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Customer Success

Customer Onboarding: A Quick Guide for Customer Success

Where Customer Success Fits into Your Onboarding Process

4 min read
By Stephen Fulkerson
Customer onboarding can be a prospect’s first experience as your customer, and sets the tone for everything to come. Additionally, onboarding can be your customer’s second experience if they have purchased new or additional offerings. However, many technology providers have limited to no visibility into their onboarding progress. If that’s you, then you are missing out on the chance to lower churn rates and increase renewals and expansion.

Onboarding can be the beginning of a valuable relationship for you and your customer–but only if you assemble the right team to make it happen. Custom Success’ involvement in the onboarding process has the potential to improve retention and other important metrics across the board.

What Is Customer Onboarding?

Customer onboarding is the process of introducing your customers to your software, services, or products. This engagement could involve a range of trainings to get customers familiar with your product/service and how to use it to meet their business outcomes.

Onboarding customers should be a formal, structured process in order to ensure customers are able to fully integrate your solutions. According to one of our best practice studies, this process usually lasts less than three months. This can vary based on technology complexity, number of users, and first time to value.
Best Practice for Duration of Customer Onboarding
Duration of Customer Onboarding

This process should not just be about aquianting your customers with your product or service, but introducing them to its value. Setting your customer’s expectations for value realization will be crucial when it comes time for renewal. Customer Success is the value realization engine of your organization. As a result, you want to make it clear how the capabilities of your tech solution will (or will not) contribute to your customer’s overall goals.

Making sure they understand the scope of the solution can give them insight or curb unrealistic expectations. When you’re able to do this successfully, you show that you are trustworthy and that your solution delivers. This creates a positive, lasting first impression with your customer and can extend your relationship with them.  Whether in customer retention, expansion, or referrals, the impact of customer onboarding is impossible to ignore.

Responsibility for Customer Onboarding Falls on Customer Success

Given how important successful customer onboarding is, who on your team should be involved? A TSIA poll found that more than half of the time, that responsibility falls to the customer success team.
Team responsible for Onboarding Customers
Team responsible for onboarding customers

Customer success is primarily responsible for ensuring customers get the promised value of your technology solution. Their job is to increase adoption and problem solve any obstacles a customer may be encountering. This is all done in the name of helping customers achieve their desired outcome and the promise of your offering.

Given that adoption is a cornerstone of customer success, it makes sense that they should play a key role in onboarding. Bringing in customer success at the outset will ensure they’ve stacked hands with the customer on expectations. Walking with customers through the process will also give your team insight as to where they might struggle in the future.

Onboarding is the first step in the customer journey and sets the tone for your working relationship. Customer success can design the process in a way that sets you and your customers up for a long-term partnership.

The Role of Customer Success in User Onboarding

Once you decide customer success should play a role in onboarding, spend time determining what that role will look like. Prepare to integrate customer success into onboarding and define its role by answering these questions:

1. What does the handoff from sales look like?

Before your customer is “your customer,” they are a prospective sale for the sales team. However, once the contract is signed, the customer will have limited to no contact with sales in most organizations. In many cases, this means the trust-building process will have to start all over again and the customer success manager will have to earn their title as “trusted advisor.”

This can slow down the onboarding process, which is why the sooner customer success can get engaged with the customer and their teams, the better. Take time to think through how the introduction to customer success will be made. Coordinate with sales and standardize where in the customer journey you’ll jump in, and how sales will make their exit. Don’t miss out on your chance to build trust and loyalty early on.

Put the right resource at the point in the customer journey that delivers the best customer experience in the most cost-effective manner.

2. How can you focus onboarding to deliver outcomes?

Outcome selling isn’t the way of the future, it’s current best practice. A focus on achieving outcomes is one of the strengths customer success can bring to onboarding, and should be reflected in your approach. Spending too much time on “cool” product features will make it harder for the customer to see the direct value. Instead:
  • Focus onboarding on how your solution will result in their desired outcomes
  • Highlight how different tools will help them achieve their goals
  • Show them practical ways that using your product gets them across the finish line
One way to re-tool your onboarding towards outcomes is through using an “outside-in” exercise, like customer journey mapping. It’s a great way to set expectations and focus on the customer outcomes. It is even better when customers are included in the journey map exercise, but that is another blog.

3. Is your onboarding process repeatable and scalable?

As our Customer Success Research practice shared in a conference presentation, documentation and repeatability can shorten the time to onboard a customer. The less time you spend onboarding, the more time you can spend with the customer working towards their desired outcomes. In a TSIA poll, we found that respondents whose onboarding process was 1-3 months overwhelmingly had a repeatable process.   
Poll on onboarding process repeatability
Poll on onboarding process repeatability

This doesn’t mean that your solutions can’t be customizable to customer needs and desired outcomes. However, organizations with formalized customer training programs have a 12 percentage point increase in contract renewal rate. This is why you’ll find “repeatability and scalability” as one of our fundamental elements of onboarding.

Take time to think through how customer success might elevate the onboarding process when answering these questions.

Customer Onboarding Tips for SaaS Companies

The shift to as-a-service (SaaS) model also means a shift to renewal-focused revenue. Because of this, technology suppliers need to prove their worth to customers right off the bat. No matter where you are in building your onboarding process, here are best practices you can implement today.
- Make the first 30 days count.
For subscription models that begin with a 30-day free trial, early success is crucial. Additionally, a TSIA poll showed that 47% of members begin onboarding and adoption activities immediately after signing the contract, as we discussed in a past blog.

Spend this initial time wisely and get to know your customer. Understand their definition of success, who the key stakeholders are, what potential problems they may face in implementing your solution, and what metrics will be used to measure success.

The more insight you have at the end of the first month can influence how well that relationship develops. Set a calendar reminder or a countdown to ensure the first 30 days are top-of-mind for your team.
- Highlight your differentiators through alignment.
Alignment refers to both internal alignment (within your organization) and external (with the customer). Understand how your onboarding aligns with your journey maps, success plans, and playbooks.  If there is no alignment, your customer is at risk.

Additionally, take the time to align your company’s mission, vision, and values with the onboarding process. In a digital age, it can be hard to connect and build relationships with our customers. Onboarding is a great opportunity to show customers who you are and what your company is about.

A buying relationship is influenced by trust more than anything else…You have a limited window to make that great first impression and make sure they understand that you’re a trusted vendor.” -Eric Wu (CEO & Co-founder, Task Ray)

The remaining best practice tips can be summed up in three words:

Data, Data, Data.

- Use real-time data to inform your onboarding process.
Data is key to knowing how customers are using your product. Don’t wait until renewal time to assess how well customers are implementing your solutions. Make changes to your onboarding process, training, or techniques as current customers encounter obstacles.
- Share data across your organization.
Too often, departments and their data sets are siloed across organizations. This can make each department feel like they’re starting from scratch, asking similar questions about desired outcomes, timelines, and obstacles.

Find time to connect cross-organizationally and consider building a process around sharing customer insights. This will make hand-offs easier and not force customers to share their story over and over again.
- Find KPIs that act as key indicators.
How do you gauge how successful a customer is at implementing your solution? Facebook’s indicator of engagement is a user reaching seven friends within their first 10 days, and DropBox considers users engaged when they “drop” at least one file in their Dropbox. While metrics will differ greatly across organizations, it’s important to figure out which KPIs are indicators for you.

These are just a few onboarding best practices we’ve seen garner results. If you’re looking to reassess your current practices, read our “Best Practices in Customer Onboarding” report. It lays out the three fundamental elements of onboarding and is a great jumping off point.

Bottom line: customer success’ role in onboarding is crucial and multifaceted. Integrating customer success into the process will require cross-organizational coordination, but the potential for renewal and expansion makes it a step worth taking.

 March 31, 2022

Stephen Fulkerson

About Author Stephen Fulkerson

Stephen Fulkerson is the vice president of customer success research for TSIA. Prior to joining TSIA, he served as the vice president of customer success at both Upland Software and Alert Logic. Stephen has over 25+ years of experience working in technology companies and has been a leader in professional services, technical account management, and business development for APAC and LATAM operations. Stephen started his career in Customer Success in 2004 and he has spent the bulk of his technical career-building Customer Success organizations and finds this work the most rewarding for both serving the customer and the company.

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