Ready for a wake-up call?
Seventy-four percent of potential customers said they'd switch to another solution if onboarding was complicated.
Meanwhile, 86% of customers said they'll remain loyal to a company if onboarding and ongoing education are in place.
Saying that customer onboarding is important feels like the understatement of the century.
Today, the onboarding stage of the customer journey is "make or break."
Getting it right is a necessity—because if you get it wrong, your customers will walk out the door.
Here's everything you need to know to deliver an effective and efficient customer onboarding program.
What's Customer Onboarding?
Customer onboarding is getting new users (customers) to realize the value of a product or service (time to value). The customer onboarding process starts immediately after the purchase and continues until the customer is comfortable and self-sufficient with the product or service.
Types of Customer Onboarding Content & Materials
You should tailor onboarding to the needs and learning preferences of your customers. That said, companies introduce similar content and material during the process.
- Meetings with customer success managers (CSMs)
- Sessions with implementation managers
- Product tours and tutorials
- Help center articles
There's no right or wrong format.
Of course, some formats are easier to deliver and more effective. For example, a lengthy webinar will likely have less impact than a video.
Similarly, a full-blown digital academy will outperform a traditional help center.
Should you use formats that deliver your customers a more effective and efficient onboarding experience?
But at the end of the day, if your customers find your content valuable and your time to value (TTV) is low, you're in good shape.
Why's Customer Onboarding Important?
The stats at the top of this article started to paint a picture of customer onboarding's importance.
But let's dive deeper.
Why, exactly, is customer onboarding so important?
People buy a product or service for something.
A Shopify customer expects the solutions to help them start, sell, market, and/or manage their online business.
A HubSpot customer using its Marketing Hub expects it to help them grow traffic, convert website visitors, and run their inbound marketing campaigns.
Someone using ahrefs, the popular SEO tool, wants their rankings improve.
There are more layers to these customer outcomes, but you get the idea. Someone buys something because they expect them to deliver value.
If it doesn't, satisfaction plummets and customer retention suffers.
A lot goes into delivering these outcomes, but the journey starts the second they sign the dotted line.
Here are a few more stats:
Customer Onboarding Stats
- 55% of people say they've returned a product because they didn't understand how to use it.
- 63% of customers consider the company's onboarding program when purchasing.
- 70% of customers say understanding how they use products and services is crucial to winning their business.
Your customers bought your product or service for a reason; start them off on the right foot with an onboarding program that introduces your product and shows them how to make it work for them.
How to Onboard Your Customers the Right Way
There's no right way to onboard your customers. There is a wrong way, though.
Not doing it at all or emailing new customers help center articles and letting them flap in the wind. That's the wrong way.
Your customer onboarding process will take shape based on a few factors:
- Your customers' needs
- The complexity of your product or service
- Internal resources (size of team, budget, and bandwidth)
That said, the steps you take will be largely the same regardless.
Here's how to build out a customer onboarding strategy that everyone will love:
Step 1: Set Goals
Start by outlining the goals of your customer nboarding program.
At the end of the onboarding process, what, exactly, do you want your customers to accomplish?
"Getting them to use my product" isn't a good answer.
While that's the overall goal, it's too broad and won't put your team—or customers—in a position to succeed; they won't have anything specific to work toward.
Instead, set specific goals:
- Use the product 5x times
- Complete two learning paths
- Get certified in X, Y, or Z feature.
You're trying to create behavior change.
Get your customers into your product or service and seeing value. With this baseline, you can move forward with confidence. Your customers can, too.
Know Your Customer
Resource and bandwidth permitting, the onboarding process should be personal.
I'll give you a real-world example:
Northpass uses HubSpot, but the use cases vary.
HubSpot's capabilities are wide, meaning it's almost a given that customers will have different goals and expectations. The onboarding process should follow suit.
- My goal: Understand the Marketing Hub. Specifically, how to post and measure blog articles.
- My colleague's goal: Understand the Services Hub and how to configure the help desk automation.
There can even be different use cases within specific teams.
Another member of the marketing team, for example, also needs help with the Marketing Hub, but they care more about ad tracking and management.
Meanwhile, the head of marketing wants to understand how they can get a quick, high-level overview of campaign performance and how it's impacting the pipeline.
The onboarding experience should be tied directly to the outcomes your customers expect. Tailor the content and strategy accordingly. (You should be able to gather this information from teams involved in the pre-sales process, e.g., sales.)
At the same time, you should also consider their maturity and level of expertise.
A customer using your technology for the first time will likely need more hand-holding than a customer who's used it before (maybe they switched companies).
Step 2: Map the Customer Onboarding Journey
The next step is to design and map out the onboarding journey. Keep your goals top of mind here; they'll help you create a journey that’s intuitive, logical, and confidence-boosting.
Below, we've outlined the steps of a typical customer onboarding journey.
Again, these will vary, but you can use these touchpoints as a baseline when building your strategy.
Customer Onboarding Steps
- Welcome Email
The welcome email will likely be your first interaction with a customer in the post-sales stage of their journey. Packaging it full of information may be tempting, but it pays to use restraint here.
Welcome your new customer, make it clear where they can turn for help, and then direct them to the next step—whether that’s guiding them through a product demo, getting them to add more details to their account, or helping them complete the first transaction, like going through a learning path.
- Account Configuration
Ideally, the welcome email includes a link your customers can use to activate their accounts. If your product is intuitive enough—many SaaS products are—customers should be able to get up and running without help from customer success managers (CSMs).
If this is the case, include personalized resources in your welcome email so that they can start exploring.
If there are too many steps in the configuration process or it's overly technical, have your CSM or implementation team lend a hand.
Your customer likely knows the basics of your product, but it’s unlikely they know all the finer points. Demonstrating the product is a critical step in the customer onboarding process, and there are various ways to do it effectively.
Some ideas include:
- Create a series of step-by-step training videos.
- Create a video product tour.
- Embed training modules throughout your product.
Make the demo as interactive as possible, rather than just sharing a bunch of tooltips and features. Keep the product demonstration short, and let your customer get their hands on the wheel.
- First "Transaction"
Your customer bought your product or service for a reason.
What are they hoping to accomplish? (This should align with the goal(s) identified at the beginning of the onboarding process.)
Think of this as the first transaction.
Adding team members.
Syncing the product with another tool in their tech stack.
At Northpass, this first transaction could be building and launching their first course.
As Kevin Van Eck, EVP of Innovation at @properties, said in our webinar, Crossing the Chasm: Gaining Academy Adoption, you must make learning a habit. Behavior change is a big part of ongoing product adoption. This first transaction is the launchpad.
- Milestone Mapping
The initial phase of the customer onboarding process is in the books.
Now it's time to look toward the future.
What milestones, i.e., events, do you want your customers to reach?
For example, by the end of week 1, you want your customers to accomplish X.
By the end of the first month, you want your customers to accomplish Y.
After the first year, you want them to accomplish Z.
These "milestones" should come from a conversation with the customer, but also your historical knowledge on the timeline of a successful onboarding program.
- Self-service Training
This is when you let your customers start spreading their wings. The "official" onboarding process may be in the books—at least the first round—but the learning is just beginning.
Use self-paced learning paths, webinars, quizzes, and more to keep your customers current on your product or service—think product updates and best practices.
The only action item for you: Show them how they can access your academy.
- Ongoing Support
The ultimate goal of onboarding is to make your customer self-sufficient with your product.
Bravo if you get to the end of that initial journey and the customer feels empowered.
That said, the onboarding process shouldn't come to a screeching halt. Augment self-service training tactics with in-person ones via Zoom or another video conferencing tool.
Use these sessions to dive into more advanced features, create success plans, build relationships, and run through QBRs. It's these interactions that'll ultimately be the difference between renewal and churn.
Finally, celebrate with your customers.
Did they complete a certificate course? Reach out and let them know.
Did they crush it with your product for a year? Let them know they're rock stars.
Have they mastered a particularly advanced feature or blown their goals out of the water? Throw some confetti.
Don't overlook the relationship-building aspect of customer education. It goes a lot further than you think.
One more thing: Don't wait for a customer to sign the dotted line to launch the onboarding process. Get the ball rolling before the sale closes.
For example, have your sales team show prospects your academy and highlights its benefits.
Step 3: Create Content
Now that you’ve mapped out your customer journey, it's time to develop content.
This is when you'll shine alongside your SMEs and instructional designers.
Together, create outlines that'll be most important to your customers. Then, collaborate to organize the content into courses that have a logical flow and drive knowledge retention.
Onboarding Content Creation Tips
- Use what you already have: If you're launching your onboarding program for the first time, don't be overwhelmed by the thought of content creation—you likely already have what you need.
Take existing blog posts, webinars, slide decks, conference presentations, support docs, etc., and tailor them to the onboarding needs of your customers.
- Quality isn't everything: Just like you don't have to start everything from scratch, you don't have to spend countless hours—and dollars—creating onboarding content that looks like a creative genius produced it. Instead, focus on value.
If you answer the questions your customers are asking during the onboarding process and address their pain points, they won't care as much about what the content looks like.
- Embrace AI: Don't go on this onboarding journey alone. Take advantage of tools like ChatGPT to quickly create course outlines, video scripts, and more.
Make sure your prompts are specific so that the AI spits relevant and helpful content to your customers during this stage in the journey.
Step 4: LMS Implementation
Remember that welcome email, milestones, and content creation we discussed? You need a "house" for it. More importantly, you need a way to deliver it and measure its impact.
This is where a learning management system or LMS comes into play.
What's a Learning Management System?
An LMS (also known as learning management software or learning management system software) is a software application for the management and delivery of online learning content. LMSs help subject matter experts (SMEs), educators and business professionals deliver materials to their customers, communicate with the online community, administer assessments, monitor progress, track records, and more.
Why You Need an LMS for Customer Onboarding
Seamless Learning Experience
An LMS helps you give customers the learning experience they expect and love—one that's quality, personalized, and available anytime, anywhere.
But it doesn't stop there.
An LMS helps you meet the learning meets of today's "right-now" customers in the moment of need with targeted content embedded within the mobile and web applications they use daily.
- Digital Learning Operations
An LMS lets you easily translate support documents, blog posts, videos, and new ideas into structured courses, learning paths, and certificate programs.
These platforms include flexible workflows and communications tools that make it easy to put enrollment and engagement on autopilot.
Additionally, an LMS is extensible, automatically connecting to a company's CRM, customer success, and data platforms, enriching the learning experience with personalized content, making enrollment intelligent, and injecting learning data into the 360 of customer health.
Learn more about how Northpass and ChurnZero are putting digital customer education in the hands of customer success teams.
- Learning Insights and Analytics
Customer-facing teams can monitor training's reach and ensure every customer receives the learning they need to succeed.
Learning insights and analytics reveal which customers have completed onboarding, trained on specific features, engaged in new product launch education, and earned certificates.
But this new infrastructure doesn't just monitor training's reach; it's smart enough to measure training's effectiveness.
It surfaces insights about which content is most popular, where learners are most engaged and dropping out, and which content needs to be updated for optimal completion rates and scores.
This new infrastructure gives companies a better way to train their customers.
What to Look for in an LMS Vendor
You've narrowed your consideration set during the RFP process and are ready to continue the discussion with a handful of LMS vendors.
Here are some questions you must ask them to ensure you choose the right LMS for your customer onboarding program.
- How’s the user experience (UX)?
In the context of this article, UX is about the experience your customers have in your academy during the onboarding process.
Can your customers easily find and access content?
Is the experience good on mobile devices?
Does your academy create a seamless experience by aligning visually with your website and product?
You should also ask the vendor about the experience for administrators.
How easy is it for you to navigate? Is creating, uploading, and updating content simple? Which type of content does the LMS support?
- What’s the pricing structure (pricing model)?
The price of your LMS will vary depending on a host of factors, so it's impossible to pinpoint a definitive dollar amount you should pay.
You can ask the vendor about the pricing model, i.e., how they determine what you pay.
- Per Learner: A pay-per-learning pricing model means you’ll pay a fixed price based on the number of customers using your academy. So, if the vendor charges $1 per learner and you have 200 of them, you’d pay $200 monthly.
- Per Active Learner or Metered Pricing: If you pay on a per-active-learner basis, you pay for people actively using the LMS. So, if the vendor charges $1 per customer, but only 100 of your 200 customers are using your academy, you'd pay $100 a month.
- As You Go: The vendor charges you based on how much you use the LMS. This is similar to pay-as-you-go cell phones. If you use your phone a lot, you pay more. If you don’t use it, you won’t pay anything.
- Licensing Fee or Flat-rate Pricing: A licensing fee is a set fee vary on a vendor-by-vendor basis. For example, an all-inclusive model gives you access to all features and services, while a packaged pricing model offers different rates for feature bundles.
- Fixed Pricing: Fixed pricing is exactly what it sounds like—you pay a flat fee for a number of customers, administrators, courses, etc. (Northpass has fixed pricing, allowing you to onboard and train an unlimited number of customers with as many admins as you need.)
You should also ask about ongoing payments. Are there hidden costs? Do you have access to solution engineers and design services? Will your price go up when they update the product?
- Can the LMS integrate with existing tools?
If you're already using tools to power your onboarding program, ask the vendor how easy it is to integrate them with their LMS.
For example, if you're a ChurnZero customer and you asked us if you could integrate with Northpass, the answer would be yes.
- How scalable is your platform?
As your customer base grows, the LMS will need to follow suit. Ask the vendor if their platform will be able to keep up without disrupting the onboarding experience or if there's a chance you'll have to switch and implement another one as you scale.
End with this: Does your LMS support training across the customer lifecycle?
While your initial use case for an LMS is customer onboarding, training programs can—and should—scale beyond this initial touchpoint.
For example, you can educate existing customers on new product features. At the same time, you can use an LMS to create an academy that positions your company and employees as thought leaders.
Step 5: Edit, Test and Pre-launch
Before you launch, put every element of your onboarding program through the wringer, including the content, internal processes, and the LMS.
Is the LMS firing the right data to your customer success platform?
Is your content formatted correctly?
Does your sales team know to talk about the academy and onboarding process during pitches?
Do your CSMs know how to use the materials and explain the academy's benefits to the customers?
Once you've done your due diligence behind the scenes, you'd be wise to do a "soft launch."
Select a handful of customers and take them through the typical process. Think of this as a beta test that allows you to identify and correct any snags before you launch the program to the rest of your customers.
Step 6: Launch Your Customer Onboarding Program
Now it’s time to launch your customer onboarding program. But the hard work isn’t done yet.
Going forward, check in regularly with customers to determine whether they’re experiencing any pain points. You should also refer back to the goals to ensure it's delivering results.
Optimizing your program for a better customer experience or superior business outcomes is an ongoing process. If you constantly seek new ways to improve your onboarding program, don't fret; you're doing it right.
Following Up and Digging Deeper
After going through the onboarding process, your customers should have the basics of your product down. But the journey process doesn’t stop there — your next goal is to transform customers into power users and brand ambassadors.
Begin to look outside of your onboarding program for other ways to educate your customers on your product and related topics that'll make them more effective in their work. Shopify, for example, created a customer academy to teach its customers how to build more successful businesses.
Are you ready to turn customer education into your next competitive advantage?
So are we. Schedule some time to chat with a Northpass representative today. You'll see why we're the learning platform of choice for companies like Uber, Shopify, and Airbnb.
Note: This article was updated in 2022 to reflect the current state of the learning management system market and customer onboarding.