Like any customer-facing role, customer success should not be taken lightly. It isn’t just about ensuring customers reach their goals, it’s about building relationships with people, educating them, empowering them, and seeing them become as successful as they can be. Always remember, without our customers, we wouldn’t be here.  

In this article, I'm going to look specifically at onboarding in customer success. But before I get started, it’s important that we highlight the value of customer success within any organization.  

This is a complex topic. If you were going to put it on a billboard, it would probably end up being very wordy. So, to get things started, I'm going to break down this complex topic into a few simple sections:

  • The philosophy of customer success, understanding the value of this role
  • Onboarding: what is it and why does it count?
  • How critical is onboarding to customer success?
  • How do we break down the process into achievable milestones?
  • Is onboarding part of customer success or implementation?

The philosophy of customer success

Since I can’t put customer success on a billboard, maybe it’s better to think of it as a philosophy. Like with any philosophy, there are many different aspects to it, right? But let's stick with three, for now.

1. Customer success is not a department

If I could shout this from the rooftops, I would.

It should be an essential part of the company philosophy, it should be what everybody embodies. Because without the customers, we wouldn't be here. We should all be working collaboratively to make the customer successful.

A successful customer is made by an entire organization, not just a department. It cannot be isolated to a department, it is a cross-functional effort across all departments. Not just that, it’s about having a passion for building relationships with people. Something so crucial can’t just be relegated to one department.

2. Customer success isn't a cost center, it's a revenue generator

Even as a department or a team within the company, customer success should not always be looked at as a cost center. We are revenue generators, we're about retention and expansion.

The McKinsey article, Introducing Customer Success 2.0, states that we’re a growth center. People look at us as a 'cost center' but without us, you're not retaining and you're not growing the business.

Customer success is a profit center. Maybe it may not follow the traditional funnel model within sales or marketing.  It may have its own unique process, but it is organic, it is impactful, and it is real.

3. Customer success deserves a seat at the executive table

Lately, we’ve seen a lot of trends where people involved in customer success are promoted to CEO roles. Who better to take on this role than the person actively involved in incorporating empathy into strategy? As we’ve discussed, customer success is about building relationships with people.

I think CS as an organization fundamentally sits on unifying different departments together, both internal and external. It's a core value. It's the glue that binds everything else together.

It should come as no surprise that we’re seeing very prominent organizations promoting their Heads of Customer Success to such senior roles

So, now that we’ve established the value of customer success, the core tenets of its philosophy, we can really dig into the main subject of this article: onboarding.


First impressions really count, right? That’s why having CS involved is so important as the Account Executive is getting closer to signing a contract. We need to understand what they're buying, what their goals are, and how that would map to our software. This also provides the sales team with valuable insight, who can use us as leverage.

At the same time, it allows us to start the process of helping this potential customer understand what it's going to be like to work with us. It also gives us a head start and it gives us information such as:

  • What is the pain point that our software is going to help solve?
  • How are we going to be able to help you?
  • What are those goals?

This way, once we get started in our relationship, we're not starting from scratch, and we shouldn't be. Onboarding sets the tone for our future relationship with the customer. I like to think of onboarding as the lagging metric for a successful relationship. All of those customer-facing skills– empathy, understanding, the ability to educate – come into play at this point.

The most important thing is that onboarding doesn’t just become a boring instruction manual. You’re sending the customer on a journey, granting them valuable knowledge about your product. You want them to really understand the value that they're driving for their organization with your product.

In order to get to that point, you need to have proper goal setting and you need to be able to drive clients towards behaviors that help with adoption and ensure you're hitting milestones along the way. These are the kind of conversations you need to be having to lead into the onboarding.

In many cases, it can be a leading indicator of customer lifetime value as well.

How critical is onboarding to customer success?

Onboarding is absolutely critical to customer success. Remember how I said that empathy is integral to customer success? Well, your job now is to use those skills to build your customer’s confidence around the software.

You want to ensure they’re going to drive value for their own organization, and that they're going to be motivated to reach their professional and personal goals. Sure, they need to be comfortable with the basics, but your guidance shouldn’t resemble an instruction manual.

But the big question is as followed:

How do you break down the larger goals into smaller milestones?

This is crucial for building customer confidence. We all know what it’s like to be overwhelmed by a wall of text information, not knowing where to start. It’s much better to break that information down into a concise, manageable checklist.  

Each box ticked is a milestone cleared. And the customer builds confidence with each box they tick. By guiding the customer through this journey, you’re gaining valuable insight that will aid your relationship post-onboarding.

I like to use the analogy of a personal trainer at the gym. When you have your kickoff with the trainer, they don’t just hand you a welcome manual and send you on your way. They introduce themselves, and the first question they ask is, “What are your goals? What are you trying to achieve?”

You might say you want to have excellent squat form. The trainer will inevitably tell you that it’s going to take the better part of a year because strength training is non-linear.

Then, your trainer is going to spend the first few sessions getting you orientated with the equipment, next they’re going to work on your form. And even these smaller steps are milestones, just as that first user tutorial with a piece of software is a milestone. You’re going to be building confidence before you’ve even really started.

The important thing is that these steps are broken down into smaller increments. Each week you’re adding more weight, trying out new accessories and techniques, just as with software, once you’ve mastered the basics, you’re going to start getting grips with more complex functions.  

In the meantime, like the personal trainer, you’re there cheering them on and encouraging that confidence. You’re there to remind them that it’s a long game, and they’re not going to reach their goals all at once. You’re there to praise them for each milestone that cleared every step of the journey.

It’s that sense of accomplishment, as the end goal becomes clearer, that's going to motivate the customer to continue on this journey with you.

Is onboarding part of customer success or is it part of implementation?

It really depends. Not every software requires implementation. Not every company has an implementation team. At Searchmetrics, we don’t have an implementation team  

If you signed up with us today and signed the contract we would create your account in the system within 10 minutes and you’d have your login. Ours is just software you're logging into.

With some software, like for example, Salesforce, Catalyst, or Gainsight, there's implementation required because it's going to need to be integrated into your other systems. You need to have a flow of data from different points.

You’re going to need an implementation team to get you through that part. For this, of course, you’d have to train a team of people in the right way.

After the heavy lifting is done, that’s when the role of the CSM becomes crucial again. Even when software requires implementation, you’re still going to want to have someone who can guide the customer through those first steps of the journey.

Despite differences in organization structure, I hope everyone can take what they’ve learned about CS from this article into the real world. Because the real question is:

How do you apply it in a way that matters for your organization today?

To wrap up

Remember the tenets of customer success philosophy:

  • Customer success is not a department
  • Customer success is not a cost creator, it’s a revenue generator
  • Customer success deserves a seat at the executive table  

Onboarding is a crucial stage in customer success, and as such, it mustn't be taken lightly. Like any complex process, it must be broken down into clear, achievable milestones which will motivate the customer to stay on this journey. It’s about making that customer a believer in you and your product.