You may have heard that it costs 5-25 times more to gain a new customer than keep an existing one. (Quite honestly, no matter how many times we hear it, it’s still a mind-blowing figure!) Numbers aside, hardly anyone will argue against the importance of cultivating customer loyalty. Loyal customers are vital to any business. Loyal customers are more likely to try out newly-launched products, write gushing reviews, and tell their friends and family about you.
Yet, keeping customers isn’t an easy task — especially in the highly-saturated tech industry. According to a study about customer retention for apps, less than 25% of app users open an app for the second time.
So, how do you encourage your customers to stick around? It all starts with the customer onboarding experience. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what it takes to onboard new users to your software successfully.
What is customer onboarding?
Customer onboarding is the process of getting new customers set up with your product or service. During this stage in the customer experience, new customers become acquainted with how to use your product, where your product fits into their lives, and the value your product can offer them. Software companies also refer to this process as user onboarding.
Keep in mind that customer onboarding experience looks different for every industry — and that what we cover here is specifically geared towards SaaS businesses. We’ll use the words “product,” “software,” and “service” interchangeably.
When does the customer onboarding process begin?
The answer to this question is one that’s often debated — with some folks asserting that the onboarding process starts with the very first interaction between the customer and the company (like when the customer sees your ad for the very first time). For our purposes, the moment a person actually signs up for the service is the moment they enter the onboarding stage.
We also want to note that for other industries, onboarding often starts when a prospect becomes a paying customer. But with many software companies offering free trials versions of their digital products, onboarding doesn’t need a credit card to begin. Rule of thumb: A customer’s onboarding journey starts as soon as they create an account — that’s when they’re actually opting in to become a new user.
Important terms to know
There are a couple terms that will be helpful to know when talking about customer onboarding: churn rate and the customer’s “aha” moment. Even if you’re familiar with these concepts, let’s do a brief recap.
- Churn rate: Churn rate, also called attrition rate, is the rate that a business loses customers. It’s one of the most important metrics when it comes to the SaaS business models. A simple way to calculate your churn rate is to take the number of lost customers and divide it by the total number of customers.
- Customer’s “aha” moment: Think back to a time when you just started using a new app for the first time. It took you a bit of time to get acclimated to the user interface, the core features, etc… but at some point, everything clicked. It’s best described as a moment of delight — when you suddenly experience firsthand the benefit of using the product. This is the “aha” moment that every company should be striving for during the onboarding process. The earlier your customer experiences this moment, the better. They’re more likely to open your app again, make it part of their daily workflow, whatever the case may be. In other words, “aha” leads to engagement.
What does customer onboarding involve?
Since the main goal of the customer onboarding process is to get the customer set up to use your product, the components will be, for the most part, educational. For software companies specifically, customer onboarding often involves some variation of the following:
- Account activation
- A welcome email sequence
- Video tutorials
- App introduction (you know, that guided product tour that you’ve probably seen after opening a new app)
- For customer onboarding across an entire enterprise, the process typically involves IT personnel helping to get the system in place
Alongside teaching your new customers how to get started using the software, the onboarding process will likely involve data onboarding. Data onboarding is the process of transferring the customer’s existing data onto the new system (your software).
This isn’t always necessary. But if your customer was using a comparable software before, then they might want to transfer their data over from their previous tool. Or if the functionality of your software depends on your user entering data (i.e. their preferences, personal information, files), then you’ll need to include data onboarding in the overarching onboarding process.
Why is customer onboarding important?
- It sets the stage for the rest of the customer journey.
Before signing up to use your service, your customer most likely developed an impression of your company by hearing about you from other users, visiting your website or social media page, reading product reviews, and more. (Assuming that it was their personal decision to use your product, and not their company’s, they must’ve liked what they’d seen.) Once the customer onboarding process begins, it’s time for you to assure them that they made the right decision. One of the aims of onboarding is to prove that you can solve a specific pain point, prove that you can make their lives easier — in general, prove that you can add value to their lives.
- It teaches your customer how to use your product.
What core features do your users need to know in order to get started? How can your users start improving their lives now with the help of your product? These are the questions you must address during the onboarding process. Customer success — and thus, your success — depends on it. Even if your product’s platform and user interface is intuitive and easy to use, it’s still a good practice to walk your new users through the how-to. This means teaching them how to navigate the platform itself, the technical aspects of it, the functionality. It also means teaching them other information that might be relevant to your platform. Let’s say you’ve created an app that helps people meditate. If a user is a beginner to the practice of meditation, the onboarding process might include a walk-through of the basics of breathwork, mindfulness, and mantras, just for example.
- It teaches you about your customer.
Remember when we said that customer onboarding isn’t only about showing your customer how to use your product? Providing educational material like support articles and video tutorials is important, yes. But the onboarding process goes both ways; It also provides the perfect opportunity for you to get to know your customer. And when you know your customer, you’re better able to create products that make their lives better. For that reason, some companies might benefit from including a short survey for market research during the onboarding process (or shortly after).
- It’s the foundation for customer loyalty.
Remember: Gaining new customers is 5-25x more expensive than keeping the customers you already have. Nothing nurtures loyalty better than showing your customer that you have their back, that you won’t forget about them once they’ve said “yes” to your service or product, and that you’re invested in seeing them reap the benefits of your software. Without a smooth customer onboarding process, it simply doesn’t matter how many new customers you acquire. Your churn rate will soon exceed your growth rate.
We’ve made the case for why you should care about customer onboarding. Now, let’s talk about how to create an onboarding experience that serves both you and your customers.
7 tips to improve the onboarding experience
- Automate your welcome email sequence.
First things first: Yes, you should incorporate email into the customer onboarding process (even if you think email is an archaic way to communicate and you’d much rather Slack).
Second, automate your emails. This isn’t just about making the experience smoother for your customer. It’s also about making it smoother for you! And automating your email sequence is one of the best ways you could make it easier for you to onboard your customers.
Using marketing automation software like MailChimp, ConvertKit, or Hubspot means you have more energy and time to put towards being creative and solving problems (things that require an actual human!).
Don’t worry about losing the human aspect of your brand by automating your email. You can still maintain a personable brand even if you use automation. (Note: You don’t have to be a huge company to take advantage of automated onboarding. Even if you’re just starting out, you could start putting those systems in place now that’ll allow you to scale.)
- Test your customer onboarding process through A/B testing.
As you begin to piece together the components of the onboarding process, you might find yourself overwhelmed with options. Should you offer a product tour or let the user explore the app for themselves? How long should your support articles be? How many emails need to be in your welcome email sequence — and how spaced out should their delivery be?
The best way to make these tough decisions — with confidence — is through A/B testing. A/B testing is a way to take two options and compare how they perform with users. Through running elements of the onboarding process through A/B testing, you’ll be able to move forward with assurance.
- Gradually show your customer what you have to offer.
Be mindful of not overwhelming your new customers with too much information at the outset. At the very beginning, you want to show them what they need to get started. So, think about your core features. Ask yourself how you can nudge your customer towards their “aha” moment. As a reminder, the “aha” moment describes the moment your customer discovers the value of the product from firsthand experience. It’s the second the lightbulb goes off on their head — the moment they’re able to connect the benefit of your product to their own life. It should be a moment filled with delight.
During the customer onboarding process, your job is to spark this moment as early as possible — for two reasons. First, because you genuinely want to serve your customer and add value to their lives. And two, because you want them to keep coming back and using your product. In other words, you want to keep them engaged with your app or tool.
- Personalize the experience for your users.
These days, people aren’t looking for cookie-cutter choices. Users want to feel heard. So how do you personalize the experience for your customer? It will look different for every app. Your software might be designed to align with the user’s preferences with each use (like Netflix’s suggestions based on previous viewing history). But still, other apps might require user preferences right from the get-go. Even if the user is able to launch an app and see their name, that’s still a personalization that they’ll consider to be a nice touch. Again, personalization is something that you might be able to test through A/B testing.
- Make it as easy as possible.
The onboarding process should be simple and straightforward. Keep in mind that the reason your customer signed up for your service in the first place was to make their lives easier. If the onboarding experience is riddled with confusing jargon, too many steps, or any other complexities, the customer may decide it’s more trouble than what it’s worth. As you’re guiding new users through using your product, whittle it down to key components so that your customer can immediately start reaping the benefits of your amazing software.
- Don’t overlook the importance of your copy.
The words that you use in your welcome emails, video tutorial scripts, support articles…all of that is considered copy. And your copy makes a huge difference in your customer’s experience of the customer onboarding process. As you write and review your onboarding content, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is there any technical jargon that I can edit out? Any words that might create distance between the user and the service?
- Am I conveying the right brand tone?
- Am I valuing the user’s time by creating short and to-the-point content? Or am I being long-winded and adding unnecessary information?
Don’t stop with beautiful code and design. Finesse your copy with the same level of care. That ensures your customer is able to connect with you and your product.
- Offer a variety of onboarding material for different types of learners.
Even if you’re targeting a very specific individual for your product, remember that no two individuals are exactly the same. That’s why it’s important to provide a mixture of short- and long-form writing, video tutorials, live training sessions, and more. Some users may be happy to navigate your product on their own and make discoveries organically. Others may be happier to take a deep dive into your library of articles and learn your product inside and out. Cater for both types of learners!
To recap, customer onboarding is an important stage in the overall customer journey. The focus of this stage is to get new users set up with the product, which often means transferring their data from their previous software onto the new system and providing the materials/content that teaches new users how to use the product.
Customer onboarding is important because it reduces churn (the rate that customers stop using your product or service), which is one of the best metrics to determine your success. Remember that a successful onboarding process lays the ground for a successful customer experience. So, make sure that the customer onboarding experience is smooth, uncomplicated, and addresses all of your customers’ needs.