Customer Onboarding Strategy

How To Fix A Customer Onboarding Process That Costs You Money

Learn how to plug those onboarding holes which lead to churn with some great onboarding process strategy

The major role of an onboarding process is to nurture customer relationships toward a more engaged and attentive state with the product, with the goal of reaching full product adoption and long-term retention. This is driven by the need to reduce customer acquisition costs while boosting the lifetime value of current customers. 

Onboarding flows accomplish this with a series of interchangeable components, which is one of the ways they are at risk of becoming so porous if they’re not synchronized and maintained correctly. We’re going to look at some of those weak points and give some suggestions on how to strengthen them. But first, here’s why you need to.

The Effects of a Faulty Customer Onboarding Process Flow

Essentially, if you’re spending too much bringing new people in to replace those you’re losing, this is your leaky bucket. And while growth looks best in terms of new customers on the surface, retention is the glue that holds keeps that growth sustainable. 

Thus, onboarding is incredibly important, but what does a broken process look like, and how does it affect your business in the bigger picture? 

To get a start on answering this, let’s look at the major beneficial outcomes of a successful onboarding process:

  • Increasing customer engagement 
  • Increased retention (reduced churn)
  • Reduced Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC)

Achieving this is easier said than done. Onboarding has a lot of moving parts that need to combine to form your flows, and that leads to a lot of potential vulnerabilities in the system. And this is the case in many companies. If the client onboarding process struggles to achieve any of these three goals, you see drops in engagement metrics, churn rates going up, and a steady increase in customer acquisition in an attempt to make up for it. 

All this happens for a number of reasons, and, as we’ll discuss shortly, commonly at multiple points along the onboarding journey. However, it generally happens as a result of one of a handful of properties.

Why is Designing Customer Onboarding Process Flow So Difficult?

First of all, customers have varying perspectives on the same reality. This is the first and most significant challenge for an onboarding process that results in leaks. Second, customer needs will develop with exposure to the product, so the nature of the experience is different not only for each customer but within the same customer journey at different stages. 

Third, with all this complexity, the customer demands are almost paradoxical: simplicity is the key to a successful onboarding experience for your clients, and this makes designing and running the whole thing an art of its own. 

So, to put it all together, you have a complicated puzzle to solve that changes every time, and you need to be prepared to solve it in the simplest manner each and every time. This is why it’s so difficult (impossible) to develop a single standard customer onboarding process flow that works for every client. 

Importantly, making all of this work for each customer, at every stage of their journey, relies upon several departments, multiple metrics, and a whole organized system of cooperation and shared incentives to get right. And this can be resource-intensive, which makes it all the more important that you’re getting your return on the work you’re putting in. 

client onboarding process

Without patching those weak points in the system, there can be no true flow, and your process will be inefficient; potentially even costing the company more than it saves. This creates an unsustainable environment - one which, if not corrected, will cause the death of the company itself. 

In order to best avoid these pitfalls, you need to understand where they’re most likely to crop up. 

Friction Arises when There are Blockages in Customer Onboarding Process Flows

The counter to flow is friction, and even this isn’t as black and white as it might sound. Identifying friction points in the process is the first step to smoothing them out, but in some cases, you’ll need to lean into that friction and make the best of it. 

When you think about it, learning is something that takes effort. Effort on the customer’s side usually represents friction. But to get to where you want them with your product, they will need to learn about it. So certain friction is unavoidable and even absolutely necessary for your customers to get to their desired outcomes. 

Identifying and differentiating good friction from bad is a key skill here too. With that, let’s look at some of the ways friction causes problems and where it tends to crop up. 

To start as a reference point, let’s define good friction. There are at least three types of good friction. Friction is useful if it:

  • Directly leads the customer to the next value point in the process
  • Responds to a specific personal need of the customer
  • Drives enthusiasm and engagement with the product

If it serves to do the opposite of any of these, that’s bad friction. If it exists for no gain in one direction or the other, that’s bad friction too. Something as simple as the wait time for a confirmation email can create uncertainty around the new purchase, and that’s already a point of friction before you’ve even interacted with the customer as an onboarding team. 

On the other hand, throwing up unskippable informational screens before the customer can access the product is a form of friction too, so it’s important that the content in those screens is relevant to the three types of good friction mentioned, otherwise, it’s bad.

Now, depending on your specific goals in each context, your flows might look very different. For example, customer education is a major component in a value-point-focused flow, but if you’re introducing new features to current users, the flow will involve more feature-focused approaches. All this leads to the need for multiple approaches that need to be able to change on a dime, and that’s where it’s important to be able to navigate the minefield of friction.

If this is still sounding a little vague, don’t worry. Next, we’ll pinpoint specific areas in which onboarding commonly fails and suggest ways to tighten up those joints. 

Common Challenges in the Client Onboarding Process

It’s a good idea to start at the beginning of the onboarding process. From the moment of handover, there are multiple steps where onboarding can let you down, but the very moment itself is also a transition along the customer journey and should not be ignored. 

1. Handoffs

When a customer moves from the sales team to the onboarding team, they’ve been in the system for a while already. This means they’ve got a trajectory that has been nurtured and set up by sales, and a series of expectations that onboarding now needs to meet. There are many ways this can go wrong and plenty of opportunities for bad friction here. Here are some examples: 

  • An unacceptable latency in greeting the customer will give them a feeling of uncertainty around their purchase, lowering their enthusiasm.
  • Failing to follow through on sales promises in time reduces trust in the brand.
  • A lack of useful information on customer preferences creates a disjointed customer experience at the point of handover.

All of these are opportunities for the customer to lose interest, and at the very least, would require a lot of effort to bring them back onto your side.

Avoiding these friction points is a matter of aligning your sales and onboarding teams closely, with a significant focus on the handover of a customer with a full set of transparent expectations and KPIs relevant to the setting up of their value points post-conversion. 

customer onboarding process flow

By the time the customer is handed over, the information about their business goals and desired outcomes should already be clear to the onboarding team and their journey should be plotted accordingly. This is something that can be fine-tuned in the customer’s presence, where possible. 

2. Welcome Messages & Account Access

This is another common area of bad friction, and it usually comes down to one of two things: too much or too little. A customer needs to be able to ride the high of their purchase through the first set of value points, and the best way to stifle that high is to neglect them after purchase. 

A welcome message needs to be timely and relevant, directed and personalized to the customer, and, harking back to those examples of good friction, check at least one of those boxes. To save you the trouble, here they are again: 

  • Directly leads the customer to the next value point in the process
  • Responds to a specific personal need of the customer
  • Drives enthusiasm and engagement with the product

And here is where the other side of the welcome message usually gets in the way. Regardless of whether the welcome email is on time or not, if it slows down or counters the enthusiasm of the customer by presenting too much or irrelevant information, you’ve incorporated bad friction again, and suddenly you’ve got a leak. 

Fixing your welcome is about considering it a personalized stepping stone to the next value point for each customer. It needs to be part of the process as a whole and not simply a formulaic gesture that’s overlooked in favor of the next steps. 

3. Time to First Value (TTFV)

This isn’t necessarily the complete package of everything your customer needs out of your product, but it is a significant moment towards reaching that. Your TTFV should be as close to handover as is possible to get to act as a boost to the already high engagement and enthusiasm your customer is experiencing with your product. 

However, particularly with complex products with steep learning curves, there is the chance that this gets ignored in favor of getting further along the journey as quickly as possible. And this is where leaks occur. 

If you’re looking at the Time to (ultimate) Value and you’re not considering the significance of the very first value point, you could be creating a brick wall instead of a smooth learning curve for your customers. There are two ways that this needs to be approached. 

First of all, you need to create an accessible value point early on. Small victories are so important at the initial stages, both for customer engagement and for forming that bond of trust that’s so essential for getting your customer to let you lead them through the rest of the process. Improve this process by asking the right questions at signup and figuring out how to create contextual, personalized value points that the customer can reach quickly. 

Secondly, pay close attention to your TTFV metrics to track over longer periods and help to find benchmarks, and analyze the efforts of your teams to ensure that your TTFV is relevant to your customer, and in the sweet spot where it helps them move onto their next value point without stifling their excitement. 

4. Relationship Building

Onboarding differs from simple management of accounts in the way it focuses on relationships. Your relationship with your customer is what will carry them through the potentially lengthy process of onboarding, sometimes even through multiple renewals, to their desired outcomes. 

The loyalty you form during this process is what leads your customers to eventually champion your product on your behalf, and this is what will bring you in new, high-value customers, more or less free of charge. 

It’s also what will prevent them from jumping ship to your competitors when they see a good deal. It doesn’t matter nearly as much how flawless your code is or how many selling points you’ve got that stand out, if your loyalty hasn’t been cultivated to the point where your customers actually want to stay with you for who you are. 

Failing to nurture your relationships well and create that personal connection may contribute to up to 16% of your churn, so it’s a key area to focus on with your teams and to instill as a philosophy across the entire success department. 

Onboarding should be about facilitating the customer through their value points to their desired outcomes, but it should be done so in a way that inspires them to see you as someone who has their best interests at heart. Loyal customers will be more likely to renew, they’ll be happier to forgive brief moments of friction, and most importantly, they’ll be more likely to refer. 

5. Simplifying the Platform

The entire customer success journey is the product of numerous people from different departments with different perspectives, and it’s the role of your customer onboarding process to carry that baton from sales and carry it to launch. This is a significant section of the customer journey and requires the right tools and practices to be established to facilitate the teams accomplishing it. 

But remember that complexity we mentioned earlier; each customer has different designs on the same product, and as their familiarity grows, their perspectives and preferences can evolve too. So how do you fix anything in place in a system that’s continuously dynamic? 

For successful onboarding, all stakeholders need to be on the same page at all times with all their goals aligned. The teams, the management, and the customers need to share goals and targets so that you can reach that TTV on time, and so that you can adjust the process as the customer brings you new, key information. 

Without a proper plan and platform, your onboarding process is going to be far harder to organize both at the beginning and during implementation. Onboard gets rid of the rigid template style of creating a launch plan and replaces it with dynamic, customized plans that are specific to each relationship. You can also automate the repetitive, time-consuming tasks and free up more time to show up where it counts. 

The platform also facilitates transparency and accountability, keeping all relevant information available to all relevant teams, and provides the framework to manage them. 

6. Adjusting too Slowly

One common source of poor onboarding practices relates to the time it takes to review and adjust. Specifically, adjustments to new information can take time, and during these periods there’s a chance that you’re losing customers through simple inaction. 

To make a minor correction to your onboarding process, it’s possible you’ll need to wait for developers to get involved, and if your engineers are as busy as everyone else’s, this creates a weak point. You’ve got the information you need, you know what to alter, and now you’re just waiting for the right people to make the changes. 

Something as simple as editing an in-app message can be pushed to the end of the line, and while you’re waiting for it to be altered, your current customers are still receiving that bad friction. 

This is a matter of both design and leadership. Scheduling time for qualified people to fix your process when you need it can make all the difference to how fast you can react to new data. Automating everything you can should help here, too. 

The other side of the same coin is how quickly you receive and record the information you need to adjust the process. Asking your customers for information is so important, especially if they’ve already left. Never count out a lost customer; they’re one of the most valuable sources of feedback you can get. 


Your customer onboarding process needs to be planned ahead, but also able to adapt to last-minute changes in expectations. It needs to be thorough and personalized but also automated as much as possible. These contradictions are what make it so tricky to get right and create so many points at which there can be drop-out. 

Focusing on the key areas of churn is one way to start filling in the gaps in the process that are costing you money.