Blog Post

The Ultimate Guide to Customer Onboarding

Jordan Hopkins, MEd
November 7, 2023
December 27, 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. And considering research shows that customers who receive product onboarding are 86% more likely to stay with a company, it’s clear customer onboarding is important!

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.

Onboarding can be a checklist walking you 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.

Who Owns Customer Onboarding?

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 (called “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.

10 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. Map the customer journey.

Mapping your customer journey helps identify opportunities for education to reduce friction points. Remember, the customer journey begins well before a prospect becomes a customer. 

Connect with the stakeholders across the company who are part of your customer’s journey. This includes teams like marketing, sales, customer service, 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, guided tutorial in-app, or short videos for simpler products.

2. Start customer education before the sale.

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.

For example, prospective customers may need to understand how something works before purchasing so they know what to expect. Understanding this can help you educate customers earlier on in the customer lifecycle, improving their overall onboarding experience. 

Consider this practical example: API integrations. As part of the decision-making process, a prospective customer’s team might need to learn how the API integration works. Serving this educational content up in the buying cycle can not only help them make the right decision, but help them onboarding faster post-sale. 

Project management tool Asana does this well. Asana’s academy is accessible to customers and non-customers alike to support prospects in learning how the product works before committing to a purchase. 

3. 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.

4. Remember that there are different types of onboarding.

Effective onboarding isn’t a one-time checklist or email sequence. Successful onboarding is the process of helping customers find more value across their lifecycle as accounts expand, new admins join the team, and as you release new product features.

There’s also a difference between new account onboarding and admin onboarding. When a new account is being onboarded, you typically have a number of one-time technical setup and configuration tasks. But once the initial set up is complete, you’ll likely still onboard new customer admins as people change roles and new admins are added to your platform. 

Knowing the difference between what people need as they onboard as an account, as a new admin, or to a new product feature can help you make the onboarding as effective possible.

5. Let customers know what to expect. 

Everything we do communicates something. Is your onboarding communicating confidence and expertise? 

Every aspect of the customer journey must be thoughtful, planned, and strategic to instill confidence in your product or service and your team’s ability to support customers throughout the process.

Here’s what this might look like:

  • Coordinated kick-off decks and calls that set clear expectations, deliverables, and timelines
  • An onboarding nurture that delivers timely and relevant resources to new accounts
  • A product 101 course that walks new admins through the basic how-tos of using your product
  • A comprehensive help center that allows learners to find just-in-time reference materials that help them get unstuck as they learn how to use your product

6. Make sure you nail handoffs.

The point of breakdown within the customer experience isn’t typically one person or team but rather at a handoff point. Everyone needs to know what other team members are doing before and after them—not just their own role in the process.

Documentation is critical to tracking this effectively.

After everyone gets clear on the customer journey, each team member must understand how and when customers transfer to the next team to see the process holistically.

For example, the sales team might collect information they know will be important to the implementation team as part of the sales process. Making sure that’s documented and passed off will save the customer time—and result in a better customer experience. 

The implementation team usually captures the customer's goals. If they document those goals and pass them on to the customer success manager, everyone stays on the same page when it comes to what the client wants to achieve and how to track it. 

7. Take a multi-channel approach to customer onboarding.

A multi-channel approach ensures you’re connecting with customers from all angles by offering a variety of opportunities to learn from your team, such as:

  • Kick-off calls 
  • In-app modals for product tours
  • Onboarding emails 
  • On-demand eLearning
  • Live training
  • Help centers
  • Courses & certifications

Onboarding Emails

Onboarding emails can help users find value beyond just checklists and product features. 

Your initial welcome email can guide users to resources like educational videos and courses not inside your standard onboarding flow. 

For example, Miro uses their welcome email to point users to an onboarding checklist and drives customers to sign up for the learning academy where their learning content lives.

When customers register for your formal online academy, your team can send another welcome email to confirm a learner’s registration and share specific courses and content to get started, like this example from Atlassian University:

Help Centers

When customers encounter a roadblock, access to just-in-time learning helps them get unstuck quickly.

Help articles with screenshot tutorials and/or videos help customers move forward by providing answers to their questions as they arise.

Help resources need to be easy to search for since customers will often search "how do I do X in Y platform" on Google. Or they need to be delivered in an easy-to-navigate help center organized by topics and tags.

It’s important to make on-demand answers easy to find, while also preparing to answer questions directly, to ensure you’re meeting all customer needs.

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

He recommends the following customer onboarding best practices:

8. Take a cross-functional approach to customer onboarding.

With their specialized skills and expertise, customer education can serve as a center of excellence to streamline education initiatives within your company. 

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.

The customer education team can streamline all customer education processes to support the sales team, marketing, onboarding, and customer success—no matter which team owns the particular initiative.

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

What are they trying to achieve? 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. 

10. Talk to your customers.

Too many employees are removed from the actual customer experience. Talking with customers can help you understand what frustrates, excites, and delights them. This not only builds empathy, but it helps you create better customer education content, as well. 

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.

To help customers be successful, companies need to move beyond the standard marketing automation email series highlighting the product’s features. A formalized customer onboarding strategy will lead to a thoughtful, cohesive onboarding experience that drives product adoption, behavior change, and business growth.

About the Author

Jordan Hopkins, MEd Speaker 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.