Developing a Customer Onboarding Process

Donna Weber
Donna Weber
Donna Weber is a recognized Customer Success thought leader and strategist. She’s currently a consultant specializing in customer onboarding, implementation, enablement, and education for high-growth companies. She previously built out customer success and customer enablement organizations at SugarCRM and Jaspersoft. In this guide, she dispels the notion that onboarding is just implementation and shows how education, enablement, and support should be woven into onboarding to help new customers see value and succeed quickly.

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Questions Covered in this Guide

Questions Covered in this Guide

What is customer onboarding?

Get customers to use your product – it’s about getting the customer relationship off to a good start, including from a behavioral standpoint: managing first impressions, buyer’s remorse, and confirmation bias. If you don’t address these, then you’re just throwing software at people and hoping they use it.

Onboarding is not implementation – a lot of companies sell the product, do a kickoff, and then jump into project timelines and technical requirements. Customers end up being completely overwhelmed. Oftentimes the buyer and user aren’t the same, and the customer teams who implement and use the product don’t even know about the purchase. When the implementation team reaches out to the customer team, they wonder, “who are you.” Sometimes they’re even afraid they will lose their jobs if they implement your tool. 

The goal is to drive first value – it depends on the company and the customer, but you want to show the customer the value they obtain from your product. Logging in is not a first value, but generating a first report where you include valuable insights is. 

Why does good onboarding matter? 

Margin impact – onboarding impacts your company’s margin in a couple of ways; an obvious one is that slow and labor-intensive onboarding is costly. But incomplete onboarding costs you too. I’ve worked with companies that spent too much money and sales time re-contracting deals when sales teams set unreasonable expectations and implementation couldn’t meet them.

Avoid a bottleneck – Many companies I work with receive funding, get a huge injection into sales and marketing, and then have a tidal wave of customers to onboard and engage. Good onboarding processes make it possible to bring new customers onto the product at greater scale.

How does onboarding evolve as the company scales?

Start with high-touch, white-glove I like to start with high-touch, especially if a product needs to be implemented and customized, or there’s data to migrate. That way, you can have someone who’s capturing customer business goals and success outcomes. Earlier in your growth trajectory, you can afford to have everyone “hugging on the customer,” to make sure they’re successful.

Incorporate low and tech touch when to scale – Once you have a good onboarding framework that works in a high touch approach, explore ways to lower the touch and to introduce tech touch. Email campaigns, self-paced training, and resources are helpful. You might also have a pool of CSMs and/or onboarding specialists rather than dedicated ones for each account.

What are tactics for scale?

Tier customers with different levels of attention – generally it makes sense to start with the high touch. Once that’s working start looking at lower touches for lower tiers. The highest tier gets a dedicated CSM, and the next tier has a pool of CSMs that work with customers, and email campaigns to drive customer behavior along with specific touchpoints, deliverables, and milestones along the journey. 

Cut your product into modules – if you have an expansive, super-customizable product, it is overwhelming for new customers. If you can product-size your platform, you give customers less at a time but ways to reach value quickly. For example, sell a single module to start, and move to a lower-touch model. This is especially valuable if you have a short sales cycle, but a long implementation cycle. For example, one company I worked with had a three-week sales cycle, and then took six months to get everything onboarded and implemented. They transformed not just their onboarding, but the way they develop, market, and sell their product to make it easier for customers to reach first value.

Should you charge for services? 

I see one-off implementation fees around $10K frequently – for an annual subscription product. Charging for implementation helps keep customers engaged and coming to meetings, and it makes it easier to justify building out the onboarding team as the company grows.

Consider selling premium Customer Success packages – this is a debated topic, but I’m in favor of offering subscription services packages. The revenue is recurring and a packaged, branded services product differentiates you from the competition. In year one, premium customer success might include implementation services (migrations integrations) and higher-tough user training and enablement; in subsequent years the packages might include ongoing enablement, performance tuning services, and premium support.

If you have small customers who need hand-holding, give it to them, but bill for it – often small customers need the most help, so create a service offering to do more for them if that’s what will remove barriers to adoption. 

What does the onboarding group look like?

Sometimes onboarding is led by a CSM, sometimes an onboarding specialist – Onboarding usually sits under the umbrella of Customer Success. Often CSMs handle onboarding initially, and then companies add specialists as they grow. Think of the CSM as the conductor; they’re not the ones picking up and playing every instrument, but provide a harmonious experience for the customers. As companies grow, they have onboarding specialists, but that would still be under the current customer success organization.

Other specialist functions might be a part of onboarding

  • Change management – to really help the customer adopt the product and create a harmonized cohesive experience (especially if organizational or process change is required) 
  • Implementation – deploying your product means making it active and effective for your customers. You build, fit, and alter it according to their specifications. That might include user acceptance, testing, data, migration, and API’s.
  • User Education/enablement – it’s all about preparing each user type to do their jobs effectively. Companies need to not think about onboarding in terms of bringing on an account or a company; they need to think about it in terms of bringing on a user. If they aren’t using your product, then there won’t be a license to renew. 
  • Support – towards the end of onboarding, make sure customers know how to log tickets and what part of the team to work with moving forward. 

What are the typical steps of phases in an onboarding process? 

GoalTo show the path to success as a part of the sales process
People InvolvedSales, prospect, possibly a customer success manager
What you’re doingIllustrate big-picture outcomes, Sell & market CS value, Set expectations
When this happensTriggered at a specific sales stage (set by the company)Ends when the deal closes
What can go wrongIf sales doesn’t cover the onboarding process, customers don’t know what’s happening next and can get confused or have misaligned expectation.
Goal To foster alignment, both internal alignment and customer alignment
People InvolvedCSM, Sales Rep, Broader Customer Team(s)
What you’re doingInternal handoff (from sales to CS)Customer handoff (from the deal champion to broader customer team)
When this happensTriggered when the deal closes (usually within 5 days of a deal close)Ends after both handoff meetings are held
What can go wrongOne or both of the handoff meetings don’t happen. The CSM or onboarding teams ask questions that sales already asked, but the information wasn’t shared. Customer teams who need to be involved in onboarding/implementation don’t know what they need to be doing or why they’re doing it. 
GoalTo kickoff implementation
People InvolvedCSM, Onboarding/implementation team, customer team
What you’re doingCover tactical items including the project plan, accountability, milestones, and deliverables
When this happensTriggered within a week of handoffs. Ends when deployment is started
What can go wrongCompanies overwhelm customers by covering too much information (break things into phases as necessary).
GoalTo drive user adoption
People InvolvedOnboarding/implementation team, customer team
What you’re doingImplementation, including migrating data and customizing the product. Training users of the product
When this happensTriggered immediately after kickoff. Ends when the product goes live (technically ready to use) and users are ready to engage with it. Adoption can take as little as a minute or as long as a year, depending upon the product.
What can go wrongMany companies have huge backlogs, with long implementation wait times. Companies offer too much customization that takes a long time (“special snowflake syndrome”). Waiting too long to go live–instead, go live with less and do a phased deployment. 
GoalTo measure outcomes and get feedback
People InvolvedCSM, Sales, Onboarding/Implementation, Customer Team
What you’re doingMeeting (~90 minutes) to review the onboarding experience and address any lingering issues
When this happensTriggered at 90 days (even if the product isn’t live yet). Ends when lingering issues are resolved (depending upon how the conversation goes, you may need to schedule another review meeting)
What can go wrongYour company talks at the customer the whole time instead of taking time to what the customers want and need. Skipping the review meeting altogether (which doesn’t solve the underlying issues, it just leaves them unexposed).
GoalGrow your relationship to include new products, new orgs, new users
People InvolvedCSM, Onboarding/Implementation, Support, Training team, Sales
What you’re doingRolling out and selling new products or features that you introduce.
Onboarding new users or organizations.
Ushering customers through different maturity stages. Instead of dumping all the information on the customer in the beginning, you need to take them on the journey to help them continuously get more and more value from your product, so they can eventually become power users.
When this happensOngoing – the goal is to move from monolithic deployments to agile, cyclical, and iterative deployments. Ideally, this is aided by regular strategic review meetings. 
What can go wrongFailed rollout to new users – this can occur when additional teams at the company start to use your product after initial onboarding and you never onboard them, so they flounder. Missed upsell opportunities – if you don’t help to onboard subsequent teams, you miss out on connecting with the “product champion” on those teams who could be a buyer of additional products. Increased churn – if additional users/teams are never formally onboarded, they’re less likely to continue using the product. 

What are the different stages of onboarding maturity?

Reacting – in this stage, you’re responding to every customer individually; every customer is a special snowflake. You’re running around putting band-aids on problems, and it’s reactive heroics instead of being proactive. 

  • Team: Generalist CSMs
  • Tools: Excel or a generic project management tool

Performing – in this stage you have consistent, repeatable processes and playbooks in place.

  • Team: CSMs plus specialists, e.g. onboarding or implementation managers, training specialists, documenting specialists that you’ve trained for either internal and external interactions. 
  • Tools: Onboarding tool (e.g. GuideCX, Rocketlane, TaskRay, Baton), CRM, or CS platform that you’re putting playbooks into

Scaling – in this stage, you’re more sophisticated about segmenting customers, and you’re leveraging technology to scale customer-facing engagement. 

  • Team: Add CS Ops
  • Tools: Add a Learning Management System (LMS) and/or a tool for in-product guidance for digital-touch onboarding

Optimizing – at this stage you can show some correlation of your efforts on the business bottom line. It’s all about data and reporting metrics. 

  • Team: Add data analytics team members (data scientists, data warehouse managers)
  • Tools: Add data analytics tools

How do you “signpost” the onboarding process for your customers?

A well-designed slide helps people see the roadmap – people process information visually and are visual learners, so it helps them to see the roadmap. Color-coding things for where you are and where you’re going will also help people follow along. 

People are calmer when they know where they are – people are so busy and are constantly going from one meeting to another, so having a visual that shows them “this is where we’ve been and this is where we’re going” helps them focus and calms them down. 

Sample Onboarding Model Slide (to share and discuss with customers)

What tools or resources make scalable onboarding easier?  How do you create/use them?

Manage the onboarding project this could be onboarding-specific software, e.g. GuideCX, or some companies use a CRM like Salesforce to keep track of what stage they’re in and then mix it with a tool like Asana to keep track of tasks. A tool like GuideCX is nice because it gives both you and the customer a view. You assign tasks and they can actually see the whole project (if we want them too). With this, customers have a better idea of what to do so they don’t simply think your team is going to do all of it for them. Some companies also use Jira, but you have to be careful that you don’t get stuck on little tasks and are missing the big picture.

Knowledge transfer tools – to facilitate customer enablement at scale

  • A learning management system (LMS) for self-paced content (potentially with badges or gamification)
  • Email marketing tools (e.g. Hubspot, Marketo) for automated email messaging
  • A webinar tool for live sessions
  • A knowledge center portal for help articles and/or user community
  • In-product guidance (e.g. Pendo or WalkMe) to provide in the right tips at the right time

Content tools – to generate and store reusable content

  • A video creation tool to produce training content for your LMS
  • A content management system to track and keep content updated

Customer success platform – if you have one, onboarding can leverage a CS platform like Gainsight, Totango, but I’m all about putting processes in place. First, get effective and then you get efficient with technology. Throwing Gainsight at a problem won’t help anything. 

How do you measure onboarding success?

Time to first value – ensuring customers see value during onboarding is important. Many companies don’t have a defined first value or they don’t know how long it takes to get there. A first value should be connected to the core reason the customer bought your product, e.g. setting up a first report, or setting up automated alerts.

Time or cost to onboard – you don’t want the sales team to be promising the world and then implementation teams bogged down trying to fulfill those promises. So many companies are focused on the initial sale, but you have to factor in all the other costs along with the amount of time it’ll take to get a client onboarded.  

Product usage/customer activity – For example, get a % of users in the product in the first 30 days. Your metrics could also be product usage or the number of active users. One company I work with has the goal of getting companies to move away from their legacy system.

How do you balance delivering high value while keeping costs down? 

Build out “quick wins” with self-paced training – during the Embark stage, meet with a customer to build out a customer success plan and talk with them about which quick win was most appropriate for their user-case scenario. At an analytics company, I built out three of those “quick wins” and then provided learning pathways and self-paced training to quickly guide customers to each of those quick wins.

Build role-based learning pathways – prescriptive, role-based learning pathways enable users to rapidly learn and adopt your product without as much human interaction from the CS team.

Develop a customer maturity model – don’t waste resources throwing everything at your customers at once; they just get overwhelmed. Instead, define a maturity model that guides customers through your product or platform in a cohesive way, moving from basic to complex use cases, or basic modules to advanced ones.

If you have a large onboarding backlog, what steps can you take to work through it?

Create an 80/20 approach that gets most people onboarded faster – examine whether you have “special snowflake syndrome” where every customer is requiring something so special that onboarding is taking forever. If so, identify and limit the types of customization are slowing down the queue.

Make sure you have a clear “go-live” definition – be clear about when onboarding is complete and the customer should be handed over to the next team.  After that, make sure onboarding team members roll off and aren’t being sucked in for the rest of the customer journey. This will allow them to specialize in their designated role instead of taking on greater responsibilities. 

Design CS enablement to ramp employees faster – you can’t simply hire people and hope that they’re going to figure it out. You have to create a prescriptive path for new employees to help them deliver value quickly.

Consider outsourcing if you have a partner network already – this works if you have partners who know your product well (e.g. systems integrators). Keep in mind that for many products, it can be extremely difficult to outsource.

Utilize a scalable customer enablement approach – use a self-serve or one-to-many approach for anything repeatable so the onboarding team and CS teams aren’t as busy trying to train every new customer on the exact same thing. 

What are the most important pieces to get right?

Onboarding needs to be cross-functional – it’s not just “oh I’m going to design the process” and then everyone else is going to follow it. This is a crucial time for sales, customer success, implementation, and training support to work together. 

What are common pitfalls?

Going straight to implementation – most companies call “implementation” onboarding, but they’re not the same thing. Don’t overwhelm customer teams by jumping into the product too quickly. Make sure the customer team knows who you are first and reassure them that the product will make their life easier. 

Not talking about onboarding until after the deal closes – companies need to share with their prospects, not just that they have a great software tool, but that they have the services to help the customers reach their goals. That doesn’t have to be a secret that you don’t reveal until after the deal closes; it needs to be part of the sales conversation. If all of your customers are stuck in long, painful onboarding because they’re such a bad fit, then that’s a huge problem. So your sales team also needs to have an ideal customer profile that fits with your company’s onboarding style. 

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