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Client success - 15 min READ

A Step-by-Step Guide to Customer Onboarding

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Author photo: Michelle Lee

Michelle Lee

Customer Enablement Manager

Customers are fickle.

Just because someone decides to try your software, doesn't mean they're going to commit to it. As a service provider, it's up to you to turn every quick fling with a client into a meaningful relationship.

Think about it.

Churn is a common part of running a subscription business. But it also means that filling your pipeline is like filling a bucket with holes in it. The more holes you have, the harder it is to keep the bucket stocked.

So, how do you overcome a customer's commitment issues?

Start by patching up an all-important gap in your customer journey—the onboarding process.

In this article we're going to show you how to to reduce churn and strengthen your relationships with customers by:

  • Defining expectations and setting milestones
  • Personalizing the onboarding experience
  • Keeping things simple and bite-sized
  • Gathering the right data
  • Showing off the product and educating users
  • Committing to ongoing communication
  • Continuing to test and improve your onboarding process

All aboard for the ultimate guide to customer onboarding.

Step 1: Define expectations and set milestones

All of the world's most successful businesses have something in common: they know their customers.

You need a basic knowledge of your target audience to attract them to your service.

So, ask yourself this: "What does my client expect to get from my software?"

We're not just talking about features here. You need to know what kind of outcomes your audience is looking for with your software—and how you can deliver them.

For instance, maybe your CRM software customer is looking for a way to improve their CRM strategy, and ultimately upgrade their NPS (Net Promoter Score). As part of the onboarding process, define expectations by showing your customer that you're in this journey with them.

For instance, let's take a look at FullStory's customer onboarding. After asking for some basic information about your business, the company gives users a list of milestones to work through, from setting up Google Tag Manager to sharing snippets.

Showing your customers where they are in the onboarding process and where they're going to go next creates engagement. Through the endowment effect, you're helping your customers to take ownership of their progress, which means they stay more motivated too. The endowment effect suggests that people are more likely to stick with something they feel responsible for.

If you let your customer track their progress, they take “ownership” of that progress, and commit to it.

You can even send your customers emails congratulating them whenever they complete a major onboarding milestone!

Step 2: Personalize the customer onboarding experience

How would you welcome a new employee into your team?

You'd want to make them feel as comfortable and valued as possible, right?

That means thinking about what they need and looking for ways to solve their unique problems. Your software managers need an instant intro to your tech stack, whereas your marketing managers need to know your promotional plan. You want to make sure that each new hire has the right intro to your business, based on the guidance they need.

So, why not do the same for your customers?

Creating customer segments is an excellent way to adjust the onboarding process for each user.

For instance, maybe you have different packages for your software, like a "Lite" version, a regular version, and a premium option. If so, the chances are that your "Lite" users will need a more basic introduction than your "Premium" subscribers.

What's more, as your customers sign up to your service, you can ask for information that makes customization easier. For instance, let's take a look at how Airtable does it:

Asking a few basic questions at the beginning of the relationship means that Airtable can customize the experience more later.

For instance, if Airtable knows that you're a tech company, it could sign you up to receive emails specifically about how to use the software for tech advertising purposes.

Moral of the story? Treat your customers like the individuals they are.

Step 3: Take it easy

Just because you've had years to get used to your software doesn't mean your customers have.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make during onboarding is trying to pile too much information on your customers at once.

To avoid overwhelming your audience during onboarding, make every step as easy and simple as you can.

Dropbox could easily tell its clients to back up all their files on the cloud right away. However, instead, the company starts slow, with just one file:

Once users have got the hang of that, they can move on to sharing a link to a file, gradually increasing their knowledge about Dropbox.

We know what you're thinking.

Yes, this bite-sized approach is going to take longer. But it's also worth the wait.

Smaller tasks are simpler and less daunting than large ones. That means that your customers are more likely to continue with the next step in their journey because they aren’t worried that it would take too long or too much effort.

Oh, and while you're at it, make sure that if you have a free version of your software, you give customers the option to "skip" the onboarding routine when they upgrade to premium.

If they've already learned how to use all your tools, they don't need to go through it again.

Step 4: Gather data carefully

Think about the last time you met someone that you were interested in romantically.

You probably didn't ask them to share their life story within the first hour of your conversation. You almost definitely didn't ask any super personal questions about their history right away (we hope).

As a company that thrives on long-term relationships, you need data to improve your customer onboarding process and ensure you're providing the right experience. However, that doesn't mean you should bombard a customer with questions too quickly.

For instance, initially ActiveCampaign asks for nothing but an email address and company name to let you create an account.

If you're not going to use the information you're asking for, like your customer's last name, or their favorite hobbies, leave it out of the process for now.

By asking customers where they're from, Etsy can use the right currency and language when helping merchants to set up their stores. Etsy will also have the option to use more relevant examples when showing what each user can do on the site.

Remember, you can always ask your customers to fill out more of their profiles later when they're settled into using your product.

Step 5: Show off the product with custom education

Once your customer is ready to begin fully exploring your software, get creative with the learning process.

Can you use the features of your product to show people how your software works?

Trello, a project management tool, builds its onboarding guide directly into the cards of its product. This means that Trello can actively show users how its solution works, piece by piece:

Clever right?

You don't have to tell your customers everything from the get-go.

Remember that customer onboarding is about introducing your client to the first critical steps for success, then gradually helping them try out more advanced features and functionality as they go.

Pro-tip: You don't need to worry about showing off secondary features from day one, but consider creating a resource center that users can access later.

For instance, once users set up an Intercom profile, they can visit the "Start Guide," where they'll find a host of articles (with screenshots) and videos to help them understand the product.

All of the resources simultaneously show off the products that the user has bought and give them the option to tailor their learning to their own pace.

It's a win-win.

Step 6: Commit to ongoing communication

Earlier, we compared customer onboarding to a romantic relationship.

Ask any marriage counselor what makes a relationship work, and they'll tell you that it's all about communication. The same applies to your customer onboarding.

Clear and consistent contact throughout the onboarding process will be a massive part of what makes (or breaks) the relationship you build with your customer.

Don't abandon them as soon as they hand their credit card details over. Your customer wants proof that they've made the right decision by buying from you, and that means getting your ongoing support.

In Copper, our account managers can track their entire conversation history within their app, so they always know the status of customers, and keep in touch. Because account managers can also see what they’ve said to the customer before, they can keep context in mind when continuing the discussion.

As you progress with your customer onboarding, focus on the relationship that you're building together. Remember, the selling part is done. You're creating a partnership now.

Make your customer feel like this is the beginning of a long-term relationship.

That might mean assigning account managers to your premium subscribers or sending regular follow-up emails to see how they're doing. You can even determine how often you should check on your users with a few basic questions.

For instance, Duolingo asks users how long they want to practice a language each day so they can prompt them accordingly:

Step 7: Keep working on it

Think you're done? Think again.

Even after you've taken the steps above to improve and streamline your customer onboarding process, you're not necessarily finished. You might've set up a reasonable onboarding strategy, but now you need to keep improving on it.

As your business continues to grow and you onboard more customers, ask for feedback from your clients. Let them tell you what they like about working with you, and what they'd change if they could.

You could even offer a discount off a subscription renewal or a free gift for the customers who take the time to share their thoughts.

The more data you collect from your website analytics, email marketing tools, and surveys, the better you'll understand how to make your customer's experience even better.

Initially, the request for feedback could be as simple as this satisfaction scale from Ritual:

As your company continues to evolve, remember that the marketplace is always changing.

Any outdated processes in your customer lifecycle, including the onboarding process, could lose the trust and respect of your audience, by indicating that your business isn't on the ball.

Commit to analyzing your competitors, reviewing the marketplace, and learning new skills regularly to stay on the cutting edge.

3 customer onboarding examples to learn from

Still not sure you're ready for fantastic onboarding?

Let's get some inspiration.

1. Intercom

Leading messaging and business organization software, Intercom, makes the onboarding process simple. All you need to do to get started is enter your email for a demo:

Next, Intercom welcomes its users with a handy graphic highlighting the key benefits of the product. From the first second you sign up, you know what you're going to get out of this tool:

As you progress throughout the onboarding cycle, Intercom continues to offer clear steps on how to excel with the activation process, with handy start guides, videos, and tips.

The whole process is wonderful and uncomplicated. You get constant reminders of how you're going to achieve your goals—without being overwhelmed.

Intercom is the perfect example of easy and effective onboarding.

2. Airtable

Airtable is a spreadsheet-like software that keeps your business running smoothly. It's all about productivity and workflow—so you'd expect the onboarding flow to be pretty streamlined too.

Airtable starts with a simple sign-up process that asks for nothing but an email address.

Once you're signed up, you can enter more information to create a customized experience. This is how Airtable makes sure that you're getting the kind of guidance you need.

Once you're in your profile home page, Airtable makes it easy for you to see how to get started with a simple "Add a Base" action in the center of the page.

Launching your new experience with Airtable's product feels straightforward and basic.

There's very little friction, and the homepage with its empty states (the grey box telling you to add a base), helps drive immediate action. There are even resources and learning guides to help you onboard at your own pace.

3. FullStory

FullStory is a SaaS tool that records user experiences and reproduces customer journeys for businesses. This helps business leaders to better understand their clients, and boost conversions.

Like the customer onboarding examples above, FullStory makes signing up easy with a powerful call to action that invokes the power of FOMO (aka. the fear of missing out).

Once you sign up, you're asked to check your inbox for an activation link, and you can offer some feedback to help the business grow.

Once you've finished validating your email, you're welcomed back to your account with an attractive log-in page.

The customer onboarding process then continues with a few persona-based questions intended to tailor your experience to your needs.

FullStory then pushes you to activate your account and get to work on your goals as quickly as possible with step-by-step milestones:

From start to finish, FullStory holds its customer's hand, learning about each user and pushing for activation carefully, without being too overwhelming.

Customer onboarding is a journey

It's easy to assume that getting your customer to sign up for your service is the toughest part of running a business.

However, it's way harder to convince your clients to maintain a relationship with your brand. Using the strategies above will put you on a path to less churn and happier repeat customers.

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Instant activation, no credit card required. Give Copper a try today.

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