Customer Onboarding: The Sales Problem You Didn't Know You Had

Is a deal really closed if a customer doesn’t onboard? Customers leaving after 3 months is often labelled a churn problem. But it's not. Discover why customer onboarding is the key to creating happy, successful customers.

Daniel Zarick

July 29, 2022

6 minutes

Is a deal really closed if a customer doesn’t onboard?

Picture this: Marketing sends a great lead to sales. Sales nails the pitch, and the lead signs on as an annual contract customer.

And then…nothing. That is, nothing until you get an email three months later requesting cancellation for the product your “customer” never used.

It’s a common scenario in SaaS and often gets labeled as a churn problem. But it’s not: it’s an onboarding problem. Customers who don’t understand what to do after signing up for your product can’t be successful or grow. When they get frustrated trying to find answers to simple questions, they give up and cancel—and you lose out on the opportunity to grow your ACV.

What’s the solution? Integrate onboarding into the customer journeyfrom sales to success. When you weave onboarding into your internal processes, deals tend to move faster. Customers understand the work involved right from the start and trust that you have a plan to support them long after their initial purchase.

Great onboarding removes barriers

Customers come to you because they’re looking for a product that solves their specific problems. They’re not interested in buying features; they want to invest in the outcomes they’ve envisioned for their business. But several barriers stand in the way of them realizing those outcomes:

  • Price, especially for robust and complex tools
  • The time it takes to set up the tool and build a strategy for using it
  • Perceived or actual opportunity cost

The bigger these barriers are, the more important it is to have a solid onboarding process. Onboarding breaks down barriers by showing customers the path to attaining their desired outcomes with the help of your product.

It’s not enough to offer pithy tooltips that do nothing more than give a brief walkthrough of how your product works. These quick “how to” blurbs can’t come close to helping customers solve hard problems like integration, change management, data migration and implementation strategy.

By contrast, good onboarding demonstrates your product’s value by showing customers how to incorporate it into their business operations. It’s a reassurance that their investment won’t go to waste because you’re there to help them understand how to use the product they’re paying for to improve their internal processes.

A smooth onboarding experience is a value add

Onboarding itself has value as a bridge from purchase to adoption. When customers don’t experience that connection, you see higher churn.

Your sales team needs to communicate from the start that you’re not just offering a product: you’re offering a roadmap to success that ensures your customers always know what they need to do next to get up and running. As customers progress through the onboarding process, they get a picture of how your product provides the outcomes you promised at signup.

Because customers expect specific results, clarity on the onboarding timeline is crucial. This is especially true when working with large, complex organizations that need to be discriminating about planning and resource use. They don’t have time to waste waiting for you to get around some block in your internal processes. But if you let them know there’s going to be a gap between onboarding tasks, they can use the intervening time to prepare for the next step and be ready to move on when you are. Otherwise, they’re left wondering what went wrong and are more likely to abandon the process and look elsewhere for a solution.

There is no growth without onboarding

A good onboarding experience does more than reduce churn: It leads to tangible customer growth. Instead of the opening scenario that ended in a cancellation, the customer is handed off to the success team after signup to begin the onboarding process. Because onboarding gives them a clear understanding of how your product solves their problems, customers begin to experience success early on. Their team and customer base start to grow. Before you know it, they come back to you for an upgrade or to add more seats, and your ACV goes up.

This is a huge change from scrambling to sell customers on renewal every time the end of a contract looms. Customers who begin to experience value during onboarding—instead of fumbling their way through setup and spending more time hunting for answers than actually using the product—are less likely to churn. This lowers your LTV:CAC ratio because you don’t have to spend time and money trying to replace the customers who leave. Instead, existing customers are happy to renew their contracts and refer other companies that need the solution you offer. Good onboarding requires teamwork

To make this all work, there must be synergy between marketing, sales and customer success teams. Part of this hinges on breaking down silos between departments. Unless everyone has easy access to data, team members waste time tracking down the information they need to help customers move through the pipeline, and customer experience suffers.

Setting realistic expectations is also critical. Marketing and sales know the outcomes customers are looking for and are responsible for making honest claims that don’t oversell what your product can do. Hyperbolic marketing and exaggerated sales pitches set customers up for disappointment and make retention efforts much harder for customer success agents. Instead, the departments should work together to identify common points of customer confusion and proactively answer questions to prevent frustration further down the pipeline.

The goal, after all, isn’t to just “make a sale;” it’s to establish and grow customer relationships. Marketing and sales can only be said to be successful if customers can get value from your product and continue to use it long enough to experience growth. And your customer success team can’t lead them to that value if agents have no idea what expectations the marketing and sales teams set.

For onboarding to achieve its purpose, everyone needs to have access to the same data and stay in close communication throughout the early stages of the customer life cycle.

The best onboarding is ongoing

But onboarding doesn’t stop an arbitrary 30 days after close. Your product—and your customer’s businesses—are always evolving. New features require an update to your onboarding process so customers can easily adopt and benefit from the changes. Your resources need updating, too; outdated documentation confuses customers and raises additional barriers to implementation and success.

Be prepared to iterate on your onboarding process over time based on customer needs and onboarding performance data. This gives customer success teams a set of onboarding tools that cater to individual learning styles and preferences. Some customers want a self-led experience where they can watch videos, read articles and go through webinars at their own pace, implementing independently as they go. Some feel more comfortable when an actual human walks them through the process; these high-touch customers will have more success with a series of one-on-one onboarding calls.

No matter what pathway customers take through onboarding, each step provides valuable touchpoints that bring them closer to the outcomes they seek. Placing the first touchpoints early in the sales process helps customers envision success, and providing them with a personalized pathway moves them forward into growth. Churn decreases, ACV increases and everybody wins.

And it’s only possible when onboarding is embodied in your processes from start to finish.

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