Developing a Customer Onboarding Process

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

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 hope 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 touch points, 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 or phases in an onboarding process?

The following stages are from the Orchestrated OnboardingTM framework.
  1. Embark – establish trusted relationships. This step starts before the deal closes, to set the stage for customers to see the value of what’s coming.
  2. Handoff – this involves the internal handoff and the customer handoff. The customer handoff helps customer teams know what was purchased and why. And they’re hearing that from the stakeholder at their own company.
  3. Kickoff – everything before the kickoff is about strategic success, plan, goals, and outcomes. In the kickoff, now we talk about tactics, requirements, and project timelines. So then the kickoff is about the implementation.
  4. Adopt – this is where I weave in together the implementation, the education, and the change management. This is where your education team should come in if you have one. For example, you might have developer training so the developers at the customer have a good grasp of your product. That way they’re ready to dive into their unique requirements, rather than just trying to figure it all out. Change management needs to be addressed here so the customer understands how their world is changing.
  5. Review – after the customer is live on the product, have your first review meeting. You’re also learning from them about how onboarding went, so you can keep improving your onboarding process.
  6. Expand – even though you go live, there might be new products, features or users to onboard. At too many companies, the CSM manages the initial training, and every time somebody new comes on board at the customer, they need training, and now the CSM is pulled back in. Depending on what kind of product it is, you might have a huge turnover of users using it. So there’s an ongoing need to onboard new users, and you need the training for this expansion to be scalable. There’s also an ongoing need to onboarding existing people to new products and features, new levels of maturity in your solution, and to onboard new divisions within existing accounts.

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
  • 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.

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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