A Guide to Customer Onboarding

Mark Henderson

Over the last year we’ve performed several numerous inteviews with SaaS founders, who all emphasized the same thing: Getting their customer onboarding experience of their product right is crucial to their success. Here’s what we learned!

Understanding Customer Onboarding

When you ask people what ‘Customer Onboarding’ is, they’ll give you several different answers.

Some say that it’s the entire experience a user has with a product from the time they first see an advertisement until they finally become a customer and start using the product. For example: From the moment they see a banner ad to the moment they decide to start paying for your product.

The basic idea is that users aren’t just using your product, they’re also experiencing it. They’re hearing your voice, reading your copy, seeing your layout, and interacting with your design. They’re starting to build a relationship with your product.

Other people think of ‘Customer Onboarding’ as the processes that users go through when they first open a product, and for this article, this will be our focus.

Coming up with an onboarding plan

Let’s jump into the specifics of what all goes into an onboarding plan. The best way to do this is to start at the beginning of the free trial.

When a user signs up for a free trial, the first thing they’ll see is a welcome screen, or “Launching Screen.” This needs to be extremely clear about how to get started, and what to expect during the free trial. People don’t want to read, they want to know what to do next.

A welcome screen should:

  • Be clear
  • Be easy to find
  • Include a link to the help center
  • Offer a clear call to action

The welcome screen is the first step in onboarding, and it should be as easy as possible to understand.

The next step is to send the user through a clear, guided tour of the product. This should include:

  • A walkthrough of the product interface
  • A clear definition of each feature
  • A high-level overview of how the product works

The purpose of the tour is to communicate all the basic features and functions of the product, while helping the user build a mental model of how the app works. Over time, as users become familiar with the product, they’ll be able to skip the tour.

If you’re using a guided tour, you should ask users to complete it within the first week. You can do this by providing an incentive, like a small prize, or a discount.

After the user completes the tour, they’ll be dropped into the main application. The next step is to give them a chance to try it out on their own. This is the chance to build a habit, by allowing users to experience the app in their own way, with their own goals in mind.

This phase is where onboarding really comes into play. You have an opportunity to support the user in building the habit of using the product. To do this, you’ll need to create a user experience that’s as smooth as possible.

To make this experience as seamless as possible, you’ll need to:

  • Segment the user experience according to user goals or cohorts
  • Provide a clear path to the desired outcome
  • Provide resources and support for potential sticking points

These will form your customer onboarding benchmarks and allow you to target the areas of onboarding that provide the biggest lift.

Once you’ve completed these benchmarks, you’ll have a picture of how well your customers are doing in their first few weeks of using your product.

And this will lead you to refine your onboarding process.

Refining your onboarding

Customer onboarding is different for every product. The key is to identify the problems that users are having. Then work with your team to build a plan to solve them.

You can tackle your onboarding process one of two ways:

Improve the onboarding process
Instead of changing how you help the user accomplish their goals, you can also focus on improving the process itself.
For example, are your users confused about their options or goals? Can you streamline the steps that users need to take? Are your navigation structures too complex?
How a user interacts with the product can affect onboarding.

Reduce the information the user needs to know
This is the most extreme way to change your onboarding process. Many products have too much information to digest on day one. If this is the case, there’s at least one piece of information you can remove.

What if you cut your information in half? Then, what if you cut it in half again?

All at once, it’ll be clear that you’re giving customers the information they need, but they’re also comfortable with the product. You’ll have a less intimidating onboarding experience, and you can help your users achieve their goals faster.

How long should onboarding last?

Truthfully, onboarding should last as long as it takes for a user to become comfortable and confident using the tool. However, you’ll focus your planning within the bounds of your free trial. Even a freemium product should focus on the first few weeks of a user’s account.

In addition to considering how long an onboarding process should last, you need to limit how much information you’ll cover. It’s tempting to show every user every feature you’ve worked so hard on, but relevance is more powerful than quantity.

Importance of different features

User onboarding should begin by building users’ confidence and comfort, not by introducing them to the 90% of features they’ll never need. Your onboarding design should introduce the core features first. Then, you can introduce some of the more advanced features, but only when your users have shown a willingness to learn. For a freemium product, it’s often enough to start with the free version’s most important features and leave the rest for later.

Where does onboarding begin?

There are many places you can introduce your users to your product. An obvious one is your homepage, where you can use some dedicated real estate for your onboarding message. Here, you’ll want to emphasize why users should use your product instead of your competitor’s.

If you’re a product that’s typically used by top-level executives, you might also consider connecting with executives before your target users do—at the point of purchase. Before executives decide on a purchase, you can provide them with an executive briefing that covers the features and benefits of your product.

In other cases, you’ll want to introduce your product during an onboarding process that’s similar to your service’s normal process. For example, if you’re a fitness app, you need to introduce users to your app at any time when they’re about to begin a workout. At this point, you need to show the user how to access your premium features. Consider using a pop-up banner when the user starts a workout to offer him a free trial.

Other important onboarding points

Registration Flow
The registration process for your service is an ideal place to introduce your users. You can show them a simplified—or even automated—version of your product. Be sure that you ask for only the information you need to provide the service, and don’t give out information that’s irrelevant to your onboarding.

Take the user’s social network into consideration. If your service relies on a third-party platform, don’t forget to include a link that allows users to connect to the network. If delivery of your service depends on users using a certain feature on a social network, be sure to make that very clear to the user and avoid making the feature a part of the registration process.

You might skip registration at first. If your service is free and delivered over the web, you might want to get users started right away, without having to register and without needing to send them through a payment process. However, if the user can’t begin using your service without completing the registration process, you’ll need to provide a clear and comfortable way of doing so.

Keep the registration process simple and focused. The process of registering for your service should be simple and clearly arranged so that users can find what they need and complete the process quickly.

Help
Be sure to include a help button that links to the help center. The button should bring users to information on how they can use the tool to its fullest potential and introduce them to information that will help them understand the tool more—not point them to marketing materials and product announcements.

Even when users don’t click, you need their email addresses. A free trial needs an email address, even if you don’t require payment information or other sensitive information. A free trial depends on the user entering his email address. However, we need to make sure that he does so voluntarily. If the user enters his email address to receive more information about your product, you’ve helped the user grow more comfortable with using your product. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to deliver the promised information. Instead, you’ll need to keep the user’s email address on file—but not by asking for it directly.

Instead, put a link on the site for the user to simply click to receive more information about your product. Then, use that email address to send a newsletter where you explain the features of the product. This lets you collect email addresses without feeling like you’re pushing your users to something they’re not ready to commit to.

Help
Be sure to include a help button that links to the help center. The button should bring users to information on how they can use the tool to its fullest potential and introduce them to information that will help them understand the tool more—not point them to marketing materials and product announcements.

Even when users don’t click, you need their email addresses. A free trial needs an email address, even if you don’t require payment information or other sensitive information. A free trial depends on the user entering his email address. However, we need to make sure that he does so voluntarily. If the user enters his email address to receive more information about your product, you’ve helped the user grow more comfortable with using your product. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to deliver the promised information. Instead, you’ll need to keep the user’s email address on file—but not by asking for it directly.

Instead, put a link on the site for the user to simply click to receive more information about your product. Then, use that email address to send a newsletter where you explain the features of the product. This lets you collect email addresses without feeling like you’re pushing your users to something they’re not ready to commit to.

Don’t call the user a trial user.
If you use the term “trial user” or “trial” in your onboarding process, you’ll be telling the user that he’s only a test subject. That’s not how you want your user to think about your service. Instead, try to avoid the word “trial.”

Always offer an upgrade.
As you’re introducing your user to your service, be upfront about your premium features. If you have a free version of your product, let the user know about the premium features and encourage him to upgrade as soon as he’s convinced that the feature will be worth his time and money. If you’re a freemium product, you need to offer a no-hassle way to upgrade to the premium version.

Understand your user’s potential for growth.
Even if analytics data shows that only 5% of your trial users upgrade to a paid plan, don’t forget that those same analytics show that your conversion rate from free to paid has been growing steadily over the past quarter. It’s worth your time to let the user know about the capability to upgrade.