The strength of a good onboarding team cannot be undervalued. As retention becomes a key focus of the long-term goals of companies, the customer experience is getting more attention, and onboarding represents a key transition within this experience.
SaaS onboarding usually differs from standard retail in its need for complexity and the strategic use and removal of friction points. In this article, we’re going to go into why this is, how exactly SaaS onboarding is different, and then how to implement it. First, though, let’s go over some of the onboarding basics.
General Onboarding Principles
Onboarding is a critical process in the customer lifecycle and can determine the outcome of your entire success efforts. Good onboarding leads the customer from conversion to their first value points, and ultimately, to their desired outcomes. The process itself is both a promotor of customer engagement and a facilitator of value addition to both the product and the customer; both of which result in greater retention, and ultimately, improvements to the company’s bottom line.
While onboarding represents only a fraction of the customer lifecycle journey, it is one of the most crucial. By the time of handover, your sales and marketing teams should have identified the highest value customers for onboarding. With an effective success strategy in place, onboarding should only be dealing with customers who are already engaged and interested, and it’s the job of the onboarding team to translate that enthusiasm into the customer’s next value point.
The stages of this lifecycle are not hard set, and onboarding will be responsible for different ranges of the customer experience, depending on the organization, the product, and in some cases, the needs of the individual customer.
Each onboarding case should be unique and customized to each customer, and this means there is a variety of approaches available, different for each stage of the onboarding process, and each of the individuals involved.
The Onboarding Stages
While there is a strong argument to make that onboarding begins before conversion, for the purposes of this article, we’re going to discuss the stages that follow purchase. Here’s how these break down:
- Handoff – This is the point at which the transition from prospect to customer has been completed. The customer has completed the sales funnel and they are now a financially invested member. Onboarding should have access to the customer data available from sales and should be ready with their approach to act immediately. Their role at this stage is to ensure a smooth transition, get to know the customer in more detail, and develop a plan with them to efficiently reach their point of first value.
- Activation – This is the first value point that a new customer reaches with the product. This is the moment where customers ‘click’ with their purchase, and depending on the product, this is either a simple or a complex process.
- Value creation – From here, onboarding is a matter of creating value along the way to the customer’s desired outcomes. Depending on how long this process is, onboarding may hand over to success teams downstream to help the customer reach this outcome. Still, each step along the way is designed to be as effortless and as valuable as possible. The point of value creation is to align the customer experience with their expectations.
- Follow up – This is the stage at which your customer is hopefully integrating well with their new purchase, and onboarding needs to reach out and make sure that things are going ok. This is an opportunity to boost engagement, fix any early issues that have arisen, and generally add value to the customer experience.
Of course, this is a heavily-simplified and generalized version of what onboarding entails, and the specifics will differ from case to case, and between companies. SaaS companies in particular will have numerous stages within and between these three that we will go into next.
How SaaS Onboarding is Different and the Role of Good Friction
While onboarding for SaaS follows the above stages, it’s often more involved than other business models. The software can be as simple as flipping a switch, or it can involve a lengthy and steep learning curve, and the latter presents innumerable points at which customers can become disengaged.
As such, onboarding for SaaS needs to be prepared for a much more detailed onboarding process. One that incorporates all the basic principles and still fills in the gaps to create the appropriate customer experience. We’re going to go over some of these stages in our SaaS customer onboarding template below, but first, let’s look at some of the differences.
- With SaaS, the goals of onboarding are to set up a customer with a piece of cloud-based software. With non-SaaS products, customer onboarding can consist of an instruction manual or tutorial video with details on how to operate the product. With SaaS, this can be a lot harder to achieve.
- Onboarding needs to identify customer goals, and with non-SaaS products, these goals may be as straightforward as turning on a device, or consuming the product itself. SaaS products may require numerous smaller goals, spread out across the customer journey with value points at each.
- SaaS, therefore, might make use of good friction in its onboarding processes, whereas onboarding for non-SaaS is likely to try and minimize friction points across the board. Note: Good friction is a concept with remembering. Traditionally and intuitively, a fast onboarding is a good onboarding. However, where complexity factors are involved, sometimes it’s better to take your time with the process and let important information sink in and be processed by the customer as they learn the ropes. The smart use of good friction can make all the difference in the customer experience.
- SaaS products may need detailed video libraries, one-on-one tutorials, or interactive educational modules that integrate the customer with their new purchase. The details of how to interact with the product can be a lot more complex, and it may take an incremental training regimen to lead the customer to their value points.
- With SaaS customers, there is often the user principle: that the customer will have an ongoing relationship with the product; one that may last many years. Whether it’s a subscription model or an account that can be upgraded, SaaS products tend to involve long-term goals, while non-SaaS products usually don’t. This means that onboarding for SaaS needs to focus into the distant future of the customer lifecycle and thoroughly meet value expectations early on.
- For consumer goods, the user and the customer are typically the same. For SaaS, this is often not the case. A company may purchase software for its staff to use, or a user may sign up for a free trial; in both cases, the users are not the paying customers, and onboarding will need to be adapted accordingly.
- The recurring-revenue models of most SaaS companies mean that customer interactions are generally more . Non-SaaS products typically involve low-touch customer interactions. However, onboarding in both cases usually needs a mix of both.
These points represent some of the differences between SaaS and non-SaaS customer onboarding. What they all point to, however, is that in general, SaaS customer onboarding requires a more thorough understanding of customer expectations and a more detailed and hands-on approach to meeting those expectations.
This is accomplished by following a set of onboarding practices that create a powerful framework for onboarding while maintaining the ability to adjust and adapt to each customer’s needs. Next, we’ll go through an example SaaS customer onboarding template to show you what that might look like.
SaaS Customer Onboarding Template
The onboarding process for SaaS follows the same theme as the generalized onboarding process we covered above, however, the following is a more detailed approach that can act as a template for your onboarding practices. It follows five steps:
1. Signing up
Onboarding transition the customer from the sales funnel to the customer journey, post-conversion. This means that the moment of sign-up is the first touchpoint with your onboarding processes. The process of signing up should facilitate this smooth transition and welcome the new customer to the partnership. With SaaS, this is usually a subscription or a free trial, either of which should be designed as simply as possible.
Keeping the sign-up process short and painless is critical. Onboarding processes do require information to assess the needs of each customer, but this is not the time to send out a lengthy questionnaire to get it. If it’s absolutely necessary, however, try to break it into smaller pieces, and integrate other platforms where possible. There’s a reason many companies allow people to sign up with Google or Facebook; these are shortcuts to both customer onboarding and information gathering.
2. Welcome onboard
With an understanding of the concept of a follow-up stage, which we will go into detail about shortly, you can leverage the same principles to the welcome email. Consider your welcoming format as a follow-up to signing up. The content should be tailored to using the product, but the attitude should be the same.
Be grateful, and show that your new customer is a welcome addition. This is the point at which you need to quickly lead them to their first value point, and again, this will depend on the complexity of your software. You’ll likely want to send over some educational resources, a link to your how-to library, or even schedule a call with your customer to go over how to find value.
The customer education material is important here, and leading them to appropriate levels of information is key. Don’t bombard them with advanced tutorials, but tailor the welcoming content to the customer experience; show how they can benefit from the product, and nudge them in the direction of learning how to use it.
3. First use
This is the customer’s first try-out with your product, so make sure there are easy waypoints ahead. You’re creating a first impression, while also setting up some easy goals to promote engagement. Your goal in these early stages is to create good habits, so make the advancement through the journey as effortless and as rewarding as possible before you begin to add complexity.
Once these habits are formed, you can gradually promote more detailed use of the product.
As is often the case, you may need to teach a lot more than the basic functionality of your product. Once the welcome has been established, it’s time to start ramping up the education for this and introducing the customer to the integrations, data imports, and deeper functionality of the app as a whole.
If your product is B2B, it’s going to be acting with other software as part of a stack, so it’s important that customers or users know how to integrate with the rest of the software they’re using. In this case, automation is your friend. It’s also important not to force integration on everyone; some will prefer to opt-out.
For any complex SaaS product, this stage will involve lots of high-touch support options and guides. Deeper interaction between the onboarding team and the customer, and the success teams as a whole will all work together here to maintain enthusiasm, streamline adaptations, and lean on the good friction points to assimilate the customer with the product in full.
This stage may involve a detailed product walkthrough, and can also be a great opportunity for companies to find out more about customers and where they can be adding value.
Finally, it’s time to release the pressure, take off the training wheels, and let your relationship with the customer follow its own course. Your role here is to check in and see if anything needs tweaking or aligning, gather any relevant feedback, and offer any little pointers or reminders that may aid in this.
Emails are typically the medium of choice for this, but calls promote better engagement, so use these where possible. Little and often is the key. You’re going to want to take a step back and let eh customer explore their way to their desired outcomes; simply remind them that you’re there if they need you.
Again, automation is a great help with this. Check out onboard.io to book a demo and see how you can organize, automate and manage the entire onboarding process. Onboard can help you make the process efficient by simultaneously automating and customizing launch plans, allowing you a custom task list for each customer while taking the strain off your teams.
With this template already in place, you’re almost good to go. We’ll leave you with a SaaS onboarding checklist to make sure you’ve covered all bases!
SaaS Onboarding Checklist
Onboarding is as much about gathering information as it is about handing it out. With this checklist, you’ll be better set to do both, at different stages of the process.
- Preparation: you should have all your onboarding resources set up and ready to go from the start. If you’re using video tutorials, create a resource library where they can be partitioned and accessed easily. Collect case studies, and testimonials, and make sure your product walkthroughs are up to date.
- Emails: Set up your automation schedule, and be ready to collect your customer information from your emails without overwhelming them. Design your email templates in a way that they are easy to customize. Design the full sequence of emails for automation as the customer progresses through the onboarding process. Identify significant milestones for recognition.
- In-app: Arrange tooltips and the educational pathways in-app. Make sure they are skippable! Design an in-app checklist that will track the completion of tasks for the customer.
- Personal call: Where possible, you should be scheduling personal touches like phone calls or zoom meetings between the customer and your team. This will be the most effective way to gather information and to give recommendations that are tailored to every customer. As always, follow up each call with an email outreach.
This checklist should help you prepare and be ready for each unique customer and approach them with a combination of automation and personal touches to impart and gather the relevant information.
SaaS onboarding is usually a detailed discipline that incorporates numerous value points along a lengthy customer journey. This length is typically determined by the complexity of the software being adopted, and the relationship the customer has with it, but all will follow a similar series of stages.
From signing up, through activation and value points, to your customer’s continued engagement with your product and your gentle follow-up, the process needs to be tailored to individuals, while following a set action plan.
With the added complexity factors in SaaS products, this can be a lengthy process with a lot of trial and error, but if you gather the right information and you continually engage with your customers in a personal and value-adding manner, you’ll see retention increase immediately, and your customer quickly reaching their desired outcomes with your product.