Best Practices

A Guide to SaaS Customer Onboarding [Updated for 2020]

‘Customer Onboarding’ is an umbrella term that’s often used to describe the entire process that users go through when they start their journey as a customer of your product or service. The onboarding experience can define the ongoing relationship your customer has with the product. In other words: It’s critical.

Think back to the last time you tried to add a new habit to your life. 

Perhaps you thought “this is finally my year to learn a new language.” You downloaded an app, felt the thrill of practicing for 5 days in a row, and then…life happened. One day you had to stay late at work, so your evening was rushed, and you fell into bed without practicing. Then you tried that new show everyone is talking about and watched the whole season in one weekend. 

After a while, your motivation fades and the excuses become more prevalent. 

If you relate to any part of that scenario, chances are you’re a human. We’ve all tried building new habits, to varying degrees of success. It’s no easy feat.

The thing is, learning and incorporating a SaaS app into a workflow is no different than learning a language, hitting the gym, or sticking to morning meditation. When a person signs up for a SaaS free trial, they’re faced with building the habit of using that product consistently. 

We know that building habits is hard, so your job as a SaaS company is to support a new user as much as possible during those initial weeks. This is where customer onboarding comes into play. Let’s explore. 

What is customer onboarding?

First up, what does “customer onboarding” mean?

Customer onboarding, or SaaS onboarding, is the process of helping new users get started and stay engaged. It’s a series of steps and resources that help make incorporating a SaaS product into the user’s routine as easy as possible. 

Onboarding isn’t just about teaching new users which buttons to click to use your app, though. The best customer onboarding strategy considers true customer goals. That is, what is it that users want to achieve, and what does “success” mean to them?

People care more about outcomes than features, and it’s your job to help them reach those outcomes as easily and predictably as possible. Click To Tweet

Onboarding is made easy when it:

  • Offers users a roadmap and process
  • Sends consistent reminders and motivators
  • Has resources for potential sticking points

Onboarding is made predictable when it:

  • Segments engagements based on user goals or cohorts
  • Adapts to changing goals over time
  • Is created and tested intentionally

In addition to the positive aspects of onboarding, such as a user’s definition of “success,” you also need to consider the challenges. Onboarding is all about helping a user build a new habit, which means they’ll face roadblocks. To counteract this, you’re going to have to figure out how to keep motivation high, and barriers to maintaining momentum low. 

When do you need a customer onboarding process?

SaaS onboarding is used any time a user is new to your platform. This happens most often with free trials. However, you might need a smaller onboarding process when a user upgrades to a new product or tier that has additional features. 

While we’ll be exploring a full-blown, multi-channel approach below, customer onboarding isn’t something to start considering once you hit a certain threshold.

Onboarding is essential for every user, even your first. Click To Tweet

While it may take time to build up your process, there needs to be some form of support from the get-go. 

How long does onboarding last?

Truthfully, onboarding should last as long as it takes for a user to become comfortable and confident using the tool. However, you’ll focus your planning within the bounds of your free trial. Even a freemium product should focus on the first few weeks of a user’s account. 

In addition to considering how long an onboarding process should last, you need to limit how much information you’ll cover. It’s tempting to show every user every feature you’ve worked so hard on, but relevance is more powerful than quantity. 

What is the “aha moment”?

Every habit you’ve ever stuck with has had a moment that solidified itself in your routine. 

You think “ah, so THAT’S what meditation can do for me” when you react calmly to an unnerving situation. Or you feel a little more pep in your step when you try your new running shoes. 

Successful SaaS users have these moments, too, and they’re called “aha moments.”

The aha moment is the point that the value of your product finally clicks for a user. Click To Tweet

While it may seem like an elusive moment, you can use data to uncover it. You can read a great guide about the aha moment here, but I’ll summarize. 

By comparing the actions and engagement of retained users versus churned users, the moments that contribute most to a user’s success begin to float to the surface. 

When a new user follows the path to an aha moment, they understand how your product can help, and they want to keep getting the results. Without an aha moment, a user will feel lackluster about their success and lose motivation to keep going.

How do you measure SaaS onboarding?

The lasting effect of customer onboarding will surface as either rising monthly recurring revenue or rising churn. Therefore, it’s critical to monitor onboarding metrics that signal whether a user is succeeding or sinking. 

The ultimate goal of onboarding is to carry users into a paid plan. Therefore, you’ll measure your conversion rate from free trial to paying subscriber. Pinning down a single “good” conversion rate for an industry is tricky.  So I always suggest comparing your rates now to your rates in the past. Looking at industry benchmarks are interesting, but the only real test is tracking your company’s progress over time.

While conversions are an essential metric, they don’t tell us much about the details of the onboarding process. Therefore, the main customer onboarding metric to measure is customer engagement. Focus your investigation on:

  • How often customers are logging in
  • How long a user stays logged in
  • How many features users are exploring
  • Which features are most popular, and which are being ignored
  • When users are taking advantage of certain features

Another powerful tool to have in your inboarding analysis toolbox is cohort analysis.

Cohort analysis
Cohort analysis is a powerful tool to understand how specific features and measures impact churn.

These graphs may look confusing at first, but they help you monitor the evolution of users via their churn rate. Implementing a cohort analysis alongside your onboarding process updates gives you insight into whether or not your changes are helping (or hurting).

Tailoring the customer onboarding process for your company

We’ve explored SaaS onboarding from a high-level, but there’s truly no one-size-fits-all strategy. 

Product considerations

The first factor that impacts your onboarding is your product. The length and format of onboarding will vary based on:

  • How complicated your product is, and which features are best to start with
  • What plan level users start with, and what feature limitations may be in place
  • Whether or not features require data or information to work

Customer considerations

In addition to considering user segments and goals, you need to choose between a high-tech or high-touch onboarding approach. 

High-tech onboarding uses more automated messages and self-service information or product tours. This is ideal for simpler products or single users. 

High-touch onboarding incorporates more one-on-one assistance or touchpoints with a Customer Success Manager. This approach may be helpful for very technical products or user accounts with multiple team members.

Elements of SaaS customer onboarding (and what you can do to improve them)

Elements of SaaS customer onboarding

If everything we’ve covered so far has felt abstract, don’t worry. It’s time to look at specific tactics you’ll use in your customer onboarding strategy.

Signup process

I know what you’re thinking: “you said onboarding is for people who have signed up, not for people signing up.” The signup process is part of the journey, though. 

During sign up, you begin to set expectations and gather useful information about user goals and priorities. For example, Basecamp uses the signup process to get information that sets up the product. Rather than making a user start from scratch and create their own teams and projects, they offer a selection to choose from during signup. Then, that info is auto-filled as soon as a user completes registration. 

Best practices:

  • Should you have a simple signup form or ask for a lot of information upfront? When in doubt, start simple. Only asking for the absolutely necessary information reduces the complexity and lowers the barrier to signing up. You can experiment with adding more later as Basecamp does. 
  • Form field validation – nothing is more annoying than entering a bunch of data and afterward being told that you actually need “at least one upper case character”. Grr!
  • Some positive reinforcement while the form is being filled in, that the user is actually signing up for something great – why not complement the signup form with some social proof – a much-needed helping hand to get through the chore of signing up.
  • Social signup buttons – they’re proven to increase signup rates, and the process is generally much smoother for the user. Also, they see a brand that they respect on your site (i.e., Facebook). Caution: Think about whether you’ll still need to request a password and more information from the user, though. A social signup followed by another lengthy form pretty much defeats the point!

How to create it: Think about what information is absolutely critical. For most products, this is probably just a name, email, and password. Beyond the “need to know” are the “great to know” elements. These could be self-segmenting questions that help autofill data. Add on questions or segments carefully, and number it so that they know when they’re getting close. 

How to improve it: If not many people are getting through your signup, you may be asking too much. Consider scaling back fields or reducing any back-and-forth steps.

Welcome email

After the signup comes the welcome email. Think of it as a celebration or kick-off! The welcome email is important since it’s your first contact with the customer once they’ve created their account. It’s also the first true email you’re sending them, and therefore needs to set communication expectations. 

Welcome email from FreshBooks
FreshBooks’ welcome email is full of reminders of the value users are getting.

The welcome email from FreshBooks is a great example. First, they state their value prop with the intro “Welcome to the World of Easy Invoicing.” They’re also celebrating the user’s action, and adding a little social proof. Next, they reiterate the outcomes to expect. Finally, they offer a few next steps.

Best practices:

  • Keeping it simple. Yes, there are probably a lot of things you want to (or need to) tell your new customers. But don’t bombard them with information! Some things can wait until they’ve spent a bit of time in your product.
  • Give them some resources that will help them and further engage them – this is a great opportunity to use that high-quality content you’ve been publishing on your blog. At ChartMogul, we always send links to our SaaS Metrics Cheat Sheets, which give a concise overview of the topic.
  • Don’t forget to thank them! They’ve just taken the time to sign up for your product, after all.
  • Reiterate your company’s perspective or mission, along with the outcomes and benefits a new user can expect. 

How to create it: Think about the context in which someone is signing up. What are they going through or struggling with that led them to sign up today? Address the outcomes they want and give them the first step to get started. 

How to improve it: If you have a few links in the email like FreshBooks does, monitor which are most popular. If one consistently gets ignored, delete it in favor of a simpler email. If the welcome email isn’t getting them into your app at all, you might need to change positioning. 

If any of the links in your welcome email are constantly getting ignored, delete them in favor of a simpler email. Click To Tweet

First login

The first login is a user’s first impression of the app. If you want to reduce churn, take a look at your first login experience. It will either get the ball rolling or interrupt the experience. 

SaaS customer onboarding elements: First login
Mention doesn’t risk leaving me with an empty dashboard when I first log in.

Mention uses a pop-up at first login to welcome users, as seen above. Once again, there’s a summary of the benefits and use cases. Then, the CTA is to “create your first alert.”

Best practices: 

  • Not presenting the user with an empty UI. In many cases, with a B2B SaaS product, the customer is not going to have a wealth of data presented to them on the first login. Services that require data connections, import, etc. are going to require an extra step after login (see Data Import).
  • Give the user a clear path to what they should do first. Presenting them with a set of tools and buttons that they’ve never seen before is going to require some form of signpost towards the first step.
  • Positive reinforcement. They’ve got this far – why not take the chance to thank them again and remind them of how awesome things are going to be, once they have everything set up.

How to create it: What’s the first step? This could be the first hurdle to overcome or a quick win. Give them a welcome and a place to start. 

How to improve it: Do people take the step you put forward? If yes, did it have a positive impact on onboarding and retention? If not, is there a more logical first step?

Data import

Many B2B tools require customers to import their data (or connect data sources) to use them. For example, Buffer needs you to connect a social account, and ChartMogul needs you to connect a billing system. This is one of the major barriers to the whole onboarding process – customers will generally not see any value from the product until they complete this step.

There are a few ways you can approach data import, including:

  • Making it easy to connect accounts or import data, and making it the first step
  • Autofill information based on what you learned during signup, as Basecamp does
  • Put in dummy data, so they see how great it is to import their own information

Notion chooses to offer data import during sign up, but their design could be used after the first login, too. 

Data import from Notion
Notion are (literally) putting money on getting you to import data.

No matter how essential importing data is to customer success, you should always allow users to skip if they want. Notion includes a progress bar to let users know the setup is almost finished, but there’s still a “skip” button in the upper right corner.

Interestingly, Notion has chosen to make importing data more worthwhile by offering a $5 credit when importing from Evernote. They may have identified this step as an “aha moment” contributor and want to really entice users to do it. 

Best practices: 

  • Automating as much of the process as possible
  • Supporting those who get stuck
  • Not requiring hours of the user’s time (we’ll let you know when it’s finished).
  • Whether you can do any of this during the signup process?

How to create it: You probably know what that essential piece of data is. If you don’t, look to what people skip over who eventually churn. Make importing data as seamless and as few steps as possible. 

How to improve it: Can the connection or import be even easier? Can you prep them before they get to that point so that they have the info they need? If they don’t import, can you remind them?

Other emails

After the initial welcome email, you have a great opportunity to keep your new customers engaged and educated by sending them emails. This is your best chance of getting the customer to really use all the features of your product.

There are many different types of onboarding emails you can use, too. You can call attention to single features at a time, or group them together as a “use case” or a unique way to take advantage of your app.

Content is also a great way to bolster the onboarding journey. Case studies and testimonials are useful for re-energizing users. Click To Tweet

Finally, make sure you’re sending reminders and CTA emails toward the end of the trial. 

SaaS customer onboarding elements: Additional email from Evernote
Evernote gradually educates users on the multiple ways they can profit from the service.

In the Evernote example above, the company is calling attention to the “use case” of collaboration. They mention a few features, such as sharing notes and collecting feedback but group them together as a general way to use Evernote. 

Best practices

  • They’re called Drip campaigns because drips are small. Make sure you introduce just one new concept per email – the rest can wait for the following emails.
  • They’re also called Drip campaigns because drips are regular. Follow a posting schedule that supports “little and often.” If you get this right, the customer will expect (and even look forward to) each subsequent mail.
  • The goal is not to show each feature of the product and how it works in detail. The goal is to entice the customer to go and try out the feature. If you don’t get people INTO your app, they’ll become disengaged.
  • If you want to make your onboarding email series personalized, add behavior-based emails. Messages that are specific to the actions a person has (or hasn’t) taken are more relevant than generic time-based emails. 

How to create it: Refer back to your “aha moment” and determine what steps lead up to that. This will help you prioritize what features to call attention to, and which content is most relevant. 

How to improve it: Look at which emails are driving the most and least engagement.

Based on your top performers, what can you learn about what catches a person’s eye and motivates them to act? 

Product tutorials

A welcome message during the first login is great, but you’re here to support users in the long run. Product tours and tooltips give your community on-demand lessons on using your app. 

As with every onboarding component, there are different ways to present product tutorials. These include:

  • A “getting started” checklist within the UI to keep users on track
  • An in-app learning center or in-demand product tour
  • Tutorial buttons alongside different features

GoToMeeting chooses to use an onboarding checklist that’s always available for review, shown below. It clearly lays out a roadmap for new users and tracks their progress. Anyone who has ever added a task to their daily to-do list just to cross it off understands how enticing a progress bar is. 

Checklist from GoTo Meeting
GoToMeetings uses a checklist to give users a roadmap to follow.

Other companies, such as Google Drive, insert videos or animations to take users step-by-step. 

SaaS customer onboarding elements: Google Drive tutorial
Google Drive makes great use of videos to educate users.

Best practices: 

  • Making it skippable. This is critical. There’s nothing worse than being forced through a tutorial that you don’t need to or want to see. Let me out!!
  • Making it possible for people to come back to it later. People commonly skip pop-ups and notifications when they first log in to something. So at least make sure that they can find it again when they realize it was actually quite useful to them after all…

How to create it: Prioritize product tutorials for either a) core first steps or b) tasks where you see engagement drop off. Product tutorials are useful for showing users how easy or how helpful a given action is. 

How to improve it: First, look at whether or not people are using the tutorial, and if so, when? A tutorial that is more “in the way” than helpful may need to be scrapped or shown at a different time. 

Documentation

Documentation isn’t an entirely exciting prospect, but it’s an important element of any onboarding experience. If everything goes well, perhaps it’s not needed at all. But you want to be sure that when users are really stuck, they can get the guidance they need – and that it’s easily accessible and understandable.

MailChimp Knowledge base homepage
The Mailchimp Knowledge Base is well-structured, easy to find and puts search front and center.

In the example above, Mailchimp splits their “knowledge base” across different categories. The more you empower a user to self-service, the better. Having various types and levels of support casts the widest net for users to overcome their issues and continue using your app. 

Best practices:

  • Bad or out-of-date documentation can be worse than no documentation at all. Make sure that the documentation you do have is easily maintainable – otherwise, get rid of it.
  • Structure your documentation around tasks that the user is trying to accomplish with your product (and name them this way). There’s nothing wrong with “How to do X…“

How to create it: Need to start creating documentation from scratch? It may seem counterintuitive but start with the pieces of the “aha moment” puzzle. You want to bolster your critical moments first, to capitalize on the strengths you already have. Then, move onto the topics or features that users are struggling with.  

How to improve it: Once you’ve covered all of the documentation bases, go back and recreate some in different formats. Everyone has learning preferences or formats that are more accessible to them.

In-App Notifications

Depending on the nature of your SaaS product, notifications will have a varying impact on the onboarding experience. Regardless of how many notifications you push to users, they remain a key contact point, with a strong potential for re-engaging disengaged users.

You can use in-app engagements to:

  • Call attention to a critical feature a user has been ignoring
  • Congratulate a user’s progress
  • Give small tips (like Harvest does below)
  • Remind users about missing data
SaaS customer onboarding elements: Harvest in-app notification
Harvest explains the value in clear terms when asking users to perform a specific action.

Best practices:

  • Frequency. Getting this right is a fine balance between fading into background noise and spamming the user into frustration.
  • How do you tempt the user into re-engaging with the product? If you give them too much information in the notification, they might have no need to do this. Get the balance right, and the notification is both useful and acts as positive encouragement to go and explore your product.
  • Choice. Let the user fine-tune your notifications to achieve the frequency that suits them.

How to create it: Your priority during onboarding is reinforcing prime features. Start with in-app messages that keep users on track. 

How to improve it: Experiment with different frequencies, amount of information, format, and segmentation. 

Checkup call

This can have a huge impact on the overall onboarding experience of your customers. Why? Because it’s a touchpoint with a human being. The power of simply picking up the phone and having a quick chat with a new customer to check-in can out-rank almost any other element listed here. And the best thing is, it’s two-way – you get a ton of valuable feedback at the same time! Win-win.

You can either send a message specifically offering a checkup call, or incorporate the offer into your onboarding emails. Customer.io chooses the latter, as seen below. 

SaaS customer onboarding elements: Checkup call from Customer.io
Customer.io uses the onboarding flow to get users to talk to the team.

Best practices:

  • Find the right point in time to do this. Too soon, and the customer won’t really have anything much to tell you – they might even find your behavior almost “needy.” Too late, and they may already have made a clear-cut decision that their sub-par experience will mean that they won’t be paying for your product.
  • Think about what you can do with the data you get from these calls. It’s likely that there are some great actionable insights, but you need to take a measured approach – it’s easy to derail your vision and roadmap for the product with individual cases of feedback, particularly when talking directly with customers (there’s more emotion involved).

How to create it: Your customer success management program is unique to your company. When in doubt, keep it simple, and personally reach out to users offering help.

How to improve it: Your customer success, marketing, sales, and product teams should be talking about what you’re finding out, and what you’d like to learn.

Swag

Everyone loves swag! Startups are always finding more innovative ways to wow users with ever-more elaborate swag packs. There are even services such as StartupThreads, which manage sending swag boxes to customers.

You can also turn high-quality swag into an incentive. ConvertKit sends users a free t-shirt IF they complete the onboarding checklist during your trial. Genius. 

SaaS customer onboarding elements: ConvertKit checklist
Complete the onboarding — get a branded t-shirt.

Best practice:

  • Swag only works well when it’s an additive to a great onboarding experience. i.e., it can make a good experience great, but not a poor experience good.
  • Send something that customers will actually want to use (or wear). You don’t want to represent your brand with that pathetically-poor last-generation iPhone charging cable that nobody can use any more.
  • If you’re small enough, add a personal touch! Hand-written cards or a quick thank you note will make the customer truly feel loved.

How to create it: Be very intentional about what you send, when, and to who. Sending pointless or low-quality swag could damage your brand. Think about what you’d want to receive and use, and then how you can make it personal or memorable.

How to improve it: You could send special swag to your most engaged segments for an extra “wow” factor. 

The difficult truth about customer onboarding

We’ve covered what customer onboarding can do when it’s going well. Now, let’s address a hard fact. 

Your entire onboarding process is only as strong as your weakest component. Click To Tweet

If there’s a spot for new users to slip through a crack of engagement and let their free trial come and go, some will inevitably fall victim. Even an onboarding experience that results in someone converting to a paid plan isn’t exempt from scrutiny. 

After all, poor onboarding leads to churn. Without the proper foundation and support, a user may fail to see value in the long run and choose to cancel their account. You may be able to lure some users back after churning, but it will be tough. 

I don’t say this to scare you, though. We review onboarding so that these things don’t happen. You can use a churn-informed onboarding review strategy. 

First, you need to identify red flags. Start by asking yourself:

  • Where are users dropping off during their free trial? Could it be because they’re struggling with a particular feature, or that they aren’t sure what to do next?
  • Are there any signals in analytics that users are frustrated around a particular step?
  • Is one segment showing better retention than another? What’s different about their onboarding journeys?
  • How do usage patterns compare for churning vs. non-churning customers?

When you’re improving your SaaS onboarding, ask as many questions and find as many answers as possible. Consult the data, as well as feedback from users. Cross-department communication is important. 

Once you’ve identified your weak spots, get to work improving them. Start with one change at a time, and see how it plays out in your cohort analysis. Your onboarding strategy won’t be created in a day, so it certainly won’t be changed in one. 

In the meantime, check out our other SaaS Resources to learn about the other metrics and SaaS strategies you need to know.

This article was originally published on the ChartMogul blog on November 9, 2015.

Ed Shelley

Former Director of Content

@Mr_Ed

onboarding retention saas UX