Customer Onboarding

The Customer Onboarding Mega-Guide for the Digital Age

In this in-depth mega-guide to customer onboarding, you’ll learn everything there is to know about customer onboarding in the digital age.

Below, we will discover:


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  • What customer onboarding is
  • Why it matters for businesses
  • Why every business should have a digital customer onboarding strategy
  • Best practices, principles, strategies, tips, and tricks
  • And much more

Let’s start this guide off by looking at the basics of customer onboarding … its definition and why it matters for businesses.

Customer Onboarding: “What” and “Why”?

Customer onboarding occurs when customers first come into contact with a product and begin using it.

During this stage:

  • Customers form their first impressions of a product
  • They begin using and familiarize themselves with the key features, functionality, and design of a product
  • Organizations send initial communications to customers, such as welcome emails
  • Customers are provided with tutorials and product training 

Other business communications, such as paperwork and documentation, may also be included in this stage, depending on the product.

There are significant benefits to this process, such as:

  • More satisfied customers. Poor onboarding can increase user frustration and lower their opinion of a product and brand. If they cannot achieve their aims quickly and efficiently, for instance, then frustration will mount and people may even give up on the product altogether.
  • Better customer experiences. Structured, effective onboarding can improve customer sentiment. Improved product training and communications, for instance, can reduce roadbumps and lower frustration levels.
  • Insight into customer needs and product design. Structured onboarding involves data analysis and measurement, which provides insight into many different areas. Aside from the onboarding process itself, organizations can learn about their product design, customers’ perception of their brand, the product training program, and so on.
  • Accelerated product training timelines. Structured, managed onboarding helps organizations learn customers’ needs and improve their training offerings. In turn, customers can become successful and productive more quickly.
  • Decreased abandonment rates. When people become too frustrated with a product, they will just give up completely. And if they find a viable alternative in the market, it is unlikely that they will return.
  • More revenue. Ultimately, better onboarding can increase customer loyalty, longevity, and value. Naturally, customers who stay with a company longer will spend more money and add more value over their lifetime with the business.

For reasons such as these, it is important to develop a structured onboarding process.

Later on in this guide, we will discuss some of the best elements to include in this stage and how to optimize it for best results.

Customer Onboarding FAQ

In addition to the two questions covered above, there are a number of commonly asked questions about onboarding.

Here are a few:

What is structured onboarding and why should I invest in it?

Imagine an organization gave new customers access to their software, then said, “Good luck, let us know if you have any questions.”

Though this approach is rare, it still occurs – usually with small organizations that have limited budgets.

Today, most businesses recognize the need to provide some form of structured onboarding with their products.

A structured, strategic approach to onboarding does a few things, such as:

  • Establishing an onboarding process with specific components, goals, and metrics
  • Evaluating customer metrics, data, and feedback during the onboarding stage
  • Applying those insights to further enhance the onboarding process
  • Measuring the derived benefits of the onboarding program

Structured onboarding is like any other structured business process – it has a set of goals that can be measured and improved upon over time.

What are the key components of the onboarding process?

The onboarding process is a stage in the customer life cycle.

And each onboarding process, in turn, has its own stages and touchpoints.

These stages can vary depending on the nature of the product, but some common components include:

  • Welcome email
  • Product tutorials and instructions
  • Completion of required agreements or documentation
  • The initial login
  • Welcome screens and help tips
  • Educational emails
  • Correspondence with support staff

Some products may not include some of these elements.

Others may expand on certain stages, such as product training.

Who implements and manages the onboarding process?

Customer onboarding is conducted by different parties, depending on how well the process is structured.

Larger companies may have individuals or teams solely dedicated to onboarding management.

Smaller firms may not manage the process at all. Or they may delegate tasks to a cross-functional team.

Regardless of the team structure, the different functions that should be managed include:

  • Marketing and sales 
  • Customer support and technical support
  • Data and analytics of the onboarding process
  • Product training
  • Onboarding strategy and implementation

An organization should choose to manage these functions in a way that best fits the needs of their situation.

What is the difference between customer onboarding, product onboarding, and user onboarding?

There are a several important points to note when it comes to onboarding:

  • Some terms related to onboarding are nearly synonymous. User onboarding and customer onboarding, for example, often refer to the same process. Nuances may differ, but in essence the two terms may be used synonymously.
  • Onboarding is important to understand for any business involved in product adoption. This category doesn’t just include product creators, it also includes enterprises as well – after all, enterprises must onboard new employees to software platforms.
  • Other terms, such as “employee onboarding,” are distinct, but coincidentally related. Employee onboarding is a stage in the employee life cycle. During this stage, employees are integrated into their work environment, including their social environment and their digital environment.

For businesses that create products, the distinctions between the above terms become even more important.

Not only must they worry about onboarding their customers, they must also understand how their clients onboard their own users.

A SaaS platform developer, for instance, should worry about onboarding, selling, and supporting their own clients. They must also focus on onboarding their clients’ users.

Enterprises that implement new digital tools are not exempt either – if they adopt new digital tools, they should develop structured onboarding processes for their own employees as well.

What parts of the onboarding process can be automated?

Automation is an excellent way to streamline onboarding and cut costs.

Naturally, not every aspect of the onboarding process can be automated. 

With the right tools, however, automation can increase productivity and efficiency dramatically.

Here are a few examples of onboarding components that can be automated:

  • Product training. Digital adoption tools (DAPs) are ideal platforms that can automate user training, tasks, and more. They are specifically designed for, among other things, customer onboarding and training. See below for more information on DAPs.
  • Onboarding communications. Communication tools, such as marketing automation platforms and other communication tools, can be used to automatically communicate with customers. Emails, document processing, sign-ups, and other key touchpoints can all be automated … saving time and improving the customer experience.
  • Technical support. Technical support can also be automated with the right tools. DAPs, for instance, can offer interactive assistance directly inside the product. This accelerates customers’ learning curve, making them more productive in less time.

Businesses should evaluate their own circumstances to determine which automation tools are most suitable.

One danger to avoid is over-automation.

Organizations should not “set and forget” an automation tool, hoping it will solve their onboarding problems.

Instead, automation tools should be part of a structured onboarding program that leverages technology, while remaining human-centered.

How to Implement a Structured Onboarding Program

Structured, strategic onboarding is an investment that can pay for itself many times over.

As mentioned above, a structured approach to onboarding accomplishes several things:

  • Approaches onboarding from a strategic perspective, by identifying and targeting specific components of the onboarding process for improvement
  • Sets goals, optimizes key metrics over time, and measures progress
  • Improves important customer metrics, such as engagement and productivity
  • Analyzes and measures the benefits derived from the onboarding process

Below, we will discuss one approach for implementing, managing, and optimizing onboarding – starting from zero.

1. Learn about the potential benefits of customer onboarding.

To learn about the potential value of an onboarding program, it pays to understand various areas that the onboarding process would affect.

For instance, onboarding can impact factors such as:

  • Customer abandonment. Customers who become too frustrated or see little value in the product will drop out. Effective onboarding can improve retention rates, customer loyalty, and ultimately customers’ lifetime value.
  • Training efficiency and effectiveness. The more efficient and effective the training, the more quickly users will become productive. This means that they will realize the benefits of the product sooner, increasing the likelihood that they will stay for the long term.
  • Costs associated with onboarding. Onboarding costs can include training costs, support costs, marketing costs, account management, and so on. One aim of onboarding is to decrease these costs as much as possible.
  • Customer acquisition costs. If customer acquisition is measured by the cost of successfully acquiring a new customer, then customer abandonment will directly affect this number. Improving onboarding, therefore, can decrease acquisition costs and add that much more value to the business.
  • The lifetime value of customers. Customers lifetime value (LTV) will ultimately affect the organization’s bottom line profits. For this reason, customer onboarding should be viewed as an investment, not an expense.

With targets such as these in mind, it is time to understand the current state of affairs.

2. Assess the current state of the onboarding process.

Project the potential benefits of improving these areas, then gauge how improvements to these areas could be affected by onboarding.

To do that, analyze:

  • Customer feedback. Customer feedback can be obtained through in-app surveys, email correspondence, website polls, and so on. Targeted questionnaires can help businesses learn more about customers’ needs and wants. That information, in turn, can be used to make onboarding processes more relevant.
  • Software analytics. Software analytics offer insight into users’ behavior and needs. This information is particularly useful during the onboarding phase, helping organizations better understand the product’s design, how users perceive the product, and so forth.
  • Marketing, sales, and support communications. Communication is an essential part of customer onboarding. It affects the customer experience, their expectations, how quickly they can solve their problems, and more.
  • Existing training efforts. Analysis can offer insight into the effectiveness of any existing training efforts. Software analytics and feedback, for instance, can explain whether users’ needs are being met, what they hope to accomplish, and how well the onboarding program is working.

There are many factors that contribute to an effective onboarding effort.

For that reason, it pays to understand these up front. That information will be used later on, when designing and executing onboarding programs.

2. Make a business case and a commitment.

The first two steps will provide the information needed to make a case for the business value of onboarding.

That information should help frame onboarding not as a cost center, but as an investment that generates returns.

This information can be presented to executives and business leaders. This is essential for obtaining sponsorship and support.

Here are a few steps that can help interested professionals make a case for customer onboarding:

  • Highlight the potential benefits and costs of customer onboarding, framing onboarding as an investment rather than an expense
  • Explain the negatives of not investing in customer onboarding – such as stagnant customer retention rates 
  • Outline what’s involved with customer onboarding, how it could be structured, and so forth
  • Suggest a pilot test if leaders are hesitant

The goal here is to obtain executive sponsorship and a solid commitment.

Even if the commitment is only for a pilot test, that test should be enough to demonstrate value and earn further support.

3. Design a strategy and an onboarding roadmap.

Once support is obtained, flesh out a strategy and develop an action plan.

This plan should address the major components of customer onboarding which were covered earlier.

These will vary depending on the circumstances, and can include:

  • Opt-in and the initial login
  • Strategic communications from sales, technical support, account management, and customer care
  • An in-app, automated introduction to the software
  • Contextualized training 
  • Easy access to self-support chat functionality, knowledge bases, and customer support
  • Training emails

At this point, it will be necessary to enlist support from certain parties within the organization, such as:

  • The design team
  • Customer support
  • Marketing and sales
  • Third-party vendors, such as DAP providers
  • IT, who can assist with technical solutions, such as analytics

These teams’ efforts can then be coordinated and managed during the initial test phases.

4. Test and implement an onboarding process.

A pilot test, as mentioned earlier, can help businesses roll out a new onboarding process without too much commitment.

These tests can be conducted with a small group of users, rather than the entire audience of new users.

A pilot test offers several advantages:

  • It requires less commitment of resources
  • Pilot tests seem “safer” to executives, which is true – they are less risky than rolling out a brand-new onboarding program to every new users
  • Tests still provide useful information – this can validate hypotheses, demonstrate the value of onboarding, and inform future iterations of the process

Once the testing phase is complete and the required information is collected, full-scale implementation can begin.

During the implementation stage, it is important to monitor and manage the process carefully.

Especially during the beginning, there will be an influx of new user input and unexpected roadbumps.

For that reason, it pays to stay agile and adaptable.

5. Analyze and learn, then adapt and optimize.

Metrics should cover areas such as:

  • The target areas of improvement, such as customer engagement and customer abandonment
  • Customer sentiment and feedback
  • Software usage statistics
  • Program costs 
  • ROI, projected and actual

Altogether, this information can paint a picture of the health of the program, how successful it is, its ROI, and so forth.

Just as importantly, that data can be used to continually optimize the program and improve its outcomes.

Principles, Best Practices, and Strategies of Effective Customer Onboarding

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to customer onboarding.

Each organization’s approach will differ slightly depending on the nature of their business and their circumstances.

However, most of the core components and principles of customer onboarding remain the same.

Regardless of whether an organization develops products or is adopting a new enterprise tool, it pays to understand the core principles of effective onboarding.

Here are some best practices, strategies, and principles to follow when implementing any onboarding program:

Coordinate with other business units.

Customer onboarding is an endeavor that involves multiple business functions.

For that reason, it is important to coordinate with different teams and departments.

Ideally, customer onboarding should involve cross-functional teams. And, when budgets permit, customer onboarding specialists or departments.

To maximize the results from any onboarding effort, therefore, it is critical to coordinate effectively with other teams.

That coordination will help produce an onboarding program that is cohesive, well-executed, and streamlined … and that gets better overall results.

Learn from customers and let them guide onboarding efforts.

Onboarding is all about the customer – their needs, their goals, and their experience.

Therefore, customer-centrism should be a principle that defines the structure of any onboarding program.

To stay customer-centered, develop mechanisms that are built into the fabric of the program itself, such as:

  • Data collection. The measurement approaches mentioned above, such as software analytics and user feedback, should be regularly evaluated. 
  • Learning from that data. Insights from that data will tell organizations what their users expect, what they want, where the current program works, and what needs fixing.
  • Implementing changes based on that information. This customer data can then be used to make adjustments to the program at any level – from the wording of on-site copy to the structure of the onboarding program itself.

Of course, flexibility goes hand-in-hand with a user-centric approach. 

That is, data collection does no good if a business process isn’t equipped to make course corrections.

Stay agile and adaptable.

Agile is not just for software … the agile mindset has been applied across a wide number of fields.

In other words, agility is a business strategy as much as it is a style of software development.

For onboarding, as well as other business processes, agility means:

  • User-led design and execution. The importance of user feedback has already been established. That user feedback, though, is only one piece of the puzzle. Businesses must be able to actually drive change based on that information.
  • Collaboration and communication. Communication is important, both with customers as well as internally. The better teams can collaborate, the better they will be able to orchestrate and execute changes.
  • Being open, ready, and willing to change. Agility must be explicitly defined as a principle, right from the outset. Teams must have an agile mindset, have the ability to adjust their activities quickly, and be willing to adopt new approaches when necessary.

As explained, unless an onboarding program is built to respond to user feedback, collecting that feeback is of no value.

Onboarding coordinators, therefore, should design onboarding programs that are responsive, flexible, and adjustable.

Focus on usability, utility, and the user experience.

Usability describes how easy interfaces are to use. 

It is a critical attribute of any product, and it plays a large role in onboarding.

Products themselves can be easy to use, navigable, and learnable.

Or they can be complex and difficult to understand.

Clearly, the more difficult a product is to use, the more likely it is that users will abandon products.

However, in some cases, complexity is a must – enterprise-grade SaaS platforms, for example, may offer an extensive ray of features.

In such cases, onboarding specialists must do all they can to streamline the onboarding experience.

There are a few good ways to do this:

  • Offer in-app tutorials that introduce product features
  • Provide easy access to support
  • Use customer feedback to inform product design
  • Ensure that product features meet user needs

Clearly, usability and utility are directly linked to the collection of user input.

When implementing that user input, usability should act as a guiding principle for both product design and the onboarding process.

This is not just a good idea … when describing usability on the web, usability experts from the Nielsen Norman Group say that it is a “matter of survival.”

If websites (and products, apps, and software) are difficult to use, fails to establish their value, confuses users, or fails to answer the right questions … users leave.

Focusing on usability, therefore, should become the primary strategy for customer success.

Personalize.

Personalization is another useful strategy to have in the onboarding toolbox.

There are several reasons for this:

  • Personalization makes product experiences immediately relevant to the individual customer
  • Custom-tailored onboarding experiences are simpler, decreasing information overload
  • Users feel more “in control” of personalized experiences, and that feeling has a positive effect on their psyche … the opposite feeling we get when experiencing information overload

The evidence in favor of personalization is overwhelming.

From online retailers to search engines to advertising, every digitally mature business recognizes the value and the power of personalization. 

Onboarding should be no exception.

During customer onboarding, organizations can implement personalization in a number of ways:

  • Personalizing marketing and sales communications
  • Delivering tutorials and instructions tailored to specific audience segments
  • Providing customer data to support staff to improve the relevance of support conversations

Like usability, personalization should become a guiding principle that underpins every effort related to onboarding, training, as well as virtually every other customer-facing activity.

However – like many of the other onboarding elements covered so far – personalization would not be possible without technology.

Organizations, therefore, should investigate onboarding software carefully.

Must-Have Customer Onboarding Software and Technology

Choosing the right software can make a large impact on customer onboarding efforts.

The right software can, for instance:

  • Automate many aspects of the onboarding process, improving productivity and outcomes
  • Cut costs, while increasing efficiency
  • Streamline workflows for employees who are managing the onboarding process
  • Enable many activities that would otherwise be impossible, such as data collection and analysis

There are a number of tools that can assist with customer onboarding.

Let’s look at a few of those in more detail:

Analytics 

Analytics are necessary to gain insight into how users interact with software.

Onboarding coordinators can expect to combine data from a number of sources, including:

  • In-application analytics
  • Marketing and sales data
  • User surveys and other software that collects user feedback
  • Data from user testing software
  • Training software anlytics
  • Data from DAPs

And so forth.

As we saw earlier, analytics and data are necessary to gain insight into – and improve – onboarding processes.

However, the right tools are necessary.

For that reason, businesses should investigate the options available to them.

There are so many analytics platforms on the market, it would not be suitable to recommend individual vendors here.

Instead, onboarding coordinators should work closely with their IT department to ensure they have an analytics stack that meets their needs.

Help Desk Software

Help desk software allows organizations to streamline communications with customers.

Help desk software is relevant to the customer onboarding process for a number of reasons:

  • Many support requests come in during the onboarding stage
  • Streamlined support helps reduce customer frustration
  • Better support also improves user productivity, ensuring that they achieve their goals more quickly and efficiently

There is a good chance that an organization already subscribes to help desk software, or implements help desk solutions that are already part of a suite of tools.

Jira, for instance, is a well-known agile software development platform.

However, Jira also includes a number of other related solutions, including help desk software.

Zoho, a platform that offers a range of small business tools, also has help desk software, project management software, and more.

Each software platform offers its own unique set of features – and each platform is tailored towards a specific audience.

Organizations should discover their own needs, then determine which solution best fits their circumstances and their budget.

Digital Adoption Platforms

Digital adoption platforms (DAPs) are specifically designed to improve onboarding, training, and product adoption.

These platforms offer features that can greatly enhance customer onboarding, such as:

  • Contextualized guidance and training. Customers can access relevant information on demand, improving knowledge retention and their experience.
  • In-app instructions and step-by-step walkthroughs. Automated instructions can explain workflows quickly and efficiently, without the need for human assistance.
  • Task automation. Certain platforms, such as WalkMe’s digital adoption platform, can automate tasks, a useful feature for enterprise customers.
  • Software analytics. Analytics provide data on user behavior, which can help managers spot errors, improve training, and more.

These platforms, while still an emerging industry, are exploding in popularity.

They have been featured, for instance, in a report by Gartner, which dubbed them digital adoption solutions (DAS).

There are a number of benefits to using digital adoption solutions, including:

  • Streamlined, simplified onboarding experiences
  • Accelerated training timelines
  • Improved user productivity and performance
  • Increased proficiency levels
  • Decreased technical support costs

In short, DAPs automate many aspects of the onboarding process, improving the onboarding process and streamlining workflows for onboarding managers.

WalkMe, the company that pioneered the DAP, is the most notable in the space. 

Their platform has been used by organizations adopting new platforms in-house, as well as product developers who want to grow revenue, increase customer value, and build their customer base.

Final Thoughts

In this article, we have explored many of the most important aspects of customer onboarding, including:

  • Customer onboarding is a crucial stage in the life cycle of every customer that adopts new products
  • Effective, structured onboarding can positively affect organizational performance – ineffective onboarding, however, can have the opposite effect
  • To implement onboarding well, organizations should follow best practices when it comes to the user experience, product training, and customer support
  • The right tools and technology, such as digital adoption platforms, can dramatically improve the results of customer onboarding programs

Organizations who are interested in onboarding should not stop with this article, however.

To actually extract value from the ideas explained here, organizations must actually implement them in practice.

For more information on customer onboarding and for advice about next steps, visit our digital adoption blog.

It is also a good idea to read up on related topics, such as change management, digital adoption, and digital transformation.

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