This article was transcribed from Srikrishnan Ganesan’s presentation at the Customer Success Festival in March 2022.

Hey, I'm Sri, one of the founders of a company called Rocketlane. Today we're going to look at how to measure how well you're doing at customer onboarding.

Firstly, why is onboarding an important topic for all of us? It’s simple. If you have a new customer, the first partnership they experience with your team is this onboarding and implementation journey.

If you do a sloppy job here, you're on the back foot from the get-go, and you're going to have to win the customer's trust back before you can have any sort of conversation around expansion and renewals.

If, on the other hand, you do a great job and you impress the customer during your onboarding, you can probably have your expansion conversation while that first implementation is ongoing. That's the difference. For better or worse, onboarding is going to impact your customer churn and your net retention rate (NRR).

What is customer onboarding? | Customer Success Collective
Whether you’re starting a new job or setting up a new program on your computer, onboarding plays a part in most people’s day-to-day lives. The first definition of onboarding given by Merriam-Webster follows the recruitment angle: “The act or process of orienting and training a new employee.”

How's your customer onboarding program?

Customer onboarding can be hit or miss. If you ask your last 10 customers how they felt the process went, I'm sure some of them will say it was a great experience and things happened really smoothly, while others will probably say it was a nightmare to work with your company.

To me, it sometimes feels like a game of Jenga. There are a lot of people involved in the different phases of the onboarding journey, and if someone makes the wrong move, the whole thing can collapse and you’ll have to completely reset. Everyone needs to move their pieces carefully, and it's a collaborative effort to make this happen.

Things have been worse...

When you think back to the early days of your team's onboarding, I'm sure things were pretty bad, right? Entrepreneurs who onboard their first customers often tell them things like, “We can get this done in a few hours,” whether that’s feasible or not.

Likewise, when you're starting on a customer success journey with a company, you don't have a playbook yet. You don't know what surprises you'll encounter, so you learn as you go.

Slowly, as you get to grips with your customer onboarding processes, things start to get better, and you’re able to deliver a slightly better experience for the customer. But guess what? There’s always room for improvement.

All of us know only so much about what we’re improving on. If you're not measuring which aspects of the customer journey are getting better, you may be pouring your efforts into something that’s already reached its peak, and you may not have realized that there are still things in your control that you can improve.

Maybe today you're focusing on improving your tooling and visibility with the customer and you’ve already passed the point of diminishing returns. It might be that if you now focus your energies on better expectation setting and kickoffs with your customers, you’ll find a new peak in customer satisfaction with your onboarding process.

How to know how well you're doing

Let’s look at how you can assess your customer onboarding. Is there a way to understand a little more about how well you're doing as a team that's onboarding? Well, first you need to do some sort of measurement.

You can't just look at the things you’re working to improve without measuring the results – eventually, as you keep trying to enhance your initiatives, the returns on all the resources you’re pouring into them will start reducing.

Introducing the onboarding maturity model

That's where our maturity model comes in.

This is about exposing you to more dimensions along which you can measure how you're doing and give yourself a maturity score. Here are the dimensions:

  1. Value orientation
  2. Customer experience and delivery
  3. Adaptability and organization
  4. Manageability and productivity

Context matters

A little bit of context before we get into the details of this model. It applies best to onboarding processes that last two and a half weeks or more, particularly mid-market and enterprise implementations. This model itself is an early version, which we're going to continue to evolve based on feedback.

Also, your score on some dimensions may be low, and that may be okay. If your company stage demands that you do things a certain way and you're not yet ready to improve on a certain dimension, that's fine.

Lastly, for very mature professional services teams, we're not trying to score you on your professional services (PS) utilization, project profitability, etc. This framework is for customer success teams that are actively involved in the onboarding process.

Dimension 1: Value orientation

As I mentioned, there are four dimensions in our maturity model, and the first one is value orientation. Let’s look at why this is important.

Let's say you got Nike as a customer, you’ve finished onboarding them, and now your marketing team wants to do a case study. You need something tangible from them, not just, “They're a great team to work with,” or, “We love their product.”

You want to hear about the ROI they got from your offering and the value that your product delivered. Too often, the customer has no clue how to articulate that value because value orientation was missing from their journey.

So how do you know if your team is doing value orientation right? There are five signs to look out for.

1. Teams able to articulate value

Think about what the sales team sold the customer. During onboarding, is the CS team talking about the same value? Are you enabling that same value for the customer, and are you helping the customer realize that they're getting that value?

2. Measuring ROI/value

You need to be able to measure the value you’re delivering to your customer. It’s not enough to say, “Here's how we're adding value.” You need to have measured how things were done before so you have a benchmark for the value your solution enables.

Perhaps you’re saving time for each person on the customer's team; you can measure the dollar impact of that. Maybe you increase their number of leads or conversions – what does that mean for them in dollar terms? Depending on your product, the value is going to vary; just make sure you're measuring it.

3. Measuring and benchmarking time to value

You’ve agreed on what the value is – are you also looking at how quickly you got the customer to that value? They might not be getting the full value right away, but you can still measure how quickly you delivered part of the value.

4. 30, 60, and 90-day ROI

If you’re running a land-and-expand model, there might be a certain value that you expect customers to get in the first 30 days of using your product. As you expand with them, introduce more use cases, or go live with more modules, the value will increase.

If you measure this value on a regular cadence, it’s going to make your expansion and renewal conversations so much easier. As soon as the first 60 days’ value has been delivered, you can go to your customer and say, “We’ve already done this; now we want to do more with you.”

5. Value-based goal sign-off

Your engagement with the customer needs to start with an agreement on what the customer is buying your product for and the value they’re going to see. Otherwise, you’ll come up against scope, and conversations with the customer are going to be harder.

If your customer comes to you saying, “We also need this to work this way,” or, “This integration is missing,” you can make that go away by reminding them of the value you agreed on.

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Dimension #2: Customer experience and delivery

Now that you’ve seen how value orientation can help you and your customer, let’s take a look at how the second dimension, customer experience, and delivery, can help you upgrade your onboarding.

1. Onboarding plan and live status

Where you might initially have had a pretty chaotic way of working – spreadsheets, emails back and forth, and a list of to-dos – you can move towards putting together a beautiful plan for your customer, broken down into clear phases.

For example, in week one you can focus on kickoff and goal sign-off. In week two, you can do the basic setup and configurations, and have an initial team “get started with us” for one use case. Weeks three and four are where the full implementation, integrations, and data migration start, and then week five is where you do a full-fledged training and maybe even a reverse demo from the customer.

You should make sure there’s a live status around this plan, so everyone has visibility on how you're progressing through those themes week on week.

2. Expectation setting and sign-offs

When expectations aren’t set well, it can be hugely frustrating for the customer. They shouldn't feel that they’ve been left in the dark with only six weeks before their current vendor's contract runs off.

The last thing either of you needs is for them to be stressed about that. Ensure that the customer is in the know all the time. If you give them that live status, there will be no unwelcome surprises.

3. Communication protocols and escalation rules

Set protocols early on for things like how you're going to communicate, the cadence at which you’ll be publishing status updates, and under what circumstances you’ll escalate issues. This will help you avoid problems further down the line.

4. Measure CSAT score, timelines, and delays

It’s a good idea to gather feedback throughout the onboarding journey. If you did a customer training session, how did they feel it went? You don't want them to have any negative sentiments or to think that training was useless for them and their use case. Get feedback at all the key junctures and build off that.

You also want to measure how you're doing in the relation to your onboarding plan. Are you on track with the timelines you committed to? Are there any delays?

5. Customer effort score

If the customer feels they're having to do too much, they're gonna talk about it to others. If someone asks them how it was to work with your company, they’ll say, “It was really hard work. I had to do so much to go live, and it was stressful.” This is not the kind of marketing you need.

Instead, you want to figure out how to make onboarding easier for your customer. Perhaps you need to create better playbooks or build automation to make migration smoother. Often, we need input from the customer, and they may not have easy access to the information you need, so you might want to create some services to bridge that gap and help them feel less helpless during the process.

Dimension #3: Adaptability and orgs

This part of the maturity model is about ensuring you can meet each customer’s needs and that your teams can handle customer onboarding for every size and type of logo.

1. Adaptive methodologies

The third dimension of our onboarding maturity framework is about ensuring that your plan is not rigid, but instead changes based on the maturity of the customer, their industry, use cases, and goals.

2. Implementation plans and templates

Mature planning is a key part of a mature onboarding process, so make sure you create clear plans supported by the right templates for the documents you use with customers throughout this journey.

3. Dedicated onboarding team and implementation partners

In an early-stage company, the customer success team typically has to do onboarding and implementation, and that's perfectly fine. However, this is a maturity model, so if you’re a mid-sized company or enterprise, it might be time to think about bringing in a specialist team for onboarding and working with partners to implement your solution.

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Dimension #4: Manageability and productivity

Our fourth and final dimension is about measuring, and hence, managing things better and getting more productive.

1. Metrics by milestones, team, and region

As your organization grows more mature, you should ensure that you're looking at metrics on how your different teams and team members are doing.

2. Audit compliance with playbooks

Do you have a way to monitor if you’re complying with the onboarding playbooks you’ve established? This is crucial for ensuring a positive experience across the board for all your customer onboarding journeys.

3. Continuous improvement and iteration of methodology

In an ideal world, you should be improving with every onboarding. Do you have a way to look back and iterate on your methodology so you know that you're making progress?

4. Automation strategy

As you scale, it becomes more and more important to automate certain processes. This will allow you to deliver a great onboarding experience to growing numbers of customers, without it being entirely dependent on humans.

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