If customer success is the key to sustainable business growth, then customer onboarding is the key to long-term customer success. Whether you have a formal program in place or just a general idea of the information that needs to be relayed, if you have customers, you have a customer onboarding program.

Although customer onboarding as a service is increasingly recognized as a critical part of ongoing customer success, it is also one of the most difficult components for an organization to scale. As your customer base grows, it becomes more challenging to deliver a consistently excellent customer onboarding experience. Customer success managers (CSMs) have to spend an increasing amount of time on basic activities, while customers clamor for more resources.

A successful onboarding program ensures that each and every customer feels supported and prioritized. It means positioning your company as one that is dedicated to their individual success with your product.

Particularly in the early phases of onboarding, customers are eager to get started with your product or service and it’s your first opportunity to show each user how your product works, how it will benefit them, and why they should feel confident that they chose your product over your competitors’.

First impressions are lasting and companies that understand onboarding as a strategic process with a direct impact on customer success are better positioned for long-term product adoption than those who view onboarding as a one-stop formality to get users up and running. A successful onboarding program ensures that each and every customer feels supported and prioritized. It means positioning your company as one that is dedicated to their individual success with your product.

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 is typically understood as the process of integrating new employees into contributing members of a team or organization.  While this definition is accurate, it is limited in scope.

Onboarding relates not only to the skills internal employees need in order to be successful at their jobs, but also to your customers’ familiarity and comfort level when using your company’s technology. For example, if your company develops a customer relationship management (CRM) platform, you will struggle to drive usage and adoption if customers are not clear on how to use it 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 will enable your customers to effectively engage with your product over the long term. This includes both new customers just starting out with your technology, as well as existing users who may need training on new product features or integrations or refresher material they can refer back to as needed.

While virtually every organization can benefit from offering training during customer onboarding, there are a few use cases that 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 that will be 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 that customers will need a strong training program.

Value-Based Onboarding

The driving force behind a strong customer onboarding program is delivering value to your customers based on the specific needs of each user and taking into account their respective level(s) of knowledge. Onboarding content must communicate specific value to your users – in other words, 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 below diagram, investing in a customer onboarding program early can have an increasingly positive impact over the long-term:

Building or Refreshing Your Onboarding Program

Whether you are starting from ground zero or revitalizing an existing program, the first step in developing a successful customer education program requires that the key stakeholders and teams involved all be aligned and working towards a common set of goals. While goals vary from company to company, alignment ensures that teams are working in a complementary fashion without duplicating efforts or unintentionally optimizing for conflicting objectives. Some common customer onboarding and education goals that we see are:

  • Revenue generation,
  • Cost recovery,
  • Customer churn reduction,
  • Increase Customer Satisfaction score (CSAT),
  • Increase Net Promoter Score (NPS) and,
  • 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 and who will pull and analyze the data necessary to inform those materials?
  • 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 in order to begin the “test and iterate” process?

While customer onboarding and education is often relegated to a single team or department, an effective customer education strategy must also have executive buy-in, as well as on-the-ground, cross-functional partnerships in order to be successful. 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 competitor offerings and your company’s key differentiators
  • Executive leadership who oversee the health of the company and its clients

Onboarding Manager: In addition to these internal partners, an increasing number of customer success teams are creating dedicated onboarding specialists. We see this especially in products with higher price points, or that have complex implementation needs. This can be helpful for your new customers to have a single point of contact who is quarterbacking the project and prioritizing the drive towards a successful launch. This also frees up your other customer success managers to focus on account health, renewals, and upsells.

Onboarding Models

To design a great onboarding process, you first need to figure out which of the following three models fits your customer and product type. We like to use the metaphor of getting dinner, as described by Skilljar’s CEO, Sandi Lin, in her CS100 presentation.

  • The Self-Service Model
    • In the self-service world, you do everything on your own. You find a recipe, go to the grocery store, then cook and clean up. In this model, the user does everything on their own. In the SaaS world, an example of this would be buying a domain name or signing up for a music service. Companies with this type of model often have:
      • A simple product
      • A high volume of users
      • Freemium tier or low all-commodity volume (ACV)
      • B2C, Dev tools
  • The Low-Touch Model
    • The low-touch model is similar to a taco truck. The vendor supplies a few food options, but you still do a lot on your own. The options are limited, there’s no place to sit, and maybe you even get your beverages. This type of model is common in sales and marketing. For instance, someone may use Google Adwords, which requires some specialized knowledge but far less than, say, a full CRM implementation. Companies with this type of model often have:
      • A mildly complex product
      • Varied use cases
      • Some friction in adoption
      • SMB, small team users
  • The High-Touch Model
    • Finally, there’s the high-touch model, where you’re at a restaurant with the best menu and service, valet parking, and organic local gluten-free ingredients. This model aligns with businesses introducing new ways to use a product, as that requires education around best practices. One example of this might be surgeons using Google Glass. Companies with this type of model often have:
      • New product/behaviors
      • Extensive implementation
      • Many stakeholders involved
      • Enterprise users

Consider which of these models is the best fit for 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 from there.

Where companies run into challenges if there is a misalignment between what you think your customers want and how they actually behave when implementing your product. Remember, every team wants to scale, but not every product is self-service.

User Onboarding Learning Formats

Historically, there have been two common approaches to training customers. At one end of the spectrum, companies offer low-touch resources like written documentation, knowledge banks, and in-app tutorials. At the other end of the spectrum, high-touch options like office hours and instructor-led training are the main offerings. Each of these approaches have their own unique benefits and drawbacks. In today’s world though, the best training solution is often somewhere in between.

On-Demand, or self-paced training, is one of the most scalable ways to provide to provide customer education and is the format that 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 pick up and resume training at their own convenience, and review material as often as they like. Self-paced training is a valuable option for customers who have scheduling conflicts or just prefer to learn on their own terms. Building out specialized role-based training and advanced topics also gives customers the ability to self-select into exactly the areas they want to learn.

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: Great for providing a walk-through of a product’s interface or when it would be helpful to have a human explain a complex topic
  • Recorded screen-captures: Ideal for sharing step-by-step instructions for complex configurations or processes
  • Infographics (PDF): These are an opportunity to recycle existing marketing content for high-level overviews or fast facts
  • Slideshows: Another great way to repurpose content – in this case, consider uploading content that was previously used during in-person training
  • Quizzes & knowledge checks: These help students measure their level of understanding and can be a great way to keep them engaged with learning content

Providing access to on-demand training ultimately enables you to support more customers and create a faster onboarding process. By supplying your customers with the right content exactly when they are seeking it, you help build the customer relationship. A positive onboarding experience will lead to increased customer satisfaction, and pave the way for long-term customer success.

As your building your customer onboarding program, you may also consider Instructor-Led Training (ILT) as an educational format. Instructor-led training in virtual or physical classrooms is a long-standing delivery model for customer education. Whether it’s delivered at your company headquarters, on-site at the client, through a partner, or via WebEx, benefits of this format include:

  • Live instructors who can answer specific questions and tailor the training to the audience
  • Networking between students and with the instructor
  • Some students and subjects require instructor-led training

However, ILT and even V-ILT can be costly for both students and the company. Students often are required to spend multiple days and thousands of dollars out of the office. The company has to hire instructors and provide facilities and it is not necessarily scalable to all customers operationally, due to limited schedules and geographic constraints.

Another strategy to consider is that of blending ILT and on-demand training. In a blended learning scenario, most of the course material is provided online, live ILT sessions are held to discuss and clarify the material, and the trainee’s proficiency is measured through online assessments. A thoughtfully planned blended learning program can produce a powerful combination of instructor-led and self-directed learning. You can maximize instructor time, while ensuring that trainees not only absorb information, but are also able to apply and construct their own knowledge.

Reducing Costs with On-Demand Onboarding

From the cost perspective, on-demand training is a more efficient use of time and resources, when compared to ILT. The training material can be delivered indefinitely and scalably, so upfront costs expended on the initial design and creation of online learning materials can continue to provide value without requiring additional trainer time.

A self-service customer training option also means that your customers can get started right away. There’s no need to schedule live sessions or fly an instructor across the country. If your onboarding process is currently led by instructors, it’s likely you can highly reduce or even eliminate the hours required with your internal staff. For example, an onboarding process consisting of 4 hour-long instructor-led sessions could potentially 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, while also 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 retrain new internal staff.

Account vs. User-Level Onboarding

As you build out your customer success onboarding program, it’s important to keep in mind that your target audience is made up of people, not companies. While organizations generally sell, renew, and track adoption of their products or services at an account-level, when it comes to customer training, account-level onboarding does not take into consideration 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, or
  • End users who are evolving to become admin-level users

In order for an onboarding program to be successful, the education level must match the user’s level of maturity. In order to effectively address these different users, it’s important to consider using 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-based, visual and/or text-based coursework to serve users with content in their preferred learning style

Along with a user-focused mindset, a successful customer onboarding program is not a one-time event – it’s a continuous process that changes as customers advance and as new customers join the fold.

Risk-Scale Matrix for Customer Onboarding

User-maturity and knowledge are important personal characteristics, but they are not the only attributes to keep in mind when building a customer onboarding program. To promote product adoption behavior among users and accounts, we found that there are two additional company identifiers, risk and scale, that are the most critical guides for the strategic development of a customer onboarding program.

  • Risk refers to what could go wrong for the customer if you don’t have users and accounts 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 like 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 need to be onboarded. Does everyone in the customer account need to use this product or just a few select people?

Whether you are building a customer education and onboarding platform from scratch, or you’re exploring how to expand your current program, the Risk-Scale Matrix creates four onboarding models, or archetypes, that we use to determine the type of onboarding experience your users need.

Risk Scale Matrix

  • High Scale, High Risk: In this instance, you have many end-users (high scale) 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 that are regulated by HIPAA. If your product contains this type of 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 quadrant reflects a situation where there are many users and the goal is broad adoption and behavioral change. In other words, this is a system that 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 tool
  • 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 not important, 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, your company may have characteristics that fit into multiple archetypes, and that’s okay! You may have multiple product lines or different types of users (administrative, enterprise, SMB, etc.) across your client base. Just remember, the characteristics that define each model are based on a specific use case and/or user role, not necessarily your company as a whole.

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), consider the following:
    • 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 (V-ILT) 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 maximize knowledge dissemination in an efficient manner
    • 1:many V-ILT sessions increase general knowledge, particularly among geographically disparate users
    • In-product walk-throughs 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, but isn’t accompanied by the same level of risk
    • Live training curriculums bring expert trainers  directly to the end-user and ensure a customized, relevant training experience
    • Rigorous certification processes make sure users not only theoretically know how to use your product, but that they are actually using it correctly in practice
  • 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 enables different uses 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 cadence of training, always remember that the key to product adoption is establishing clear value early on.

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. There are two broad types of metrics we recommend tracking, Program-Optimization Metrics and Business Impact Metrics

Program optimization metrics reflect the current state of your customer education program. Examples include: 

  • New Course Enrollments
  • Course Completions & Completion Rate
  • New Courses created or updated in a given time period
  • Backlog (course development progress based on quarterly or monthly needs)
  • Smile Sheets: 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 the above can be invaluable in helping you adapt 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 then accordingly adapt your marketing tactics and the creation of new content and courses. 

Business impact metrics measure the impact 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 given company and how leadership thinks of training as a lever in the customer journey. For some organizations, training is primarily a lever to improve customer retention, renewals and upsells. Other companies care more about reducing costs, or increasing product usage. All of these outcomes have financial benefits. 

To measure the ROI on 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 reduced costs. For example, a strong proactive training program will often aid in support ticket deflection. Tracking the number of support tickets per customer or support tickets per topic over time can help demonstrate the impact of a training program that addresses 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 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.

What is an LMS?

Given the complexity of building, maintaining, and growing a customer onboarding program, more and more companies are turning to external learning platforms to deliver online training to their customers and partners, and it’s easy to see why. Utilizing this type of learning management system (LMS) comes with a host of benefits for all involved– users get a streamlined learning experience and companies are able to exercise greater control over the delivery of training materials. An LMS also automates many tasks related to recordkeeping and user registration, which conserves time and resources for your company. 

Not only does an LMS streamline and standardize the customer learning experience, it also helps your employees, from all different teams, maximize their productivity and efficiency, an important callout when discussing your customer education program with executives. A few examples of how an LMS can support broader company goals:

  • Customer Success Teams can shift from addressing the numerous time-consuming “how-to” support questions and delve into more complex customer questions and support needs
  • Sales Teams can utilize built-in integrations with Salesforce and Marketo to create multi-phase, data-driven nurture streams for more customized prospect outreach
  • Finance Teams can directly correlate the costs associated with training and the resulting revenue, and ensure that the relationship is a positive one. An LMS can be particularly helpful when it comes to revenue recognition and data consolidation.
  • Legal Teams can feel confident that the dissemination of information to customers is standardized and compliant
  • Executives will be assured that customers are receiving a high standard of product training and education, which in turn forms the foundation for high renewal and expansion rates

For more information about learning management systems, check out our handy guide: What is an LMS? 

Why You Need an LMS Tailored for External Learners

It’s not unusual for companies to have a dedicated platform for internal employee onboarding, but 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 be able 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 CTP can host?
  • Security: If your user base expands significantly, can the platform support single-sign-on (SSO) or other safeguards?

2. Friendly user-experience: This is particularly relevant since learners typically engage with content voluntarily. Customers are more likely to both complete coursework and come back for more depending on how intuitive and user-friendly your LMS happens to be.  Consider the following features in the evaluation process:

  • Intuitive Learning Pathways: Less is more when it comes to the number of clicks users must take to get to their desired piece of content. The user should be able to get from Point A to Point B in the most direct manner.
  • Customization: Homepages that reflect an individual user’s coursework and learning path ensure they remain focused, while in-product offerings like feature tips and tricks to keep the user engaged.
  • Searchability: Users need a resource that is easily searchable so they can 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 forms – whether through infographics, slideshows or recorded webinars – hosting different formats best serves various users’ needs.
  • Self-registration: Are users able to sign up for coursework on their own and based on their own schedule? In some cases, such as if training is a required part of a role, this feature may not be as essential, but as your Customer Training Program grows, your content offerings will likely change as well.

3. Interoperability: Does the learning platform integrate with other customer-facing systems? Customer education teams do not exist in a vacuum – they often also report into sales, customer success, finance, and other departments. Therefore, an effective LMS is one that integrates with your other systems of record, 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: Advanced analytics capabilities enable you to see the complete customer training path. Whether you are measuring user engagement, product adoption rates, or looking into commonly asked questions, data analyses help demonstrate the impact of training on customer adoption, retention, and renewals. Robust analytics can also elucidate the strengths and weaknesses of your training content and drive business insights. 

Concluding Thoughts

As we’ve seen a shift from the on-premises to cloud-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) model, we’ve also seen a shift in how companies think about customer health and its impact on company success. The difference between positive and negative churn can mark the difference between successfully growing your business or struggling to stay afloat. Getting customer onboarding right is a preventive measure that can have a meaningful and lasting impact on churn.

Interested in learning more about Skilljar? Check out the resources below.  

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