Adding a human touch to product onboarding with Customer Success

Product workflows have a major impact on customer experience. They’re scalable, touch every user, and are measurable and data-driven. But customers often dismiss our best attempts at self-navigated trainings or in-app tooltips because they feel disruptive or irrelevant. Customer Success Managers (CSMs) bridge the gap between templatized product onboarding and a customer’s goals. This post will demonstrate how CSMs can translate well thought out and well intentioned product workflows to language and actions customers can understand.

Onboarding impacts churn and expansion

Des Traynor of Intercom argues that retention is more important than conversion, and high customer retention is built on great product onboarding. The data backs him up — research by ProfitWell found that customers with a positive perception of their onboarding experience are far less likely to churn within the first 21 days of using a new product. This is crucial because churn not only hurts your short term profits, it also puts future grow in jeopardy since 80% of a company’s future profits come from 20% of their existing customers (source). With the median B2B SaaS company losing about 5% of their customers annually (source), it’s clear that investing in a high-impact retention strategy like onboarding is worth your time.

User onboarding is imperative to customer retention and, by extension, building and growing your company.

Connect customer goals to onboarding

Use insights captured during the sales process

Before you can onboard users, you need to acquire new customers, which means Sales is often the first human touch in the onboarding process. Some SaaS companies are able to operate without a dedicated Sales team, but most have found that adding sales teams improves the buying experience. This is even true among Product-Led Growth companies like as Atlassian and Slack that once prided themselves on not having dedicated Sales teams. These sales reps don’t operate in the old ‘boiler room’ mentality of doing anything to get a deal- they work to understand the customer’s needs and validate whether or not your product can deliver on their expected outcome. Don’t let these hard earned insights disappear with the sales rep after the ink has dried, instead share this knowledge to Customer Success in a clearly defined transfer process. Heading into onboarding with an advanced understanding of your customer’s goals allows you to narrow your time to value.

Communicate benefits, not features

Customers might say they bought your product because you have a certain set of features, but in reality they care about the outcome. What can your product help them achieve? Customer Success teams help translate a list of product features to customer goals and outcomes.

Customize the onboarding experience

There is no one-sized-fits-all version of onboarding

Now that you’ve identified the customer’s goals, you should tailor the onboarding experience to meet their needs. Customer Success teams use this information to customize the onboarding process- from setup and implementation, to training programs, and even laying the foundation for future performance reviews. Personalized onboarding should also trickle down to the user since the company’s goals will be achieved by individuals using the product in different ways. Below is an example of how QuickBooks presents users with the option to customize their onboarding experience- they ask users what they want to accomplish and then adjust the experience to match:

Incorporate behavior-based messaging

PC users from the 90s will easily recall Clippy, Microsoft Word’s overzealous tool tip helper. People’s experience with Clippy usually started off positive enough. For instance, if you started a document with “Dear X,” Clippy figured out that you were writing a letter, and offered to help with formatting, etc. However, Clippy quickly became a nuisance to most of us. What changed? More like what didn’t. In a postmortem Microsoft conceded that Clippy was “optimized for first use.”

“What has happened is that the usability test showed that people who have never seen a feature before have trouble with it in the first hour of using it. So the designer makes the feature hold your hand through the process. That improves the results in the test, but ruins the feature for people who know what they are doing.”

Don’t fall into the same trap as Clippy- adapt your onboarding to reflect the behaviors your users have (or haven’t) taken in your product. Triggers such as time since sign up are usually meaningless. During an arbitrary 3 day timeframe one user could be a pro who’s spent 20 hours in your product, and another hasn’t logged in since they started a trial. Consider which actions successful users do that average ones don’t- these activities are likely to be what drives long-term value for both you and your signups. Then use behavior based messages to drive users towards taking those actions.

Iteration and incrementality

Onboarding is not something that you do once and forget about it. It’s not a feature that is included in a sprint and then moved to the “Done” column of your Trello board. Onboarding experiences need to be iterative based on feedback from customers and Customer Success. As new features are released, teams need to roll out new onboarding campaigns and materials. For every feature release there needs to be a complementary plan for how to appropriately notify your users of this change. If you don’t pair incremental deployment with Customer Success and Education frameworks that support incremental onboarding, even expert users will start to fall behind.



Customer Success consultant, writer, and expert

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