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What is customer onboarding? Defining the customer onboarding process

We’ve all heard the phrase, “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.”

This is true for just about every human interaction, and the rule is no different for your newly-acquired customer. 

The first few hours, days, and weeks of customer onboarding are critical to your customer’s success and experience with your product and service. 

Sure, they’ve probably seen your website, chatted or emailed with someone from your team, and spoken with a sales rep to get signed up. (And hopefully, those resources made a good first impression, too!) But customer onboarding lays the groundwork for how they’ll feel about your product or service going forward. 

Failure to onboard your customers quickly, effectively, and smoothly can lower NPS scores, decrease customer lifetime value, and skyrocket churn.  

Let’s dive a little deeper into customer onboarding, the elements of a successful customer onboarding process, and how to make sure you make a good first impression with your new customer.

What is customer onboarding? 

Customer onboarding is the make-or-break moment that introduces your new customers to your product or service. CSMs (Customer Success Manager) have the important task of building and maintaining a strong relationship, making sure the customer has everything they need to be successful with their new tool, and quickly sees value in what they purchased (the “aha!” moment). 

The onboarding process must feel seamless. If at any point your new customer feels overwhelmed, confused, or has to jump through hoops to see’re gonna have a bad time. 

A customer who’s not properly onboarded might never use your tool to its fullest potential, and likely won’t renew 12 months down the road.

How does customer onboarding work? 

So your team has acquired a new customer - Great! But as we all know, customer acquisition is only a part of the customer journey. 

Now the customer or client onboarding process begins. And it’s just as important (if not MORE important) than getting new business.

The customer onboarding workflow can happen in a number of different ways. Many teams go with automated onboarding emails, which could be somewhat effective if segmented based on usage, persona, team size, product, etc. But personal one-on-one touches are the most effective, through personal email exchange, phone calls, or virtual meetings. When you have their undivided attention, they’re more likely to see value and continue using it. 

When you can’t meet one-to-one, many customer success managers take advantage of existing resources to help their customer get onboarded. Content like training videos, FAQs, case studies, testimonials, or any other information to help them be successful. (Here’s a list of 28 Onboarding Tools for Delighting New Users)

A solid customer onboarding program leads to more success down the road, smoother quarterly business review meetings (QBRs), and a higher likelihood of retention.

Customer onboarding vs. user onboarding

Before we go any further, let’s examine the difference between customer onboarding and user onboarding. These two ideas may sound similar, but there’s one important difference to keep in mind. 

Customer onboarding is focused on making sure the purchaser(s) of your product sees value so they’re more likely to upgrade and renew. Your customer has higher expectations that your product will solve their specific business problem in exchange for money.

User onboarding is aimed to help end users or future customers use your product to successfully solve their problems. New users are typically more flexible since they have less skin in the game, but should not be forgotten about.

6 key elements of the customer onboarding process

There are the technical basics of SaaS onboarding, like completing a user profile, how to view dashboards, etc. and these very first steps are important for the overall customer onboarding process. But there’s more to it than just showing them what buttons to push. Here are some ways to provide the best customer onboarding experience possible. 

1. Build trust

The first step to creating a positive customer experience is to build trust with your customer. Your expertise and know-how mean nothing if they don’t feel like you’re an honest, trustworthy person that’s there to help. 

Use personal touches that show your new user they’re more than just a number. Make this a priority in your client onboarding flow. 

2. Listen. Listen. Listen. 

Every customer has different struggles, pain points, and goals. It’s your job to listen to what your customer is trying to solve and help them see how using your product can help. Be sure that you understand your customer’s definition of “success” from the very beginning so you know what to deliver on.  

Remember: Company and Org goals can change quickly. Make sure you can react accordingly to continue building trust and showing value.

3. Get them to “Aha!”

In the SaaS world of CS and onboarding, the “aha!” moment is the second your customer realizes and understands the true value of your product. A lightbulb goes off in their mind where they’ve made a connection between the reason they purchased and the expected outcome actually taking place. 

The quicker your customer can get to the “Aha!” moment, the better.   

How can you find your “Aha!” moment? You can start by speaking with existing customers, and seeing what made them continue using your product (though, as listed above, not every customer’s experience is the same, and should be personalized for each customer’s goals).  

4. Help them build a habit

Once your product “clicks” with your customer, you have to make sure they continue using it and seeing success with your product. And the best way to do that is to help them develop a habit of using it. 

Offer a roadmap and a process to success. When your customer can see the journey with specific milestones in order to be successful, it’s easier for them to develop a habit of use. 

Just like going to the gym every morning, it takes time and consistency to keep at something until it becomes second nature. Same goes for your product’s onboarding journey. You want to be their “personal trainer” that motivates your customer to keep coming back. Show them how your product is already starting to help them get six-pack abs, and they’ll keep doing crunches, so to speak.

5. Provide consistent motivators and reminders 

The name of the game here is “surprise and delight”. 

If you go out of your way to offer a helpful reminder they’re not expecting, that shows that you’re thinking of them and showing value even outside of planned meetings and communication. 

Giving your customer a little extra push at the right time can go a long way. 

And, of course, be as responsive as possible when they reach out to you for help. If you can’t solve the problem, get them in touch with someone who can. 

6. Consider their existing workflows and data

Chances are, your product or service won’t end up replacing everything your customer uses. It’s probably another tool in their toolbelt. So ask yourself: Does your product play nicely with the tools, workflow, and data that’s already in place? 

For adoption to take place, introducing your product has to be seamless. Decision-makers could feel concerned about migration, and that’s not a great first impression to make after the sale. 

This is why customer data onboarding is so important. Your customer’s data needs to migrate to your product quickly and easily, but that data could still be housed by a previous vendor, offline spreadsheets, activity logs, etc. 

If you can onboard your customer’s data quickly without frustration, you’ll decrease time to value, reduce your churn rate, and get to the “aha!” moment faster. 

Don’t have the time, resources, or know-how to onboard customer data? We get that, a lot of customer success teams don’t know how or where to start. Especially if your organization doesn’t have the luxury of having a dedicated Customer Onboarding Specialist. 

That’s why we created Flatfile's data onboarding platform - a collaborative, secure workspace for data onboarding that helps companies speed up every part of data migration, from data submission to cleaning.

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4 customer onboarding metrics to track

It may feel like you’ve onboarded your customer, provided value, and built a strong relationship. But how do you know?

Here are a few customer onboarding metrics to measure during the client onboarding process to achieve long term success. 

1. Activation

Neil Patel describes activation as “a measure of how many users take a specific action to get value out of a product.” For example, with Twitter, that action might be following six other accounts, or sending two tweets. Get a good grasp on which actions need to take place in order for them to find value. 

2. Progress

As you lay out a system and a process for your customer, keep track of how quickly they’re able to progress through these milestones. Make note of any roadblocks or hurdles your customers consistently come to. Then, make moves on making those steps easier to accomplish. 

3. Adoption

This is a big one. And there are many ways to measure and calculate your product adoption rate. Daily Active Users (DAU) and Monthly Active Users (MAU) show how many users are on your platform on a daily/monthly basis. Keeping track of this data will show trends into how valuable your tool is to your customer, and should help you identify triggers to get them back in and using it. 

4. Retention

Of course, we wish customers would stick around forever (wouldn’t that be nice). But in reality, churn is a statistic that all CSMs must track and be held accountable for. If you have a high retention rate, you probably have a good grasp of onboarding your customers successfully so they see value and stay your customer. On the flip side, if churn is an issue, you might want to revisit your customer onboarding strategy.

It’s true. 

You only get one chance at making a good first impression. 

But if you lead with value, build and maintain a strong relationship, and make migration a priority, your customer onboarding process can be top-notch.

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