User Onboarding: Helping Customers Find Value

If your SaaS is struggling with drop-offs after sign up, poor conversions to a paid tier from a free tier, or cancellations after 90 days, you probably have an onboarding problem. Even high-touch enterprise SaaS businesses can point to onboarding issues if they experience a lot of non-renewals.

Many SaaS companies think of onboarding as an afterthought, but it plays a key role in retaining users. While the onboarding process is usually built and lead by a customer success professional (it’s a good idea to make your first customer success hire early), it requires coordination with product development teams.

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What is onboarding?

Many SaaS businesses make the mistake of defining onboarding as the point where a customer has reached some technical milestone. You might consider a user onboard once they upload a profile picture, fill out their account details, input their credit card, or integrate other services. But these milestones don’t impact the customer in any meaningful way because they don’t provide value.

Value is the heart of onboarding. Your customer doesn’t care about uploading a profile picture. They want to use your product to make their lives or work better/faster/cheaper/easier.

A customer is only onboard with your product once he receives some value from it. For this reason, most onboarding processes don’t take the customer far enough. They let go of the customer’s hand before he can realize that value.

The goal of your onboarding process should be to create a stress-free, easy-to-understand experience that walks your customer to the moment of first value. If the first experience is anything other than pleasant, the seeds of churn will already be planted.

Instead of focusing on retention, focus on value. Don’t build gimmicks that require your customers to click more buttons or time sinks so they spend more time within your app. Figure out what they consider valuable and give that to them, quickly and frequently. Retention will come from value.

What does a customer find valuable?

The next step is to figure out what the customer finds valuable. Ideally, this is something you learn early in your product’s development. If you haven’t identified your perfect customer yet or how your product will solve their problem, that’s alright, but you should steer your iterative development toward learning those answers.

Generally, what your customer finds valuable is whatever makes them successful. If they want to save money, your product needs to demonstrate that savings right away. If they want to save time or labor, your product needs to make those savings apparent.

In some cases, whatever your customer finds valuable could change over the course of their use of your product. As the customer grows, their business will change, and so will their metrics of success.

For example, people who use the email marketing tool MailChimp often begin with the product because it’s free. When they don’t have many email subscribers, a free plan is enticing. At this point, success means reducing costs. As their business grows and revenue increases, the cost savings become less important and success means getting the most out of the segmenting, automation and reporting features.

If your customers use your product in a similar way (where success means something different depending on a variable, such as subscriber count), you may have to make your onboarding process responsive to those conditions.

Determining what your customers find successful is as easy as asking (but like I said, do this early in your product’s development). Sit down with someone who represents your ideal customer and ask a few questions.

  • What is your desired outcome? What does “success” mean to you?
  • How would you (or your stakeholders) measure that success?
  • What are your goals with the product? (This question helps identify people who have expectations that you’ll never meet.)

When you speak with customers, keep in mind that you are trying to figure out what they value, not asking for functionality requests. Customer success expert Lincoln Murphy says it well: “You’re not asking them what they need or want (features, functionality, or even workflows) since they’ll just tell you what they’ve done before or what they wish they could have done; if you build end up simply being iterations on existing ways of doing things.”

What should an onboarding process look like?

Your onboarding process is technically part of your product, but it exists as its own layer. You should be able to adjust your onboarding process at any time without disrupting the core product’s core functionality.

This is all best explained with an example. Let’s say you own a social media scheduling SaaS. Your tool integrates with your customers’ social media accounts and posts on their behalf.

What would a customer consider valuable? Which action would add value to their life? In this case, it’s safe to assume the customer wants to schedule social posts. Filling out their account details and integrating their accounts might be part of the process, but the customer hasn’t realized any value until they’ve scheduled their first post.

Therefore, your onboarding process should drive the user to schedule a post quickly. Do you really need their full name, birthdate, and mobile phone number? I know these data points are important, but you could prompt the user to input them later once they’ve committed to the product.

Once the customer has logged in, they should only be required to perform the necessary steps to get to that moment of value. In this example, you just need them to integrate a social media account. Once that’s done, you’ve exposed the value.

Getting users to take the right steps is easier than you think. In-app tutorials that literally point to the next button work well. You can also use video demonstrations, pop-up tooltips, or triggered emails. Sometimes it’s as simple as making non-onboarding-related features inaccessible.

Wikipedia’s onboarding process tells users exactly what to click on next.

As the customer uses the product, that value should be continually reinforced. In the case of our example, the value is pretty simple. You want them to schedule more posts. Prompt the user to schedule another, but this time have them readjust the scheduling date, edit the post contents, or use some other related feature.

Your onboarding process should have a method of re-engaging users once they leave your application. In the case of our example, you could send an automated email once the social posting queue reached zero. The faster you reinforce the value of your product, the more likely you’ll turn the new user into a frequent user and avid customer.

If your product is more complex than our example, you might have multiple success milestones. This requires a keen understanding of your user. As the user reaches each milestone, you can become more aggressive with your sales messaging.

Use these automated emails to encourage your users to jump back into your product.

Learning from the onboarding process

Your onboarding process is another opportunity to learn about your customers and how they use the product. You can take information you learn and iterate on your product.

For instance, if you discover that users find a particular feature more valuable than the others, your onboarding process should lead users toward it and your development teams should prioritize fixes and improvements of that feature.

Finally, iterate your onboarding process just like your product, so you can improve customer retention

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