Onboarding is a make-or-break moment in the customer lifecycle. Those critical early experiences after purchase can set the tone for the entire relationship – and impact downstream renewal and referrals.

Yet despite its paramount importance, many companies squander the potential of a smooth onboarding experience by presenting the customer with disjointed, inconsistent, and prolonged processes that only serve to frustrate them. For customer success teams seeking to boost adoption, retention and expansion, optimizing onboarding is a major opportunity.

In this comprehensive guide, we'll first define customer onboarding, before exploring a range of proven best practices to create onboarding programs that consistently deliver phenomenal first experiences. You'll learn how to create customer onboarding processes, build engagement plans, and demonstrate value.

With the right onboarding program, you can reduce time-to-value, drive adoption and engagement, surface risks early, and establish strong customer habits. The result is higher renewal rates, increased lifetime value, and faster growth fueled by enthusiastic brand ambassadors. Follow our step-by-step guide to transform onboarding into a driver of customer success.

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What is customer onboarding?

While we hail customer retention as the bread and butter of CS, getting to that ideal point of consistently retaining customers won’t happen without a thorough, strategic onboarding process.

Customer onboarding covers the following:

  • Welcoming customers
  • Setting up passwords and profiles
  • Learning how to log in
  • Getting oriented with navigating product dashboards and menus
  • Learning to use product features
  • Becoming familiar with support tools and in-app messaging

As a new customer, being left to your own devices without product guidance is no fun whatsoever. A poorly designed onboarding process is detrimental during this formative stage – and when left untreated, can lead to low product engagement and increase the chances of customer churn.

The Customer Success Onboarding Playbook
The Customer Success Onboarding Playbook has been designed to provide you with a step-by-step guide to the customer onboarding process, revealing industry best practices and showing you exactly how to position your customer interactions during this crucial time in the customer journey.

In this phase in the post-sales process, companies channel their efforts into helping the customer derive as much value from the product as possible. The onboarding period is a CSM’s chance to empower the customer straight away. After the sales conversion, it’s the job of the CSM to make sure the customer is guided through the product and feels confident using it, leading to a higher chance of product adoption.

The point of onboarding is to figure out what the customer wants out of your product and how you (the CS representative) can help them reach their ultimate goals. Shari Srebnick, Head of Client Success (US) at Searchmetrics, succinctly describes the process as follows:

“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.”

Mapping the onboarding journey

As any CSM knows, onboarding doesn't happen in a vacuum. Instead, it's a journey that should seamlessly integrate with your broader customer experience. That's why taking a strategic approach to mapping the onboarding process is essential – and you can do this by following three key steps.

Define your onboarding roadmap

Your onboarding roadmap provides an overarching view of the journey and sets milestones for both customers and your implementation teams. Be sure to clearly outline all phases, from initial access and configuration through training, adoption, and expansion. Identify all the prerequisites that must be completed before moving to the next stage.

Identify key milestones and KPIs

Attach specific metrics and measurable goals to your roadmap. This could include objectives like completing setup within X days, driving Y% adoption of key features within a set timeframe, or having customers ready for expansion within Z months. Outline the specific milestones that must occur for each KPI to be achieved.

Document cross-functional workflows

Map out how different roles and teams will intersect during each onboarding phase. Show any hand-offs between sales, onboarding specialists, support, success managers, and others. Also be sure to build standardized processes and guardrails so onboarding remains consistent even when it might involve numerous stakeholders.

Taking this strategic approach will ensure that the onboarding process is not only purposeful, but also coordinated across the customer lifecycle. It will also facilitate accountability by establishing clear metrics and workflows for involved teams. The end result is a streamlined journey that aligns with customer and company goals.

How do you create a customer onboarding process?

There are several ways to enhance the customer’s experience and smoothly allow them to acquaint themselves with your product.

How you delegate the responsibilities of the customer onboarding process will depend entirely on the structure of your CS team and the scale of your company. Additionally, you could have a dedicated customer onboarding specialist for large accounts that require a bespoke onboarding approach or subscribe to a high-touch engagement model.

To implement an onboarding process from scratch, you should take a look at adopting the following measures to introduce your customers to your product:

  • A welcome email
  • Product tutorial
  • Documentation
  • The very first login
  • Supporting emails providing user tips
  • Notifications

Remember to personalize the experience for each customer, but don’t overwhelm them with information. Support them at every step of the way – not everyone learns and processes information in the same way. And above all, don’t forget to celebrate their wins: encouragement doesn’t cost a thing!

Mutual engagement plans

A mutual engagement plan is a brilliant approach to managing customer expectations and aligning your outcomes.

Let’s face it, we’ve all been in situations where we’ve been promised the Earth, and in reality, these promises weren’t fulfilled. In the business world, not sticking to deadlines or targets is a sure way to alienate customers, and cultivate an atmosphere of distrust.

Bryant McCombs, Manager of Customer Success at MongoDB, has spoken extensively about this topic in his presentation at the Customer Success Festival in June 2021.

He argues that mutual engagement plans function as the perfect opportunity to set the tone for the engagement, allowing you to introduce yourself and the company’s mission statement and describe what customer success looks like with your respective product. These plans allow you to implement personalized milestones that both you and the customer can visualize and work toward.

Having a traceable, concrete plan provides the customer with an assurance that you are at the helm of their progress, and are dedicated to accountability and their eventual success.

A smooth sales-to-customer success handover

It can be intensely irritating when you’re passed pillar to post between different representatives of a company. Not only does it exhaust the customer, but it suggests a lack of internal communication in your company, verging on incompetence.

If there isn’t a seamless handover between sales and customer success, the customer isn’t going to have a positive experience. You want to instill confidence in your customer; they need the reassurance that they’re being transferred into capable hands.

Michelle Wideman, Chief Customer Officer at Silverfox, puts it:

“Whatever CRM/application you’re using it’s important to have alignment between the pre-sales team, customer success, and post-sales team on what fields must be populated to help to ensure the proper flow of communication on the key components of a customer’s environment and desired business outcomes.”

Demonstrate value

Needless to say, getting your customer excited about your product is pretty darn important. No question about it. But in reality, that’s only half the battle. The key to a well-executed onboarding strategy? Explicitly demonstrate the value the customer will get out of using the product by doing ‘X, Y, Z’ and show exactly how it is a solution to their previous pain points.

Providing relevant examples is a clear way to articulate your agenda, and this specificity is what’ll keep the customer engaged and motivated to progress with their product initiation.

Opportunities to instill product value can arise on kick-off calls, during specialized training sessions, or in personalized in-app messaging.

Templates and frameworks
Psssst. If you’re already a CSC membership plan owner, head here to access your templates and frameworks.

Where can I find customer onboarding templates?

Ask, and you shall receive. 🧞‍♂️

Not only do we provide top-notch free content, but we also have membership plans that boast an exclusive stash of peer-reviewed, industry-leading templates and frameworks to help you navigate the process of customer onboarding.

Whether you’re starting out in customer success, or perhaps you yourself are onboarding a new team member from a non-success background, having a visual aid to touch base with will make your life a lot easier.

Here’s a sneak peek at some of the good stuff we have on offer in our membership plans. 👇

Source: Templates & Frameworks

Source: Templates & Frameworks

What is customer onboarding software?

Some might say a bad workman always blames his tools, but customer success simply couldn’t function effectively without the aid of software solutions.

Customer onboarding software is a massive game-changer, allowing you to optimize your processes for the benefit of each individual customer’s requirements and goals. Video platforms like Loom or Guidde enable users to create video demonstrations via screen recordings to encourage familiarity with the product. Not only is this a simple, quick way to capture the essence of a product, but when done right, it can increase user adoption and retention rates.

The tech giant Gainsight offers another example of customer onboarding software, with their product Gainsight PX, allowing CS practitioners to track user behavior and understand how often customers use different features of your product. Having data like this to hand is super helpful when considering future onboarding processes, and understanding how and why your customers are using your product.

Want to know more about the specific software that CS practitioners couldn’t live without? We’ve created a report compiling the best tools on the market; voted by you, for you: Tools of Choice 2022.

Customer Success Tools of Choice 2022
We asked you for the tools that make you tick, and you answered. We wanted this report to be shaped by the customer success community, for the customer success community.