Onboarding: The Customer Journey Starts Here 


What if your churn problem is actually an onboarding problem?

Few customers will ever blame “bad onboarding” after a churn notice. But, as many customer success managers have learned, righting the ship at the beginning will yield better product knowledge, more feature adoption and even brand loyalty. 

But how do you know when onboarding works? And how do you know when it doesn’t?

We’ll cover those questions and:

  • What user onboarding is 
  • How to create a customer-centric strategy
  • How to create a user onboarding checklist 
  • The signs of a successful or unsuccessful onboarding program 

Onboarding will look different at every SaaS company. But no matter what your product or service is, it will require a mix of one-on-one interaction and some form of customer success technology.

What is SaaS onboarding?

A customer’s first series of interactions with your customer success team will set the tone for the remainder of the relationship.

To some, the term “user onboarding” could refer to a quick product tour or a platform walkthrough. For others, the onboarding experience is interchangeable with the user experience. 

Spoiler alert: The latter is not entirely true.


While the definition varies, a user onboarding strategy is a defined series of steps that guides users to find value in a product. Through this process, CS teams ensure that customers will be successful in fully adopting the solution. 

Wyzowl, a leading educational content creator, found that 86% of customers are more likely to stay loyal to a business that invests in onboarding content.

But, when the post-purchase experience doesn’t align with pre-purchase expectations, churn is more probable. Establishing an effective user onboarding program, including content, will help prevent that.

User onboarding vs customer onboarding

The term user onboarding is not interchangeable with “customer onboarding”. 

  • User onboarding is a more functional process that’s focused on helping people understand how to use your product. 
  • Customer onboarding is focused on the relational side of things, and is all about proving the value of your company and its services to build a sense of loyalty.

When user onboarding is successful, customers will reach their “aha moment” — that realization where your user recognizes the value of your product. When it isn’t successful, churn is more probable.

CS team challenges

When it comes to aligning onboarding with user needs, your team will come face-to-face with three obstacles:

Scaling your onboarding

An uptick in active users can be a double-edged sword for CS teams.

As your user base grows, there’s less time to spend onboarding individual users and accounts. After all, how are you supposed to scale onboarding to continue delivering the product experience people have come to expect?

Based on the complexity of your product and the needs of your user base, you’ll need to introduce automation to scale repeatable processes.

Guided product tours can prove to be a powerful solution for scaling, allowing your team to drive feature usage and engagement by reinforcing onboarding, educating users about new features and reducing time to value. A tour allows you to build targeted, step-by-step usage guides that can be accessed on-demand. This means your customers will still experience effective, one-on-one guidance, while you stay focused on how to wow them next.

As your company grows, finding the right balance between technology and a human touch will be an essential part of creating an onboarding experience that leads to customer wins. 

Measuring success

How do you objectively measure customer wins? 

Selecting metrics that represent company goals and user needs will help you to determine what’s working, and, even more important, where you can improve. Defining what customer success looks like in the context of your product compared to unhappy user behaviors will help to guide you as you continue to refine your onboarding strategy. 

Now that you know the challenges you face, it’s time to pick an onboarding program that helps your team achieve more wins.

Picking the right onboarding program

There won’t be a one-size-fits all onboarding strategy that every company can adopt with success. 

Product led vs. sales led

There are two types of approaches your company can take when it comes to onboarding.

Product-led. In this model, companies rely on product usage and the customer experience as drivers of acquisition. Usually, SaaS companies that deploy this approach rely on one of two types of pricing models:

  • “Freemium” access to certain features
  • Free trials that offer all, if not most, of the platform’s capabilities. 

By allowing users to interact with a product for free with limited interaction with sales and marketing, you’re able to reduce overhead and customer acquisition costs while also quickly shepherding a user to their first time to value. 

However, product-led growth is typically only relevant to self-service or transactional products. If your product is more complex or your primary customer base is larger enterprises that wouldn’t necessarily conduct a trial on their own, this onboarding approach won’t be as useful to your team or your users.

Sales-led. This process relies on users interacting with marketing, sales and eventually your CS team to manually move them through the funnel and to their first time to value. A sales-led approach will help you to more effectively educate and inform prospects about your product, which can lead to faster product adoption and reduced friction across the user experience. If your product is more complex or if your user base is mostly made up of businesses with multiple users, then sales-led onboarding will make the most sense. 

Once you decide on a product- or sales-led approach to onboarding, your next step will be finding the right balance of technology and human interaction.

High-tech vs. high-touch

Remember how your biggest challenge will be achieving scalable personalization? That’s where balancing high-tech and high-touch methods will come into play.

High-tech onboarding. This is a self-service approach or a milestone-based approach. Self-service, as the name suggests, is focused on creating intuitive processes that users can follow and use on their own. It’s the most “hands-off” and scalable onboarding method, but it requires a great deal of understanding about the customer and what they need to know. 

Self-service onboarding also needs to be manually updated, since onboarding powered by machine learning isn’t available yet. Milestone-based onboarding still features user-guided information, but you have more input about where and when users come across it.

High-touch onboarding. This is all about person-to-person interaction. This strategy can be very time and labor intensive, in the case of on-site training. However, it can also be more scalable when it comes to champion-based onboarding, which is when your CS team onboards one person at the company, who in turn trains everyone else on their team.

The most efficient onboarding often combines high-tech and high-touch models to achieve scalability while still placing your customer success team in a proactive, rather than reactive, state. Finding the right formula for your unique users will depend on a few factors:

  • Your level of customer knowledge: How much do you understand about how your users view success and how they interact with your app? As you learn about user interactions through tools such as customer journey analysis or product usage data, you can implement more self-guided onboarding.
  • Customer team makeup: Is your customer’s team in one location, or spread out? You’ll need to consider the size and distribution of the users at each business you work with, as well as whether or not there’s a well-positioned champion to relay information.
  • How complex your product is: Customers are more likely to find success with self-guided onboarding if your product is fairly simple or intuitive. However, you’ll need to use tooltips, guided tours or virtual customer onboarding for more detailed processes.
As you start to find the right mixture of technology and human interaction for users, you’ll need to define each user onboarding flow.

Defining your flows

A first-time onboarding flow is the sequence of steps that introduces the product, app or feature to a user. It often involves guiding the user through completing a few tasks, such as creating an account or setting general preferences.

Although the concept is fairly simple, an onboarding checklist can be one of the most useful tools in your CS wheelhouse. It ensures each user gets to a point where they feel comfortable and confident using your software.

Checklists can be applied across your user population as a whole while still being flexible for more unique accounts, are especially useful when applied alongside with other tools, like in-app pop-ups and tooltips. They can also use links to take users to exactly where they need to be in the product to complete certain tasks. Or, they can use animations – such as pulsing buttons – to show the user where they need to go to complete tasks. 

A user-centric onboarding process should be equal parts engaging and educational. Keep that in mind when building a checklist for your own user onboarding journey, and consider the following options:

Getting started

When customers open your platform for the very first time, what are they greeted by?

Create a series of simple, easy-to-complete tasks that will familiarize them with the platform. These goals could range in complexity. They can be as basic as setting up notifications preferences, or as complex as their first tour through the software.

If your product has an easier-to-reach aha moment, a checklist to get started could even set them on the path to their first realization of value. For more high-tech solutions, creating user confidence and fostering familiarity with your platform is still an important first step.

Driving feature adoption

Getting users to explore and adopt new features is an important part of improving retention. But, as any CS team knows, it’s easier said than done.

We’ve all been guilty of skipping through a product tutorial, only to have to dig around in the settings later on when we realize we really needed it. To motivate users to complete onboarding, keep your checklist at the very top of the first page or dashboard they view when they log in.

This method speaks to the commonly cited Zeigarnik Effect: When directly presented with an incomplete task, users will be driven to finish it. Having a more visible checklist further enhances motivation, as users respond positively to visual representations of their progress.

Let users create their own

Before you begin onboarding, ask the user what their short-term goals are. While it’s key to understand how they’ll be interacting with your product to achieve a long-term strategy, it’s equally as important to know what their hopes are in the coming weeks and months.

By combining a personalized roadmap for their onboarding alongside one that includes more mandatory steps such as account creation and set up, you’ll be able to ensure that they quickly find relevant value in your solution.

Onboarding won’t be a one-size-fits-all process even with a highly specific target audience. However, by balancing the unique needs of individual users with the widespread pain points felt across your customer base, you can achieve scalability while still maintaining that human touch.

Keep in mind that creating an onboarding experience for your software isn’t a one-and-done task. You’ll need to update it as your users evolve, and that means continuously evaluating and adjusting your process overtime. 

How do you track onboarding success?

Your team knows what the aha moment is for new users and have worked to balance a high-touch, high-tech approach that should get them there.

But the question remains: How do you know if your onboarding is effective?


When working to improve onboarding, data will be your most valuable resource. Tracking user behavior over time will help you gauge your performance, understand your weaknesses and find opportunities to improve. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be ready to update your product and service to better retain your customer base.

Depending on your user base or the solution you offer, you may have some unique onboarding KPIs. These could be more valuable to your customers than they would be to another company. That said, there are some customer behaviors across all organizations that will provide invaluable insights for onboarding: 

Time to first value

Remember that activation point or the aha moment we discussed? This metric records exactly how long it takes users to get there. Time to first value is the point during the customer onboarding phase where the user realizes that the product they have invested in offers real value to them. 

For internal decision makers who aren’t the end-user of your software, time to first value is especially important. It’s proof that they can expect a higher return on investment — no buyer’s remorse necessary.

As you begin to collect data on users, pay close attention to those who churn within the earliest stages of the customer journey. How long did it take them to reach their first time to value? When a customer is new to your product or service, they want to understand how it works and see why it’s the right solution as quickly as possible. 

One way to speed up this process is providing in-depth tutorials and self-service guides even after high-touch onboarding flows are completed. Getting your customer to these smaller wins helps provide confidence in using your software.

To create a more automated and consistent approach when it comes to time to first value, incorporate predictive indicators of dissatisfaction such as login frequency. This will help you to identify at-risk users before they ever consider churning.

Product adoption 

When onboarding ends, how are users interacting with your software?

Once a new user has completed onboarding assignments such as reading content, walkthroughs or tutorials, monitor behaviors such as the depth of use and the average time they spend in-app. 

Tracking product adoption allows you to measure the level of engagement your customer has with your product based on how often they use it and for how long. If they sign on daily but don’t interact with the platform further than that, product adoption hasn’t been achieved.

If you’re noticing a lower product adoption rate across accounts that have churned, segment your users by their onboarding engagement level. Look for key differences between those who have and have not gone through the onboarding content you provide. Usage variations between those who did versus those who didn’t helps pinpoint the specific outcomes associated with your onboarding experience.

Customer feedback

While data and predictive analytics will reveal a lot about the onboarding experience, there’s nothing more valuable than hearing it straight from the source.

Leveraging user feedback following their interactions with your product is critical to refining the onboarding experience in a meaningful way. Collecting and acting on user-generated suggestions shows that you care about their experience as well as their success with your product. 

While it sounds intensive, these mini-campaigns are actually very manageable regardless of the size of your user base or success team. You can execute micro-feedback campaigns in different ways. For example, once someone completes a specific in-app action in the onboarding, it could trigger a chance to provide feedback.

No matter which indicators of successful onboarding you decide to monitor, take your time to apply any insights you gather. You don’t want to rush and make too many changes at once, which could overwhelm your team, your product infrastructure and your users. 

Instead, audit your processes every few months to identify and prioritize the pain points across the new user experience that you want to address. From there, you can tweak your onboarding flows as needed, record any changes in customer behavior and make additional adjustments only when deemed necessary.

How a customer success platform will help

As you find opportunities to refine or improve your onboarding processes, leveraging different technologies to engage user and measure product usage will help you to achieve faster wins:

In-app tours

With an onboarding tour in the app, you can:

  • Guide users to desired outcomes
  • Cut down on onboarding time
  • Let customers complete learning on their own time
In-app tips

You can make sure users see a message, such as a tip, at the perfect time and place.

Feature use tracking

Product usage analytics platforms will help you take action on the data you’re collecting. For example, if you know adoption of a certain feature leads to customer retention, you’ll want insight into which accounts are and aren’t interacting with it.

Customer health scoring

A health score is an aggregate of objective data, such as login times or product usage, and sentiment, including customer feedback. 

As a holistic score, it represents the entire relationship between you and your customer. It’s the sum of every interaction — good, bad and indifferent. By creating a score system, you’ll be able to identify drivers of customer success as well as predictive indicators of churn. Armed with this knowledge, your team can stop customers from leaving before they ever even consider canceling.

Voice of customer programs

There are very few sources as valuable as the customer themself. Giving your users a voice shows that you are committed to their success. Using NPS surveys and other sentiment tools in the app will help to gauge your detractors, passives and promoters to better tailor onboarding strategies.

Fostering user engagement

Capturing and acting on customer sentiment will be essential to achieving quicker wins. Your team will need to leverage these insights to proactively ensure customers have the tools they need to succeed. And, remember, when it comes to onboarding, start simple. Highlighting the features most valuable to your users will help them get to their aha moment more quickly, giving you the opportunity to introduce them to other components of your solutions later on. 

Armed with all this knowledge, you’re officially ready to tackle your user onboarding experience.

Creating an onboarding experience that reflects the needs of your customers and their business goals will set you down the path to achieving higher engagement, better retention and lower churn. Along the way, you’ll gain powerful insights as to how you can improve your product and service platform to better align with your audience. 

By achieving quicker wins during onboarding, your team will more successfully push users through adoption, expansion and, eventually, advocacy.