Even though the importance of customer onboarding is widely recognized, it’s difficult for organizations to scale. 90% of customer experience teams acknowledged the challenge of figuring out where to start when it comes to improving customer experiences. As your customer base grows, delivering an excellent customer onboarding experience becomes harder.
Several factors may make customer onboarding tough, such as complex products with many advanced functionalities, lack of clear documentation, integration challenges, and cumbersome user interfaces. This article will explore various onboarding models, ways to improve your current program, customer onboarding best practices, and more.
Whether this sounds like what your company has in place, or what you aspire to develop, continue reading to learn about building a strong user onboarding experience.
What is Customer Onboarding?
Onboarding typically refers to integrating new employees into an organization. While this definition is accurate, it’s limited in scope.
Onboarding is not just an internal process. Externally, it relates to your customers’ familiarity and comfort level with using your company’s technology. For example, if your company offers a customer relationship management (CRM) platform, you’ll struggle to drive usage and adoption if customers aren’t clear on what it can do and how they derive value from the product.
This is where our broader definition of onboarding comes into play:
Onboarding refers to the training and educational activities that enable your customers to engage with your product over the long term effectively. This includes new customers just starting with your technology, and existing users who may need training on new product features, integrations, or refresher material they can refer back to as needed.
While virtually every organization can benefit from training during customer onboarding, a few use cases are especially relevant.
- Pay-for-performance products: Faster onboarding time is crucial to start generating revenue.
- Products that require group adoption: Providing training for a team collaborating on a product, such as project management software, is the best way to ensure successful adoption for team success.
- Business-critical products: When accurate adoption is crucial to customer success, such as implementing a new accounting package or analytics software, onboarding training is imperative to ensure a smooth transition.
- Products that target individuals or SMBs: With a large customer base, a scalable and self-paced training option is important to accelerate customer adoption, maintain quality, deepen usage, and manage support costs.
- Complex products: The more complex the onboarding process, the more customers will need a strong training program.
Why is Customer Onboarding Important?
Customer onboarding is the initial interaction between a customer and a product. Creating a positive first impression during this phase helps set the tone for the customer relationship. A smooth onboarding process can lead to increased customer satisfaction. Remember, first impressions matter.
Onboarding is the best time to showcase the value of your product. New customers of your product must understand its features and benefits so they can get the most out of what they paid for. Effective onboarding increases the likelihood that customers will continue to use and derive value from the product.
Plus, a well-developed onboarding process minimizes potential confusion or challenges customers may face when using a new product. Companies can reduce friction and enhance the overall user experience by addressing questions and concerns early on.
5 Best Practices for Onboarding New Customers
Consider the best practices below when onboarding new customers:
- Identify onboarding responsibilities: Understanding who will deliver training is essential for efficient onboarding. For example, customer success managers usually handle customer onboarding in larger teams. However, in smaller teams, the onboarding process might involve more direct communication between the customer and any team members.
- Welcome communication: Start by sending a warm welcome message to your new customers. Clearly outline what they can expect during onboarding and emphasize your commitment to their success.
- Personalize the onboarding experience: Tailor onboarding plans for specific customer needs and goals. Assign a dedicated onboarding specialist to each user to guide them through the initial setup, answer questions, and address any concerns.
- Empower customers to help themselves: Build a self-serve help center within your platform. This centralized hub should contain FAQs, video tutorials, and troubleshooting guides so customers can find answers independently. Hosting it in-app ensures that customers don’t have to navigate away from your product, which minimizes distractions and maintains their focus. Customer self-service offerings also help to reduce support costs.
- Post-onboarding follow-up: After the initial onboarding process is complete, don’t consider it the end of your engagement. Instead, follow up with customers via in-app surveys or in-product messages to ask for feedback on their experience.
An effective customer onboarding plan aims to provide tailored value by addressing the user’s needs and knowledge level. Onboarding content must communicate specific value to your users—it must be clear why they should care about your product and how it will make their job easier.
As you can see in the diagram below, investing in a customer onboarding program early can have a positive impact over the long term:
Building or Refreshing Your Onboarding Program
Whether you’re starting from scratch or updating an existing program, the first step to developing a successful Customer Education program is for the key stakeholders and teams involved to be aligned and working towards a common set of goals.
While specific goals differ among companies, alignment ensures teams work together efficiently, avoiding duplicated efforts and unintentional conflicts in objectives. Some common customer onboarding and education goals are:
- Revenue generation
- Cost recovery
- Customer churn reduction
- Increased customer satisfaction score (CSAT)
- Increased net promoter Score (NPS)
- Improved upsell
Once goals are defined, it’s time to get tactical and establish how these objectives can be achieved. Some important questions to consider:
- Who will be responsible for content creation?
- Which stakeholders will oversee the direction and content creation for the platform?
- Who will lead the program once it is off the ground?
- What is a minimum viable launch to begin the “test and iterate” process?
While customer onboarding and education are often relegated to a single team or department, an effective Customer Education strategy must also have executive buy-in and on-the-ground, cross-functional partnerships to succeed. These partners include:
- Engineers and developers who bring new features to life and can help troubleshoot specific user questions or concerns
- Product Managers who know the ins and outs of your application and its capabilities better than anyone
- Implementation Managers who most closely understand the customer enablement process
- Customer Success team members who want to ensure that training is relevant and useful for their customers’ specific needs
- Sales Managers who regularly engage with prospects and understand competitive offerings and your company’s key differentiators
- Executive Leadership who oversee the health of the company and its clients
Onboarding Manager: Besides these internal partners, many customer success teams are creating dedicated onboarding specialists, especially for products with higher price points or complex implementation needs.
These specialists serve as a central point of contact for new customers, managing the project and ensuring a successful launch. This role helps free up your other customer success managers to focus on account health, renewals, and upsells.
Key Components of Customer Onboarding
Here are the components of customer onboarding:
- Welcome communication: Initiate contact with the customer and thank them for using your product. Some tools to consider are personalized welcome emails and on-screen messages.
- Product orientation: Familiarize customers with the main features and functionalities of your product or service. Demos and walkthroughs may be helpful.
- User account setup: Assist customers with creating and customizing their accounts to help them onboard faster. Offer a straightforward account creation process with clear instructions, password guidance, or profile customization options.
- Education and training: Provide educational resources to help customers understand how to make the most of your product. Use knowledge base articles, a dedicated FAQ section, video tutorials, or live training sessions.
- Personalized onboarding journeys: Tailor the onboarding experience based on the customer’s preferences. Use data analytics to customize the onboarding journey, such as recommending specific features based on user behavior.
- Feedback collection: Gather insights from customers about their onboarding experience to identify areas for improvement. Create post-onboarding surveys and direct communication with users to collect insights.
- Customer assistance: Provide readily accessible support channels to address customers’ questions or concerns during onboarding. Make sure you have live chat and email support implemented by default.
To design a great customer onboarding process, you first need to figure out which model best fits your customer and product type.
In the self-service age, people are used to doing things on their own using technology. You find a recipe online, go to the grocery store, then cook and clean up. For SaaS companies, an example of this would be buying a domain name or signing up for a streaming service. Companies that choose to offer a self-service model often have:
- A product that is easy to use
- A high volume of users
- A freemium tier of products (accessible for free to try the product out)
A low-touch onboarding model refers to a process in which minimal direct assistance from human agents is required to guide users or customers through the onboarding experience. This type of model is common in sales and marketing. For example, someone may use Google Adwords, which requires specialized knowledge, but far less than a full CRM implementation. Companies with this type of model often have or are:
- A mildly complex product
- Varied use cases
- Some friction in the adoption process
- SMBs or have small team users
Finally, there’s the high-touch model. This model aligns with businesses introducing new ways to use a product, which requires education around best practices. Companies with this type of model often have:
- New products or behaviors to introduce
- An extensive implementation process
- Many stakeholders involved
- Enterprise users
Consider which of these models best fits your customers and product. Also, don’t worry if you have customers in multiple categories. Identify your priority customer base first, then build out your strategy.
User Onboarding Learning Formats
In the past, companies had two ways to teach customers. One was through low-touch methods like written guides and in-app tutorials. The other was high-touch methods like office hours and instructor-led training. Nowadays, the best training usually combines elements of both.
On-demand or self-paced training is one of the most scalable ways to provide Customer Education and is the format most adult learners prefer today. Compared to instructor-led training, on-demand training is available to customers anywhere and anytime. There are no restrictions on time zones, geographies, room capacity, or availability of instructors.
Users can complete the training at their convenience and review material as often as possible. Self-paced training is a valuable option for customers with scheduling conflicts or who prefer to learn independently rather than in a group setting. Offering specialized role-based training and advanced topics also allows customers to select the areas they want to learn about.
With this type of training, users often learn faster and more effectively, leading to higher product adoption, engagement, and long-term retention.
Formats of on-demand training include:
- Recorded webinars: Provide a walk-through of a product’s interface or when it would be helpful to have a human provide a demo to explain a complex topic.
- Recorded screen captures: Share step-by-step instructions for complex configurations or processes.
- Infographics (PDF): Recycle existing marketing content for high-level overviews or fast facts.
- Slideshows: Repurpose existing content from an in-person event by uploading the presentation as a training offering.
- Quizzes and knowledge checks: Help students measure their level of understanding and keep them engaged with learning content
Offering on-demand training allows you to assist more customers and simplify the customer onboarding strategy. You strengthen the customer relationship by giving your customers the right content at the right time. A positive onboarding experience will increase customer satisfaction and lay the foundation for long-term success.
Virtual, Instructor-led, and on-demand training
When developing your customer onboarding program, consider incorporating Instructor-led training (ILT) as an educational method. Whether it’s delivered at your company headquarters, on-site at a customer, through a partner, or via WebEx, benefits of this format include:
- Instructors who can answer specific questions and tailor the training to the audience
- Networking between students and the instructor
- Some students and subjects require instructor-led training
When the pandemic hit, many companies turned to Virtual Instructor-Led Training (VILT) to continue their training efforts online. However, ILT and VILT can be costly for students and the company. The company has to hire instructors and provide facilities, and it may not be possible for all customers to attend due to limited schedules and geographic constraints.
Another strategy to consider is blending ILT and on-demand training, in which learners access pre-recorded sessions according to their own schedule. In a blended learning scenario, most of the course material is available online, live ILT sessions can be held to discuss and clarify the material, and the trainee’s proficiency can be measured through online assessments.
A well-planned blended learning program can be a powerful combination. You can maximize instructor time while ensuring that trainees absorb information and apply their knowledge.
Reducing Costs with On-Demand Onboarding
From a cost perspective, on-demand training is a more efficient use of time and resources than ILT. The training material can be delivered on an ongoing basis and is easily scaled to reach larger groups as your company grows. Therefore, upfront costs for the initial design and creation of online learning materials can be amortized over time without requiring additional instructor hours.
A self-service customer training option also means your customers can get started immediately. There’s no need to schedule live sessions or fly an instructor across the country. If instructors currently lead your onboarding process, you can likely significantly reduce or even eliminate the hours required of them.
For example, an onboarding program of four one-hour instructor-led sessions could be reduced to zero or one session, while producing the same results. Customers using Skilljar have reported tripling their training productivity with the same headcount, freeing customer success managers (CSMs) to focus on customer health rather than delivering basic and repetitive training.
Providing a self-paced training option also saves on long-term support and retraining costs. Customers can easily refer back to the training course to refresh their memory or train new employees.
Account vs. User-Level Onboarding
As you build your customer success onboarding program, it’s important to remember that your target audience is made up of people, not companies. While organizations generally sell, renew, and track the adoption of their products or services at an account level, when it comes to customer training, account-level onboarding does not consider user-level maturity.
Within every organization, there are a variety of maturity levels that require different types of onboarding, including:
- New users on new accounts
- New users on existing accounts
- Mature buyers (who may be repeat purchasers) on new accounts
- End users who become admin-level users
For an onboarding program to be successful, the education level must match the user’s level of maturity. To effectively address these different users, consider offering multiple types of training, such as:
- In-product training, such as pop-ups and standalone courses outside the product to connect with users where they are
- Audio, visual, and text-based coursework to serve users with content in their preferred learning style
A successful customer onboarding program isn’t a one-time event—it’s a continuous process that changes as customers advance and new customers join the fold.
Risk-Scale Matrix for Customer Onboarding
User maturity and knowledge are important characteristics, but they aren’t the only factors to consider when building a customer onboarding program. To promote product adoption among users, there are two additional company identifiers that are the most critical guides for the strategic development of a customer onboarding program: risk and scale.
- Risk refers to what could go wrong for the customer if they are not properly educated.
- Examples: Improper access to sensitive information, ability to cause organizational mayhem, physical danger, and/or legal implications
- Scale measures how broadly your product is adopted and how different those adoption behaviors look across your user base. Scale can be further broken down into two components: frequency of usage and reach.
- Frequency of usage refers to how often the average user engages with a product: Is it used throughout the day, every day? Or just once in a while? Put another way, are you trying to develop new work habits among your user base, or are you solving a more specific problem?
- Reach is the number of users in an account that needs to be onboarded. Does everyone in the customer account need to use the product, or just a few select people?
Whether you are building a Customer Education and onboarding platform from scratch or exploring how to expand your current program, the Risk-Scale Matrix has four onboarding models, or archetypes, that can be used to determine the type of onboarding experience your users need.
- High Scale, High Risk: In this instance, many end-users (high scale) are in a regulated environment (high risk). This category encompasses business-critical systems where error can result in injury, legal risk, or other catastrophes.
- Example: Systems with medical data regulated by HIPAA. If your product contains this information and is not used correctly, your users could unintentionally release personal user data into the public domain, resulting in legal action against your company.
- High Scale, Low Risk: This archetype is where there are many users, and the goal is broad adoption and behavioral change. In other words, this system is critical to your users, but if someone makes a mistake, the consequence will not be life- or company-threatening.
- Examples: General business systems, communication, and collaboration tools
- Low Scale, High Risk: In this model, a select group of highly specialized users work with a system where error brings high risk. We often see these characteristics among highly technical roles.
- Examples: DevOps products, backend systems, or specialized financial tools
- Low Scale, Low Risk: This last archetype reflects products that are highly customized and used by specialists, but user error will not cause a catastrophe. This does not mean that the product and onboarding requirements are unimportant, just that they serve a niche role.
- Examples: Software that runs individual programs like productivity applications for customer support agents, marketing analytics platforms, or hiring software
Keep in mind that your company may have characteristics that fit into multiple archetypes. You may have multiple product lines or different types of users (administrative, enterprise, SMB, etc.) across your client base. Remember, the characteristics defining each model are based on a specific use case and/or user role, not necessarily your company overall.
Connecting User Archetypes with Education
Now that we’ve defined the four onboarding models, it’s time to explore the types of educational content that best address the goals and needs of each archetype.
- For users in a high-scale, high-risk model (many end users in a regulated environment):
- Certification programs ensure that critical knowledge is absorbed and internalized
- Frequent, proctored assessments that mirror the certification requirements help maintain user knowledge
- Accessible, on-demand education offerings provide ongoing resources for both new and existing users to complete as needed
- Virtual instructor-led trainings provide extended education opportunities for more advanced topics
- For high-scale, low-risk users (many end users where the goal is broad adoption):
- Accessible, on-demand offerings efficiently maximize knowledge dissemination
- 1:many V-ILT sessions increase general knowledge, particularly among geographically disparate users
- Embedded product walkthroughs help users navigate through product features without requiring a separate onboarding course or leaving the tool
- Microlearning videos provide bite-sized, easily digestible user tips and tricks
- In a low-scale, high-risk situation (highly-specialized users where error brings high risk):
- Live labs enable users to problem-solve and learn in a simulation that replicates your product without the risk
- Live training connects expert trainers directly to the end-user for a customized, relevant training experience
- Rigorous certification processes make sure users not only know how to use your product but that they are using it correctly
- Last but not least, for those in the low-scale, low-risk model (products adopted by specialists that are highly customized but not mission-critical):
- On-demand training allows a variety of users in different roles to access the content that is most relevant to them
- Role-based email nurture campaigns provide inspiration and course recommendations customized to a user’s job function
Regardless of the method, mode, or training cadence, always remember that the key to product adoption is clearly establishing value early.
Measuring Success & Demonstrating ROI
As you build and scale your Customer Education program, you need metrics that help you gauge the engagement and effectiveness of your program. We recommend tracking two broad types of metrics: program optimization metrics and business impact metrics.
Program optimization metrics reflect the current state of your Customer Education program. Examples include:
- New course enrollment
- Course completion
- Course completion rate
- New courses created or updated in a given period
- Backlog (course development progress based on quarterly or monthly needs)
- End-of-course survey feedback that helps you identify the strengths and weakness of the training
- Most popular content based on views and completions
- Views, completions, and drop-off rates by content type
Course and content-level metrics like those above can be invaluable for adapting your education program. By analyzing how students interact with your content (i.e., how long and how often courses are accessed, the length of time videos are watched, and performance on assessments), you can identify trends to create more effective lessons.
These metrics can also help you assess if your program is reaching the right people and if the content is engaging. You can revise your marketing tactics and create new content and courses accordingly.
Business impact metrics measure the effect of your program on customer retention, lead generation, and revenue. For customer training, it’s typical to see organizations taking one of these three approaches to demonstrating ROI.
The approach depends on what is important to a company and how leadership thinks of training as a lever in the customer journey. Training is primarily a way to improve customer retention, renewals, and upsells for some organizations. Other companies care more about reducing costs or increasing product usage. All of these outcomes have financial benefits.
To measure the ROI of ongoing education for your business, consider the following metrics:
- Number of students enrolled in training
- Number of course completions/certifications
- Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) Score
- Net promoter score (NPS)
- Number of customer renewals/upsells
- Customer retention levels/churn rate
While many companies create an ROI story around training revenue, there is also a compelling case to be made around reducing costs. For example, a strong proactive training program often helps with support ticket deflection. Tracking the number of support tickets per customer or topic over time can demonstrate the impact of a training program addressing these areas.
Another key area, especially for software companies, is product usage. Increased product usage can lead to increased value for the customer, so it’s important to assess if training helps drive usage.
Once you have gathered the relevant data, you must share the insights with internal stakeholders to prove the value of your onboarding program (and perhaps request additional resources). Some of the ways Skilljar customers present their metrics to stakeholders include:
- Monthly Business Reports (MBRs) or Quarterly Business Reports (QBRs)
- Weekly emails that summarize key points for the leadership team
- Dashboards in Skilljar, Salesforce, or other platforms
- Monthly email newsletter with a spreadsheet
Regularly providing visibility into customer onboarding to executives is a critical step to ensuring that your program gets the buy-in and funding it deserves and is viewed as an important, beneficial component of the business.
Once you have gathered the relevant data points, it’s important to share your insights with internal stakeholders to prove the value of your onboarding program (and perhaps request additional resources). Some of the ways Skilljar customers present their metrics to stakeholders include:
- Monthly Business Reports (MBRs) or Quarterly Business Reports (QBRs)
- Drafting weekly emails that summarize key points and send to the leadership team
- Create dashboards in Skilljar, Salesforce or other platforms
- Share monthly email with a spreadsheet and accompanying newsletter
Providing opportunities for executive visibility into a customer onboarding on a regular basis is critical step to ensuring that your program is both given the buy-in and funding it deserves and is viewed as an important, beneficial component of the business.
Why You Need an LMS Tailored for External Learners
It’s not unusual for companies to have a dedicated platform for employee onboarding. Still, as external customer onboarding has become increasingly important, the same user needs do not necessarily apply. Rather than trying to adapt an internal LMS to an external audience, many companies are now choosing a best-of-breed approach by adopting an extended enterprise LMS like Skilljar.
When exploring LMS platforms to support your customer training program, there are four requirements to keep in mind:
1. Technically scalable: As your business grows and evolves, your LMS needs to support this growth without sacrificing functionality or reliability. When exploring technology offerings, the following questions can be helpful:
- User volume: How many users can the platform support concurrently? Can the platform maintain that level of support if your user population doubles? Triples?
- Content: Does the platform have the capacity to support multiple learning paths? Can content be easily added and/or refreshed? Is there a maximum amount of content that the platform can host?
- Security: Can the platform support single-sign-on (SSO) or other safeguards if your user base expands significantly?
2. User-friendly experience: This is particularly relevant since learners voluntarily engage with content. Customers are more likely to complete coursework and return for more based on how intuitive and user-friendly your LMS is. Consider the following features in the evaluation process:
- Intuitive navigation: Less is more regarding the number of clicks users must take to get to their desired content. The user should be able to get directly from Point A to Point B.
- Customization: Home pages that reflect an individual user’s coursework and learning path ensure they remain focused, while in-product offerings like feature tips and tricks keep the user engaged.
- Searchability: Users need a resource where it is easy to find what they need when they need it.
- Content agnostic: Not all users learn in the same way, so the platform should be capable of disseminating information through multiple formats—including infographics, slideshows, or recorded webinars—to serve various users’ needs best.
- Self-registration: Can users sign up for coursework independently and based on their preferred schedule? In some cases, this feature may not be as essential if hands-on training is mandatory for a role. But as your customer training program grows, your content offerings will likely expand and change as well.
3. Interoperability: Does the learning platform integrate with other customer-facing systems? Customer Education teams are not isolated—they often collaborate with sales, customer success, finance, and other departments. So, an effective LMS should fit seamlessly into your tech stack, spanning teams and departments. Common integrations for Customer Education data include:
- Customer relationship management (CRM) systems like Salesforce
- Marketing automation platforms like Marketo, HubSpot, and Pardot
- Customer success software like Gainsight and Totango
- Data and analytics platforms (further detail in the next section)
4. Analytics:You can track the entire customer training journey with advanced analytics. Whether checking customer engagement and product adoption rates or exploring frequently asked questions, analyzing data shows how training affects customer adoption, retention, and renewals. Robust analytics can also reveal the strengths and weaknesses of your training content and drive business insights.
Skilljar Has Your Customer Onboarding Software Solution
Skilljar is a customer training solution that helps you better onboard, engage, and retain your customers and partners. Skilljar provides a cloud-based learning management system that makes creating courses easy, distributing them to web and mobile devices, and tracking learner progress. Through Skilljar, companies accelerate product adoption, automate onboarding workflows, reduce support costs, and increase customer satisfaction.
Skilljar can support your broader company goals. For example, using Skilljar, your customer success teams can shift from addressing numerous time-consuming “how-to” support questions to delving into more complex customer questions and support needs. Sales teams can use built-in integrations with Salesforce and Marketo to create data-driven nurture streams for customized prospect outreach. Similarly, executives will be assured that customers get a high standard of product training, which in turn forms the foundation for high renewal rates.
Interested in learning more about Skilljar? Check out the resources below.
Want to learn more? Request a Skilljar demo to learn how the platform can help you build a smooth onboarding process and enable your customers to get up to speed with your product.