When people talk about customer success, the first thing that probably comes to their mind is helping customers reach their goals. That's probably a fair assessment, right? But in reality, in order to get to that point, they need to understand the product from the start. That’s where customer onboarding comes in.

But first, a bit about me and my career in CS thus far.

In this article, I'm going to discuss:

  • My experience in customer success
  • My customer success philosophy
  • What customer onboarding means to me
  • What does successful customer onboarding look like
  • Aspects of customer onboarding that can go wrong
  • How customer onboarding works at Fieldguide
  • How to measure product adoption and engagement during onboarding
  • Tips to onboard their customers faster and drive product adoption

Brittany’s customer success role at Fieldguide

Fieldguide is a two-year-old early-stage startup currently in a Series A stage that serves a lot of cybersecurity auditors and risk advisory practitioners.

I was brought on to help build up everything customer-facing – think customer onboarding processes and creating CSM playbooks for the rest of the team. I do some pre-sales demonstrations and dabble a little in marketing, but in all honesty, that's not my strong suit.

Prior to Fieldguide, I had about 10 years of experience in a large corporation, and I primarily worked in their onboarding team. As you can probably tell, most of my background is in the onboarding area, which is why I’m excited to write about this all-important topic.

Brittany’s customer success philosophy

I believe a lot in empowerment; you need to empower your team and your customers. I never asked anybody to do something I'm not kind of willing to do myself. I think from a leadership perspective, that applies beyond customer success, but for me, I never asked my actual customers to do a workaround that I personally wouldn't do. I’d never ask my team to do something that I'm not also willing to do.

In customer success, it’s especially important to understand how to have tough conversations and set boundaries in ways that aren't stressful. I’ve found this is a big part of the job. So if you’re a burgeoning CSM, you should take time to get comfortable doing that, taking care of yourself, taking care of your customers, and taking care of your team. For me, this is the constant bottom line.

What customer onboarding means to Brittany

When trying to unravel the mechanics of customer onboarding, it’s worth stepping back and recognizing there's actually a ton of psychology behind customer success itself.

In its purest form, onboarding is concerned with getting your customers onto your platform in a way that makes them excited to jump in and start using it. When performed well, onboarding empowers your customers to start getting value out of your product. And through this sustained education about your product, your customer will gradually experience value from it. As concepts go, there’s a lot of consumer psychology regarding this process.

This is particularly true in the initial period when you're first onboarding a customer. In those early stages, there can be a lot of trepidation and the customer can be really nervous, potentially asking themselves, “Did I make the right choice? Should I have bought this? Should I have gone with something else?”

In our line of work – specifically at Fieldguide –  we have a lot of CS practitioners on our team who really get behind the company and make the push for it. You’ve got to enter the customer’s perspective at this stage and understand the stakes involved. If the software you’re onboarding them using goes well, this could be a really big deal for their career.

For me, it’s important to make sure that you're reinforcing why they made the decision to subscribe to your product, and why they’re better off than life before your product. A big part of the process is you being at the helm of this partnership now and reiterating how it's going to be successful. There's a lot that they could be worried about, or doubtful about, but part of onboarding is making sure that the way you design and actually go through your onboarding is addressing and putting those fears to rest.

The balance between tech and human touch during onboarding
We all know that the human touch is pretty essential to customer success. But in the modern world, it’s up to Customer success folks to bring that personal touch into the tech age.

What does successful customer onboarding look like – and what aspects should you be nailing?

I think a lot of people can define it, and I'm gonna define what it means to me, but it's not always that simple to nail down.

Have a clear, understandable, repeatable structure

Now, this doesn't mean everything is cookie-cutter, I still think you need to flex within that for each customer. You need to really understand where and how to flex for each customer while still keeping it standardized because that gray area can be really uncomfortable for some people.

I think you need to have really clear specific scheduled internal handoffs internally with the customer to keep the process flowing. You need logically introduce the CSM at the right time, along with the onboarding consultants – if you have them.

Support your customer through to going live

In my opinion, if your onboarding strategy is to dump a bunch of information onto the customer, and then leave them to figure out how to actually use it, that's not successful onboarding.

What I like to do is support them by getting live on the product. Now at this point, when it’s time to actually use the product, customers can sometimes hit the brakes and dig their heels in. So incorporating this period into onboarding and helping them get over this hump together is really important.

Be consultative

Set goals with them and make sure that they need them. Adjust their goals during onboarding to make sure that you're targeting those outcomes. This enables you to get to a reasonable time-to-value if you're focused on what actually matters to this client. Ask yourself, “How do we get them to their goals and get them live on the program in the best way possible?”

The ultimate guide to high-touch and low-touch engagement models
As a CSM, figuring out the best way to interact with customers can be a challenge. You don’t want to bombard them with emails or product updates, nor do you want to leave them in the lurch. This is where high-touch and low-touch engagement models come into play.

Aspects of customer onboarding that can go wrong

When I experience onboarding as the customer myself, the thing that really kind of gets to me about other people’s onboarding processes (or even our own if we don't do it correctly) is unloading way too much information on the client. That's always number one.

I'm always very clear with my clients and my goal at the end of this onboarding isn’t to make them a product experts, that takes time. But we will get there together. My goal at the end of this process is for the customer to be confident that they've hit their first goal. I want to prepare them so they’re ready to use our product, and feel confident they made the right decision choosing us.

If you're just unloading everything you know about the product onto the client, that’s not okay.

The other big soapbox topic that I speak on is not being consultative enough with the customer during onboarding. And by this I mean if you go into the onboarding process on autopilot.

If you always go address the process in the same way for every customer, talking about topics X, Y and Z, in that specific order every time, then you don’t have any nuance there. You’re not providing anything that's going to help this specific customer. Even if you're doing group onboarding, or designing a self-service, there are still ways to work in different approaches of being more consultative with that customer and making sure that you’re meeting their specific goals. What you don’t want is to complicate the process and get into extraneous details that they may not necessarily need.

You can't treat every case exactly the same, and as we know, customer success is anything but monolithic. You've got to take things on a case-by-case basis. The way customer success functions in an organization will vary from company to company, depending on the organization’s own goals, the type of customers they cater to, and the company's infrastructure itself.

How does customer onboarding operate at Fieldguide?

I think what's really important, and is always evolving at Fieldguide, is finding the right balance between having a very prescriptive onboarding process and a more bespoke, customer approach to onboarding. Finding the right areas to flex in and getting comfortable in that gray area can be a difficult skill.

So the way we've approached that at Fieldguide is through what we call our ‘onboarding process accelerator’. Our goal is simple: to accelerate that time-to-value for our customers.

We perform an internal kickoff call with our sales team to make sure we're all on the same page. This is followed by an external kickoff call with the customer, which really is to give them an orientation into what our accelerator onboarding program is alongside a nice handover from the sales process into the onboarding process led by customer success. This stage is critical as it provides a definite transition from sales mode into onboarding mode, where we start talking about the next steps.

Another aspect of onboarding at Fieldguide that differs from my prior experience is that we’re very ‘white glove’.

For me, one of the most important components of the process is to onboard your clients in the most realistic environment possible, so that they can start thinking about the product as they're going to use it in real life. Sometimes this is really difficult to accomplish when you’re working from demo data and in demonstration environments that are perfectly constructed. At Fieldguide we set up our customers with their templates and create their environment in advance before we get too deep into the onboarding process. This way, when we're actually working with them, we're going through their live environment.

So after we do our handoff calls, we'll then book in a call where the client actually explains their current workflow to us. It’s vital to have this depth of understanding so we're speaking the same language. After this, we’ll hold two to three workshops with them explaining their setup and their process in the new system to get them comfortable before we train their entire user base and start launching clients.

Now, as our CS function scales, we'll likely mature and so will the variety of onboarding processes available. Not all of our clients will require a granular, white-glove treatment, but some will.

I’m really passionate about making sure our customers feel supported in their live onboarding environments, and that we can help them launch their first few engagements, at least, if not more, on to the platform and make sure that they don't get cold feet before they go live.

5 easy ways CSMs can drive product adoption
Every customer success professional will be acutely aware of how important it is to get customers to use their product. A low-adoption rate is one thing, but unengaged customers left to their own devices may decide to cancel their subscription.

How can you measure product adoption and engagement during the onboarding process?

There are a few different things that we do at Fieldguide. Even when our onboarding accelerator program is technically over, we still continue to meet with our clients regularly; we start off meeting weekly, and then scale that back to ensure they still feel supported as they go through these different stages live and as they come across different scenarios and situations with our product. We want to make sure our customers don’t back off or return to their prior systems, and try to maintain the momentum by continuing to support them.

At Fieldguide, we also like to track product usage in a few different ways. We look at the features in our program that we know are real game-changers for our customers. We then try to decipher whether a customer is using that feature well or if they’re missing out on that function. And this is one of the key pieces we hit on during our quarterly business reviews (QBRs) with our clients.

We'll pull up a few key product usage metrics and highlight them in green, red or yellow because we're comparing them against all of our other customers. For us, that's been really successful, as the customers want to be in green when compared to others in their industry.

We also track their contract usage and pacing from day one. So when we contract with customers, they buy a certain number of units. What this analysis does is allows us to examine their end-of-the-year based on their pacing, and how many units they're using. This tells us if they're using more units and earmarks the account for a potential expansion.

We try to get them pacing ahead if we can, but a lot of times they'll start with a smaller portion of their business, and we know there's more scope in reality. But providing that level of comfort to get on the system with the rest of their business is a good start.

Tips to onboard their customers faster and drive product adoption

My number one question is, “Is it realistic for them to onboard faster?” Of course, everyone wants to move faster, but I always step back and ask, “Is that in the best interest of the customer? Or are you just trying to have a flashy metric?”

At Fieldguide, we have certain customers who we know are going to be above average in their time-to-value, but that's what's going to work and make sense for them based on the situation. So I would say just evaluate this on a case-by-case basis and make sure you're not rushing just for the sake of hitting that metric.

But if you do feel like you could be getting to that time-to-value quicker, one of the things I’d suggest is to remember that less is more.

If you're giving them too much information upfront, or you're trying to accomplish too much too soon, or you’re trying to be too fancy with your product and make them an expert in a week, that's probably actually going to slow things down. Why? Because they're going to question their decisions. They're gonna dig their heels in a little more. They're going to feel like they’ve got in over their head.

Your job as CSM is to be approachable and make them feel at ease with a smooth process. Oftentimes, the best way to do that is to do a little less. You can also evaluate how many people are involved upfront. For example, if you have 15 people from the client side (with all kinds of opinions flying around, no doubt!), consider the possibility that perhaps you didn't help them design their onboarding team in the best way to keep it efficient.

At Fieldguide, I discovered that being more white glove upfront pays off – i.e. setting up their environment, and setting up their templates. By doing this, now we're not waiting for that client who's less familiar with the system, or the one who’s super busy to make time to build out their environment. By applying a white-glove approach, everything’s already taken care of and all that’s left to do on their end is use it. By lowering that barrier to entry, you immediately make it much easier for them to start adopting and using more quickly.

How to create a customer success plan with your client

We create customer success plans with every one of our customers sort of at the beginning of the onboarding period. What we really focus on and ask the customer is, “What will be the first thing you need to do on our platform? What do you have coming up, as a business, in the next few months?” They’re the feature sets that we’ve put more emphasis on.

Following on from this, if we know the customer is likely to be performing different types of work on our platform, later on, we can get to that in future calls and layer that information for when it's more timely and relevant. So that's kind of how we tailor engagement plans to their needs.

To wrap up, we definitely have a standard process we go through and if you looked at our processes, we have a standard set of bullet points we’ll cover. However, I always say there's nuance in those bullet points, there are gray areas between those bullet points. So when you're looking at the outline of your onboarding process, consider how much time you spend on each topic and the emphasis you give each topic because the way you frame each topic can differ upon application, and differ to what the customers’ goals are and what they need most out of your system.

Did you enjoy this article? If you did, be sure to listen to the full discussion and many more like it on the CS School podcast. 🎙