We all know the importance of customer acquisition — it’s how you get money into your business, and start generating revenue to fuel your growth. But not every company understands that all the steps that come after the sale are just as important.
From discovery through to customer retention strategies, every touchpoint and interaction between your customer and your company all contribute to your customer experience. Today, we’ll dive a little deeper into what happens immediately after a conversion — the onboarding process.
For a SaaS business, the customer onboarding experience is a key opportunity to get users from interested to engaged. This is especially important in freemium models and companies that rely on free trials to “wow” their users, but it’s also vital to reducing churn for all businesses.
This article will cover just why customer onboarding is such a vital process, different types of customer onboarding, how to select and optimize the best onboarding process for your business, what metrics to track, and useful tools that can help along the way.
Tip: Are you looking for employee onboarding advice, not customer onboarding? Read How to implement online onboarding at your company.
Table of Contents
- The importance of a good customer experience
- The value of customer retention
- The impact on the entire user journey
- Add an overview
- Offer multiple onboarding options
- Provide sample data
- Make it personal
- Use high quality graphics
- Encourage them to add a teammate
- Monitor usage and follow up
- Provide a way to reach out
- Let them know when they’re done
- Ask for feedback
Why customer onboarding is important
Customer onboarding is mission-critical to your overall customer experience, because it increases your activation and retention rate, and provides a great customer experience.
The importance of a good customer experience
Your customer experience is everything — it determines whether someone becomes a loyal customer or a vocal critic. It affects your bottom line, your online reviews, and your brand reputation.
Companies that invest in a good customer experience bring in 5.7 times more revenue than competitors that don’t. Bain & Company also found that companies that excel in customer experience grow four to eight percent faster than the market.
The onboarding process is your customer’s first real trial with your product. It’s when they learn to navigate your software, get to know your process or UI, and find out the different ways to apply your brand benefits to their business and lives. All of that drives their experience.
The value of customer retention
“Any business, whether it is D2C, whether it’s a delivery business, whether it’s anything — can be measured on the retention of your customers.” — Clearco Co-Founder Michele Romanow
Acquiring a new customer is five to 25 times more expensive than retaining an existing one. That means you spend more to get the same amount of return, resulting in lower ROI. Beyond that, if you don’t invest in keeping your existing customers happy, you also end up with a lower customer lifetime value and higher amount of churn.
Churn is a dangerous metric to ignore. Depending on the size of your market, there are only so many users you can acquire and lose without running out of customers.
In fact, according to Clearco (formerly Clearbanc) Co-Founder Michele Romanow, “your number one metric that should matter is retention.” Michele has founded, grown, and worked with multiple successful eCommerce businesses, and has learned to put retention first when looking at metrics.
The impact on the entire user journey
Investing in a great customer onboarding process will have a resonating impact on the rest of your users’ journeys — as well as the work that the rest of your team has to put in for them.
A well-onboarded customer:
- Needs less help from your customer support team
- Knows how to use your product or service to their greatest benefit
- Can teach others (for example, their colleagues and employees) how to use your tool
Although customer onboarding is just one part of the overall experience, it contributes to how well someone learns how to use (and benefit from) your product or service. That in turn affects their engagement, how much they need to rely on customer support, and their overall satisfaction.
So, let’s dive into the different ways you can onboard a new user.
Different types of customer onboarding
There are four common ways to handle customer onboarding, each with their own pros and cons. Many companies use a combination of two or more of the methods below to ensure a seamless onboarding experience.
1) Self-guided onboarding
Some of the best onboarding flows are woven into the UI of a tool, and flow naturally as someone explores a new tool for the first time.
Self-guided onboarding uses an intuitively laid-out UI and well-placed prompts that educate a user as they explore different parts of your software. Companies like Loom and Heap all utilize these in-app prompts to teach new users about features, how to get started, and what to do next.
You can also play with adding a checklist of things to do in order to get fully onboarded. It adds a nice layer of gamification seeing the different tasks on your list get crossed off, and gives you a clear picture of what else needs to be done.
This type of onboarding is excellent for hands-on, tech savvy customers who like to hit the ground running and figure things out on their own.
It’s also the baseline of onboarding, which means I recommend you invest in an intuitive customer interface and well-placed prompts whether or not you layer on any of the other onboarding methods below.
Tip: You can supplement these onboarding prompts with a chat pop-up to customer support and your knowledgebase. This will help in case anyone gets lost in the middle of onboarding, and needs to reach out for a little extra help. Here’s a message Databox sent based on my onboarding progress.
2) Automated onboarding
Automated onboarding can be done through email campaigns that trigger upon certain actions. For example, a welcome email upon sign up that details next steps, or an email reminder if someone has not taken a needed onboarding action in X number of days since sign up.
Here’s an email from Asana, triggered by task creation.
Automated onboarding can also be pre-recorded demos, whether that’s in one long video for customers to watch once and refer back to, or in short videos (or even gifs) embedded into your automated emails. These onboarding tools should guide a customer through each step of the onboarding process.
Automated onboarding gives you more freedom to scale, without having to wait until you have capacity to personally guide every customer through their first few days. Pre-recorded videos and customized emails can provide more hands-on guidance and step-by-step tutorials for each customer, giving them all a uniform experience that you can then focus on optimizing.
3) Live online onboarding
Real-time online onboarding can be done with a live demo, where multiple attendees tune-in and type questions into a Q&A chat box, or a one-on-one meeting where a team member takes a user through their dashboard and answers all the questions that user has.
For example, Gong has training sessions on how to use their tool. Since their software is fairly straightforward, but can take some getting used to, it makes sense to host these sessions where sales teams can learn how to better utilize their tool.
Databox is a tool that allows companies to consolidate all of their data sources in one place, and organize their data in clean, customized dashboards based on what they want to see.
Databox also offers a live onboarding session, but via one-on-one Zoom calls. Since their tool has so many unique ways to customize data, and every company has a different North Star metric and KPIs, every dashboard will look different.
This type of onboarding is great for complex products that require a customized build or have a complex setup process. It can help save your users hours of time and frustration just by hopping on a call together.
4) Physical or in-person onboarding
This type of onboarding is for more physical businesses that have retail stores and products that need training to operate. For example, the owner of a new cordless smart vacuum, or the latest electric car would benefit from some quick onboarding from the salespeople.
If you have a product that needs physical or in-person onboarding, you benefit from having a physical retail space where users can come in to speak with trained technicians. If you need to do home or office visits to do demos, that type of high-support service is typically reserved for enterprise or premium accounts.
We won’t be focusing on this type of onboarding for this article.
How to choose the best onboarding method for your business
Now that we’ve covered some common onboarding methods, let’s talk about choosing the right combination for your business. There are a few things you need to look at here, including your customers, your product, and your team.
1) Know your customers
Your product or service exists to serve your customers, and your onboarding experience is no different. That’s why, if your users are visual learners, you should use graphics and videos in your onboarding process, not a help center document or blog.
Pay attention to what your customers are used to, how they learn best, and how they want to learn.
- Are they tech savvy, or do they need more hand-holding?
- What is their background? Will the UI we have be intuitive to them?
- Will the words and phrases we use in our onboarding make sense to them, or is it internal jargon that they don’t know?
- What other tools and software do they regularly interact with? Can we model our UI after those?
- Do they prefer to learn by reading, seeing, or doing? Should we have a help center walkthrough, a video demo, or should we hop on a call with them to get started?
Tip: One way to learn this is in the onboarding itself. For example, you can ask users what their company size is, what their role is, and how they plan to use your product or service. Use those answers to customize their subsequent onboarding experience.
Take a look at how Mockplus asks these questions in their onboarding sequence upon first signing up.
2) Consider your product
Your product will determine what onboarding method works best. This article is focused on SaaS businesses, but almost every company has some sort of online app or website that their customers can interact with. (My fridge has an app).
- Are we selling software, or a physical good? Is it a combination?
- Is our service easy to “set and forget,” or does it need regular tweaks/updates/maintenance to get the full use out of it?
- How often will users need to interact with our software?
- Does our tool require time and work from our users, or do we handle most of it, and they reap the benefits?
3) Think about your team
Finally, think about your team and their bandwidth. Do you have the internal onboarding capacity to guide each customer through their setup? Is your customer support department overloaded with questions from a confusing onboarding setup? That could be a sign you need a better process, or more than one onboarding method.
- Can all of our teams keep up with new business?
- Would we be able to handle sudden growth while maintaining our level of service?
- Do customers ask a lot of questions during onboarding? How can we incorporate those answers into the onboarding process itself?
- Do customers respond well to our current onboarding process, or are they opening a lot of angry support tickets?
Example: SaaS using automated onboarding paired with self-guided onboarding
Let’s go through an example of what a SaaS company onboarding might look like. Their typical users are software engineers at mid-sized businesses who are familiar with other similar tools (adjacent, but not competing).
This SaaS has invested heavily in their UI, and uses self-guided onboarding in their application. During their first login, the user sees a series of pings across the screen explaining the different features of the tool. They also get a checklist that pops up and prompts them to complete three quick steps to onboard.
Knowing their audience prefers visual learning, the SaaS uses a series of “how-to” videos embedded into an email campaign that triggers upon sign up, 5 days in, and after 2 weeks if there has been no activity in the last seven days. They have a library of videos from the automated onboarding, so users can always go back and rewatch a video.
Finally, they have an enterprise plan that allows key users to get access to an API and connect the SaaS tool into their clients’ existing tech stack. All enterprise users have a dedicated onboarding specialist who guides them through the setup and API connection, and helps to troubleshoot and check that everything is working.
All of these items tie together to create a seamless, customized onboarding experience.
How to optimize your customer onboarding process
Great customer onboarding heavily depends on your business, your customers, and your product. However there are a few ways you can optimize your onboarding process to make it more efficient and effective.
1) Add an overview
For companies who are using self-service onboarding and deal with more complex topics, you should consider giving a simplified overview upon sign up. Here’s what I saw when I first signed up for Segment:
This is great because it clarifies their value proposition while simplifying what the tool can do. It also guides a new user toward the next steps they can take to get set up.
2) Offer multiple onboarding options
You might have a standard user in mind, but there will always be outliers. Your users could range from digital natives who want to set up autonomously and get started right away, to someone who is new to the industry and doesn’t know what most of your terminology means.
Provide different onboarding options and let your users “choose their own adventure” so to speak. This will help ensure different types of users get the support they want and need.
For example, self-onboarding should be a standard feature for all users. Then, you can have automated emails with recorded demos for all users, and host a live demo every month.
Take a look at this HubSpot email that offers different resources based on whether I need more help setting up or not. If not, they recommend resources to help me advance my skills within the HubSpot tool.
3) Provide sample data
Sometimes a product is impressively intuitive, so it’s easy for users to hit the ground running and immediately understand the value behind that product. In other cases, you get a chicken-and-egg scenario where a product or service becomes incredibly valuable only after a user has invested time, effort, and sometimes engineering resources to get things set up perfectly.
When that happens, there is a large gap in perceived value between these two user profiles:
- Someone who knows exactly how your tool works and how to best use it
- A casual user who only knows the basics of how to use your tool
This means you need to demonstrate how powerful your tool can be to your casual users, while overcoming the inertia of them not seeing enough value at the onset to invest more time in getting fully onboarded.
You can overcome this hurdle by providing sample data that shows users what your product would look like in its ideal state and form.
Amplitude does this well by giving all users access to an Amplitude Demo project. When you first sign up, this is the screen you see, filled with fully-populated and well-organized data that has been batched into relevant dashboards for different use cases.
Their demo data adds a few key things to the onboarding process (and overall user experience), including:
- Showcasing the powerful analytics and data organization of Amplitude
- Giving new users an idea of the different ways they can build their data and reports
- Allowing new users to play with a complete set of data, especially if they have to wait for their own sources to be connected
- Showing users how to build out dashboards to get the clearest insights
Another company that does this well is Audiense. They provide profiling data around your target audience, so you can find different patterns and behaviors to guide your marketing. The platform takes a while to compile the data around your first analysis, so Audiense provided some demo data to look at while you wait. (Also, peep their pop-up onboarding video on the bottom right.)
P.S. Once my report was done, they called it out with a bright green “Finished” tag to let me know it’s ready.
4) Make it personal
Sometimes, your users just want to feel seen. That means making their experience personal. It could be as simple as calling out what onboarding steps someone has already completed, ex. “Thanks for connecting your listing tool! Here’s what’s next.”
Or, it could mean training your customer team to respond with personalized suggestions. For example, I wrote into Calendly customer support asking how to troubleshoot their Round Robin feature. Their response included screenshots of our account and the exact sales members I was trying to troubleshoot.
Check out how Asana customizes their trial check-ins based on usage below. The unicorn is a gif, by the way.
5) Use high quality graphics
Whether your onboarding asset is a live webinar, recording, screenshot of the UI, gifs, or anything else, it needs to be high resolution.
A screenshot explaining where to find a feature is not going to help anyone if it’s blurry. Likewise, a recorded demo will annoy your users more than help them if the sound is fuzzy and cuts off.
Invest in a good microphone and camera for whoever is lending their voice and face to your onboarding process, and make sure any images you upload are crisp and clear.
Here’s an email from Heap that leads to a video on how to define events in their tracking system.
6) Encourage them to add a teammate
Adding additional users to an account does a few key things:
- It makes your tool “stickier” as more team members learn to use it (and lean on it)
- It makes your tool easier to use, as users can add the appropriate teammate to get the tool set up
Check out this email from FullStory, which encourages new users to invite their colleagues. As more teammates and departments learn how to utilize FullStory, the more likely a customer is to add seats, subscribe to a paid plan, and invest in more memory.
Also note that this is email 2 of 6 in their email onboarding sequence. The others focus on teaching users about core features like sessions, and how to annotate and share them.
7) Monitor usage and follow up
Ensure your customers are fully activated and using your product by monitoring how customers use and interact with your tool. By monitoring usage, you can see who is at risk of churn, and who has yet to complete their onboarding.
From there, you can follow up to ask if they have any further questions and how they’re enjoying the product.
Plan follow-ups at key intervals, even if a user has everything set up. This creates an opportunity for customers to ask their questions, share feedback, and get additional support when needed.
Here’s an email I got from Segment after adding their code to our website, but before I had a chance to set up event tracking.
The email from Segment also demonstrates point number four above. By adding the right teammate to set up documentation, they are making it easier for the main user to get onboarded.
8) Provide a way to reach out
Give your customers a channel to reach out, connect with someone on the team, and ask for additional support. It helps reassure customers they are valued, and provides insight into gaps in your onboarding process.
For example, if a number of customers reach out with the same question, you should be including the answer in your in-app prompts.
Tip: You’ll need to make a strategic decision about whether these inquiries go to customer support or an account manager.
For example, if a key account reaches out, you may want to assign them to an account manager. Having a single touchpoint throughout their onboarding can help because that account manager already knows all the context of the account. When that customer reaches out, they’ll (almost) always talk to the same person, who knows what they set up and how.
Here’s an email my HubSpot account rep sent after I signed up and clicked on a calendar meeting link.
9) Let them know when they’re done
Notify your users when they’ve completed their onboarding to keep them in the loop and set expectations (you don’t want them waiting for the next onboarding prompt that is not coming). This is a good opportunity to share additional resources and updates, which will help keep the momentum going.
Calendly has a celebratory icon when you complete their onboarding, and they share additional resources to help turn someone into a power-user. They also link to their Help Center if someone has any other questions.
10) Ask for feedback
After someone is done onboarding, ask for feedback. It’s an important opportunity see how they found the onboarding experience and gather more information.
For example, Heap asks new users to rate their onboarding process and asks how they plan to use the tool.
What tools to use for customer onboarding
The right software enables a great customer onboarding process. I’ve listed down a few useful tools you can use to create your in-app prompts, demo video and gifs, and touch base with your customers as they learn to use your product or service.
1) In-app guidance
In-app guidance usually comes in the form of prompts to help new users get acquainted with the different services and features across their dashboard. However, it can also mean access to the support team via a pop-up in the corner of the app, or an onboarding checklist.
Pendo provides in-app walkthroughs and targeted messaging that can reach users directly in your app. They use rich media and allow you to add step-by-step popups in your app to guide customers from feature to feature. They also provide analytics on adoption, feature usage, and drop-off for your users.
Intercom product tours deliver multi-step onboarding processes, which you can design around user roles and audience. The app supports rich media, including video embeds, for a fully interactive self-guided onboarding program. Intercom also has a robust customer service suite that includes onboarding, long-term feature management, and email.
Appcues provides in-app pop-ups and integrated self-service onboarding. This includes text and rich-media guidance delivered directly to users as they navigate around your product. Appcues also offers tracking, feature adoption management, and follow-up tools, so you can see when and how customers use your product.
Whatfix offers customizable in-app support, which you can build around user roles. This allows you to deliver self-help onboarding, tailored to different customers, different types of users, and different roles inside the system. Whatfix can also track behavior to tailor content delivery to individual users based on progress.
2) Graphics and videos
You can record, share, and maintain a library of webinars with Demio. This is ideal for creating demos, sharing live casts, and creating an accessible library of self-help content for later use. The platform also uses automation for registration, follow-ups, content during the webinar, and emails. Other popular webinar tools include Livestorm and GoToWebinar.
You can use Loom to create and share screenshots, gifs, and videos. This tool is especially useful when creating pre-recorded demos, explainer videos, and short how-to gifs, since you can record your screen as you walk through any onboarding step.
Canva is an intuitive image editor that provides pre-formatted templates and access to different images, fonts, illustrations, and more. This is an excellent tool for spinning up engaging visuals for your onboarding prompts, or combining additional instructions on your existing screenshots (for example, if you need to add some text on an image).
3) Email campaigns
Email campaigns allow you to automate welcome messages and automate onboarding emails based on different triggers and parameters. You can also use them reach out right before the end of someone’s onboarding period to help reduce churn.
MailChimp is one of the most popular email services out there. I’ve used it for multiple clients and my own newsletter. Their user interface makes it quick and easy to get started (great onboarding!) and they have automation sequences you can use in your onboarding drips.
HubSpot is one of the most robust tools I’ve seen out there. It’s a mixture of a sales CRM, content management system, customer service hub, and marketing automation suite all in one. Needless to say I’m a huge fan and have recommended them to multiple clients.
HubSpot’s email system is so powerful for an onboarding sequence because you can set up your entire onboarding tracking process within HubSpot. By assigning different deal stages to different onboarding steps, you can create easy triggers and logic branches for a customized onboarding drip.
Constant Contact is an email automation, marketing, and customer incentivization program. Its basic functionality allows you to build email campaigns around marketing. Constant Contact also has an onboarding flow built in based on customer type, behavior, and other data.
Campaign Monitor delivers a combination of customer support and ticket management with marketing email and automation. You can use this to create automated onboarding emails, follow-ups, and direct connections to customer service for when questions pop up.
Klaviyo is an eCommerce-focused tool that helps businesses learn more about their customers through integrated forms, profile-building, and analytics. You can send out customized email workflows, use real-time data to trigger email sends, and even add SMS to your onboarding arsenal.
Following up to see how customers are using your app is important. You can use the following apps to track customer activity, reach out proactively to prevent churn, and check-in to get feedback.
Survicate helps companies build surveys and capture NPS ratings. Users can send out surveys via email, link, or chat, and run targeted surveys on websites and apps. You can use this to check in with new users and get an idea of how they are liking your product or service so far during their onboarding phase.
Alchemer is an enterprise survey software solution that provides a comprehensive survey builder, supports complex workflows and logic, and audience management tools. For example, they partner with Cint and Lucid to get survey respondents for market research, or pull your customer list from HubSpot to run check-in surveys.
In addition to emails, HubSpot pop-ups are great options to check in with customers and provide an opportunity to ask questions or raise concerns. You can set their pop-ups to appear based on deal stage criteria, which means you can customize who sees your message based on their onboarding stage.
5) User journey monitoring
There are a number of tools that help you view how users interact with your software. These include the standard heatmaps, as well as the more sophisticated tools that help you track actions and triggers.
Fullstory tracks in-app behavior to show you exactly how users interact with your website. You can record and replay sessions, flag unusual behavior, and watch different user sessions as they go through your onboarding process. Pay attention to their behavior to see where they’re getting confused or stuck, and what converts well. This is one of the best tools I’ve used to figure out blockers to conversion across the entire user journey.
Heap combines user journey mapping with sophisticated analytics, allowing you to tie sessions to specific users and add user properties. You can define different events on your website or app, such as downloading a report or clicking a CTA on a certain page. You can then measure the conversion rate between every sign up and those events, or between a specific segment of customers and an event.
Heatmaps are great tools to see where users are dropping off. Pay attention to where users are spending the most time in their onboarding period to analyze if there’s something confusing about a particular message or sequence. Other popular heatmapping tools include VWO (which you can also use to A/B test your onboarding pages) and Hotjar.
Use Qualtrics to watch how your users interact with your tool, and prioritize where to optimize to make the most impact. Their CustomerXM tool can send recommended actions based on what a customer needs to do next in their onboarding. You can also see which actions users are taking the most often, and which actions lead to onboarding success most often.
Customer onboarding metrics
Now let’s get into metrics, and some key indicators that reflect your customer onboarding process.
The North Star metric for customer onboarding is typically your activation rate. After acquisition, activation refers to when a new user first receives your promised value. It’s when someone goes from “let’s try this tool out” to “I know how to use this and it’s awesome.”
There are different ways to measure activation. For some of my clients, it was triggered by a specific action, like fulfilling their first order through our platform. For others, it’s measured by the completion of a trial period.
There are also some secondary metrics you can look at, such as:
- Open and click rates for your email onboarding drips.
- Webinar registration and attendance rate for your demos.
- Watch rate for your video demos.
You should be able to see these in the tools I’ve suggested above. For example, HubSpot tracks email performance, Demio tracks registration and attendance, and Loom can show how many times a video has been viewed.
Watching these metrics closely is critical to learn how and where you can improve your customer onboarding process.
Wrapping up: How to craft an A+ customer onboarding experience
Building a great onboarding experience means creating multiple onboarding channels and offering different options based on how your users prefer to interact with you. Companies can do this by utilizing tools to monitor user behavior, check-in, and create engaging communication materials.
Depending on your company growth, individual team capacity, and the nature of your business, you can layer different onboarding methods and use the best practices and tools listed above to ensure a great customer experience.
Combine an intuitive user interface with an excellent user experience to supercharge your customer onboarding process, boost your retention rate, and become a brand your customers can’t live without.