what they’re thinking about and what they think they need to succeed. It’s true that not everybody you speak with will be able to articulate these things, but those who do are invaluable because they’ll lead you to the unspoken problems that are getting in the way of customer success.

Blunder #5 ignoring quick possible wins

Blunder #5.
Ignoring possible quick wins

As with many aspects of life, the pursuit of perfection can easily get in the way of progress. Your job isn’t to make sure a product is fully implemented. It’s to make sure the components are in place that will help your customer get to those quick wins that guarantee loyalty. And remember: A quick win isn’t defined by your goals but by the customer’s goals. So, focus on their milestones and what they’re hoping to achieve.

Blunder #6, being the hero rather than being productive

Blunder #6.
Being the “hero” rather than being proactive

Sure, it may feel good to your onboarding and support teams to feel good about jumping in to helping a customer overcome some snag in their deployment. But what would be even more valuable is to assess problems that routinely surface during that part of SaaS adoption and being proactive about addressing it on a systemic level. Likewise, rather than “parachuting in” to rescue a flailing customer close to their renewal, it’s smarter to save the account by making sure they’re on target to get value from your product early in the relationship.

Blunder #7 mistaking customer happiness with customer satisfaction

Blunder #7.
Mistaking customer happiness for customer satisfaction

Oftentimes, customer success teams will see a heightened level of customer happiness at individual touchpoints and mistakenly add those up into an assumed cumulative level of satisfaction. Positive feedback can be narrow — an employee may answer a troubleshooting question on the first try — even as the root causes of the problem are left unresolved. Underlying problems can fester, resulting in an overall level of customer dissatisfaction that will go undetected until the renewal period has come and gone.

Blunder #8 Focusing on saving the wrong relationships

Blunder #8.
Focusing on saving the wrong relationships

Customer success expert Donna Weber warns against the myth of the happy customer. In her experience, engagement is a better indicator of loyalty because, as she says, “the moment customers are not happy, they could leave.” She advises the use of customer health scores, first, to better understand whether they’ll “churn, renew or expand,” and, second, to prioritize the activities of the customer success team. Not every company is a good fit for a given product. The use of a scoring process can help you identify which customers are worth the extra investment of pulling out all the stops to “rescue” and which ones are likely to leave no matter how much effort is expended.

Blunder #9- viewing customer departure as the end

Blunder #9.
Viewing a customer departure as the end

Given that some customers will never be the right fit, for those that should be, don’t consider their non-renewal as the end of the relationship. Make lemonade out of the non-renewal by doing what you can to uncover the reasons why the renewal didn’t occur. Yes, this conversation probably should have happened earlier in the relationship, but even though it didn’t, gather the gumption to have it now, whether through a phone call, focus group or exit survey. What you’ll learn could make the difference for the next company deciding whether to stay with you or go.

Now that you understand the most common problems SaaS companies make during their customer onboarding efforts, it’s time to learn how to measure and monitor your customer onboarding success.


Chapter 3. How to Measure Your Customer Onboarding Success

As that maestro of business acumen, Peter Drucker observed: “What gets measured gets managed.” Yet frequently, SaaS companies spend too much of their energy carefully measuring customer renewal, which actually turns out to be a lagging indicator. You don’t know how you’re doing until it’s too late — the customer has already disembarked from your software.

A better way to understand how customer onboarding is going to use leading indicators, including these:

Success against milestones and deliverables. The burden of participation isn’t just a concern for the customer onboarding team; the customer too has to have a stake in the outcome. Otherwise, it’s simply a one-sided affair. It’s important to lay out markers by which to gauge the progress a customer is making during the various phases of product adoption — getting a certain percentage of employees trained on the new software, having sufficient data in the system to produce the first report, whatever is relevant.

How customers are progressing along their training journey. If you’ve made the effort to design, produce and deliver pathways of training that cater to specific roles within your customer’s organization, it only makes sense to track their involvement in that training too. Does there seem to be progress towards ever more advanced use of functions? If not, that’s an early warning signal to you that time-to-value will be delayed and possibly never achieved.

How much the product is being used. Oftentimes, an early burst of energy will carry a customer forward through the initial spasms of learning the new features of a product, and then, when the excitement has died down, so does product usage. The beauty of SaaS is that all aspects can be monitored for customer engagement. If your customer success team knows what the customer’s goals are and they’re nowhere near that level of usage, it may be time to intervene and have a talk with those in charge of the project to find out what’s happening on their end.

Other leading indicators include net promoter scores, support tickets logged and customer health scores. Your goal in using these metrics is to keep your customers accountable.

Thought Industries recently released a “Customer Onboarding Checklist,” developed in partnership with Donna Weber from Springboard Solutions, to help SaaS companies progress in their onboarding efforts.

The checklist goes step-by-step through each phase of the process:

  • Pre-sales, when your sales team can help publicize the value of the customer success program and familiarize people with its benefits as an essential ingredient for helping new customers be prepared for the next stage in their SaaS adoption.
  • Deal closure, when your customer success team gains information from the sales team so they have an understanding of the new customer and so that the customer is formally handed off to the customer success team.
  • Kickoff, the meeting that helps the customer success group validate the new customer’s desired business outcomes and determine together which metrics will be used to track the progress.
  • Customer enablement and implementation, when quick wins are defined, pathways laid out, and expectations for customer milestones are established.

Next, we’ll look at two tools that can help you manage the many steps of customer onboarding and keep you on track for meeting your customer onboarding goals.

Chapter 4. Tools for Managing Customer Onboarding

To manage the efforts and progress of your customer onboarding efforts, you’ll need help. An obvious starting point is to set up a spreadsheet that lists each customer and allows you to track the various elements of customer engagement. As you determine which metrics have more bearing on customer success, those can be given bigger weights to establish a more precise and relevant customer score.

Eventually, as new customers come in and the work of staying on top of adoption phases becomes more complex, you’ll want to graduate to a customer learning platform. This type of application provides a more holistic view of onboarding activities and lets you monitor trends across your entire base of customers through strategic interactions with your customer success team. (For the most important features of a customer learning platform, read “Must-haves in Your Customer Learning Platform.”)

Customer Onboarding Goals

Armed with the kind of information generated through a customer learning platform, you’ll accomplish many of your customer onboarding goals:

  1. Tracking how customers navigate through the various touchpoints offered to them as they move through their onboarding;
  2. Development of learning pathways and “playbooks” based on those followed by your most engaged customers;
  3. Building an understanding of what features are working for customers and which ones aren’t being used;
  4. Getting a sense of the gaps and opportunities for ramping up customer engagement;
  5. Coming to grips with root-cause issues so you can redesign the learning journeys for a better end-to-end experience.

Now it’s time to put all of the instruments together in the previous four chapters as you orchestrate successful customer onboarding.

3 Must-haves in Your Customer Learning Platform

  • 3 Must-Haves in Your Customer Learning Platform- Customer Portals

    Customer portals. Customers don’t want to feel like they’re getting the same experience as everybody else; they want an onboarding process that feels unique to their needs and expectations. The right learning platform will allow you to set up tailored portals for each customer, designed to deliver learning content for specific roles within the organization.

  • In-app training dashboards clipart

    In-app training dashboards. Because users within your customer’s organization progress at different paces, the learning platform should allow them to identify the relevant guided path and keep them up to date on their progress and keep managers apprised of progression as well.

  • 3 must haves in your customer learning platform- integrations

    Integrations. Your learning platform should work hand-in-hand with your existing applications for customer relationship management, marketing automation, web conferencing, ecommerce and other programs your operations rely on to make data flow seamless from one system to the next.

Chapter 5. How to Master the Art of Customer Onboarding

SaaS companies are finally realizing that customer success isn’t the job of a single individual or a single role within their organizations. It’s an all-hands effort that requires you to reach across silos and convert everybody into active participants in customer success work. That begins by recognizing that even when your company handles any single “touchpoint event” well — whether it’s a help call, support email or social media complaint — that won’t guarantee continued loyalty. Frequently, it’s a “cumulative experience” that drives people “out the door,” as McKinsey notes.

You can use interactions with your customers — whether those are casual conversations, focus groups, the use of product advisory boards, networking events, road shows and even interviews with non-renewers — to better understand their challenges and hopes (or regrets) for your software. The outcome of those contacts can help you in several ways. First, you’ll gain an appreciation for the diversity of your customers. Second, the insights you pick up will help you do a better job of developing learning content to tackle those pain points head on.

But even having good training and support isn’t enough. That’s just a treadmill of touchpoints. What you need to do next is turn your catalog of courses or training experiences into what Donna Weber calls “customer enablement” — experiences curated to help them meet their company goals as quickly as possible.

That requires you to guide your customers along in their onboarding journey and turn their adoption of your product into the experience they’ve signed on for.