What Is Onboarding in CS?

Customer Success onboarding is the first step in the post-sales process that occurs under the domain of the CS professional. There is a clear objective – to get the customer proficient with the product, functioning independently, and achieving first value in as little time as possible. Not only do the initial onboarding and training define the possible customer retention and adoption timelines going forward, but they also mark the first time in the customer acquisition cycle in which prospects use the product for the first time.

The first in-app experience that your customer has with the product helps set the tone for your relationship, and if it’s not clear or overwhelming, it can put barriers in the path to achieving mutual success. You are in trouble if there are an escalating number of support tickets, and survey feedback is distinctly dissatisfied. The best way to handle these types of customer crises is to ensure they never happen in the first place – via structured and strategic onboarding practices.

Based on my experience managing high-touch Enterprise SaaS Accounts, I have found that the main culprit for churn is often the customer onboarding process. Whether the experience is painful, or expectations are simply mismanaged, the “seeds of churn” can be traced back to onboarding.

Regardless of whether it’s a high-touch or low-touch scenario, a majority of the time, the problem is that the SaaS vendor either doesn’t know what the customer wants or the problem they are trying to solve, and has forgotten that solving that issue is the primary action item. I will cover how to create a customer onboarding plan, and the milestones you should hit, as well as a checklist of questions to ask yourself, depending on your business model.

How Do You Define Success While Onboarding?

Whenever I lay out a plan for creating success milestones, I always have people say to me that they don’t even know what success looks like for their customers in the first place. So, how do you figure that out?

The easiest way to figure out what success looks like for your customer – before you can break that down into milestones – is to just ask them.

Questions to ask the customer before selling them your product:

  • What is their desired outcome?
  • How do they measure success themselves?
  • How are they measured by their boss?
  • What are they trying to achieve with your product?

The first thing to ask is what “success” means to them, and see if that aligns with the views of other candidates from a similar cohort or profile (if you have multiple types of customers across various use cases – as you often find in very horizontal products – you may want to pick an ideal customer to focus on initially). Analyze the answers for similarities and patterns, reduce it down to a handful of absolute required outcomes, and then turn it back to them for approval/buy-in. If you can do this for every profile type your product caters to, you’ll have a good idea of what your customer base as a whole views as success.

To be absolutely clear, you want them to tell you the outcomes they desire, and maybe the milestones needed to get to that “success” with your product. 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 x” statements end up just being iterations on the existing ways of doing things.

You can make big leaps forward by understanding not what they need to “do”, but what they need/want to achieve and using your creativity/engineering prowess/entrepreneurial spirit to solve for that. This is where Desired Outcome thinking really shines, by the way. Iterating on existing processes isn’t fun or lucrative in the long run unless there is a real shift in strategy or direction.

Customer-Centric Success Milestones

The milestones below can be plotted once you have an in-depth view of what success looks like to your customer. I have created a checklist of steps that are examples of what you could look for if you were planning on running a SaaS sales process execution platform. These steps are in fact really elementary and take you back to the beginning of the product generation process before a company is even in place.

  • Define the Success Criteria (Based on your knowledge of the sales execution process)
  • Define the Target Audience: In this case, this is usually the sales ops & sales leadership team
  • Identify the challenges/problems that the sales leadership is trying to solve
    • Spend less time on deal management on a CRM platform and focus on selling
    • Accelerate revenue/bookings amount
    • Better visibility into the sales pipeline
    • Identify the deals that are at risk and are stuck in the pipeline
    • Sales fields team is always mobile and want to be able to manage deals while on the field. They have no time to come in and get in front of the laptop
  • Once you have identified the problem and your key audience, now brainstorm the product idea. What use cases can you build to help solve the sales execution challenges?
  • Identify the go-to-market strategy
  • Figure out how to get paid
  • Get feedback on the design from a few key players in the market
  • Build the product
  • Get customers? (Potential Success Gap here, BTW)
  • Make their First Sale! ← Success (at least at first)

Incorporating Customer Feedback

  • Re-think the workflows based on customer feedback
  • Customize the Product ← The “Wow!” moment is here maybe
  • Setup Payment Method ← gotta get paid!
  • Add & Configure Items
  • Soft-launch to a few of your Sales Friends
  • Incorporate Feedback and Reconfigure accordingly
  • Publish and Promote
  • Their First Sale! ← This is actual success, right?

Whether this is the right set of success milestones for a product like this isn’t the point; instead, think from the perspective of what success looks like for your customer, and work backwards from there to meet them where they are at first.

In the early days, this is where Customer Development work really pays off. If you’re in-market and looking to optimize, this is where leveraging the expertise, experience, and knowledge of your Customer Success Management system (or your Customer Success Managers) and/or continuously implementing new Customer Development studies really comes into play. Customer Success Management helps reduce the cost of acquisition, retain the customer, and ensures that the customer is happy.

Strategic Customer Success Leader with 7+ years of experience in B2B Enterprise SaaS Products, catered to Sales & Marketing automation processes, driving utilization, adoption, renewals, upsell and cross sell.

Barnali Bagchi

Customer Success, Manager, Clari

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