You've heard of the theory of evolution, right? Only the adaptable -- not the strong -- survive in this unpredictable world.
The business world is no exception. Your company is an organism, and it needs sustenance to grow.
Customer onboarding is your sustenance. Following best practices in modern onboarding will help your company grow and expand, whereas choosing to stay the same in a changing business world (and, yes, the digital revolution has truly changed all markets and industries) will stall your company.
As customer success thought leader, Lincoln Murphy, famously says, "the seeds of churn are planted early." Your lack of adaptability will take you down when churn hits you like a gigantic asteroid careening towards your little corporate planet. So, to make your company's environment inhospitable to the seeds of churn, it's time to examine your onboarding practices.
But how do you define customer onboarding in this new digital order? According to Sixteen Ventures, an onboarded customer is two things:
One that has experienced "initial success" with your product
One that sees the real value potential in their relationship with you
For Groove HQ, on a slightly different strain, a customer is onboarded 1) the moment they sign up, and 2) the moment they see success with your product.
At any rate, you can think of an onboarded customer as simply this: one who is confident in your ability to get stuff done, because they've seen you do it. Onboarding is a process, not a one-and-done action. It goes beyond the handshake not only to prove your value over and over, but also to sustain a meaningful, mutually beneficial relationship.
To that end, read on for evergreen customer onboarding best practices that apply to any industry in the modern age.
Make your onboarding process accessible, flexible, and repeatable.
1. Define expectations and set milestones.
I'm a huge advocate of asking as many questions as possible, but this is especially important in the first few days and weeks of engagement with your customers. The biggest question to answer is this: How do they define success? In the new age of customer success, the word "success" is synonymous with the ultimate goal. That means defining what they want out of your engagement, what many in the SaaS customer success world call their "desired outcome."
That will set the stage for setting the customer's expectations.
Next? Make a plan and make it happen. This will require setting "success milestones" -- a fancy word for goal deadlines -- and letting your customer define what those will look like during the sales process, no matter what it looks like in your industry.
Most importantly, be very real: make sure your setting milestones you can hit, accurately, every time.
2. Customize the experience.
There's tons of stuff out in the interwebs about customizing the onboarding experience for new employees to make them feel at home. Here's your lesson: treat your customers like you would a new, valuable employee -- consider your customer as a partner and make their onboarding experience specific to them and their needs.
Part of the onboarding experience should be individualizing each account -- that should be your general baseline practice and it will come through defining those expectations, as seen above.
What does individualizing the onboarding experience look like? Consider the principles of UX design: The experience with you (again, regardless of industry), should be valuable, useful, desirable, accessible, etc. That could range from client-only VIP portals, personal profiles, exclusive content and offers to simply communicate, being readily available, and understanding enough about your customer to know the questions they're about to ask and answer them before they wonder.
Side note: Random check-ins -- solicited or otherwise -- for quality checks are incredibly helpful to both you and the customer, and they tend to be a pleasant surprise. Ask them how the onboarding process is going for them, if they have any questions, if there is anything you can do to improve, etc., and you will be staying ahead of the game.
3. Onboard the team.
I'm talking about your team. And not just your sales team -- the whole team. Make sure everyone who will be involved knows the needs, pain points, story, background, and onboarding process of the customer.
Make no mistake -- this is a relatively new concept, made popular by customer success. Doing an internal onboarding brief not only makes the customer an integral part of the everyday functioning of the company, but also aligns the team in a way that will allow for the proper flow and functioning of new ideas, less time briefing, and generally a better-oiled machine.
Sailing a smooth ship is necessary during the onboarding process more than any other time in the sales cycle -- remember, the seeds of churn are planted early -- because it's walking the walk when it comes to really making the customer's needs a part of your company's daily to-do list.
4. Gather data.
Gather data, gather data, gather data. Whether that looks like website analytics, buying tendencies, typical sales cycle length, how the customer fairs in the overall market, etc. gather data.
Why? For starters, elite businesses attribute 68% of their success to data collection and analysis.
Face it: You could be clueless about your customers' needs, and it's hurting your relationship with them and your own growth.
Data will also be your go-to not only through the onboarding process but beyond it. Having baseline data to compare progress or failure to will help you define the success of your sales. You must consistently prove your value beyond the onboarding process, but to do so you need to gather the necessary data during the onboarding process.
5. Focus on the relationship.
Again: This is not a sale. This is a partnership. It doesn't matter if the sale is a matter of seconds (buying an article of clothing) or a couple of years (selling software to whole companies) but in selling you have created the opportunity for a relationship. Hint: Don't let it slide on by.
So how do you create a relationship? Assign account managers. Check in. Follow, like, and comment on their content on social media. Call for progress checkups. It's not rocket science. It's simple, honest, earnest communication. Trust is the antithesis to churn, and relationships build trust and show value.
This one is so obvious I almost don't want to write it down. Notice throughout each best practice above, communication and contact is necessary for success. Good, consistent communication during the onboarding process will be what makes or breaks your relationship with your customer. Don't leave them at the sale! Be with them during the initial stages of your engagement and make sure they know you're available.
7. Follow up after onboarding is complete.
Your relationship with the customer shouldn't end once the onboarding process is complete. After all, it would be a shame to build all of this rapport just to cut ties abruptly.
Instead, leave the door open by giving customers a way to communicate with their account manager after they complete onboarding. That way, if they have more questions about your product or want to onboard a partner or new employee, they have a direct channel to reach your team.
You should also follow up with customers periodically to see if they have additional questions about your product or service. Once they've mastered its basic features, they might be eager to learn more advanced techniques and tips. This can lead to timely conversations where reps can upsell and cross-sell customers with adds-ons or upgrades.
8. Continuously assess customer needs.
The purpose of onboarding is to give customers everything they need to accomplish their goals. But, depending on the length of your onboarding process, customer needs might change as they start to use your product or service. It's important to routinely check-in with customers to see if your onboarding is still effective and relevant to their goals. You wouldn't want to put in all this time and effort just for customers to churn because they don't see the value of your product.
This is where your relationship with the customer becomes very important. If they trust you, they're more likely to be transparent and communicate their needs. This will allow your team to pivot and create a personalized experience based on their feedback.
9. Onboard product add-ons and account upgrades.
Just because a customer has already completed your onboarding process, doesn't mean they can't go through it again. If they purchase something else from you, or sign up for an upgrade, they'll need to learn how to use their new product.
This is where it helps to have multiple onboarding teams and processes. Some reps should be dedicated to onboarding new customers while others should help existing ones learn how to use add-ons and upgrades. Remember, repeat customers are more valuable than new ones because they're purchasing additional products with little or no acquisition cost. These people already trust your brand so it's up to your team to keep them happy and engaged.
10. Make your onboarding process accessible, flexible, and repeatable.
As we mentioned above, businesses are living, breathing, organisms, and they grow based on their goals, circumstances, and environment. As companies scale, their short- and long-term needs adapt, leaving it up to your success team to respond to the customer's transition. If your onboarding process is rigid and doesn't leave room for change, it'll be difficult to fulfill all of your customers' needs.
Additionally, your onboarding process should be accessible and repeatable so new employees, or your customers' partners, can learn how to use your product. Even if this comes at an additional cost, customers expect your business to make it easier for them to bring on new users.
Great customer onboarding is your shelter in the inevitable event of churn. Churn happens -- but by following solid, through onboarding practices, you are guaranteeing that your company won't end up in the Business History Museum, with the dusty bones of every other old-school business who was scared of change. So go forth, evolve, and welcome new customers with excitement, engagement, and enthusiasm.