The path to better customer onboarding

Editor’s note: This post is adapted from a keynote by Robbie Allan, Senior Product Manager at Intercom, that was presented at the 2018 Elevate SaaS Masterclass.

People sign up for new software all the time, only to jump ship before actually getting any value from it. If you’re a SaaS company, that’s a big problem. It means that you’re not only missing out on business, but also failing to convert would-be customers into the kinds of highly engaged power users you need to sustain your business. So the question becomes why does this happen and what can you do to prevent it?

To shed some light on these issues, consider the traditional sales cycle. Typically, it comes in four parts: A product grabs your attention, you become interested in it, you make the decision to buy, and then you take the action to actually acquire the product. But that’s not how things work in an industry like SaaS, where free trials are commonplace. In fact, the use of free trials and other tactics turn the whole process around. As a result, people only decide to buy after they’ve already signed up for the service. In other words, when they’re coming to you, they’re not yet invested in your product. More often than not, they’re just curious about it.

That’s what makes customer onboarding so important. Think of it as a form of marketing that’s focused on showing prospects that your software can actually do the things you say it can on your website. Effectively, that means the true purpose of onboarding is to help customers find the shortest path to value. Of course, the challenge is that when it comes to complex software products, the shortest path is never really all that short.

The right way to do customer onboarding

Great onboarding proves to users that your product actually can do what they need it to. In order to do it well, keep these best practices in mind:

  • Focus on the job the job to your customers want to do. When people buy things, they’re not thinking about your product, they’re thinking about the outcome they hope to arrive at by using it. Think about the situations that bring customers to you, what they want to be able to do, and what outcome they expect as a result.
  • Don’t get caught up in the features. Taking users through a tour of all of your product’s features early on just doesn’t make sense. They don’t care about all of the bells and whistles. They just want to understand how they can use your product to solve their main problem. You can tell them about everything else later on.
  • Reassure customers in anxious moments. If you have a complex product, chances are that there is going to be a point in the customer onboarding process where you’re going to ask customers to take some big, anxiety-inducing step. That might be to invite their teammates to use the product, email their customers, or put something up on their website. It’s important to encourage and reassure people through these steps, by, for example, letting them know that it will all work out or even giving them the opportunity to put off that scary step while they keep moving forward.
  • Guide through non-product tasks. Most complex products have a bunch of non-product tasks associated with them that can be daunting to users. Make sure that you provide templates, guides, and other tools to help them understand how to do those tasks the best way possible.
  • Onboard everybody. There are usually lots of people involved in the decision to buy new software. Know what each person involved in the decision cares about and tailor your customer onboarding efforts to them.
  • Demonstrate results, don’t point out features. You need to prove to users that your product does the job they’re hiring it for. The best way to do that is to get them to use your product. But if that’s not an option, show them. Think about how you can make things much more real for customers during the onboarding process. Show them the result they’ll get.

To create the most effective customer onboarding for complex products, build it around the jobs your customers want to do, not the screens in your product. Ultimately, the key is to make your customers’ all-important first use experience as effective as possible. Following the tips outlined above will go a long way toward helping get you there.