Lessons in Customer Onboarding: Best Practices for Helping Customers Achieve Their Goals

Alyssa Azevedo
Jun 20, 2018 10:48:46 AM

Effective customer onboarding can make the difference between simply helping someone become a user and building a long-term relationship that’s beneficial for both sides. Towards that goal, certain pieces of the onboarding process become extremely important in making sure that customers can achieve the success they’re after with your product offering.

We sat down with Ken Clemens, Customer Success Manager at Thought Industries, to take a look at some best practices and explore the ways to fine-tune your own onboarding program.

What is the role of customer personas in the onboarding process?

Focusing the process on the admin is an important piece, but keeping everybody's role in mind is extremely important. It’s critical to understand who all the involved people are, what's important to each of them, and what value and success looks like. This is one of the biggest pieces of the onboarding process, and so important to establish early on.

You often will see roles such as an admin or a super user. The terms for that role might vary from one organization to the next, but they’re generally the person who's going to be spending their time in the system or with your product, to most leverage the technical side towards their goals. That's an incredibly important persona to plan for and speak to. They're usually the easiest to remember because they're the ones working with you, engaging with the onboarding process most directly. Which means their needs are going to be front and center.

Beyond the admin, understanding any other areas of a company or organization that is implementing your product, who have a stake in the product internally, is a really important part of the process. For instance, you might have folks who are in the trenches, relying on your product every day to do their job—like content editors or production staff. There’s also the people up above who are looking at the numbers, at the actual monetary value gained from the product and investment. All of the roles that you can identify and define are important. They each have a set of goals crucial in the adoption of your product and your onboarding program needs to be able to address them.

Why is it important to be selective in what you share in the first training session?

In order to avoid “drinking from the fire hose,” it’s important that customer training efforts are focused and succinct, especially within the first few sessions. It’s not about teaching the persona every feature of your product during a welcome tour. Yes, you want to spend a bit of time on how to use the software. But, you also need to spend equal or greater time on how to succeed in reaching whatever goal they're adopting your software for in the first place. Give your customers enough help to get them moving in a specific direction that will have impact for them and their needs.

Most customers are working on a forced timeline and purchased your software to help them meet their desired business outcomes. During the onboarding process it’s crucial to strike a balance between understanding the overall goals of the customer, while also exposing them to the possibilities of the platform. Initially, you want to dive deep enough into what desired outcomes the customer is looking to achieve. You should also work to provide them with high level options of how the platform can help them without getting too deep into the weeds.

In the past, software companies took a one-size-fits-all approach to training, delivering resources in the form of a knowledge center. Onboarding tools were comprised of several different resources, such as pre recorded webinars, how-to articles, and FAQs. However, the approach to customer onboarding is changing. Rather than pushing resources to new clients and leaving them to work their way through, successful software companies are taking a step back and tailoring their resources to specific client use cases. Customer Success teams are looking at these initial training sessions as an opportunity to set—or reset—client expectations, build relationships, establish themselves as an authority, and provide best practices for customers to meet their ultimate goals. The technical components to the training come throughout that process.

How often should you check-in on your customers for feedback?

When you consider feedback about how happy your customers are, what their goals are, whether the product helping them to achieve them, it’s important to find the best way to have those conversations.

Early on, if you can maintain a strong engagement with clients or customers, those kinds of answers become a natural part of the conversation. You have a pretty good understanding of where they are, how happy they are, what they're thinking, what their level of confidence in your product is. Giving customers a lot of opportunity to express their thoughts early in their onboarding means you won’t need to ask directly—the understanding is already there. Obviously, that doesn’t work for all customers. Sometimes, they may not be as forthcoming and you may feel you're just training them and they're not giving you much back. In those cases, you can be more proactive in asking how they think things are going.

Another key time to check in is post-onboarding. This is a point where customers are starting to become more independent. As they gain confidence, they’re often not touching base quite as often, not asking as many questions. To get good feedback at this stage might mean more direct attempts at reaching out, perhaps through automated emails based on tasks or milestones, NPS surveys to understand their levels of satisfaction, or even an old-fashioned phone call.

Your feedback habits do not necessarily need to be dictated by a calendar of how often you should check in on your customers. Instead, try to think about the things you want to understand and make them a regular part of conversations and engagement. Make the overall experience and customer relationship stronger and more meaningful. Try to understand why they decided to sign on with you, why they're paying for the software, what they're hoping to achieve. If those things are not at the forefront of your conversations, then they need to be.

What is the importance of time to value milestones as part of the onboarding process?

Time to Value milestones are a very important metric to measure yourself against. As an organization, they can you build a routine for engagement. For instance, if your software requires a large investment of time from your customer service team, you may want intentionally decrease their time investment as customers are fully onboarded or ready-to-launch. Perhaps you set a schedule based on milestones, stepping down from 20 hrs of hand-in-hand onboarding to a blend of 10 hrs of online learning and 10 with a customer success manager, and so on. Having those important milestones in place, knowing what the markers are along the way and how you respond to them, is crucial.

In some cases that can be harder than others, and the kinds of customers and their needs will obviously vary from organization to organization. Some customers will come to the table with really exact numbers, with an empirical measure of what success means for them. Others, especially when you acquire new clients who are adopting a solution like yours for the first time, may not necessarily have hard revenue goals yet.

The goal for any smooth onboarding program, though, is to set that timeframe and be keeping it in mind all along the way. This can mean aiming for the future successes and offering guardrails in the form of messaging, lessons, and other materials that offer customers insight into reaching their next goal with your product. An online learning opportunity can be a great way to drive them towards those milestones. By looking at the engagement levels, you can identify places where customers might not be on track, suggest some things that they can do, and help them leverage the platform better to hit specific goals.

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