Customer onboarding guide for 2023 (+6 best practices and examples)
Customer onboarding is the process of teaching new customers the value of your product or service. Here's how to build an onboarding program that sets clients up for success.
Last updated January 4, 2023
Most companies strive to position their product or service as the solution to customers’ problems. But the work doesn’t end once a consumer decides to do business with you—the post-purchase period is a critical transition time for buyers. They often need information and guidance on how to get the most value out of your products or services, so you must be ready to provide customer onboarding materials.
A proper onboarding process ensures customers know how to use your product or service effectively, helping with engagement and retention. According to Wyzowl, 86 percent of consumers are more likely to stay loyal to a company that invests in onboarding content that welcomes and educates them after they’ve made a purchase.
Customer onboarding is something you need to get right—every time. In this guide, we’ll explain how to build your onboarding strategy so you can consistently make strong first impressions on new buyers. We’ll also share customer onboarding best practices and examples from businesses that are doing it right.
What is customer onboarding?
Customer onboarding is the process of teaching new customers the value of your product or service. It happens between two key customer milestones: 1) when customers sign up for your product, and 2) when they experience their first success using your product.
Success looks different for each customer. It may be financial, such as increased profits or decreased overhead. Or, it could be their realization that your product or service has saved them time, energy, and resources.
The goal of customer onboarding is to deliver value to your users as early as possible so they continue coming back to your product and quickly adopt it as part of their daily work routine.
The customer onboarding process is focused on nurturing new customers—making sure they’re set up correctly, acquainted with your product, and comfortable using your product. The goal of customer onboarding is to deliver value to your users as early as possible so they continue coming back to your product and quickly adopt it as part of their daily work routine.
The best customer onboarding strategies put buyers’ goals at the center of the process and provide clear, detailed instructions on how to best use the product or service to achieve those goals.
What is the customer onboarding process?
The customer onboarding process refers to the steps you take to gradually and successfully show clients everything your product, service, and/or business have to offer.
Onboarding a new customer can take different forms, depending on the product or service you’re selling. Here are examples of ways to onboard new clients:
- A series of emails
- A call with a customer success manager
- On-site or virtual training
- An intro flow within an app
- Knowledge base articles, videos, and other content that demonstrate how to get started
- VIP customer service access for the first month
- Access to a community forum where new buyers can get help from other customers
The customer onboarding process begins as soon as a sale is made. Your team is responsible for providing education and support regarding the product or service that was sold.
Why is customer onboarding important?
Simply put, onboarding sets customers up for success.
First impressions stick—effective onboarding strategies familiarize your customers with your brand and set expectations for the value they can expect from your company. Customer onboarding is important for educating your clients so they can successfully use your product.
55% of people have returned a purchase because they didn’t fully know how to use it.
According to Wyzowl, 55 percent of people have returned a purchase because they didn’t fully know how to use it. By building an action-oriented, customer-centric onboarding process, you’re increasing the chances that your buyers will engage with your product. A robust process also enables customers to celebrate small victories, which will strengthen their trust in your business.
Customer onboarding can improve customer acquisition, too—63 percent of consumers say the amount of support they’ll likely receive post-sale plays a big part in their decision to make a purchase. During onboarding, your team is demonstrating the value your product can provide to customers. By showing this early and often, you’ll increase your conversion rate.
Benefits of effective customer onboarding
Onboarding allows your team to personalize each buyer’s experience based on their unique needs, goals, and expectations. When you’re guiding your clients each step of the way, you can ensure they’re not jumping ahead or missing any pertinent information. By offering thorough instruction and helping new users accomplish a single task at a time, you build their confidence in your product or service.
The onboarding process also provides customer data that could bring in future revenue. Collect information from your customers pre- and post-sale, and use your findings to adjust your engagement and sales strategies.
6 best practices for onboarding new customers
To create a positive customer onboarding experience, keep the process as organized as possible. With a streamlined strategy in place, you’ll be set to make your customers feel valued from the start.
Form an impactful customer onboarding program by following these steps.
1. Decide who will own the onboarding process
There are many components to a complete onboarding process. Responsibilities might include:
- Designing and writing content
- Organizing and running training sessions
- Managing client relationships
In smaller organizations or companies with simple products, a single person may be able to handle all the onboarding tasks. But in big organizations or companies where products require training, large teams devoted to customer success are the norm.
At Zendesk, our customer success team handles customer onboarding. Success professionals are part support, part account management, and part sales.
“Success members accompany the customer on their journey and stick around for the entire lifecycle,” explains Delores Cooper, associate manager of scaled customer success at Zendesk. “We’re here to provide recommendations for how Zendesk products can best align with our customers’ short-term needs and long-term goals.”
2. Identify your program’s goals
Once you’ve identified who’s responsible for onboarding, work with those team members to determine your goals for the program. Setting objectives will help you clarify where you should direct your efforts.
Here are a few examples of onboarding goals:
- A customer reports that your software freed up an hour each day after only one week of using it.
- The customer upgrades to a paid service at the end of a two-week free trial.
- The customer sees a 40-percent increase in website traffic within two months of using the product.
By creating onboarding goals, your team has a clear direction in building the process.
3. Determine how customer onboarding will take place
There are three main onboarding models. Choose one based on your company’s ideal customers and the complexity of your product or service.
The self-service model allows customers to onboard themselves at their leisure and takes the least amount of time to complete.
This model is best for simple business-to-consumer (B2C) products with many users and a high user experience rating. Self-service is a popular choice for products like mobile apps and handheld electronics.
LinkedIn’s mobile app has a very straightforward onboarding workflow. Users can seamlessly set up their new profiles in just a few clicks.
The high-touch model is the white-glove service of customer onboarding. It often includes personalized onboarding strategies and dedicated customer success representatives.
While this model is the most tailored to individual clients’ needs, it also requires the most resources.
The low-touch model falls somewhere between self-service and high-touch. It usually involves chat support and automated email campaigns, but not dedicated reps.
This can be a good option for a somewhat-complex product that requires explanation but not in-person training, like Google Ads or web hosting.
If you’re not sure about which model is best for your business, consider sending a client intake form to your customers. As you learn more about your users, you’ll develop a stronger sense of what type of onboarding they need.
4. Create a review system to continually improve onboarding
Keep an open line of communication with your customers and your internal team. Regularly review your onboarding program to ensure it’s meeting clients’ needs and expectations, and make changes as necessary.
“Implementing a cycle of communicating processes, receiving consistent feedback on them, documenting both successes and failures, and establishing a review cadence of your [standard operating procedures] will set you up for success,” explains Cooper.
5. Be prepared for change
Don’t expect your onboarding process to stay the same over the long term. Let your changing customers and business inform how you adjust it.
“When working with ever-evolving human beings, expect that your processes will also evolve,” says Cooper.
6 great customer onboarding examples
Ready to start forming your customer onboarding process? Here are six crucial steps to include, plus a few examples from companies that are doing it right.
1. Sign-up process
The sign-up stage is the first part of the onboarding experience.
- Keep your sign-up process short and sweet. You want to set your customers up for success from the start by making it easy for them to begin using your product or service. A name, email address, and password should be enough at this point.
- Lump your information requests. Spread out requests for user information over a set period of time. Although every company is different, if you notice a higher-than-average drop-off rate during the sign-up process, you may be asking for too much upfront. Keep forms to less than a page at the beginning. If you ask for additional information down the line, include a progress bar for users.
- Allow customers to sign up via a service they already use. Platforms like Google, Facebook, and Slack are often integrated so customers can sign-up with a single click.
Introducing the Zendesk Sales Suite
Zendesk Sell is a sales CRM platform designed to enhance productivity, processes, and pipeline visibility for sales teams. Sell removes the friction from deal management, so your team can always access, analyze, and collaborate on relevant deal data.
Example: Trello offers a convenient sign-up process
Trello makes it simple for customers to create an account. To get started, users only have to complete a one-form field, which works well for modern consumers with busy schedules.
Trello’s sign-up page also gives customers the opportunity to create an account using a tool that already has all their information (i.e., Google). This one-click sign-up deters drop-off from those who don’t want to fill out pages of information.
2. Welcome email
Send a welcome email immediately after a customer signs up for your product or service. This email should contain a high-level overview of the product or service and the next steps for using it.
- Show gratitude (it goes a long way). Say thank you. These users made time to sign up for your product, so let them know you value their business.
- Send helpful resources. Include links to onboarding materials like product tours, demo videos, knowledge base articles, and/or FAQs. Just be mindful of how much content you’re sending; you don’t want to overwhelm the customer this early in the process.
- Encourage customers to use your product. Supplemental resources are helpful, but the main goal of this email is to get your new user to click through and log in to use the product. Only then can they begin to experience its benefits. Including a call to action (CTA) in the email can give them the push they need to get started.
Example: DocSend delivers expertise in a single email
DocSend’s welcome email includes a list of action items to help a customer become an expert in using the software.
This email kicks off the onboarding process by taking readers through a series of steps that will help them learn about the product and its capabilities.
3. First log-in
While a user may have already watched a demo or taken a tour, their initial log-in is their first real impression of your product or service.
- Tell your customers exactly what to do. Don’t make them guess—provide them with helpful information or tools (like a setup wizard) as soon as they log in.
- Provide an easy win. It’ll take time for users to experience the full value of your product, so give them a quick win to boost their confidence. This could be something as simple as “leveling up” in the onboarding process or receiving a badge for completing a specific action.
- Offer a “getting started” checklist. Create an outline or checklist of what new users need to do and what they can expect during the onboarding process. It’s always a good idea to manage expectations.
Example: A friendly face at Threads eases you in
When users first log in to Threads, they’re greeted by a stylized version of the company’s CEO, Rousseau Kazi. It’s enough to grab their attention but not so much that it overwhelms them.
Threads doesn’t throw too much at the user. The company offers a tour prompt, but customers can come back to it later when it’s convenient. They can also easily find the information they need once they’re ready to learn more about the product. There are buttons leading to pages that show people how to start using the product.
For B2B brands, the customer onboarding process likely involves other team members and tools and may not be as straightforward as teaching a single consumer to use your product. Your addition to their tech stack likely doesn’t exist as standalone software but as a product that must be integrated with others. This often involves importing data from different sources and inviting other team members to join the workspace.
- Automate where you can. Setting up a new product and integrating it into your client’s existing tech stack can be challenging. Automate as much of this process as possible to remove bottlenecks that may cause issues for your buyer.
- Provide options. Your customer may not necessarily need to set up platform integrations, import data, or invite other users to join their team. So, make sure this stage is an optional part of your onboarding process.
- Deliver top-notch support. Even the savviest users still run into issues during integrations. If your company doesn’t have a dedicated team for customer onboarding, ensure you have ample support staff available for clients who may need help during this phase.
Example: With MailChimp, integrations are a click away
MailChimp places software integrations at your fingertips—no coding or extensive processes needed.
Users can filter apps by category and search for a specific product or product feature. Platform options are organized simply, so integration is intuitive—even for a somewhat novice user.
5. Product walkthrough or tutorial
A walkthrough or tutorial involves taking customers through each step they need to take to get set up with your product. The goal is to ensure users are confident enough to complete key tasks within the product. Customers—and most people—often learn best by doing, so during this stage of the onboarding process, support teams typically hand the reins over to the user.
- Allow customers to skip parts of the process. Some users may already be familiar with your product or service from using it in former jobs. Give them the option to skip some or all of the tutorial so there aren’t any barriers to them diving in and using the product.
- Make it possible to pause. Busy professionals usually don’t have large chunks of time they can set aside to learn something new in its entirety. Some don’t want to sit through a full onboarding tutorial. It’s important you provide your customers with the option to pause and come back to your product walkthrough as needed.
- Provide additional support for those who need it. For some users, the product walkthrough or tutorial will not be enough for them to feel completely comfortable using your product. Ensure it’s easy for all customers to reach support agents who can offer supplemental assistance. Or, offer a live chat support feature.
Example: Evernote guides the way in less than a minute
Evernote immediately tells users that it will take them less than a minute to learn how to use the product. In a world where time is our most valuable commodity, it’s beneficial to know this fact upfront.
By gathering information on how a customer intends to use the product, Evernote can tailor its tutorial to their unique needs. The company’s walkthrough features a mixture of step-by-step instructions and GIFs that cover all the tool’s formatting options. The simple, effective design makes it easy for users to follow along and quickly learn what the product is capable of.
6. Follow-up emails
Sending periodic emails with tips and best practices will help keep customer engagement alive.
- Be helpful, not salesy. Instead of pushing an upgrade or another product, focus on the relationship you’ve created with your customer through this product. Share resources—like help center article links and videos on specific features—that’ll help users get the most out of your company’s products or services.
- Keep it (relatively) brief. Constant Contact analyzed more than 2.1 million emails and found that those with the highest click-through rates contained approximately 20 lines of text. This translates to around 200 words. Keep your communication focused on one topic or usage scenario so you don’t overwhelm readers.
- Share social proof. By peppering customer testimonials and reviews into your follow-up emails, you’re reminding your users of the value of your product.
Example: Duolingo provides motivation with a side of data
Duolingo sends weekly emails that show customers how much they’ve practiced and prompt them to keep going (or start up again) without being pushy.
These follow-up emails allow users to celebrate wins and view their progress compared to previous weeks. A personalized analytics report helps to further motivate users, too.
How to measure the success of customer onboarding
The best way to measure onboarding success is to gather multiple metrics—this will give you a holistic picture of your customers’ feelings and behaviors. We recommend beginning with the following:
- Time to first value
- Rate of upgrades and/or converting
- Customer engagement
Decide which customer onboarding metrics you’ll use to assess the success of your program. By monitoring this data, you’ll be able to catch red flags and make improvements as needed.
Time to first value (TTFV)
This is the time from initial onboarding to first customer success—which looks different for each customer. A success could be increasing profits, decreasing churn rate, or anything that significantly benefits a company. Strive to make this period as short as possible. If customers quickly realize your product’s value, you’ll likely retain a large portion of your audience.
Say Company X buys new CRM software and begins onboarding on April 1. By July 1, Company X has completed their customer onboarding process, they’ve integrated the CRM into their tech stack, and they’re actively using it for their own customers. Company X’s TTFV is 91 days.
Rate of upgrades and/or converting
When a client invests more in your product (upgrades) or becomes a full customer after a free trial (converting), it’s a sign of increased customer retention and successful onboarding. You can calculate this metric in a couple of different ways, depending on which action you want to focus on.
Upgrades are a type of expansion monthly recurring revenue (MRR). This is revenue generated by existing customers. You can calculate expansion MRR using the following formula:
Say Company X’s expansion MRR is $2,500 at the beginning of the month and $4,000 at the end of the month. Company X’s expansion MRR rate is 60 percent.
Converting is when a user becomes a paid customer after their free trial. You calculate this metric using the trial conversion rate formula:
Imagine Company X’s product has 1,500 free trial users. Of those, 300 of them convert into paying customers. Company X’s trial conversion rate is 20 percent.
This metric gauges whether customers are taking actions that are tied to your product’s core value.
The first step to calculating customer engagement is to define what it means for your product. For a social media platform, engagement could mean a user has:
- Written a bio for their profile
- Added a website URL to their profile
- Uploaded a photo or avatar
- Posted an update
You want to identify the most important events and actions across a customer’s lifecycle with your product and assign each one a weighted score. Next, you’ll want to track these events with a customer engagement platform.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s say Company X has three key events they use to measure engagement (or lack thereof). These events range in value of importance. The engagement platform tracked the number of times each customer participated in each of the events. To get the total event value, Company X must multiply the weighted score by the frequency at which the events occurred within a given time period (e.g., a week). Company X’s information could look something like this:
Once you have all the above information, use the following formula to manually calculate—or set up your engagement platform to calculate—your customer engagement score:
Lastly, you should segment your customer base and trial user base. Company X’s categorization based on scores could look like this:
- Negative score = risk of customer churn
- 0–33 = disengaged customer
- 34–66 = somewhat engaged customer
- 67–99 = engaged customer
- 100+ = power user
Segmenting your user base by score can help you to determine what type of support or messaging may be helpful to engage (or re-engage) them.
A good customer onboarding strategy is the foundation of strong customer relationships
Onboarding is your customers’ first hands-on experience with your products or services, so it needs to be a positive one. Develop a robust onboarding strategy to make the process as enjoyable and effective as possible.
Along with creating a customer onboarding strategy, it’s crucial to hire reliable customer success managers to implement it. Take a look at our 30 customer success interview questions you should ask to start building your onboarding dream team.