How to build and scale your customer onboarding process

Getting customer onboarding right is critical to long-term retention. Here's how to build your business’s onboarding strategy.

By Molly Murphy

Published August 28, 2020
Last updated August 28, 2020

The post-purchase period is a critical transition time for customers. Often, they need guidance on how to get the most value out of your products. In fact, 88% of buyers in a 2020 Wyzowl report said they’re more likely to remain loyal to a business that provides welcoming, educational onboarding content.

Customer onboarding is something you have to get right—every time. This guide explains how to build your customer onboarding strategy so you can consistently deliver a strong first impression. We also share tips from Zendesk’s customer success experts to ensure your client onboarding experience is a breeze.

What is customer onboarding?

Onboarding is the process of teaching your customers the value of your product. It happens between two key customer milestones:

  • When customers sign up
  • When they have their first success using your product

The win looks different for each customer—it may be financial, such as increased profits or decreased overhead, or it could be their realization that your product has saved them time and headaches.

Onboarding is educating your customers so they can successfully use your product. Depending on what you’re selling, this may be a series of emails, a call with a customer success manager, on-site training, or an intro flow within an app. In the most complex software, it may even mean all of the above.

Create customer onboarding strategy

How to create your customer onboarding strategy

To make onboarding a positive customer experience, keep the process as organized as possible.

Form an onboarding plan by following these steps. With a strategy in place, you’ll be set to make your customers feel valued right from the start.

Decide who will own the onboarding process

There are many components to a complete onboarding process. Responsibilities might include:

  • Designing and writing content
  • Organizing and running training sessions
  • Managing client relationships

A single person may handle all this in smaller organizations or companies with simple products. But in companies where products require training—like in the SaaS industry—large teams devoted to customer success are the norm.

At Zendesk, our customer success team handles customer onboarding. Success professionals are part support, part account management, and part sales.

“Success members accompany the customer on their journey and stick around for the entire lifecycle,” explains Delores Cooper, Customer Success Associate at Zendesk. “We’re here to provide recommendations for how Zendesk products can best align with our customers’ short-term needs and long-term goals.”

Identify your program’s goals

Once you’ve identified who’s running onboarding, work with these team members to determine your goals for the program. Setting objectives will help you clarify where you should direct your efforts.

Program goals should be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Target them to alleviate the pain points of your ideal customers and help them achieve aha moments.

Here are a few examples of onboarding goals:

  • Customer reports your software freed up an hour of time each day within a week of starting to use it
  • Customer upgrades to a paid service at the end of a 2-week free trial
  • Customers see a 40% increase in site traffic within 2 months of beginning to use your product

By creating onboarding goals, your team has a clear direction in building the process for customers.

Determine how customer onboarding will take place

There are three main onboarding models. Choose one based on your company’s ideal customers and the complexity of your product.

  • The self-service model allows customers to onboard themselves at their leisure and takes the least amount of time to complete.

    This model is best for simple business-to-consumer products with a lot of users and a high user experience rating. Self-service is a popular choice for products like mobile apps and handheld electronics.

LinkedIn app onboarding

LinkedIn’s phone app has a very straightforward onboarding workflow. It seamlessly sets up your new profile in a few clicks. [Source].

  • The low-touch model falls somewhere between self-service and high-touch. It usually involves chat support and automated email campaigns, but not dedicated support reps.

    This can be a good option for a somewhat complex product that requires explanation but not in-person training, like Google Ads or web hosting.

    Many SaaS companies, such as Buffer, Basecamp, and DocuSign, are successful with low-touch onboarding.

  • The high-touch model is the white glove service of customer onboarding. It often includes personalized onboarding strategies and dedicated customer success representatives.

    While this model is the most tailored to the customer’s needs, it also requires the most resources.

    Some SaaS companies like VOXOX and FullStory use the high-touch model for complex software or services.

If you’re not sure what model is best for your business, consider sending a client intake form to your customers. As you learn more about your customers, you’ll develop a stronger sense of what type of onboarding they need.

Measure onboarding success

Decide which metrics you’ll use to gauge the success of your onboarding. By monitoring this data, you’ll be able to catch onboarding red flags and make improvements as needed.

Here are a few metrics to consider measuring:

  • Time to first value (TTFV). This is the time from initial onboarding to first customer success. Strive to make this period as short as possible. If customers quickly realize your product’s value, you’ll likely retain a large portion of your audience.
  • Rate of upgrades and/or converting. When a client invests more in your product, it’s a sign that they’re enjoying it and that your onboarding was successful.
  • Customer engagement. Check whether customers are taking actions that are tied to your product’s core value.

The best approach to measuring onboarding success is to gather multiple metrics. This will give you a holistic picture of your customers’ feelings and behaviors.

Customer onboarding success tips

3 expert tips for customer onboarding success

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you build your customer onboarding process.

Build a review system to continually improve onboarding

Keep an open line of communication with your customers and your internal team. Strive for constant review and growth of your onboarding program.

“Implementing a cycle of communicating processes, receiving consistent feedback on them, documenting both successes and failures, and establishing a review cadence of your [standard operating procedures] will set you up for success,” explains Cooper.

Be prepared for change

Don’t expect your onboarding process to be constant. Let your changing customers and business inform how you adjust your onboarding process.

“When working with ever-evolving human beings, expect that your processes will also evolve,” says Cooper.

Put technology to work for you

As your new customer onboard and start using your products, expect that they’ll need support beyond the help of your customer success team.

Make sure you offer new customers multiple channels of support, like AI chatbots and customer support suites.

Onboarding is the foundation of strong customer relationships

Onboarding is your customer’s first hands-on experience with your products, so it needs to be a positive one. Use this guide to plan your onboarding process to make it as smooth as possible.

Along with creating an onboarding strategy, it’s critical to hire reliable customer success managers to run the process. Check out our 30 customer success questions to ask during an interview to get started building your onboarding team.