The beginner’s guide to customer onboarding

So you have just had a customer sign up for your product / service – great!

They’ve taken a risk on you… and you’ve earned a few extra seconds of their attention. First impressions last, so your customer onboarding needs to be an engaging, silky smooth experience. On the other hand, if they sign up, log in… and never come back, you’ll lose them forever.

Here are some reasons your customers might leave you during this early stage:

  • You don’t explain how your product/service works
  • You set the wrong expectation of what the product/service does
  • You don’t give them a reason to use the product/service frequently
  • You don’t explain the value

Done right, customer onboarding can resolve these issues. It starts when a user signs up and receives their welcome email, and can continue for a period till the customer is acquainted with how to use the product or service and the benefits of doing so. The goal is to help customers by:

  • Explaining what some or all features do
  • Provide insight into the functionality of the product/service
  • Guide the user through using the product/service effectively
  • Create engagement with the product/service
  • Build trust
  • Set expectations
  • Foreshadow their experience
  • Wow them

In other words, user onboarding helps the user find their way within the product or service. It describes the entire process that customers go through when they start the journey as a customer. It can also define the relationship your customer has with your product/service.

Many companies are losing their hard-won customers soon after they sign up. Don’t let your business be one of them. To help, we put together this beginner’s guide to customer onboarding.

Defining an onboarded customer – setting the goal

What is your definition of an ‘onboarded customer’. Is it…

  1. they are up and running or
  2. they have achieved a valuable milestone?

The answer depends on your business, as there is no one universal definition for an onboarded customer.

So how do you determine your customer’s initial success?

Your customers will tell you this if you ask them. For example, ‘What’s the #1 outcome you need to achieve in our first interaction?’ is a great opening question.

Gail Goodman of Constant Contact says that she learned to focus on the “wow moment.” She describes the wow moment as when a customer understands an outcome that improves their life and is blown away by the experience.

Let’s take a look at 2 different onboarding processes.

For Slack, the key objective is user engagement, and they cannot do that without showing users how easily they can set up their team and the key functions that aid communication. Their onboarding flow can be viewed below.

The onboarding objective for the Four Seasons is to get customers to make a reservation while also capturing relevant information about the customer. This secondary objective of capturing more customer information allows for personalized marketing moving forward.

Mapping the customer journey and setting up customer-centric milestones

Once you have determined your customer’s initial success, you’ll need to plot the steps that a customer needs to take between signing up and their initial success.

Patrick Mckenzie says that –

40-60% of customers who sign up for a free trial of software or SaaS app will use it once and never come back.

That’s a sobering realization.

So how do you work towards stopping the hemorrhage?

First, track the steps and capture the data.

Then, instead of trying to solve for the entire customer journey, focus on onboarding them to experience the “wow moment” your service or product offers. You can work on secondary experiences, but that’s often a distraction, something people don’t get around to.

To track events in your funnel, tools like Mixpanel or can help with creating an onboarding flow. Heap Analytics can help create event-based funnels around the actions you want your customers to take. The gap between the initial success steps you want your customers to take is where the opportunities lie.

You can also track how long it takes customers to get to their initial success. Time is precious, and the first few minutes of your customer’s experience with your service or product are vital.

Identify friction points

Once you have identified the milestones you want to lead your customers to during their first-run experience, you need to remove everything that causes friction or prevents them from getting there quickly.

Keep your focus on all the actions that the customer must take to get to experience the improvement you promise. Worry about everything else later. Onboarding is not the time to be asking customers for additional information or offering options to see what sticks.

For example, can you do this without confirming their email address?

If yes, avoid doing so to keep their focus on using your service or product.

Another momentum killer is slow page load times. Every time your page takes too long to load provides an opportunity for other things to distract customers. So ensure that you are keeping them locked in with a fast loading site or communicating that the site is working away on their behalf.

Tools to use

To help identify friction points, look to your support tickets and complaints. Customers will often provide a lot of the information for you. You can also address issues by crowdsourcing usability testing with a service like UserTesting or userzoom.

Focus on the next success milestone

With friction points identified, it is time to help to put in actions that will help customers through the steps.

For example, GrooveHQ discovered that there was a big difference in how their ongoing customers and customers who churned used their product.

By tracking user activity, they discovered that those who churned hardly logged in and spent very little time in using the product. They also tracked the time that it took on average for customers to complete certain tasks. They were then able to identify customers at risk of churn when it took longer to complete those tasks. They, therefore, tested a series of behavior-based emails to encourage customers to log back in and help get them unstuck.

At Zynga, the former GM, Nabeel Hyatt realized that if someone logged in the next day after signing up, they would be more likely to be engaged and a paying user. So their focus was on what they called “day 1 retention.”

Test, measure and optimize

As with all things in your marketing strategy, putting in analytics to track and measure your efforts allows for ongoing optimization and improvement.

Keep an eye on your data to see what effect your onboarding process has on those who sign up. Conversion funnels are great for tracking the progression of a customer from step A to step B and can be set up along with A/B testing. Look at which steps are helping your customers become active and which ones are having no effect whatsoever.

There are a number of tools that can be used to measure the effectiveness of your funnel and A/B test elements. Here are a few that you could get started with:


optimizely 4

Optimizely makes A/B testing easy. With this tool you can show some of your customers a variation on a page to determine if that makes it easier for your customers to complete the onboarding flow. Once you have enough data you can then decide which page has more conversions and implement that into the onboarding flow.


surveymonkey 4

Survey Monkey is a low-cost way to send surveys to your leads and customers and then view their feedback. Matching up the feedback with their other information you already have, will provide a clearer picture of your onboarding process from their perspective. In other words, the responses received can indicate their degree of engagement and interest.

There are a number of integrations with CRM platforms and via Zapier available. It is therefore quite easy to import data from Survey Monkey into other applications to develop a more complete picture of customer happiness.


wootric 3

Wootric is a tool for measuring your NPS and managing customer impressions and feedback. The tool displays a survey at the bottom of your app and allows you to customize the follow-up question based on the score.

For example Entelo used Wootric and found it provides a 2x response rate as compared to email. It also provides a more complete picture of the customer base. The real-time feedback that is provided allows the company to address customer issues almost immediately rather than leaving it unaddressed for months.



Olark provides a live chat tool that can be used to provide assistance to targeted leads and customers. For example, you could target leads and customers who go to specific pages. The feedback gleaned provides insights into their experience and usability of the site. Qualitative data like the number of pages visited, time on each page or onboarding step can help with increasing customer onboarding goal conversions.



Intercom provides email-based user onboarding, so you can reduce churn while unifying your support into a more streamlined, analytics-based system. It lets you observe what’s happening on your site in real time.

A stand out feature is its email and in-app-based engagement system. For example, if you wanted to let customers know about the release of a new version of a software program, you can run a filter search through the Intercom dashboard to select all those who downloaded the previous version as of yesterday. You can then type out an announcement to those users who will see it the next time they log in or via email.

Metrics to look out for

As you get data on your onboarding flow, a few metrics to look for include:

  • The onboarding completion percentage
  • The percentage of people completing the next goal that you are driving them toward
  • The long term engagement of customers who went through the onboarding flow.

Use your analytics and research to explore where your friction points are occurring and why. Remember the overall onboarding experience is only as good as the weakest component. If one part of the process fails, then the chances are that few of your customers will get to experience the “wow moment” improvement or use case your service or product offers.

Take for example Hint Health, a company that revised their onboarding flow as many people were only completing the onboarding process after calling support. This, in turn, was draining the company’s time and resources. They first determined the specific onboarding actions that their most successful customers took by mining their analytics for trends and talking to them.

They also engaged customers during the onboarding process via in-app messages or email. They also set up behavioral conditions based on product usage, so users who had completed a milestone could be advanced to the next having without getting messages about the previous milestone.

The results from revising the onboarding flow are:

  • 23% of new users who might have struggled before now receive proactive in-app messaging and email-based help
  • 26% of slow-starting customers are now successfully onboarding themselves without needing to speak to customer support
  • A 10% increase in sales engagements, which leads directly to revenue

Do this 1 thing

Onboarding is really about motivating your customers. In other words, a good onboarding flow gets customers excited about the value and power of your product or service. It then lets them do the work to attain the results they want. While conversion rates and funnels can be tweaked and tested, it is engagement that will determine whether people appreciate the product’s value.

So do this 1 thing. Find the weakest link in your onboarding experience today, and focus on improving it. This will have the biggest overall impact on the satisfaction of your new customers – and ultimately your retention rate.

To help with this, download the customer onboarding checklist below.

customer onboarding checklist


Vinay is the content marketing manager for WP Curve. Follow him @wpcurve

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