Customer retention comes down to onboarding.
Done well, new clients learn how to solve problems and “fish for themselves” with your guidance. Done poorly, trust erodes, and leads to churn.
By the time you’re finished reading this guide, we hope that you’ll be able to clearly articulate:
- Why customer onboarding matters
- How and when to deploy different onboarding engagement models
- What onboarding goals and metrics to measure
- Which customer onboarding software and client onboarding checklists to implement
What is customer onboarding and who should be involved?
Customer onboarding is the process of removing friction between the customer and product to generate measurable value as quickly as possible.
Contrary to popular belief, customer onboarding shouldn’t fall under the sole responsibility of customer success (CS) and implementation.
It’s a team sport.
Although CS may serve as the quarterback, the process is best coordinated across your entire revenue operations team: including sales, marketing, and CS.
With the right strategic lens, customer onboarding extends beyond making good first impressions. It helps define problems across the customer lifecycle, paving a path towards improving the holistic experience and driving positive outcomes.
- If the same question keeps popping up in support tickets, it’s probably a signal to introduce an answer earlier in the client onboarding process.
- If multiple customers struggle with adopting a product feature, it can inform design improvements.
Customer onboarding begins when a new customer first starts realizing the value they can generate from working with you. Many refer to this as the initial “a-ha moment."
Why is customer onboarding so important?
A customer lost due to a poor onboarding experience could be a customer gone for life.
Salesforce learned this the hard way in 2005, when it was losing 75% of its customer base every year at a monthly churn rate of 8%. Without a drastic change, they were at risk of running out of potential customers to acquire and blowing through their total addressable market (TAM).
Reformulating their customer onboarding experience helped shape how we view the role of customer success at large. Although it took Salesforce five years to acquire 250,000 subscribers, they were able to double that growth in just a year by revamping their onboarding.
That’s when others started to take notice. What did they learn?
Customer onboarding doesn’t just reduce churn—it’s a strategic growth lever that helps acquire and retain customers.
In the B.C. (before cloud) era, companies got away with providing a horrible post-sale experience. Customers were stuck in webs of stringent contracts and limited options, positioning customer success as a cost center instead of a revenue driver. The tide reversed in the A.B. (after Benioff) world with software in the cloud.
Modern SaaS companies and agencies know that flexible pricing models and competitive forces give buyers all the power. Your B2B sales success is ultimately dictated by your customer’s level of success.
Word of mouth is the most persuasive “channel”, where one negative review can create a ripple effect too potent to recover from.
Although onboarding is key to increasing customer lifetime value (CLTV), it can also reduce customer acquisition costs (CAC). Still, CS team members often struggle to get buy-in when it comes to optimizing customer onboarding until it’s too late. That’s when churn snowballs into a company-wide problem and suddenly everyone starts to care about customer retention.
We call this death by a thousand paper cuts.
The good news? Any company can improve its customer onboarding process with the right intention and effort.
Customer Engagement Models and Examples
No two customers and adoption journeys are the same—onboarding comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes. However, there are three distinct customer onboarding engagement models that have come to dominate the market.
A. Self-serve onboarding
The selve-serve onboarding model allows new users to take control of their initial onboarding experiences and learn how to find value from a product on their own.
At first glance, incorporating a comprehensive self-service model can put customer onboarding on autopilot and make everyone’s life easier. However, developing experiences at scale is no easy task, it’s not an initiative we can just “set and forget”.
To master the self-serve onboarding model, teams must match motivations with abilities to trigger target behaviors. It takes a blend of empathy, data, and experience to illuminate user journeys that result in positive business outcomes.
In a way, self-serve asks customers to enter a maze and feel confident in our ability to guide them accurately. However, there are multiple entry and exit points.
As product-led growth continues to gain traction, self-service becomes the nucleus for communicating value. It’s not enough to send email flows or ship features. Customers need a compass and instructions, particularly when encountering new products for the first time.
In fact, a study by GrooveHQ found that only 37% even bother trying self-service options, because they perceive them as inaccurate or incomplete.
Building trust begins at the sign-up process, which must convey simplicity, excitement, and confidence. As Andrew Capland puts it...
Product-led onboarding requires a deep examination of personas, jobs to be done, and daily actions required to convert users into customers. Although certain products may lend themselves to a full-blown self-service model, it’s best to start small and iterate.
There’s no better way to dig into the nuances of customer onboarding than taking a high-touch approach. By rolling up your sleeves and personally onboarding customers, you unlock valuable conversations, insights, and perspectives.
From there, you can start automating email sequences and behavior-based messaging before evolving into full-blown product experiences.
Growthmentor provides a compelling argument:
“328 signups, manually onboarded, one-at-a-time. And in the process, we had many awesome conversations with our users and collected thousands of data points. This ultimately gave us a much clearer idea of the cohorts that can get the most value out of Growthmentor and those that cannot. Who wins? Everyone.”
B. High-touch onboarding
High-touch onboarding means a lot of contact points from customer success managers (CSMs) throughout the customer lifecycle—from kickoff call to implementation and beyond.
High-touch onboarding is common for mid-market and enterprise SaaS customers or service businesses.
Under this model, customer implementation happens over an extended period of time. Ideally, it extends infinitely. There are always new features to adopt, new challenges to conquer, or new stakeholders to engage—especially in the B2B onboarding world, where client management relies on responding to evolving needs from your product.
That’s also where the tension happens: it's hard to keep high-touch customer onboarding effective and efficient.
For complex software, CSMs play a critical role in guiding customers through use cases and helping them learn the ins and outs of the product. Such interactions present opportunities to categorize common challenges and develop one-to-many solutions, whether in the form of flowcharts, video tutorials, or knowledge bases.
Institutional knowledge becomes a key ingredient in the equation.
The reality is that great CSMs will eventually leave your company, and new ones will have to ramp up quickly. Well-paying clients demand red-carpet experiences, making company-wide training a priority.
Much of the “secret sauce” is split across departments, requiring extensive documentation. But when new CSMs can ramp up quickly to help clients, any perceptions of complexity start to die down. The product shines, and the customer beams happily.
Let’s dive into some practical tips for optimizing high-touch customer onboarding programs:
1. Segment customers and implement a voice of customer (VoC) program
If you tune into State of Demand Gen by Chris Walker, you probably know what this one’s about. By segmenting customers by persona, company segment, or use case, it becomes easier to make a business case for product improvements or customer wishlists.
Without quantifying the pain points of different customer profiles, feature requests can stack up to hundreds of votes without any resolution.
Communicating VoC helps garner interest from other team members, turning onboarding into a cross-functional initiative. This also helps scale processes through content and fuel low-touch onboarding.
By establishing repeatable processes for different segments, CSMs can avoid reinventing the wheel for each new user and instead piece together journeys based on overlapping needs.
2. Automate scheduling processes and team handoffs
Whether it’s through in-app support or monthly check-ins, customers shouldn’t have to guess how they can get in touch with you. Chili Piper is a great example of how CSMs can work with customer success operations (CS Ops) to streamline the scheduling experience.
Creating a “digital front door” for your customers shows a commitment to being helpful while respecting your internal team’s time. It also allows for a cohesive customer experience, one that displays professionalism and enables CSMs to focus on strategic growth instead of playing calendar Tetris.
3. Offer templates and case studies, not just processes and documents
Most agencies (and project management tools) force customers to see how the sausage is made, even when they don’t want to. Transparent processes are great, but not when they distract from the main goals. Your clients are looking for the 10,000-foot view so they can get back to focusing on their day-to-day operations.
Showcasing templates and case studies can help build confidence with customers. By sharing a few examples, customers are able to tangibly access the potential value of adopting your solutions. Even better, you receive feedback based on their engagement, inspiring further targeting and content opportunities.
4. Add live chat to your website or app
Implementing live chat software gives customers real-time access without too much overhead. In weeks filled with Zoom calls, it can be relieving to ask questions asynchronously. Since most interactions require an expert consultant or CSM, live chat often becomes a channel for building rapport and facilitating a human touch.
It’s also easy to recommend next steps or guide customers to additional content.
However, there’s a tradeoff to be considered. 60% of customers expect an immediate response when contacting live chat, which means dedicated support is often needed.
5. Turn off the firehose
Less is often more when it comes to high-touch customer onboarding. Instead of requiring customers to participate in long training sessions, it can help to narrow scope and focus on key problems to solve.
Setting expectations early and instilling a sense of curiosity can drive greater adoption, whether it’s with a complex product or one that is continuously evolving. By outlining bite-sized tasks and giving peeks under the hood or product roadmap, you can develop stronger client relationships over time.
Once Hiri realized they were trying to do too much, they were able to get back to helping customers succeed:
“Our Aha moments, the features that made us different, were also the reason people weren't sticking around. We took all of these features out. Our conversion rate shot up from 1 in 50 to 1 in 10.”
C. Low-touch onboarding
Low-touch onboarding requires minimal human contact or personalized attention.
However, low-touch onboarding doesn't have to be generic. For example, you can have users self-select their use case and then tailor the onboarding experience to suit their needs. That way, we can leverage repeatable processes to scale, while still catering to individual preferences.
A great framework for making low-touch onboarding more efficient is by separating content into "how to" and "why to" content.
As Shareil Nariman explains, we often focus on “how” in low-touch models, but there’s actually a much greater need to uncover "why".
By repurposing high-touch interactions into strategic discussions, both parties win. Customers feel heard, CS and implementation teams gain valuable insights, and time to value (TTV) goes down.
As companies grow larger, so does the pile of resources at your disposal–from webinars to one-pagers and guides. Ironically, many of them are probably ready to be disposed of.
Not convinced? Consider the example of QuickBooks.
By deleting over 2,000 blog posts from their resource center, organic traffic spiked to drive higher demand, while accessibility and ease of navigation improved for existing customers. Yet another case study illustrating how onboarding boosts both customer retention and acquisition.
Customer Onboarding Milestones and Metrics
Instead of diving into a vast pool of acronyms, let’s stop to think about which onboarding metrics matter.
To make it clear to the C-suite that customer onboarding is more than just a problem for the CS team, tie your onboarding metrics to revenue goals.
For example, if you find that a higher onboarding completion rate leads to higher CLTV, that presents a strong case to invest further into customer onboarding software and processes.
The number of metrics to consider are endless, but choosing a select few can help prioritize improvements and paint a clearer picture of the customer journey.
1. Customer lifetime value (CLTV) is the total revenue a business can expect from a single customer throughout their entire business relationship. It helps measure the impact of retention along with upsells or cross-sells. Onboarding is often correlated with CLTV, since it sets the tone for the customer relationship and establishes the perceived value of your product.
2. Net dollar retention (NDR) or net revenue retention (NRR) measures fluctuations in recurring revenue, such as expansion, contractions, or churn. In SaaS companies, this is a key metric since it shows whether or not a company can grow without relying on customer acquisition. Onboarding plays a key role, connecting customers to products and features while facilitating upsells in the form of upgrades and additional usage.
3. Time to value (TTV) or time to first value is critical to quantifying the impact of onboarding. It shows how fast customers are able to recognize the value of your product.
4. Customer engagement data is key to monitoring progress and planning interventions. It answers the following:
- Login activity: how many customers log in, and how often?
- Feature adoption: how many features are used, and how often?
- Abandonment: where and when do drop-offs occur?
5. Onboarding completion rate and time to onboarding completion look at how many customers completed onboarding, and how quickly. The aspirational goal should always be 100%, but it’s tricky to manage since the definition of “onboarded” is subjective.
6. Milestones are specific touch points that signal customer adoption. These milestones provide a broader view of feature adoption that is more focused on use cases and results. Were customers able to solve their problems using your product? How much money or time did they save? It can be as simple as this table:
7. Logo retention shows how well you hold onto customers. Segmenting by company size or use case helps determine which customers may deserve higher-touch customer onboarding. Enterprise clients may expect a more white-glove experience to avoid churning, whereas small and medium business (SMB) customers may want to explore on their own.
8. Free to paid (or monthly to annual) conversion rate gives a glimpse into how well the onboarding process translates product benefits into customer value.
Building your customer onboarding software stack
Now for the fun part: laying out your customer onboarding software stack.
How do we avoid shiny object syndrome and focus on the essentials for customer onboarding? By reminding ourselves that the goal is to minimize friction between you and the customer.
That’s also why we’ve organized these categories and examples in order of importance, based on what we’ve heard on the street.
Customer onboarding portals
Customer onboarding portals make it easy to handle project management and communication in one place.
They’re different from standard CS tools because they are usually customer-facing, focused on repeatable processes, and help reduce silos across internal teams with out-of-the-box integrations.
- Dock. Unlike every other B2B SaaS article you’ve read, we’re just going to come out and say it: you should try us out. Share deliverables, project timelines, and onboarding templates in a single destination. Ditch clunky spreadsheets for good. Watch this 10-minute demo to see how it works.
- Rocketlane is a collaborative customer platform that offers visibility into the client onboarding process.
- GuideCx is a client onboarding and implementation software. It helps analyze project trends and drive engagement.
Here's a quick walkthrough from our CEO Alex on how to create a customer onboarding portal in Dock:
For a deeper dive into customer onboarding tools, check out our customer onboarding software guide.
Knowledge base software
Knowledge base software ensures that your customers and employees have the resources to learn your product, onboard, and succeed.
- Guru is a company wiki that helps with employee onboarding and learning management. It’s an important resource for getting new CSMs up to speed.
- Workramp is a modern learning management system (LMS) that helps employees, partners, and customers get smart on your products and services.
- SkillJar is a customer training platform that helps onboard, engage, and retain customers.
Messaging automation software
Messaging automation gives you a way to stay in touch with customers in their preferred channels, whether or not you have a customer relationship management (CRM) platform.
- Intercom is a communications platform that helps drive conversational support, including chat, in-app messages, and a customer data platform (CDP).
- Twilio is an engagement solution that allows for SMS automation, personalized interactions, and more.
- SalesLoft is most often used by sales reps, but also supports CS and account management (AM) use cases for onboarding and renewals.
Customer success enablement software
CS enablement is a catch-all category for other tools that help make onboarding processes more efficient and effective. This includes everything from video recording to revenue recognition.
- Cloudapp is the best screen recording software for videos and gifs.
- Sendoso helps you turn customers into advocates through their gifting platform. There’s no better way to get your customers amped up than surprising them with a thoughtful gesture!
- Gong is a no-brainer for sharing successful onboarding and training stories across the team. We had to include since it’s often underutilized.
- SaaSOptics provides visibility into true ARR, churn metrics, and net revenue retention with automated subscription management.
Customer success platforms
Pure customer success tools empower CS teams with workflow management and analytics to improve the entire post-sale journey. Our guess is you’re probably using one of these already.
- ChurnZero helps with customer lifecycle management, from onboarding to renewal and expansion.
- Planhat offers a way to connect CS to marketing, product, and sales by providing a single source of truth.
- Gainsight is the OG, redefining the CSM experience with its suite of tools designed to help with customer success, engagement, and expansion.
- Hubspot Service Hub provides a one-stop shop for customer support, troubleshooting, and desk automation.
- Totango is described as a customer operating system (OS), focused on improving customer journeys and securing data.
Digital adoption platforms guide users through a product or service with the goal of converting them into customers. Most often used in self-serve and product-led onboardings.
- Pendo helps software companies gain user insights, offer in-app guides, build product walkthroughs, and prioritize feedback to improve product experiences for customers and employees.
- Chameleon is designed for self-serve, focused on increasing activation through product tours, walkthroughs, tooltips, surveys, and onboarding checklists.
- AppCues improves in-app onboarding and adoption without needing developers through a no-code platform.
- WalkMe enables enterprise organizations to identify gaps and problem areas within their product, giving them a way to make their software more user-friendly.
User experience (UX) monitoring and testing is a key input to optimizing self-serve and low-touch onboardings. Although it’s most often used by product managers, designers, and UX researchers, much of the insights drive onboarding improvements.
Although there are a wide variety of tools and approaches, you only need a few pieces of the stack to create a winning onboarding experience. As any operations leader knows, the devil lies in the details and execution.
Customer onboarding processes, templates, and checklists
In case we haven’t said it already, every customer onboarding process is different. We won’t pretend to give you a single set of “best practices”.
Instead, view this outline like you would a Buzzfeed recipe–the ingredients are all there, but the instructions are at the chef’s discretion.
1. Onboarding welcome email
We shouldn’t underestimate the impact of a great onboarding email on customer onboarding. It’s the chance to:
- Show empathy or an understanding of the customer’s problems
- Prepare customers for the value, or benefits, they are about to receive
- Lay the groundwork for rules of engagement and the brand’s voice
There are so many examples to choose from, but our favorite was this one from StoryChief.
Why, you ask? At first glance, it doesn’t seem too fancy. Some of the copy could probably be written better.
But there’s more to it:
- Written with a personal, human touch
- Explains the benefit in layman's terms (“write stories and collaborate together”)
- Sympathizes with the pain of learning a new product and offers a video
2. Onboarding kickoff meeting
The onboarding kickoff is a major piece of any high-touch onboarding process. This is where everyone aligns on key objectives, gets to know each other, and defines the project scope (while limiting any scope creep). In some ways, it’s a recon mission and casual conversation wrapped into one.
Here are just a few key points to cover:
- Touch base with your sales team to understand the use case and gather context
- Dissect the business problem the customer is looking to solve with your product
- Outline the onboarding process to set expectations and avoid surprises
- Identify all stakeholders, roles, and responsibilities
- Share support resources and information on how to get in touch with you
- Ask about outcomes and timelines early on
3. Ongoing check-ins and implementation
This is where we get users comfortable with the product or service and show we care about their progress. Before the highly anticipated launch, it’s important to fill any empty states with educational content to make features feel intuitive, familiar, and valuable.
By walking through use cases and offering tooltips or guides along the way, there are fewer surprises and more celebrations. Aside from long email threads, a centralized location with tutorials and learning paths helps reduce complexity and gets customers excited about what’s next.
For example, you can set up a Slack Connect channel to streamline communication i one place.
Launch day can be nerve-racking. This is usually where CSMs play air traffic control, ensuring that customers or clients have what they need to succeed.
A great way to start launch day is by sending over an email to show you’re prepared. It’s a simple gesture that calms down any control freaks and gets everyone on the same page.
Even better? Send them a custom Dock space that includes onboarding checklists, implementation videos, and good vibes. After the launch is complete, sharing a post-launch NPS survey helps gauge perceptions and track engagement.
5. Quarterly business reviews
Quarterly business reviews (QBRs), sometimes referred to as solutions reviews, determine if the customer is receiving true value for their money. This is not the time to let users sugarcoat their experience thus far. Here is where we want to get honest feedback, since it will likely signal any upcoming reasons for churn.
At the same time, you can be pragmatic by reviewing the customer’s goals and core KPIs, or even introducing an ROI calculator. This is also a good place to put our change management hats on to spot any friction and communicate what’s next across all stakeholders. Resurfacing the project plans is a great way to show progress while forging a path forward to upsells and cross-sells
Simplify your onboarding with Dock
CS and implementation teams are always pressed for time and resources. The most valuable onboarding content gets buried in Google Drive folders, process documents get lost in spreadsheets, and no one can keep track of their email threads.
That’s why it’s never been more important to have one collaborative workspace for managing external, ongoing relationships. That’s why we built Dock—a way to share a single destination for customer onboarding.