How to Turn Your Customer Onboarding into a Competitive Advantage

A great customer onboarding process can help you maximize retention and customer satisfaction. Here's how to make it happen.
How to Turn Your Customer Onboarding into a Competitive Advantage

Customer acquisition is a top priority at every startup. However, retention is every bit as important. 

Getting your new customers to stick with your product and see true value in the long run is a challenge worth exploring. And a good onboarding process can play a key role in making it possible. 

In this post, we’ll share everything you need to know to optimize your customer onboarding process. By the end of this article, you’ll know how to use your onboarding process to increase your customer satisfaction and retention. Plus, we’ll share some amazing onboarding tools you may want to add to your stack.

We’ll cover:

  • What customer onboarding is 
  • Why optimizing your customer onboarding process matters
  • The difference between the customer vs. the user onboarding process
  • 7 customer onboarding best practices for SaaS companies
  • A selection of the best client onboarding software

It’s worth noting that we’ll focus on the SaaS customer onboarding process. But our key takeaways could be applied to other niches as well.

Ready? Let’s get started!

What Is a Customer Onboarding Process?

Customer onboarding is the process of introducing a new customer to your product. Here’s where you guide them on how your solution works and what they can get out of it.

This process typically involves:

  • An introduction to your product’s key features
  • An explanation of how your product works and what to expect
  • A guided tour of your platform

Customer onboarding usually includes product tutorials, onboarding emails, and other types of customer support. The goal of onboarding is to set clients up to succeed with your solution.

Why Optimizing Your Customer Onboarding Process Matters

An effective and enjoyable onboarding experience greatly increases SaaS customers' lifetime value. Why? One of the main reasons people stop using a product is not because it isn't useful or it doesn't solve their problem. It’s simply because they find the learning curve tedious, making it hard to get to a point where they perceive a return on investment. Ultimately, consumers want accessible products that make it easy to solve complex problems. 

In fact, in 40 to 60% of cases, users will only use your product once before abandoning it. After 30 days, only 2.7% of first-time users will remain. Plus, the average SaaS business can expect to lose 5.6% of its revenue to churn every year.

Even if your product is enterprise-level and technically complex, a proper onboarding process can:

  • Ease the learning curve
  • Reinforce your product’s value in the eyes of the customer

What’s the Difference Between User Onboarding and Customer Onboarding?

Before we move forward, there’s a subtle but relevant difference worth addressing: user vs. customer onboarding.

In short, a customer is someone who bought your product, and a user is someone who uses your product. Sometimes these two roles overlap. But it’s vital to know the difference between the two to take the proper approach in each case. 

The purpose of user onboarding is to help the user learn how to make the most out of your product’s features. It’s a functional process. On the other hand, customer onboarding also involves explaining the value of the product. However, it’s worth noting that both processes share the purpose of building a sense of loyalty. 

According to Katie Timms, Customer Success Manager at Cledara:

“In customer onboarding, you want to understand your client’s goals. Have a clear picture of what your product solves and how you plan on achieving their desired outcomes. This is the person/s that you’ll track these goals with and check in with regularly.

User onboarding on the other hand is more instructional, they need to know how to use your product. However, It’s really important that both of these are done right, as ineffective user onboarding ultimately leads to not reaching the customer’s goals and could be key in their decision to continue with your product or not.”

The user onboarding process continues long after your user first logs into your platform. Likewise, the customer onboarding process isn’t over when they’ve made their first payment. It’s wise to check up with new users and customers and share personalized resources, during their first weeks or months using your product. This period is extremely important to make sure they see a positive impact early. 

7 SaaS Customer Onboarding Process Best Practices

The quality of your onboarding can have a major impact on your customers' general perception of your product. 

In this section, we’ll dive into 7 best practices that will help you deliver an amazing customer onboarding process.

We recommend:

  • Developing a user-centric strategy
  • Communicating with potential customers
  • Leveraging user data
  • Keeping momentum
  • Identifying critical moments
  • Providing the right information, at the right time

Let’s take a closer look!

Develop a User-Centric Strategy

Before you take action, examine your current onboarding process and set priorities. Your onboarding process should be guided by your customers’ challenges, goals & needs. So it’s of utmost importance to keep them in mind. 

To get started, ask yourself:

  • What’s the goal of your customer onboarding process?
  • What are your customers’ goals, at that onboarding stage?

Let’s look into these questions.

What's the goal of your SaaS customer onboarding process? 

SaaS customer onboarding shouldn't be primarily focused on getting customers to sign up or pay for your product. From the outset, focus on retaining customers and setting them up for long-term success. To achieve this, we advise you to pay close attention to your metrics and client feedback. Identify patterns among customers who stay with your products and those who churn. Account for those patterns to prevent churn from the get-go.

What are your customers' goals?

For starters, SaaS customer onboarding should focus on making sure the client achieves their version of success. You can learn about your customers’ goals by either asking them why they signed up or capitalizing on insights from your best customers. 

Once you define your customers’ goals, you can start segmenting them and addressing them accordingly. Make sure your customers see your product’s value as early as possible.

Communicate with Potential Customers

Having personal contact with your potential customers is key. Especially in your startup’s early days. Before your potential customer signs up, we highly suggest you have a 1-on-1 conversation with them. 

This is a great opportunity to:

  • Set clear expectations
  • Build credibility 
  • Get insights about their concerns and hesitations
  • Address any questions that may cause friction

Additionally, all the information you gather during these interactions will be greatly beneficial to your sales and product team.

Leverage User Data

Onboarding a customer after a long sales process? It’s key to make sure the experience you provide aligns with what your company already knows about them. 

As Katie Timms points out: “Your customer may have spoken to various people during the sales cycle. It’s therefore important to make sure consistent information flows between teams. And it’s crucial to give your customers a seamless experience, as no one likes to feel passed around, repeating themselves to different people. This causes a fractured experience that does not inspire confidence.” 

Keep the Momentum

In most cases, your customers will be happy with their choice and eager to try out their new software. This is the perfect time to encourage their enthusiasm and build off of that momentum. However, it can be a challenge.

As a result, it’s important to build a connection with the new customers so they can get to their first aha moment quickly. You should aim to achieve this before any buyer regret sets in or they become distracted and postpone using your product.

Katie Timms notes that “People are busy, and your product solves a real-world problem for them. Remind them of that and offer guidance and support. Some customers need more help than others to take their first step.”

Identify Critical Moments 

You may have written a great email sequence or created intuitive in-app guidance. But, if you haven’t defined the milestones that customers should achieve to adopt your product successfully, you won’t know when you need to reach out with a helping hand. Thus, identifying critical moments in your SaaS onboarding process is vital. 

Considering that unsatisfied customers do not always complain, an effective way to learn where your customers might be struggling is by asking specific questions based on previous users’ behavior trends. 

You can collect data by:

  • An email asking specific questions after the first week of use
  • Surveys
  • Product analytics
  • Heat maps
  • Session recordings
  • And more

Provide the Right Information at the Right Time

You may be tempted to provide a ton of product information on your new customers all at once. This is not only unnecessary but also overwhelming for a first-time user.

Instead, it’s key to make the customer onboarding process digestible. And a great way to do so is by:

  • Prioritizing features and introducing them gradually
  • Breaking the onboarding process into concrete steps

 Customers are looking for a solution to specific problems, not for dozens of features. 

Therefore, focusing on your product’s key features will:

  • Help your user re-assess and confirm that your product is a good fit
  • Take an active role in their onboarding process
  • Start experimenting with your product in a way that's useful to them

Otherwise, a new user may delay signing up or simply get distracted by all the new information. Ultimately, either option would lead to the user losing interest.

Moreover, it’s also highly advisable to break down the onboarding process into multiple stages, with a few steps in each of them. Plus, don’t forget to allow customers to skip steps if they want to. 

“Break onboarding down and use data to reach out with the right message at the right moment”, Katie recommends, “It comes back to those milestones, don’t overcomplicate it. Pick a key action and track if customers complete the tasks to get there. When they fall behind, that’s your trigger to reach out with helpful information and encouragement”.

Don’t Cater to Your Average User

Don't assume your entire user base shares the same goals or needs. Instead:

  • Ask your users about their needs, motivations & expertise
  • Let those insights inform your user personas
  • Segment your onboarding experience by user persona

The Best Onboarding Software for Startups

As Katie Timms points out:

“Engaged customers want to give feedback, they want to share their thoughts. That will inform your product roadmap, ultimately driving you to build more features and keep solving their problems. To start with this might be on individual calls, or having a place in your product where they can easily leave feedback.”

It’s important to keep track of how your users interact with your platform. And it’s equally important to make them feel seen and listened to. So, in this section, we’ll share three types of tools:

  • Platforms that will help you analyze user behavior during onboarding and beyond
  • Tools that will enable you to personalize your onboarding experience 
  • Tools to ask for direct feedback during onboarding

Are you building or reconsidering your onboarding stack? We recommend you check out these 9 tools:

  • Hotjar
  • Mixpanel
  • Heap
  • Chameleon
  • Optimizely
  • Appcues
  • UserGuiding
  • UserPilot
  • UserFlow

Let’s take a closer look.

Hotjar

Hotjar enables you to keep track of how your users interact with your platform. Teams rely on Hotjar for:

  • Heatmaps
  • User activity recordings
  • Feedback surveys

Implementing HotJar during user onboarding will allow you to:

  • Detect where your users struggle
  • Spot trends
  • Get first-hand insights into the quality of your onboarding experience

Hotjar offers a free plan for up to 1,050 sessions per month. Unlimited heat maps are included, but user data can't be segmented or filtered. Paid plans go as follows:

  • Plus starts at $32/month
  • Business starts at $80/month
  • Scale, an enterprise-level solution whose pricing isn’t public

Mixpanel

Mixpanel is an analytics tool for digital products. It’s extremely versatile, and it allows teams to:

  • Fully customize their data gathering according to their business goals
  • Create custom reports
  • Enrich data instantly, without consuming engineering resources
  • Integrate their existing data

Mixpanel is very robust security-wise. Data governance and privacy are two of the platform’s key selling points.

While Mixpanel can be an amazing tool for monitoring your user onboarding, it’s complex and has a steep learning curve.

Mixpanel offers a generous free plan. Its Growth plan starts at $25/month and includes:

  • Advanced data analysis
  • Unlimited reporting
  • Email support

Mixpanel’s Enterprise plan gives teams full control over their data, thanks to its data classification features. This plan only comes with custom pricing.

Heap

Heap is an insights platform that helps you keep track of how your users interact with your product. Aside from automatically capturing relevant data, Heap uses data science to spot moments of friction and opportunity. Even across untracked data points.

Some of Heap's key features include:

  • A data science approach to uncovering user behavior
  • Recordings and replay for every user session
  • Over 100 integrations

All in all, Heap is an excellent tool for getting insights at scale and making data-driven decisions.

Heap offers a limited free plan and four plans with on-demand pricing.

Chameleon

Chameleon is a no-code platform that empowers marketing and design teams to design and strategically embed interactive content into the user experience.

Teams use Chameleon to design:

  • Microsurveys
  • Checklists, help menus, and release notes
  • Tooltips that help users make the most out of every feature
  • Product tours

In short, Chameleon makes it easier to enrich a user’s experience of your product without overwhelming your development team.

Chameleon’s pricing will increase as your user base grows. Pricing for under 2k monthly users starts at:

  • $279/month for the Startup plan
  • $999/month for the Growth plan

Chameleon’s enterprise plan doesn’t have a publicly available price. It includes a multi-product account, localization, and user permissions, among other features.

Optimizely

Optimizely is a CMS made to deliver interactive and highly-personalized content experiences. Like other platforms in this list, Optimizely isn’t specific to the user onboarding process. But its A/B testing and web experimentation features can help you to test and optimize your onboarding flow.

While Optimizely is presented as a single product, its features are rather modular. The platform’s content management system has publicly available pricing. But the rest of the tools don’t. 

Appcues

Appcues is an award-winning tool that lets you create onboarding flows in just a couple of minutes.

Here’s what you need to know about Appcues:

  • It makes it easy to measure product usage and adoption over time
  • It offers integrations with multiple tools (such as Salesforce, Heap & Hubspot)
  • It doesn’t require programming expertise
  • Appcues supports flow segmentation by user persona
  • Appcues includes collaborative features 
  • The platform offers expert support & resources

Appcues’ pricing varies according to the size of your user base. The pricing for 2.5k monthly active users is as follows:

  • $249/month for the Essentials plan
  • $879/month for the Growth plan
  • A custom quote for the Enterprise plan

UserGuiding

UserGuiding is a no-code tool for building self-serve user onboarding processes.

UserGuiding’s best features include:

  • The ability to set up a resource center
  • Personalized customer onboarding flows for different user personas
  • Feedback collection through NPS surveys
  • Onboarding checklists
  • Highly customizable flow designs

When billed yearly, Userguiding’s pricing goes as follows:

  • The Basic plan starts at $69/month
  • The Professional plan starts at $299/month
  • The Corporate plan starts at $499+/month

Userpilot

Userpilot is a tool that helps teams to personalize their in-app experience. Onboarding flows included.  

Some of Userpilot’s noteworthy features are:

  • Streamlined sign-ups
  • User persona-specific onboarding experiences
  • The ability to add contextual hints and tips throughout the onboarding process
  • In-app marketing tools
  • Scalable, on-demand assistance
  • Growth analytics
  • In-app micro surveys to collect customer feedback at scale

Userpilot’s pricing varies according to your number of monthly active users. When billed annually, it goes as follows:

  • The Traction plan covers up to 2.5k monthly active users and starts at $249/month
  • The Growth plan includes 2.5k - 10k monthly active users and starts at $499/month
  • The Enterprise plan, recommended for over 10k monthly active users, starts at $1000/month    

UserFlow

UserFlow lets you build dynamic and highly-customized onboarding flows.

Here’s what you need to know about UserFlow:

  • It offers an intuitive, highly visual no-code workflow
  • It only takes a couple of minutes to build an onboarding flow
  • You don’t need any coding skills to design on UserFlow
  • UserFlow works with all frameworks
  • It has a 5x-10x smaller code footprint than similar products
  • UserFlow helps you create onboarding checklists
  • It tracks when and how users interact with onboarding flows

UserFlow’s monthly pricing goes as follows:

  • The Startup plan costs $250/month
  • The Pro plan starts at $750/month
  • Enterprise plans don’t have public pricing, but you can easily request a quote

Take Control of Your SaaS applications with Cledara

In this post, we dove into why your customer onboarding process matters and how to turn it into a competitive advantage.

But, there’s another type of onboarding that makes a huge difference at your startup: Your employee onboarding. How do you onboard new team members? Is it a smooth process? How long does it take you to give them access to the tools they need? 

With Cledara, you can reduce unnecessary software spending while streamlining your employee onboarding process.

Cledara enables you to:

  • Get a comprehensive view of all your software subscriptions
  • Easily manage platform access and seats across your SaaS stack
  • Unsubscribe from unnecessary subscriptions with just one click
  • Make sure that tools are accessible to everyone who needs them
  • Simplify your employee onboarding and offboarding processes quickly, while protecting your data
  • And more 

Take control of your SaaS stack and simplify your employee onboarding with Cledara. Book a demo today.

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Jenny Liu
Head of Finance @ Marshmallow