The Definitive Guide to SaaS Customer Onboarding

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It doesn’t matter how great your app is if your customers can’t figure out how to use the thing.

As creators, we often get so wrapped up in building a fantastic product and are so involved with the inner workings behind it that we don’t realize how not-obvious it might be for brand new users.

Your customer’s first experience with your app is the one that they remember. If the experience tanks, so will your app.

That first experience is the one that determines whether they’ll continue to use it, or whether they’ll toss it on the huge pile of apps they signed up for but never took to using. Making sign-up, setup, and initial use (all of which are a part of onboarding) difficult is counterproductive for you. Customers are interested in your app because they want their life made easier, not difficult.

Sign-up Isn’t Enough. They Must Have Success.

Lincoln Murphy, on the SAAS Growth Strategies blog, defines onboarding as much more than simply getting someone to signed up or set up, though.

Murphy extends it to a customer having their first taste of success using your app. And by success, that potential customer must experience a kind of “quintessential success”, a defining moment that reveals the power and value of your app to them, showing them how it will help them.

In order to pull this off, the first thing you have to do is understand what that kind of success is. Do you know your app well enough that you know the key form of success that must happen on it for a customer to see its value?

If you don’t know what success is for your customer, you should ask them. Email, survey, social media — whatever means, ask them. Create a focus group and find out what they need, want, and would expect. This is how you discover that quintessential success for your targeted customer.

Once you understand what that is, you’re ready for the funnel.

Full disclosure: We at WhenIWork have worked with Lincoln Murphy to nail down our onboarding process. A lot of testing is put into our customer onboarding process. 

Know What A Successful Customer Funnel Looks Like

How do you bring your customer to that level of success? This is a customer-centric approach, according to Murphy.

By outlining the steps a customer must take to get from point A (sign-up) to point B (quintessential success), you create a funnel. That funnel is a series of actions that a customer should take in order to achieve that goal of success. These are actions that you can then measure, using a tool like KISSmetrics or something similar.

By creating a funnel and by setting up the ability to measure a customer as they flow through the funnel, you can spot sticky spots where customers leave or somehow get caught up and take divergent actions.

Perform User Testing

If you’re seeing a pattern of customers bouncing out of your funnel, or veering off in the wrong direction, you have the opportunity to do some usability testing. Gather users and have them start the onboarding procedure in your app. Observe their behavior without guiding them in how you want them to use your app.

For usability testing to be useful, you need to let these users speak freely, both the negative and positive, as they onboard. Take notes. Don’t interrupt. Don’t be defensive or explain it away. Let them talk as they describe the good and the bad of the experience. Watch closely as they approach the parts of your funnel where other users have struggled.

Then, after watching users try out your app, ask these potential users about your product. Do they understand what it does? Are they able to tell you how it might make their work easier? Are they defining that quintessential success the same way you are?

In other words, your close involvement with the app may have blinded you to what your users really want or expect. If you’re doing usability testing (or maybe you’ve assembled a panel of potential users for interview), find out the answers to those questions. You may have to completely readjust your funnel.

Determine Why Customers Buy (Or Don’t Buy)

Getting customers to sign up and use your app for the free trial period is one thing, but are they converting to paid customers? Even if you get a customer through the funnel and they get setup and experience a bit of success, it’s still not a homerun if they don’t eventually purchase.

If customers don’t buy, your funnel needs work.

People choose not to buy for several reasons. Maybe your pricing is off. Maybe you didn’t do a great job validating your app in the first place and customers don’t see the need for it. Maybe you messed up on what you determined was a success, choosing something that was valued less for customers than something else your product does.

To correct this, you have to track how many trial users convert to paying customers. Track the behavior of users during that trial period. Did they use the app much? Did they use it to its full potential? Did they bother to come back after the initial signup? If the answer to these questions is “no”, you’ll need to come up with a plan to remind users to use your product, such as through email. If users don’t use your app much, they’ll never really appreciate (or make a habit of) what it can do.

If you see that trial activity and social buzz about your app is good, but trial users aren’t buying, it’s likely that your pricing is off. Ask users. Send out surveys. Find out what they would be willing to pay. Compare that with what you’re asking. Find out if there were features missing from your app.

Signing Up Is NOT Enough

It’s easy to think that your main goal is to just get people to sign up, and far too many development teams count signups as a badge of honor.

Sign-ups are a mere nibble at the bait, an expression of curiosity, and are no guarantee that you’ll reel a customer in. By looking past the simple sign-up and focusing on getting customers through the funnel to success and, ultimately, becoming a paid user, you’ll be counting a conversion that actually matters.

This is going to require analysis that relies both on tools that measure user behavior as well as actually asking your users what they think and what they expect.


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