Only One First Impression

You only get one chance to make a first impression. Research suggests that people form an opinion of others within 7-20 seconds. The same maxims apply to people who buy SaaS offerings.

Once your Sales team has done their job, and convinced the customer they can benefit from your software, the customer now has to put their trust in your company to deliver. The risk they have taken in choosing you now shifts to your company, and the clock starts ticking immediately. You might have more than seven seconds, but not that much longer: most customers want to get started right away. Fail to meet this expectation, and you have already decremented the customer’s trust, and increased the likelihood the customer will churn.

You have become a victim of what psychologists call ‘the halo effect’. The halo effect is a cognitive bias in which an observer’s overall impression of a person, company, brand, or product influences the observer’s feelings and thoughts about that entity’s character or properties (Wikipedia). Rather than starting the relationship in a positive way, you are playing catch up – dealing with a customer that already has doubts about your company’s ability to deliver.

The goal of onboarding is simple; to get the customer to achieve a goal they value. When the process involved is more complex, this first success might not be the ultimate goal, but a valuable step on the way.

The Keys to Onboarding Success


The simpler the product is to use, the less work is required to onboard a customer. Relentlessly driving for product simplification is key. Development resources should be dedicated to the customer’s first steps, including productizing the key steps to setting up and configuring the product to achieve the customer’s stated goal. Productizing onboarding is the key to profitably scaling retention.

Customer Context

Many SaaS products support customers who have different goals and operating environments. The onboarding process must reflect these different contexts, which may require context specific configurations and processes. Forcing customers into a standard process will not work: you will end up delivering a customer experience that is not good for any group of customers.

Sales Integrity

Many companies buy churn because they try to sell a vanilla product to everyone. Retention begins with clarity within the customer groups your product serves best and selling to them. Segmentation is not about reducing the available market, but rather selling and then delivering a value proposition that closely matches a customer’s desired outcome. Having comprehensive ideal customer profiles creates a base for effective marketing, sales and retention: they are the red threads, the stories that run through the customer lifecycle.

Step By Step

If your product is part of a complex process, it is possible that the customer’s ultimate goal cannot be achieved in a short time frame. If so, break the goals down into a series of milestones, each of which is of value to the customer. This gives the customer trust their goal can be achieved, and that you have a clear plan to get them to their ultimate goal.

Beyond Product

A customer that knows how to use every feature in your product will still churn if they cannot use it to meet their goals. What good is a sales tool that doesn’t lead to more sales or a project management application that does not improve the number of projects completed on time and in budget? Good onboarding reaches into the life of the individual, and helps them beyond the product.

Clear Process

Consistently delivering onboarding to a very high standard requires a simple, flexible, and repeatable process. This is best developed in the form of a customer journey based on these simple questions:

• At this stage of the journey, what is the customer seeking to achieve?
• How do we want the customer to feel at this stage?
• To deliver this, what is our designed experience?
• What skills, tools, and systems do we need to deliver our designed experience?
• What metrics will show we are profitably delivering our designed experience?

Measuring Success

I have seen several measures suggested for onboarding, including customer satisfaction, NPS and training hours/revenue, but for me, there are only three that matter:

1. Percent of customers that assert they have achieved their first stated goal/milestone
2. Elapsed time from sale to first goal
3. Retention at the first break point

The first two are likely to be leading indicators of the third.

Never forget that continued retention will only happen if your product continues to help the customer meet their goals, which are likely to increase and change. The best SaaS companies don’t build an onboarding process; rather they build a customer goal setting and achievement process of which onboarding is just the first iteration.

David Jackson has been involved in building customer focused companies since 1989 as consultant, author and practitioner. He is currently CEO of TheCustomer.Co and Director of Customer Success at Lead Forensics. He was a founder and CEO of Clicktools, a supplier of SaaS survey and feedback products, which he sold in 2014.

David Jackson

Lead Forensics & TheCustomer.Co