Blog Post

The Ultimate Guide to Customer Onboarding

Jordan Hopkins, MEd
November 7, 2023
Customer Education's Role in Customer Onboarding

Businesses are good at selling outcomes—but not always great at delivering them. 

Like this recent experience: Our team recently purchased a new product to support our work.

Initially, the sales team was invested and responsive to our questions. But once we purchased a seat, everything went quiet.

No in-app product onboarding.

No introductory email sequence.

No guidance.

We were left to our own devices! And, as a result, it’s unlikely we’ll renew the product contract down the line.

I’m not alone in seeing the need for improvement: 90% of customers say companies could do better at onboarding them. Tie that to the research that shows that customers who receive product onboarding are 86% more likely to stay with a company, and it’s clear there’s an opportunity for better customer onboarding!

The onboarding experience should be as frictionless as possible to help customers find immediate value. SaaS applications have a real opportunity to impress and retain customers in their first thirty minutes inside the product. 

In this article, we discuss the critical role customer education plays in setting users up for success, plus onboarding examples and best practices.

But first, let’s get clear on what exactly customer onboarding entails. 

What is Customer Onboarding?

Customer onboarding is the process of showing customers how to quickly benefit from your product or service. The goal is to get them to the activation point or the “aha” moment that helps the customer see the value they paid for.

It’s the initial onboarding checklist that guides customers through the key features of your product, like the one from Webflow below.

But it’s also the educational courses that bring customers and prospects to a deeper understanding of your product’s full capabilities.

Customer onboarding is not limited to a one-time event post-purchase. It includes new user onboarding as additional team members are invited to use the product, as well. Companies must consider how best to deliver both over the customer lifecycle to improve customer retention.

Customer Onboarding Ownership

Customer onboarding can be owned by implementation, customer success, product, customer marketing, customer education, or jointly across several teams.

At Intellum, we see significant benefits when onboarding is owned by customer education. 

Shannon Howard, Intellum’s Director of Customer and Content Marketing, attributes this to education’s goal of driving behavior change—which is exactly what you’re doing when asking customers to adopt a new product.

“The customer education team can think more broadly than any one part—not just product, not just a one-time training, or responding to a question from a customer,” Shannon shared. “They think more about the journey a customer is on and how to help them at each stage of it.”

No matter which team owns customer onboarding, one fact remains: Customer onboarding won’t be successful if only one team contributes. Each department has a role to play.

Consider the product team’s role as an example: An effective way to use the product to facilitate in-app onboarding is to fill empty fields with text to avoid leaving users unsure of where to start. This is called filling “empty states”.

Better yet, the education team can collaborate with the product team to fill the empty fields with educational content to teach users how to get active in that feature.

Note-taking tool Notion does this well. 

By adding an in-app checklist of instructions inside the tool’s fields, users are empowered to start testing out and customizing the tool.

Customer Education’s Role in Onboarding

Customer education creates a streamlined and scaled experience for customers, Shannon shared. No more inconsistent, one-off training sessions delivered individually by busy customer success managers, or pointing to knowledge base articles as a substitute for training.

Customer education professionals improve customer onboarding by making it more formal and standardized. According to our Transforming Organizational Education Initiatives report, formal and standardized initiatives make the most successful education programs and result in the highest business outcomes. 

Customer Education in Onboarding Example

Project management tool Asana added education within their initial onboarding steps with its “Tips & Tricks” module.

Once inside the library, users can choose a path to learn more based on what’s relevant to their needs.

Asana makes it easy to both get started and to get more from the product through education.

6 Customer Onboarding Best Practices From Industry Experts

In my experience, an intentional and valuable onboarding experience for a product can make or break a long-term relationship with it.

Consider the advice below as you craft your customer onboarding experience.

1. Read Onboarding Matters by Donna Weber.

Read it, consume her advice, and connect with the stakeholders across your company who touch the customer’s journey—marketing, sales, professional services, customer success, etc. 

Using their input and support, draft a new learner or customer journey map. Include your customer education touchpoints where they need product onboarding to achieve quick time to value. Based on those touchpoints and needs, determine how best to reach your customers whether that’s live training for complex products, in-app guidance, or short videos for simpler products.

2. Get customers to the point of activation without overwhelming them. 

Dr. John Keller writes on a model for motivation called ARCS-V. It stands for Attention, Relevance, Confidence, Satisfaction, and Volition. If your onboarding journey addresses a novice persona, someone net-new to your product, then building in achievable and valuable milestones with your product is paramount. 

These early milestones don’t have to cover every feature. Rather, they should help support the client’s long-term success with your product by helping them achieve independence with foundational product skills before they move on to complex ones.

3. Start education early.

We shouldn’t throw all customer education content at customers all at once. That’s why we recommend aligning the product onboarding journey with the larger touchpoints in the customer’s journey.

If you can help others learn your product before they’re a paying customer, there’s a higher chance they’ll turn into a long-term advocate later on, rather than a frustrated churn risk. The worst-case scenario is waiting until go-live or post-implementation to begin product onboarding.

We spoke with Ramli John, author of Product-Led Onboarding for additional industry advice.

He recommends the following customer onboarding best practices:

4. Take a cross-functional approach.

Marketers can craft content to help educate customers about the product's value, product managers and designers can create a seamless in-app onboarding experience, and customer success can provide high-touch guidance for high-value customers.

5. Deeply understand what success looks like for your customer.

What are they trying to achieve? What KPIs do they care about? What are their fears, hopes, and dreams about your product? 

With this information, you can motivate them to embrace your product as a solution to their problem. 

6. Talk to your customers.

It's easy to keep a virtual wall between your team and customers. Seeing what frustrates, excites, and delights them over a live call or in person not only builds empathy, but it helps you create better customer education content, as well. 

Want more best practices? Subscribe to our monthly newsletter for more insights.

Customer Education Elevates Onboarding

Onboarding isn't only the time after a customer has recently signed up for your product. The customer onboarding process is about delivering a strong customer experience that brings users step by step further into the full capabilities of your product. Successful onboarding keeps customers engaged and reduces customer churn.

Through education, companies move beyond the standard customer onboarding template of an introductory email series introducing the product’s features. Customer education helps companies build a thoughtful, cohesive onboarding experience that drives product adoption, behavior change, and business growth.

To get started with customer education, a training needs analysis is your first step.

About the author

Jordan Hopkins headshot
Jordan Hopkins, MEd
Education Program Manager
Jordan Hopkins is a self-described "learning design nerd" and is passionate about putting the learning first. For the last 16+ years, Jordan has practiced education through a unique blend of corporate enablement, training, consulting, and learning design.
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