Customer onboarding is indisputably at the heart of customer success. This is something critical for companies adopting a SaaS model, where there isn’t room for an antiquated mentality that puts the onus purely on conversions. You can’t wash your hands of the customer after the point of sale.

By implementing a water-tight customer onboarding strategy, organizations will drive product value and enhance the customer’s experience. After all, clear-cut expectations and transparency are vital in the onboarding stages of the customer journey.

We sat down with Michelle Wideman, Chief Customer Officer at Onna, to discuss the importance of customer onboarding at CSC’s Customer Success Festival 3.0.

Customer Success Collective: Hi Michelle, thanks for taking the time to chat with us about the significance of onboarding. First of all, we’re curious to know what you think’s the most common aspect of onboarding that organizations fail at – and why do you think this is?

Michelle Wideman: It’s hard to pinpoint just one, it depends on the size and stage of your company.

It’s important to me that customers feel like they’ve been listened to throughout their pre-sales journey, so being able to clearly outline ‘here is what we heard,’ you establish as your success criteria during the pre-sales cycle. You can then ask the customer to confirm that these objectives are the same, or have they changed?’

Once you have an understanding of the customer’s immediate needs, it’s important to understand their long-term objectives. Your role is to set the customer up to succeed for their current and future needs. This also helps set the stage earlier on in the sales cycle for incremental expansion and minimizes churn as you’ve clearly defined success criteria.

CSC: The value of onboarding is of real interest to us at CSC, something examined in our upcoming report, The State of Customer Success 2021. We were surprised to find that in a survey of 200 professionals working in customer success, only 66% revealed that onboarding was a top priority in their job.

While this figure is reflective of a variety of different roles and their seniority within the CS function, as a CCO, what do you make of this finding?

MW: I think it goes back to the size and stage of your company. Ironically, in my past two jobs, optimizing onboarding has been a key area of focus.  I think it’s important to set the stage early by confirming what a customer’s success criteria are, outlining the customer’s team, and the vendor’s org chart in place to support them. If we build trust and victories early on in the process, we’re setting the customer and ourselves up for success.

Customer onboarding 101
For freemium models adopted by a growing number of SaaS companies, onboarding is the frontline in the battle for the upsell.

CSC: In your experience, what are the most important tools available for carrying out customer onboarding?

MW: Communication! One of my biggest pet peeves is when you have a Business Development Representative (BDR) qualify an opportunity, an Account Executive (AE) does the further discovery, the pre-sales Solution Architect (SA) team comes in and does additional questioning, then the professional services team does further scoping.

The last thing you want is for customer success to do the onboarding call and say, ‘Tell me why you bought our software.’  Can you imagine how frustrating that is for the customer?

Whatever CRM/application you’re using, it’s important to have alignment between the pre-sales team, customer success, and post-sales team on what fields must be populated to help to ensure the proper flow of communication on the key components of a customer’s environment and desired business outcomes.

Any important documentation proof of value wrap-up meetings, architecture documents, etc. should be attached to whatever application(s) the cross-functional teams are accessing, so we’re crowdsourcing the customer’s information to all the right people.

CSC: Developing a relationship with high-touch customers appears easier than navigating a relationship with low-touch customers. But for the latter, who require less human contact than their high-touch counterparts, how do you ensure their goals are still established during the onboarding period?

MW: When supporting low-touch customers, it’s important that the auxiliary resources are in place to support them.

For example, a great onboarding email that outlines the top 10 tips for a successful implementation, links them to additional resources such as a user community, knowledge base, training, and how to open support cases. It’s also important that the vendor’s backend infrastructure is established to set calls to action (CTA) or triggers based on low usage and automated playbooks to deploy to help optimize engagement.

CSC: It’s no secret that customer success largely functions within the SaaS industry. In our report, nearly 50% of respondents work in IT services and computer software. That being said, how would you tackle customer onboarding for non-subscription organizations?

MW: If you’re talking perpetual licensing vs. SaaS licensing, I think a lot of the same tactics apply. It’s important to understand the business outcomes the customer hopes to achieve now and in the future, and define the dedicated resources on both sides to ensure those outcomes are achieved.

CSC: And finally, what practices in onboarding do you want to see more of in businesses?

MW:  When I joined Onna it was apparent that we were too single-threaded in accounts, so if our champion left we had a risk of attrition.

We’ve focused a lot on defining the org charts for our customers to ensure we have multiple contacts at varying levels.  It’s important to know our users, to know our contacts in finance who help ensure timely payment and renewals, and our executive relationships.

We also dedicated a slide to outline our resources and an easy decoder key, so our customers understand who to go to for what.  I’d like for us to continue to build this out, so we understand the desired business outcomes for each role within our customers, what partners our customers are working with, what are their (partner) desired roles and outcomes, and how can we all partner together: customer, partner, and vendor to amplify our success?

Has this piqued your interest? We hope so. 🤞

If you fancy learning more about the importance of customer onboarding, then check out the replay of Michelle's panel discussion on strategy and innovation at Customer Success Festival 3.0. 👈