Data exchange

What is data onboarding? Everything you need to know about the data onboarding process [updated]

Sheila Lahar

Posted 11/2/2020

Congrats, your new customers are thrilled to start using your SaaS platform. The software application, however, is currently an “empty box” until data is actually ingested into the product. Your customers won’t get much value without their data inside the software and for many types of solutions, customers can’t achieve anything until their data is usable. Enter data onboarding: the process of importing customer data into the product.

In this post, we uncover:

  • What is data onboarding? Data onboarding definition & examples

  • Who handles data onboarding

  • An effective onboarding strategy

  • Tools and resources

  • Why data onboarding is important

What is data onboarding?

Data onboarding is all about collecting, uploading, matching, and validating customer data for use in a product. Data needs to be brought into the new software solution and made readily available so that customers can use the product. Other terms that may be used to help with the data onboarding definition are data migration, data upload, and data import.

Data onboarding is a necessary part of the customer onboarding experience. Customer onboarding is the process of helping new customers improve their success rate using a new product or service. Industries such as marketing, HR, manufacturing, healthcare, and e-commerce, usually provide customers who are new to their software products with onboarding which includes data onboarding. 

Customer data onboarding

Customer data onboarding ensures customer data is ready to use. Depending on what solution the customer was using before your software product, the data exchange process can range from fairly easy to complex. 

If the customer has offline data spread across multiple employees and even departments, it will be much more challenging to move it to an online environment than if they are switching over to your tool from a competitor’s offering.

How data onboarding works

Data onboarding is essential for a successful software product. You want to make it as easy as possible to bring in customer data. It is such an important part of any customer onboarding strategy that the two can’t really be separated.

Unless your software is for brand new businesses (a website builder for first-time e-commerce store owners, for example) then you have to onboard the customer’s data before you can truly onboard the customer.

Here are some of the sources of data:

  • Migration from other software products: Many companies will make it easy for customers to import their data from a competitor, like switching from one

    platform to another. Check out this example from ClickUp, which has a direct integration with Trello to make sure importing tasks takes just a few minutes. 

  • Importing spreadsheets and other file types: If customers were previously managing data in spreadsheets, they can upload them with a data importer which will need to match and validate the data. For example, the owner of a martial arts school might  switch from recording student memberships in Excel to bringing that data into a gym membership software.

  • Going from offline data to online: In other instances, it will be necessary to onboard data that is completely offline and analog. A nursing educator, for example, might be tracking skills tests with pen and paper and now needs to enter that data into the new skills matrix software.

  • Mixed sources: In some cases, it is required to onboard both online and offline data into a product. The main challenge here is to match the digital and analog records using some identifying information. This is a common issue for ‘phygital’ (‘physical’ and ‘digital’ combined together) stores that need to upload the data of their offline customers into a CRM and match it with their online transactions.

Who handles data onboarding

So, who owns data onboarding, and whose responsibility is it? The answer depends on your product, your price point, your target market, and other factors. In most cases, data onboarding will be handled by a combination of your engineering team, your customer success representatives, and your customers.

  • Product managers: Product managers are in charge of discovering the gap between where the data onboarding experience currently is, and where customers want it to be. Then, they ideally come up with solutions on how it can be improved.

  • Customer success; For enterprise customers and/or customers on higher tier product plans, a customer success team will likely be involved in some form of collaborative data onboarding.

  • Engineering: For products that are more self-serve, it’s essential to offer productized data onboarding and data importing. This often results in developers engineers building out a data importer to help customers onboard their own data.

  • Customers: Of course, customers will have their part to do too. While you’ll want to make it as easy as possible for them, customers may still be required to gather their data, prep it and upload it into the product. Companies might offer CSV import templates or some kind of how-to guide and/or video to show a customer how to onboard their data. 

All of these parties come together in the data onboarding process, which usually includes these steps:

Data onboarding steps
  1. Data collection: The customer success team or product guides will help customers know what to collect.

  2. Data cleaning and organizing: Customers might need to do some basic formatting, or consolidating of files.

  3. Data uploading: Customers should be able to use a high quality CSV importer that makes the data as usable as possible. 

  4. Data validation: The CSV import will validate the data and require the customer (or customer success manager) to make any necessary changes. 

You can personalize the entire process by correctly allocating the responsibilities to the right people. 

For example, a business that serves enterprise customers will require involvement from customer success and the right customer contacts to onboard data. Meanwhile, a SaaS business that serves small business owners won’t have the budget for whiteglove customer service, and so will put as much of the onboarding process as possible on the product and engineering team, so that data onboarding is fairly simple for customers. 

The right onboarding workflow has everything to do with customer expectations and pricing models.

Elements of an effective data onboarding strategy

Whether it's importing CRM data or inventory SKUs, importing data into applications is often a frustrating experience. Let’s take a look at some best practices for improving the onboarding experience you offer to customers. 

  • Reduce the need for guides and tutorials: Don’t require customers to read extensive guides or watch long videos to understand how to onboard their data. Make the process simple by design. 

  • Use pre-built data onboarding solutions: Instead of worrying about dedicating engineering time and resources to improving your data importer, explore what ready-made solutions are on the market that you can integrate into your product. 

  • Make sure error messages are helpful: One tenet of successful self-service data onboarding is detailed error messages. The more exact these can be, the more likely customers are to be able to fix issues themselves and try again. 

  • Conduct user testing: Don’t save testing and customer validation for your core product and only assign basic QA to the data onboarding side of things. Instead, record sessions with new users to learn how effective your onboarding truly is. 

  • Reduce bottlenecks: The bottlenecks in customer onboarding nearly always involve the collection of customer data. If customers onboard their own data, help them prioritize what data is essential and what doesn’t need to be onboarded. If CSMs assist in data onboarding, make sure they know how to encourage and motivate their customer contact (the promise of a raise or internal recognition often works).

  • Have CSMs serve as PMs: Often, CSMs need to act as the point of contact between multiple customer contacts at an organization. They need to assign data collection tasks to individuals, check in with them, and offer support when issues arise.

Tools and resources

When choosing a data onboarding provider, you should prioritize features based on the level of onboarding support your company provides. Do customers onboard their own data or does a CSM lead the process?

Self-guided customer data onboarding

Teams have deferred to CSV templates, lengthy documentation, video tutorials or custom built in-house solutions to help users import their data. But it’s not a simple task. Whether it’s fragmented data, encoding errors, improper formatting, or lack of data normalization, the customer’s head is often left spinning as to why their data import failed

Simply put, there has never been a standard for importing customer data. Data importers, specifically CSV importers, haven't been treated as key product features within the software. As a result, engineers tend to dedicate an exorbitant amount of effort creating less-than-ideal solutions for customers to successfully import their data.

When members of your engineering or customer success teams are spending hours cleaning and maintaining customer data in order to import it properly, there is a hidden cost (which is of course, employee time).

There are solutions to reduce the pain of data onboarding, such as automated data onboarding that pulls data from disparate cloud sources, and pre-built CSV importing so engineers don’t have to build a best-in-class importer on their own.

Look for a CSV importer that includes the following features:

  • Data parsing

  • Data mapping

  • Data structuring

  • Data validation

  • Data transformation

CS-led data onboarding

CS-led data onboarding

What about features for an onboarding tool that supports CSMs?

If you have customer success managers, look for a collaborative workspace that makes it easy to securely collect data from customer contacts and import it effectively.

Just because CSMs help manage customer data onboarding for customers, doesn’t mean there aren’t hiccups. In fact, things can be even more complicated, because when a CSM is involved, that usually means there’s even more data and more customer contacts to work with.

A collaborative workspace for data onboarding should include these features:

  • No coding required from the CS team

  • Helps CSMs assign data collection tasks to the right contacts

  • Includes deadlines for data collection tasks

  • SOC 2, GDPR, HIPAA compliant

  • User verification with 2FA

  • Imports data directly from the collaborative workspace to your product

  • Transforms CSV, XLS, TSV, and more into validated output

Why data onboarding should be continually improved upon

Data onboarding is critical for several reasons. If the onboarding process is not fast and simple for your customers, your business runs the risk of high churn rates and (if potential leads are wary) low closing rates too. Data onboarding is a critical part of the overall customer experience. 

Decrease time to value

An excellent onboarding experience has the potential to drastically cut down on the time to value for a customer. 

Take that ClickUp example again. If someone is using Trello and wants to enjoy the integrated workflows with docs and lists that ClickUp provides, their existing task cards, comments, and file uploads are a huge barrier. By making it as simple as connecting your accounts and clicking “Import,” the ClickUp team ensures your onboarding takes minutes not days. 

When the data onboarding experience is positive and painless, users can get to the “aha” moment a lot faster.

Reduce churn

Particularly for lower-priced SaaS products with no personalized onboarding, a great onboarding experience can reduce churn. Self-service data migration means the data migration experience needs to be as easy as possible. 

Customers may sign up for a free trial or a monthly plan with the best intentions of importing or migrating their data. If the process is anything less than straightforward and simple, it may not be worth it to the customer. Churn could have been avoided with better data onboarding. 

Win more deals and sway customers away from competitors

An effective onboarding process (whether that’s productized or white glove) can help sales teams win more deals. On calls and demos, sales people can handle the common objection—but how hard will it be to start using the product—with ease. Data onboarding shouldn’t become a barrier to successfully using a product. 

By prioritizing your onboarding experience, you may also steal customers away from your competitors. Even if potential prospects don’t love their current solution, they might stick with it because churning would be too much of a headache. If onboarding is no longer a pain point and is rather a benefit of your product, there is more potential for companies to make a switch.

Today data onboarding may be viewed as somewhat of an afterthought, but by prioritizing it, you can drastically improve the customer experience and set your company up to retain customers and even secure more deals.

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