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How To Get Your Customer Onboarding Right

How To Get Your Onboarding Right

More is better. That would sum up the mantra the SaaS world lives by. How many companies do you know who are telling their customers:

“We reduced the number of features to what you really need.” (“easy to use” is not the same).

You can literally count them on one hand. Everyone else builds complex products with dozens of features and functions.

Deliver first value - quick and easy

That does not sound too bad – if you are a product manager. But what if you are a customer? You sign-up for a product and suddenly find yourself in the middle of nowhere and got dozens of options for directions to go. Not knowing where each one of them leads you to.  

It might be a bit exaggerating but all onboarding should start with empathy. Put yourself in the shoes of your customer. If you would feel lost in the situation above, chances are your customers will too.

But this is exactly what many SaaS companies do to their customers. They try to impress their customers with the number of features and functions. But all they achieve is overwhelming customers with information and choices until they feel lost, leave and never return.

The customer did not buy (or tries) your product because it’s so cool. They want to do something and they want accomplish something. The first question every onboarding process, plan etc. needs to answer is: What does the customer to accomplish first? What is the most urgent problem?

Start with a kick-off meeting

If you don’t have an answer for the only thing you can do (and what many actually do) is spray and pray and hope that it will work. Hardly something you should even consider in a world where buyers have all the choices.

The most important part of the onboarding is the kick-off as it will shape the customer’s expectations about what will follow. Boldly speaking, you are setting course for churn or customer success. You need to convince your customers quickly that they’ve made the right choice.

The kick-off meeting’s purpose is not only to find out what your customers want to do first but also where they start from. Their current performance (issues), the skills, processes, resources etc. The more information you can extract the higher the probability to deliver success fast and easy. Of course, with every new “run” you can improve your kick-offs as well.  

So at the end of the kick-off meeting you should know what the customer wants to do first, understand the problem to be solved and what they need to solve it (features, skills, education, advisory etc.).

What’s for a freemium/trial customer? In most cases you will not be able to have personal 1:1 kick-off meetings. Unless the initial ACV of a single successful conversion would outweigh the unsuccessful efforts (selling to enterprises). However, what you can definitely do is to ask your customer in-app about what they want to do first.

Customized quality input

After you’ve completed the kick-off meeting you know what your customer wants to achieve, what problem needs to be solved and where they start.

While the possible outcomes and problems are limited your customer portfolio may include a high variance of different skills, knowledge and resources. Also not everyone learns the same way – text, graphics and diagrams, video – there are many possibilities.

Onboarding (and customer success) means to bridge the gap between the ugly present and a taste of a joyous future. And you need to do it effectively and efficiently for your customer.

How to best approach this? I like to visualize it like a configurator where you pick the problem that needs to be solved, the tasks that need to be completed and the inputs required. Be creative, you may also create a list, matrix or whatever you lick to pick from. The most important thing: Don’t go about the product features.

The quality of your inputs is important which is why you need to pick from a pool of high quality services. A 60min-eat-or-die tutorial covering everything will most likely not get 5 out of 5 stars. But a laser-focused 3min tutorial on solving a specific problem with [feature] might. You mantra: Quality first, scalability second. If your customers don’t get what they want, none cares that you’ve failed in a cost-efficient way.

Take charge of your communications

Despite your best efforts it’s likely that your customers will struggle during the onboarding process. What most SaaS companies do is monitoring their customers activities with heat maps, session recordings etc. So that they “proactively” see when a customer is struggling and a churn risk.

Then they reach out with stuff like: “Hey Pal I’ve seen you not using [feature]. Is there anything I can help you with? But what they really do is guessing because they only see the “what” but not the “why”.

Your customer might simply not have adopted the next feature because they don’t need it yet. They are still using the other feature and struggling hard with it. Which is the reason why you’ve monitored the high activity there.

In a best-case scenario the customer will write you back and exactly know where their problem lies. In a worst-case-scenario the customer won’t respond or tell you they are no longer interested in your product.

A better way to go at it is to schedule follow-up meetings together with the customer. “What do you think of meeting Thursday and see how you are doing?” If your customer agrees to it it’s basically impossible that your customers struggle without you noticing quickly (before it’s too late).

That way you will also seize control over getting feedback. It can’t be said often enough – you need quantitative and qualitative data.

Measure what really matters

Customers don’t care about your feature adoption plan. They don’t care about your timeline, product usage etc. The single mission of your onboarding process is to help customers see first value, fast and easy. You have to earn the chance to show them more.

As a logical consequence your onboarding metrics need to fit with your goal. The performance of every process is evaluated by the dimensions time, costs and quality. The latter one is of course, the most important one. If your customers don’t see success nothing else matters.

So what I recommend is to measure the % of customers who see first value within a specified amount of time and the average time to first value. If you can split the costs of onboarding from your overall customer success costs you may track them as well. The only question is to what you put them into relation. I haven’t found an answer yet.


You are onboarding a human being, not a bot. Humans are different and they have different needs. They can get confused, lost, angry, frustrated and many other kinds of emotions. Be of genuine help and give your customers the best start possible. It will open many doors in the near and distant future.