The Complete Guide to Effective Customer Onboarding

Good customer onboarding can lead to long-term success for your customers—and by extension—your business.

Get it right, and users will quickly see the value of your product. They will learn how to use it to achieve their goals, and the chance of them becoming loyal customers increases significantly. But they won’t stick around for long if you get it wrong.

This article will explore what makes a good SaaS onboarding process. We’ve also included plenty of examples of companies doing it well.

What is customer onboarding?

Customer onboarding is the process new users go through as they begin to use your product. The process starts when they sign up and continues until they know how to use the most important product features.

The ultimate aim is to help users achieve their company’s goals while using your product. If you can do this, they will see the impact your tool has on business, making them unlikely to leave.

A good onboarding process encourages users to stick with your product by:

  • Showing its value.
  • Teaching them how to get the most from it.
  • Embedding it into their workflow.

Doing this well can reduce churn and increase average customer lifetime value.

Why is customer onboarding important for SaaS?

Outstanding onboarding is vital for SaaS tools for three main reasons.

First is that the subscription business model means you earn more the longer customers stay with you. Customers are only likely to keep paying if they see the value in your product and know how to use it to reach their goals—onboarding helps with both outcomes.

The second reason is that SaaS tools tend to be technical. They can be difficult for new customers to get to grips with and users often need extra help at the start of their journey. A good onboarding process teaches customers all they need to know about your product without overloading them.

This is essential because if customers don’t know how to use your product, they won’t stick around. Wyzowl says that 8 in 10 users have deleted an app because they didn’t know how to use it.

The final reason onboarding is important for SaaS companies is that it helps tools convert free trial users into paying customers. If you use a free trial to attract users, good onboarding is a must.

What are the goals of customer onboarding?

The main goal of onboarding is to help your customers achieve success. It typically does this by:

  • Teaching customers how to use your product: A good onboarding process shows the customer how to use your product. Start with highlighting primary features and then move onto secondary ones.
  • Embed your product in the customer’s workflow: Good onboarding integrates your product into the customer’s workflow. Do this by encouraging customers to upload data, helping them integrate your product with the other tools they use, or encouraging them to invite team members to use the tool.
  • Keep customers engaged: The ultimate aim of onboarding is to keep customers using your product. The more often they log in, the less likely they are to churn.

Customer onboarding is also often used to encourage free trial users to sign up for a paid plan before the free trial ends. Do this by combining the above goals with calls to action and offers.

What makes a good customer onboarding strategy?

There’s no single way to provide a good onboarding process. But the best ones typically have several things in common. Here are some best practices your onboarding should consider.

Show customers clear next steps

Onboarding should make it easy for customers to set up with your product. Provide customers with clear steps that explain what they need to do to achieve their goals.

Email welcome sequences, feature callouts, checklists, and a guided signup process are effective ways to do this.

Highlight product value early

You must show your product’s value early in the onboarding process. Customers should know exactly how your product can help with their goals.

Easy wins can help. Think about what your customers want to achieve with your software and create quick steps that help them reach these goals.

Build connections with the customer

Customers value human connections. And 80% of customers say they are more likely to do business with brands that offer personalized experiences.

Use this knowledge to your advantage by building relationships during onboarding.

You could start by offering personalized support. Or you could invite customers into a community so they can start connecting with other users.

Help with specific goals and use cases

Different users often want different things from the same tool. You must create optimized onboarding processes that show customers how to reach their personal goals.

You can do this in many ways. It could be something as hands-on as agent-led walkthroughs of product features. Or it could simply be segmenting your user base around their goals and creating different processes for each group.

Provide easy access to information

New users must be able to access the information they need to achieve their goals.

This could mean having customer support agents on hand to help. Or it could be providing customers with access to customer communities, knowledge bases, video courses, or more.

Don’t overwhelm users

You want to help customers get a grip on your product. But you need to help without overwhelming them with too much information.

Be selective with the instructions you provide. Start by drawing attention to only the features most important to the user’s goals. You can always highlight secondary features later on once the user is settled.

11 steps in a typical customer onboarding process (plus examples)

The exact steps your onboarding process uses will vary depending on factors such as your product and users.

For example, CRM software is likely to focus on data input as this is essential to its use. But a consumer-facing tool may rely on feature callouts to get a large number of casual users quickly up to speed.

These are 11 of the most common onboarding steps.

Signup

Signup should focus on setting the user up for success. This is one of the touchpoints when the customer is fully engaged and excited about using your product. Aim to build on this momentum.

Kickoff the signup process by discovering more about the user’s business and their goals. This information helps you segment your customers and tailor the experience towards these needs.

The signup process for the accounting tool Freshbooks does this well by asking the user about their business.

The questions obtain information such as the company’s industry, revenue, and stage of growth. Freshbooks can use these answers to tailor the software to the needs of the customer.

Sign up form
Sign up form

Consider using the signup process to help the user integrate the product into their workflow. You can ask them to import data, invite team members, or integrate the software with other tools.

Doing more at this stage will quickly push the user deeper into the onboarding process. But you also run the risk of asking for too much, creating a bad first impression, and causing them to abandon signup.

The key is to balance asking for information and making the sign-up process as easy as possible.

Sign up for best practices
✔️ Discover your user’s goals.

✔️ Don’t go overboard with offputting requests for information.

✔️ Push the user towards the most important thing they can do to get set up.

Welcome email

The welcome email is your first contact with the customer outside of your product. Use it to draw them back into the tool by highlighting specific features or next steps.

The key is to focus on the most important action the customer can take at this stage of onboarding.

The example below from WordPress page builder Elementor is a good example. It contains simple instructions about installing the page builder.

The email also links the user back to the Elementor website so the above step is easy.

Welcome email
Welcome email

If your tool has multiple use cases, consider creating welcome emails for each one. Use the information gained during the signup process to create segments and send emails specific to each goal. It’s easy to create reusable templates to send to customers with email marketing software.

You can also use your email to notify the customer about follow-up messages. Here is a detailed post with examples on crafting a welcome email for an online community.

Welcome email best practices
✔️ Bring the user back into your product.

✔️ Provide clear instructions.

✔️ Focus on the single most crucial task that leads to success.

Product tour and feature callouts

Product tours and feature callouts are intuitive ways to highlight key software features and teach users how to use them.

They are easy for users to understand because they occur within the product—ideally at times when the user wants to use the feature in question.

You can automate both product tours and feature callouts so they occur as the user navigates your tool. They can be used instead of time-consuming product demos for some types of software—saving your sales team time.

When creating a product tour, be sure not to overwhelm the user.

Focus on teaching them how to use your product’s primary features first. As they become more familiar with your tool, highlight secondary features that add value.

Hubspot has a good product tour that highlights key features based on the information given during the sign-up process. It’s easy to follow and contains all the information the user needs.

Product tours for customer onboarding
Product tours for customer onboarding
Product tour best practices
✔️ Don’t overwhelm users.

✔️ Highlight primary features first.

✔️ Tailor the tour based on user segments.

Data import

Importing user data is a powerful part of the onboarding process. It’s a key step to inserting your tool into the customer’s workflow.

But, importing data is also one of the most significant barriers to onboarding. The process can be difficult and time-consuming, especially if the user is switching from another provider.

The flipside of this is that once the user imports the data, it can be harder to churn.

Email marketing software MailChimp has a simple wizard that lets customers upload their existing email lists. It provides two easy methods for data import and then helps customers organize the address.

Importing existing data
Importing existing data

This is a critical step in the MailChimp onboarding process. Once the list is uploaded and organized, it’s much easier to send out emails.

You can make data onboarding easier by providing clear instructions and using industry-standard formats.

In situations where the data import process is complex, having a team member help out can ensure everything goes smoothly.

Data import best practices
✔️ Provide multiple options.

✔️ Simplify the process.

✔️ Offer help with a setup where necessary.

Community integration

Integrating users into your customer community is an integral part of onboarding.

Once in, they start to build relationships and gain access to knowledge from other community members.

Pipedrive has an excellent customer community with powerful elements for onboarding. When users sign up for the software, they are automatically placed in a relevant group based on their language or industry. This ensures they can learn from other users who are working towards the same goal.

Community for customer onboarding
Community for customer onboarding

The Pipedrive community hosts relevant onboarding resources created by the team. Customers can also search through user-generated content to find information about specific issues. Or they can ask their own questions about issues they are facing.

Find out more about how Pipedrive uses its customer community here.

Community best practices
✔️ Invite users early in the onboarding process.

✔️ Highlight useful resources.

✔️ Create different groups for each customer segment.

Integration with other tools

Most businesses have a tech stack with multiple tools. And many of these tools require integrations with other software to work effectively.

If your tool benefits from integration, make this a part of your onboarding process.

Everhour is time-tracking software that helps business leaders plan and budget projects. While it’s a great tool, it needs to integrate with other project management software to work effectively.

Integration with third-party tools
Integration with third-party tools

Integration is thus central to the tool’s onboarding process. In fact, it’s one of the first things the company directs users to do.

The integration process is simple and requires just a single click. Once it’s complete, Everhour helps the user set up the software to track projects within the tools they already use.

Integration best practices
✔️ Make the process as simple as possible.

✔️ Include the most relevant options.

✔️ Put it early in the onboarding process.

Reminders and notifications

Reminders and notifications bring users back into your product. Use them to highlight key features and benefits.

Email welcome sequences are a common type of reminder. You can also use push notifications and app messages where relevant.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) tool Surfer sends useful onboarding emails. The company sends several messages highlighting key features during its seven-day free trial.

Email sequences
Email sequences

Each message contains a quick tip about using one of the product’s features and then directs the customer back to the app.

Onboarding email
Onboarding email

Make sure that you don’t go overboard when sending notifications and reminders. You want to send the user helpful information, not spam their inbox.

Notifications and reminders best practices
✔️ Provide clear steps for different processes.

✔️ Link back to your product.

✔️ Don’t spam your users.

Further product education

Part of the onboarding process is ensuring customers can achieve everything they need with your product. While much of onboarding focuses on easy wins with your main features, customers must be able to go deeper into your software.

Creating further educational resources that show customers how to get the most from your software can help.

Types of resources you can create include:

  • Self-service knowledge bases.
  • Education courses.
  • Customer support.
  • Video tutorials.
  • FAQs
  • Customer communities.
  • Blog posts.
  • Webinars.

The idea is that customers who want to go further with your product have all the information they need to do so in the way that suits them best.

SEO tool Moz has plenty of in-depth resources that teach users everything they need to know about using the software. Users can choose the learning method that suits them best, whether that is videos, articles, structured courses, Q&As, or community help.

Product education
Product education

Moz goes further by creating resources that teach users about general SEO theories and best practices.

Product training guide
Product training guide

This is a canny move because it gives users a better understanding of the industry. The better Moz customers are at SEO, the better their results will be. And better results will encourage them to keep using the tool.

Further product information best practices
✔️ Provide multiple types of resources.

✔️ Create resources for different goals.

✔️ Consider providing wider industry-related information.

Team invites

Setting your product up within the user’s organization is a key consideration for many SaaS tools. An excellent way to encourage this is to ask the person who signed up to invite other team members.

This is easy to do via an invitation link. When other users receive the link, they simply click it to sign up for the company workspace.

Slack makes the invite process easy. This is perhaps unsurprising as the product only works if whole teams use it.

Team invites
Team invites

When users receive the email, they simply click the link. Slack then guides them through the setup process.

Team invites best practices
✔️ Make the invite link easy to share.

✔️ Simplify the signup process.

✔️ Use it early in the onboarding process.

Onboarding checklists

Onboarding checklists highlight activities customers must complete when setting up. You can show customers the activities they have completed and those they still need to do.

Use them to break down complex onboarding processes into smaller, manageable steps.

Start with easy wins, then add more complex tasks once the customer is more involved with your product.

Keyword tool UberSuggest has a simple checklist that shows users exactly what they have to do to get the most from the software. Similarly, MailChimp shows the list of action items required for sending emails.

saas customer onboarding

More complex tools will require more in-depth checklists. You may even need to break down each step into substeps.

Checklists best practices
✔️ Start with the most important tasks.

✔️ Break complex steps into substeps.

✔️ Show the user how far they have come and what they still need to do.

Transfer to customer success

The last step of the onboarding process is transferring the user to your customer success team. By now, the customer should be fully integrated into your product. They will have reached their onboarding goals and will be finding success while using your product.

Adtech platform Ezoic has a smooth transfer to customer success that starts once customers have been using the tool for around six weeks.

Customer onboarding via customer success team
Customer onboarding via customer success team

At this point, the user receives an email that provides more information about the help channels and resources that are available.

The company also includes a survey to find out more information about the user’s experience.

It asks questions about:

  • What the customer liked about the product.
  • What they disliked.
  • Their goals and the things they want to learn more about.
  • What the team can do to improve the customer experience.
  • The customer’s level of experience with the product and industry.

Once Ezoic has this information, it can tailor the rest of the customer journey towards these needs.

Customer success transfer best practices
✔️ Gain onboarding feedback.

✔️ Highlight relevant resources.

✔️ Discover customer needs.

Customer onboarding metrics

Tracking customer onboarding metrics will help show you how your process is performing. It can also point to areas of improvement.

Here are some of the most important statistics to keep an eye on:

Churn rate

Your customer churn rate is the percentage of people that stop using your product in a period.

A good onboarding process improves customer retention and reduces churn by helping people see your product’s value.

Conversions

It’s important to track the percentage of people that convert into paid customers if your onboarding is during a free trial.

Once you have a base number, you can easily measure the effect of any changes you make to your onboarding process.

Customer engagement

You must measure how customers interact with your product during onboarding. Keep track of metrics such as:

  • How often customers log on.
  • How long they stay logged on for.
  • Which features they use.

Use this information to optimize onboarding.

Cancellations

No matter how good your onboarding process, some customers will cancel.

Use a survey to discover why customers leave. If certain pain points keep occurring, change your approach in these areas.

Customer satisfaction

Consider measuring what happy customers who complete onboarding think of the process.

Knowing more about the customer onboarding experience gives insight into things you could have done better, or features they liked that you can highlight to other users.

Customer onboarding tools

There are plenty of tools out there that can help you provide a top onboarding experience.

Here are some of the best ones.

Tribe: Customer community

Tribe is community software that enables SaaS companies to create social spaces for their customers to interact. It is a valuable onboarding tool because you can set up groups optimized around helping users learn about your product.

For example, you can:

  • Provide easy access to documents that teach your customers everything they need to know. Highlight the documents relevant to the most important tasks.
  • Invite new users to the community early in the onboarding process so they can begin to form relationships with other members.
  • Let customers search through past posts and conversations to learn about how people are using your tool.
  • Host knowledge bases within the community make it easy for new users to find information about their challenges.

Tribe has a free plan and paid options start from $85 per month. Find out more about using Tribe to build customer communities here.

UserPilot: Easy feature callouts

UserPilot is software that makes it easy for you to create feature callouts from within your software. This lets you teach users how to use your product without them having to leave. It’s a highly intuitive way to learn.

UserPilot lets you:

  • Draw attention to the features that provide the most value to customers.
  • Create checklists to guide customers through the onboarding process.
  • Segment your customer base and provide different experiences for each group.
  • Highlight different features as the customer get deeper into using your product.

UserPilot pricing starts at $249 per month. Find out more here.

Intercom: Customer messaging

Intercom is messaging software that lets you add chat widgets to your product. Customers use these widgets during onboarding to access support. This could be by contacting your team or searching for helpful documents related to the page they are on.

Intercom lets you:

  • Make it easy for customers to message your onboarding team to get instant help.
  • Provide easy access to helpful documents such as articles and videos that are related to specific pages.
  • Let customers search through a knowledge base or customer community answers from within the chat widget.

Intercom pricing starts at $59 per month for basic features. Find out more here.

MixPanel: Onboarding analytics

MixPanel lets you track how users interact with your SaaS tool. This is essential to gain insight into how effective your onboarding process is. The software won’t directly improve your onboarding process, but it can show you what is and isn’t working.

MixPanel lets you:

  • Track where and why users stop using your product. This can highlight problems in your onboarding process.
  • See which type of users keep using your product for the longest period and if any customer segments don’t stick around.
  • Track how product changes affect usage. Use this to see which onboarding optimizations are effective.
  • Quickly create interactive reports to share with other members of your team.

MixPanel has a free plan or premium options starting at $25 per month. Find out more here.

Other useful tools

Here are some other tools that can help you create a better user onboarding process.

  • Document360: Document360 makes creating a knowledge base easy. Build a section specifically for onboarding-related questions. Customers can also easily search through the base to find step-by-step answers to their questions.
  • Marketo: Marketo lets you set up personalized welcome email automation and introductory email sequences you can use to introduce customers to your product. Create customer segments based on their goals and send each one optimized sequences.
  • Hubspot: Hubspot helps with onboarding in multiple ways. You can send automated welcome email sequences, creating a knowledge base, and provide customer support.
  • Salesforce: Salesforce Marketing Cloud’s Journey Builder tool helps you create automated cross-channel onboarding experiences optimized for each customer segment.
  • Google Forms: Create forms to ask customers for feedback about your onboarding experience. Use this information to optimize your product.
  • Ramen: Use Ramen to ask quick questions from within your product. You may get more responses this way than with full surveys.
  • Vimeo: Create, host, and embed videos showing customers how to use specific product functionality.
  • Brightback: Create processes to use when customers quit your product. Use these processes to tempt customers back in with better offers or ask for feedback about what went wrong.

You can find more tools that may be of help in our guide to the best customer success software.

Successful customer onboarding is customer-focused

Creating a good onboarding experience is just a matter of helping users get to grips with your product. Be sure to think about your setup process from the point of view of a new user. You won’t go far wrong if you consider their needs and challenges and then find ways to help.

You can then use some of the strategies and best practices from this article to optimize the process.


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Duncan Elder

Duncan is a content marketer with a passion for all things digital marketing, SaaS, and online communities.

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