Fundamentals of SaaS Customer Onboarding

George Szundi  |  July, 2016

"A successful onboarding paves the way to retention, renewal and even up-sell in the future."

Onboarding is a critical phase of the SaaS customer journey, setting the stage for your post-sales customer experience. It’s when customers form their first impressions of your product and decide whether it gives them value – or not.

Just like any first impression, once formed, it tends to stick. This can set you up for long-term success or doom your relationship to short-term failure.

Time to Value is Key

Your customers have expectations about what they want to achieve through your product. Therefore, it’s critical to keep “time to value” as short as possible, especially during the onboarding phase. If they don’t realize initial value quickly, they may form doubts about whether your product can deliver.

Check out this stat from Groove’s benchmark for early customer success:

"Free users who complete the [onboarding email] prompts within 24 hours are almost 80% more likely to convert to paid customers than those who don't."

On the other hand, you might also encounter customers who "buy then forget" about your product. They may have been highly engaged during the sales process but lost steam after the purchase. While this is somewhat out of your control, it’s important to engage with every customer as soon as possible to try to keep the momentum during onboarding. If a customer loses interest in your product, becomes confused, or doesn’t get the early results they expect, you may never win them back.

Create Onboarding Milestones

An effective onboarding process incorporates specific objectives that customers should achieve as they begin to use your product. These objectives should align with your client’s business goals while being both achievable and measurable within your product. Think of these as “aha” moments, when customers first experience your product's core value proposition.

Of course, your customer won’t realize all of these objectives right away. To ensure your onboarding phase is successful, you need to break down the process of achieving these objectives into “milestones.” Using milestones, you can monitor customer progress and make sure that they see results within specific timeframes.

"Onboarding milestones should be measurable events, outcomes, or behaviors."

At Natero, one of our most important onboarding milestones is data integration. We capture customer interactions, support ticketing, NPS, and financial information from leading solution providers, and our clients leverage this data to gain a 360° view of their customers. It’s a pre-requisite for success with Natero and a key part of our onboarding process. We also “eat our own dogfood” and use Natero to manage our customer onboarding. Here’s how it works:

  1. We break each onboarding milestone into actionable tasks (e.g. obtain credentials, complete account mapping, etc.).
  2. Customer Success Client Onboarding Workflow
  3. We can have concurrent milestones (e.g. data integration and training), and they can be triggered after other milestones.
  4. We define specific timeframes to complete each milestone, and Natero shows us if anyone falls behind. This keeps our process on-track and ensures that our new clients achieve their onboarding goals in a timely fashion.
What are good milestones to track?

Your milestones should be measurable events, outcomes, or behaviors. However, some onboarding milestones may not be obvious at first. For behavioral insights, you can turn to product usage data about your healthy customers.

  • Which features do they use?
  • Does feature usage differ by tier?

The goal is to identify how successful customers leverage your product’s capabilities as compared to clients who struggle or churn. Then, create tasks that help guide new customers to adopt similar behavior.

Monitor Onboarding Progress

Milestones help you monitor your customers through every step of their onboarding stage. This will help you identify roadblocks and highlight unengaged accounts so you can reach out and help. In many ways, these “engagement” alerts function as any early warning system for churn.

Customer Onboarding Workflows

For high-touch clients, consider holding regularly scheduled meetings to keep everyone in sync and on track. Use these meetings to establish your desired cadence with high-touch customers from the start. For low-touch customers, take advantage of email automation to help guide your users towards desired outcomes. Segmenting accounts using onboarding metrics lets you create highly targeted (and relevant) onboarding communications at scale.

Take the opportunity to gather valuable feedback as your customers make progress. Surveys and check-ins can help you adjust your onboarding process over time. Depending on your onboarding cycle, it may even make sense to gather feedback at specific intervals (e.g. start, mid-point, end) or upon completion of certain milestones. Ideally, your customer health scores will also reflect the onboarding experience so new customers who are struggling won't slip through the cracks.

Is there a one-size-fits-all approach to onboarding your customers? Probably not.

The path to success can differ among certain segments within your customer base. As you continue to expand and refine your onboarding milestones, you may find that different tiers of customers need different onboarding approaches. Using these same techniques, you can construct different rules for these kinds of customers, thereby tracking separate milestones for each tier. Knowing when customers miss critical milestones gives you the opportunity to reach out, understand their problem(s), and guide them back to the path of success.