Ultimate Guide to SaaS Customer Onboarding (+Checklist)

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Onboarding is your opportunity to shine in your customer’s eyes. It’s your best chance to help your customers understand how your product helps them meet their needs and solve their problems. 1 in 3 people will walk away from a brand they love after just one bad experience, so getting your client onboarding right is crucial.

Creating a compelling SaaS customer onboarding experience starts with building the proper framework. If you skip the work that builds the foundation for your onboarding, your clients will get little to no value, resulting in bad experiences.

What is Customer Onboarding?

Customer onboarding is the process of introducing your customers to your product or service and providing guidance on how everything works. A complete onboarding process considers the holistic journey your customers embark on from the moment they sign up for your product or service to when they become regular, contracted customers.

The purpose of customer onboarding is to transition your customers from beginners to habitual users of your product by empowering them to move through your product with enough support to accomplish their goals.

The best onboarding experiences include several elements inside and outside your product to keep your customers engaged while continuously giving them reasons to keep using it.

Why Does Customer Onboarding Matter?

A great onboarding UX is paramount to increasing a SaaS customer’s lifetime value. When customers realize your value, it can reduce churn and turn first-time customers into loyal users who will be delighted to stick around and even purchase your other products or services.

If your customers don’t experience value from your product quickly and achieve digital adoption easily, your chances of retaining them rapidly decrease. SaaS businesses can already expect to lose up to 10% of revenue to churn every year, making a positive onboarding experience even more crucial.

How to Create a Successful SaaS Customer Onboarding Process in 4 Steps

Building a customer onboarding experience that creates delight starts with thoughtful planning and a lot of data. Before you begin the onboarding-building process, you can take a few housekeeping steps to ensure you’re not creating onboarding based on wild guesses.

Step 1: Identify your platform’s critical action points

Critical actions — both positive and negative — happen inside your product daily. It’s essential to uncover where your onboarding flow is breaking and where customers are hitting a wall so you can fix those issues first. Figuring out where customers are “getting it” provides clues you can take advantage of when you build your onboarding flows.

Make sure to find your customer’s “aha” moment — the emotional responses customers experience when they genuinely realize your product’s value and believe it is the right tool for their job. Finding the aha moment is crucial because it sets the hook — it kickstarts the motivation to continue using your product and sets the tone for the rest of the customer’s journey.

For example, video marketing tool Wistia delivers a lightning-quick initial aha moment by taking customers to a page with a “create” button after completing a one-click sign-up form. In just a few minutes, customers can set up a project, upload a video, customize it, and embed or share that video. This helps provide a quick time-to-value for Wistia users.

The right software stack makes it easier to discover relevant critical actions. Heatmaps and session replay tools can locate macro actions, like where a customer stopped reading on a page or which pages have a high bounce or exit rate.

Product analytics tools like Whatfix Analytics can be implemented for more minor actions, like when a customer abandons a step in a checklist. Customer feedback and survey can uncover which features made customers try your product, what part of your product they find most valuable, and how long it took them to understand how to use it.

Journey mapping is another way to better understand your development by visualizing your customers’ actions inside your product. Use a tool like Miro to map out customer touchpoints — start at the sign-up process and finish at the end of your onboarding process, then work from both ends to ensure you don’t miss any steps. Mapping out your customer journey will reveal any gaps in your current onboarding.

Step 2: Prepare a customer welcome series

Welcoming customers after they sign up isn’t just a best practice — your customers expect it. Setting up a welcome email series forges a clear starting point for a customer’s onboarding journey. It allows you to guide them to specific features, educate, and remind them you exist if they haven’t logged on to your platform in a while.

To create a truly exceptional experience, welcome customers inside and outside your platform. Product tours and welcome messages are a popular way to greet new customers — the overlay is attention-grabbing, and there’s no question where the customer should focus their attention. 

For example, here is a welcome video module for onboarding users to Microsoft 365 from the Whatfix digital adoption platform.

You can even embed a video of someone in your company welcoming them to create a more personal feel.

Step 3 - Choose an onboarding model

Now that you’ve studied your data and understand what your customers need to see the value of your product, it’s time to choose the model you’ll use to drive customers through your user flow. There are several models you can employ:

1. Self-service onboarding: Self-service onboarding takes a hands-off approach to onboarding and works well if your product is straightforward or doesn’t require a lot of time or explanation to get up to speed. With this method, you’ll set up a basic onboarding flow, like a getting started guide or walkthrough, then let customers handle the rest of the journey independently.

This onboarding method is common practice for social media networks and many mobile apps — after a few screens of getting started information, users are left to explore the product on their own.

2. Low-touch onboarding: Low-touch onboarding takes self-serve a step further by adding onboarding elements like in-app product tours, checklists, step-by-step interactive onboarding walkthroughs, and getting started tutorials. With low-touch onboarding, customers have some human support options, but no support is dedicated to any single customer. This is a good onboarding model for moderately complex products that require several steps but don’t need to hand-hold customers through each step of the process.

Low-touch onboarding has become the standard for many of today’s most successful SaaS companies. Organizations like Zoom, Shopify, Canva, and Mailchimp have all employed the low-touch model to engage their customers and create loyal fans.

3. High-touch onboarding: High-touch onboarding is a helpful model if your product is complex, takes several steps to initially set up, or understanding your product takes a significant chunk of time. Using this method means you’ll be accommodating your customer’s specific needs through personalized, one-on-one experiences and often involves the creation of customized onboarding collateral.

Allbound’s onboarding process is an excellent example of what high-touch looks like in practice. The complex product partner relationship management software takes a lot of time to learn and set up, so when you sign up, Allbound sets up a series of required training sessions, including a kickoff call where they walk you through what will be discussed in future virtual meetings. They also have an extensive self-serve knowledge base that supplements their training and helps customers better understand specific features.

Step 4: Measure, iterate, and improve

Testing and improving your onboarding process based on qualitative and quantitative data should be a non-negotiable part of your onboarding creation strategy. Optimizing your onboarding flow is a continuous process, and there will always be improvements to make.

Check your analytics often to see if your churn rate is increasing or decreasing. Talk to customers, send surveys, and regularly speak with users. Develop continuous feedback and ideation loops inside your organization, and set hard dates to reflect on the qualitative and quantitative data, then turn those findings into onboarding improvements.

7 Customer Onboarding Best Practices in 2023

Following a few best practices when building the framework for your onboarding flows helps ensure you create an experience that works well from the beginning. Here are some things to keep in mind to help you maximize your onboarding’s effectiveness.

1. Minimize friction during sign-up

Ask only as much information as you need to create a great first experience. If the information you’re asking for has no bearing on the user’s first experience with your product, wait until later to ask the question or gather the information.

When designing your onboarding program, put some energy into thinking about how much information you need from them to get them up and running the first time they use your product. If the only pieces of information you need from a customer to get up and running are a name and email address, make those the only form fields on your sign-up form. You can wait to get more of their personal details, like job title or industry, until after they’ve gone through at least part of your onboarding process.

2. Front-load your product’s value

The faster your product can show users how to solve their problems, the more they will want to use it. Baking in quick wins creates momentum and makes your users feel like your product is easy to use.

To front-load value, figure out what a quick win looks like. To determine what your customers consider a win, look at your data and locate where churn rapidly drops off — that’s where your customers are finding their wins. If your product has a single focus, a quick win could be walking them through the process to completion, like creating an email and hitting the send button.

If your product is complex or multi-functional, focus on giving the customer a solid understanding of a small part of your platform or the completion of a task in a specific area. For example, a project management platform could walk customers through creating one board, entering a few tasks, and assigning due dates.

When you create those wins for your customers, make a big deal out of it and celebrate with them. That recognition creates good feelings associated with your product and gives them more reasons to stick around or come back and use your product again. Asana does this by randomly generating a “celebration creature” that soars across the screen when a customer marks a task complete.

3. Keep your onboarding simple

Reducing the time it takes to complete an individual journey by making it easier and simpler has a strong effect on customer satisfaction. Keep your guides and instructions short and to the point, and resist the urge to explain everything your product does in one step, or you’ll confuse customers and delay or quash wins.

One tip is to start your onboarding flow by calling out your product’s core features and explaining how they work. If your product is complex, create an onboarding journey for each product section and keep the instructions brief.

Implementing an in-app guidance tool such as Whatfix simplifies SaaS onboarding experiences by creating step-by-step walkthroughs of your product – as seen in the GIF below.

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4. Keep communication open

Testing and improving your onboarding process based on qualitative and quantitative data should be a non-negotiable part of your onboarding creation strategy. Optimizing your onboarding flow is a continuous process, and there will always be improvements to make.

Check your analytics often to see if your churn rate is increasing or decreasing. Talk to customers, send surveys, and regularly speak with users. Develop continuous customer feedback and ideation loops inside your organization, and set hard dates to reflect on the qualitative and quantitative data, then turn those findings into onboarding improvements.

See the example below on how SaaS applications can use Whatfix to gather feedback on different areas of their customer onboarding flow.

5. Offer personalized onboarding flows

Personalization increases engagement, and engaged customers will spend more time inside your product. Your customers won’t use your product the same way, so offer different paths and ask your customers what they need so you can direct them to a walkthrough or tutorial that hones in on their immediate needs.

You can implement personalization by letting customers pick different paths on your welcome screen, or you can create a few forks in your onboarding flow, then ask for a small amount of information during sign-up to put customers on a semi-custom path.

The meditation app, Calm, does this by asking questions about the user’s state of mind during the sign-up process — once they’ve signed up, they serve up meditations based on the answers to the user’s questions.

With a digital adoption platform like Whatfix, customer success and implementation teams can build custom, personalized onboarding flows for each client.

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6. Use the right tools

Building your onboarding requires more than hard work and dedication. It requires customer onboarding software, too. Tools like Whatfix allow you to continuously build and test your onboarding flows to improve your onboarding experience.

Whatfix lets you create step-by-step walkthroughs, tooltips, videos, and PDFs to help new users better understand the different features of your app. It also allows you to add self-help widgets inside your app, so users can access training content as needed and learn in the flow of work.

With Whatfix Analytics, you can capture, track, and measure key user onboarding KPIs to build a data-driven onboarding strategy.

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Create personalized learning & training flows for your enterprise apps with Whatfix

7. Automate repetitive processes

SaaS customer onboarding automation is all about simplifying the onboarding process by generating automated messages or launching contextual in-app help.

Look at your customer onboarding processes to understand what can be automated. Simplifying signup is a great way to boost customer satisfaction. You may also explore optimizing your welcome page with automated welcome messages or surveys.

6 Examples of Great SaaS Customer Onboarding Experiences

There’s no one-size-fits-all guide to SaaS customer onboarding, but these examples offer insights you can borrow to build your own onboarding experience.

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1. Calendly

The online appointment scheduling tool Calendly nails the keep-it-simple principle by collecting just enough information for a user to get started. On their homepage, a user enters only their email address, then an email address, name, and password on the next page. Once that information is submitted and the user confirms their email address, they are taken to a page where they can set up their custom calendar.

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2. Trello

The task management and collaboration tool Trello gets customers to their goals faster by displaying a simple but thorough checklist once their sign-up process is completed. The customer sets up a workspace as part of the sign-up process, so the first task is already crossed off in their checklist when they arrive on the first screen. This creates a quick win for the user and guides them through the setup process, increasing their chances of staying on the platform longer.

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3. Klaviyo

The marketing automation platform Klaviyo asks for several pieces of information from customers during the sign-up process. They reduce friction and simplify the process by breaking the tasks into three steps. Once the customer has completed the third and final step, they are directed to a dashboard where they’re greeted by a list of topics that direct customers to help center articles.

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4. Whatfix

Whatfix drives customer onboarding and adoption with personalized guidance and embedded learn-by-doing techniques. Initiate the perfect handshake with a customized employee onboarding experience. Welcome new users with the first call-to-action based on their role. Provide an option to new users to discover the application with a guided tour

Whatfix’s Task List feature allows you to create a list of to-do tasks for customers to help them kickstart their onboarding process. The Task List engages and reminds users to complete the tasks at hand by enabling them to self-track their progress against their assigned tasks.

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5. Box

Hit the ground running with enterprise workflow automation using Box. Start with pre-built departmental workflow templates and custom-configured templates, or create workflows with the intuitive no-code builder. Box has a reasonably simple home page layout with a prominent CTA, enabling new users to get up and running as soon as possible. Clicking the CTA takes users to the pricing page, where they can see a breakdown of each price plan. This means users can immediately choose the most appropriate plan for them.

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6. Hubspot

HubSpot onboards and retains users by personalizing the onboarding experience based on user survey responses. The SaaS tool sends new users a getting-to-know-you Q&A session with no more than four multiple-choice questions.

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Free SaaS Customer Onboarding Checklist

If you’ve followed the steps and practices above, you now have all the ingredients for creating an onboarding journey that will knock your user’s socks off. Now it’s time to take your findings and data and execute your onboarding flow.

To create the most effective onboarding journey, think through your entire onboarding flow before you start building. Here’s a checklist that takes you through building a comprehensive customer onboarding flow to turn first-time customers into loyal adopters.

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Get a free SaaS Customer Onboarding Checklist to create an effective onboarding journey for your Customers.

✓ Thank you, the checklist will be sent to your email

Step 1: Welcome your customer

Welcoming your customer should happen both inside and outside of your product. Build in several ways to tell your customers you’re thrilled they chose your product.

  • Prepare an automated email welcome message series that triggers when a customer signs up
  • Add a welcome screen or modal
  • Add welcome content to initial empty states (screens where there’s nothing to display yet)

Step 2: Design your first-run onboarding flow

A first-run onboarding flow should be designed for new customers to give them their first quick win. When designing this onboarding flow, think about what your customers need to learn first to get their initial aha moment.

  • Choose your onboarding model (self-serve, low-touch, or high-touch)
  • Decide which onboarding elements to build and deploy inside your product (checklists, product tours, modal video guides, in-app tutorials, progress bars, walkthroughs, chatbots, live assistance tools)
  • Choose the aha moment to drive customers to first
  • Work backward from the aha moment to build a path that results in a completed task or project

Step 3: Create non-product onboarding elements

Not all onboarding elements will live inside your product. The following elements can be placed on your main website or a subdomain to create spaces where customers can educate themselves about your product at their convenience.

With Whatfix, build a self-help knowledge base directly in your application – as seen below:

self-service-guidance

Step 4: Set up customer support channels

No matter how comprehensive your onboarding is, your customers are going to run into trouble. Set up at least one of these channels if you work with a low or high-touch model.

  • Chatbots or live assistance tools
  • Help desk software
  • Social media customer support
  • Dedicated email address for support
Creating a solid customer onboarding strategy is a journey, not a destination

Onboarding is a journey for everyone involved, and building a customer onboarding flow is not a one-and-done project. It’s an ongoing process that needs constant attention and care, so if you plan to grow your company and increase your customer base (spoiler alert: you do), you’ll need to upgrade and evolve your onboarding flows constantly. Even your loyal customers may not know how to use certain features that could solve some of their other problems or make their experience more delightful.

Once you’ve nailed your new customer onboarding journey, take what you’ve learned and apply the same principles when creating onboarding flows for new releases and more advanced users who’ve graduated from your initial onboarding flows.

Whatfix engages SaaS customer onboarding by helping you design interactive product tours, onboarding task lists, and contextual guidance. Whatfix ensures that users develop a high application proficiency within a short time. Whatfix’s user-level segmentation helps you create personalized user onboarding experiences which lead to a higher level of engagement.

Request a demo with Whatfix and learn how to accelerate your SaaS customer onboarding experience today.

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