Onboarding: Don’t Let Your Customer Relationships Stumble Out of the Gate!

A product is more than just the bits and bytes that comprise the software. It’s more than the user experience that someone has when they’re inside your software and actively using it to solve their problems. It’s more than the bug fixes and patches that go out to resolve customer support issues. Your product is the entire experience, from beginning to end, that your customers experience with regard to your solutions.

Unfortunately, all too many product managers focus on the software and internal experience, and disregard the process that users take to get into that software in the first place. And, since this is often the customer’s first impression of your product, your company, and your solutions — it’s also one of the most important parts of the experience. You must ensure onboarding is a smooth and seamless experience.

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
Ad for Botany Suits, 1966

What is Customer Onboarding?

Put simply, onboarding is the process of taking a prospective user from their first impression of your product or service and bringing them into the fold and retaining them as a user. You’ll note that this definition of onboarding combines both conversion and retention — because, as product managers, we’re not interested in users who just download our app or sign up for our service; we want people to connect with our products, and find enough value in them to return…and later, to hopefully evangelize their experience to others.

Onboarding should be one of the most exciting aspects of a product to work on for any product manager. It takes a little bit from the many disciplines that we combine to form our role:

  • Marketing to position the product, bring people in, and demonstrate the value we bring
  • User Experience to make the onboarding process as simple and efficient as possible
  • Development to create the artifacts and technology that drives the user’s adoption
  • Sales to ensure that the value we’re describing is real and compelling to specific users
  • Data Analysis to track and understand how users are interacting with our onboarding process

Which is why it’s mind-boggling that so many companies delegate the entire responsibility of the onboarding experience to one of these focused teams — resulting in a slanted and deformed view of what it means, why it’s important, and who should be managing it.

“How you think about your customers influences
how you respond to them.”
Marilyn Suttle

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Why is User Onboarding Important?

It seems funny to even ask this question, but at the same time the behaviors of so many companies belie the fact that they don’t understand or truly value the process. This seems especially true for some B2B companies, who entrust their “onboarding” process to their sales and “enablement” teams, which usually operate entirely outside the view and influence of the product team.

This approach, however, creates a chasm between the “product” and the “onboarding” experience. —  bBecause they are disconnected from one another at a fundamental level, the one rarely informs the other. Rather, sales-driven onboarding experiences can turn off prospective users, who simply want to skip the high-pressure, upgrade-this, add-on-that messaging and go directly into the product. Especially in the world of SaaS solutions, the expectation that most customers have is that they will be able to “taste” your product before they’re approached by someone to get them to commit to it.

Imagine, for example, if the first thing that happened when you walked into a Starbucks was that you were greeted outside the door by a well-dressed man who wanted your credit card information before you were able to even enter the store? He would tell you all about the great coffee inside, how the single-origin beans were roasted to exacting standards, and how fresh the sandwiches and fruit were. But he wouldn’t open the door without swiping your card. Would you go inside? Of course not — but far too many of our B2B solutions have that very experience — it’s a gated doorway that only select people may enter, and only after someone has vetted their “credentials” to see inside.

Having a clean, crisp, seamless onboarding experience is important, because it’s the first real impression that the user has of your product and your company — the more roadblocks that you throw up between them and the solution, the more difficult they’re going to view your product and your company, and the more antagonistic you’re making the relationship. The more hoops they have to jump through, the higher their expectations for the final product.

“What gets measured, gets managed.”
Peter Drucker

How Do We Measure Onboarding Success?

One of the traditional problems that companies experience when assigning the responsibility of onboarding to a department that’s not Product Management is a lack of tracking and traceability, since the primary measures that should be used to track the success of onboarding are not the primary metrics by which other parts of the organization measure success. Sales and Marketing are largely deal- and funnel-driven organizations — they’re less focused on the user and more focused on the numbers that represent those users.

Other organizations focus almost exclusively on user conversion as a measure of onboarding success — after all, isn’t the goal of onboarding to bring a user from their role as a prospect into the role as a customer? Thus, we get a strong focus on user acquisition and conversion — numbers which can be impressive, until someone asks “But where’s the money?”

The best measure of onboarding success is to trace and manage the entire funnel from user acquisition to user conversion through to retention — and for extra credit, you could add in evangelism as well.

If you think of the most successful, cleanest onboarding experiences out there — Slack comes to mind as a great example for me — you’ll notice that they make the entire process easy, and they absolutely keep careful track of your progress through the funnel:

  • The website drives you directly to create your first Slack account;
  • Creating the account requires minimal information and minimal clicks;
  • Once in, the value is derived from inviting others to participate; and
  • None of this costs the user a single dime.

It’s no wonder Slack has experienced immense growth and fantastic user conversion rates — there’s almost literally nothing between the prospective user and the solution. Sure, the product’s great, but it’s also highly accessible, and upgrades and charges come only after the user has experienced the value in the product and the solutions it provides. While this may not be an option for every product, it has become the primary method through which users expect to interact with a new product — ignore those expectations at your own risk.

“Good onboarding experiences feel like a part of the product,
not an afterthought.”
Daniel Elizalde

Why Should Product Own Onboarding?

By this point, it should be obvious that the conclusion we’re driving to is that Product Management needs to own and oversee the entire onboarding process — at at the very least, the portions which don’t directly compete with the traditional work of the sales and marketing teams. We still need a funnel, and in many B2B contexts, we still need a dedicated sales team driving to closure — but the experience of the end-user having their first experience with the product and the company needs to be owned by someone who can provide:

  • The customer-centered perspective that focuses on the user and their needs;
  • The technical know-how to streamline the process without jeopardizing traceability;
  • The organizational position as a hub around which other business functions rotate;
  • The data analysis skills to know what to measure, how to measure it, and how to draw appropriate conclusions from the user data; and
  • The holistic view of the product from top to bottom, side to side, and everything in between.

There’s only one position in the company that covers all of these bases — or at least should, assuming that the Product team is being given the proper breadth of influence and control. Onboarding should be a natural fit for the oversight of a strong Product Management team.

“Don’t make something unless it’s both necessary and useful. But if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.”
Josh Porter

What if Product Doesn’t Own Onboarding?

Unfortunately, it’s not always the case that Product has the necessary oversight over the Onboarding process; in such cases, just as in other aspects, a strong Product Manager needs to lead through influence. This means figuring out who does own onboarding in your organization, what they’re actually doing, and how you can insert yourself into the process by identifying opportunities to add value to that team’s efforts. This could be something as simple as offering to perform the necessary data analysis, or something as complicated as documenting and recommending refactoring of the process from start to end.

The other thing that Product Managers can do is to keep onboarding in mind when doing customer interviews, writing user stories, and designing features into the product. Every new feature is, in fact, an onboarding opportunity — we should be thinking in detail about how users will discover our new features, how they will understand the problem set they’re intended to solve, and how little friction we can place between the user and this understanding. If we start with what we have direct control or influence over, we’ll demonstrate the value we add naturally, and the opportunities to improve overall onboarding will develop organically.

“It’s not difficult getting to $2,000 a month;
it’s staying there that poses the challenge.”
Simon Grabowski

The TL;DR:

Overall, as Product Managers we should be as mindful and focused on the customer experience before using the product as we are once the customer actually gets into the product. This means working within our organizations to remove impediments, to reduce friction, and to streamline the user’s experience from the time they learn of our product to the time that they have their first interaction within it. The faster you can demonstrate value to your customer, the faster they’ll be willing to part with their money in order to keep that value.

About the Author

Cliff Gilley
Cliff Gilley has been a Product Manager for nearly 12 years, working in a variety of industries and company sizes. He has assisted several of these companies in their transitions to Agile development and Scrum methods, and is a firm believer that agility is a value you must have, not something you just do. He currently blogs and consults as The Clever PM, providing providing tips, tricks, and hacks to make people better, more clever Product Managers.

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