How to Build an Impactful Onboarding Experience (And Why You Should Charge for It)

Donna Weber
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Interview Highlights:

  • An impactful onboarding experience focuses on the customer, not the product. 
  • Onboarding should start pre-sale by showing customers the path to success.
  • Charging for onboarding services leads to more engaged customers. And bringing in revenue can encourage your company to invest in the tools and services you need.
  • Find out what customers want before trying to improve your onboarding process.

Can you please introduce yourself and what you do?

Hi, my name is Donna Weber, and I'm the customer onboarding expert. I work with high-growth companies to help them retain their customers and create customers for life.

How important is onboarding to a customer life cycle?

It is critical. In the subscription economy, it costs a lot of money to bring a customer on board. If you don't get them to value, to a place where they're going to engage, stick around long enough to renew and tell their friends, and then buy more, then your company is losing money, and you'll be in a death spiral, if you're not already.

What are some common onboarding issues?

One problem is when many companies talk about onboarding, they mean implementing and going live with the product. The deal closes, and they jump right into the weeds of implementation. The process is all about the technical details and the product. They just assume that if the customer goes live, it will solve all their problems. 

Some companies don’t engage with customers at all. One business I worked with lost 53% of their customers in the first 90 days because they didn't do anything to engage or onboard them. More than half of that was lost in the first 30 days; they were so busy chasing down renewals in the last 90 days and weren't driving customers to initial value. 

What makes a great onboarding program? 

An impactful onboarding program is all about the customer, not the product. It's about developing a trusting and enduring relationship. It's about setting up a partnership with your new customers. It's about getting to know them as people. It's about helping them see the path to success so they can relax and trust they’re in good hands. It's about communication, transparency, and accountability. 

I created the six-stage Orchestrated Onboarding Framework to include all these best practices. For example, there's the Embark stage, where you help customers see the path to success even before you close a deal. It shows the customer that you’ve done this before and that they’re in good hands. And you can make sure you address risks or issues, so you’re ready to deal with them when they arise.

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Could you enumerate the six steps for those who are unfamiliar?

Sure. The six stages of the Orchestrated Onboarding Framework are: Embark, Handoff, Kickoff, Adopt, Review, and Expand.

Embark is when you show customers the path to success before the deal closes. You help them understand that your value isn’t just your software but also your awesome services. It's about showing they're in good hands with their onboarding specialist or dedicated CRM. You might tell them about your great self-paced approach. I've seen companies shorten their sales cycle as a result of sharing this with customers. 

Next is the Handoff stage. This is essential if you have a long sales cycle or a high-touch post-sales experience. The Handoff stage has two steps: the internal handoff and the customer handoff. 

The internal handoff ensures that the trusted party who's been engaging with the customer throughout the sales cycle passes that information to the post-sales team so they are ready to engage and set up new customers up for success.

The customer handoff gets the customer teams aligned. Many companies I work with sell to the procurement team or central office, but several offices or departments use the software. When it comes to implementation, those teams don’t always know who you are which can lead to resistance. Having the buyer communicate with the customer teams helps get them all on board. 

The third stage is Kickoff. This is the part of onboarding that most companies are familiar with. It’s when you get into details about timelines, milestones, deliverables, and dependencies. 

Then you have the Adopt stage. This doesn't just stop when the customer goes live with the product. It might also include customer enablement, user enablement, and change management. The Adopt stage might be 30 seconds or it might be 30 months, depending on the product. 

After that, there's the Review. This might start during the Adopt stage if it's a long implementation. Generally, I like to check in at around 90 days to find out how onboarding is going and continue to engage and build the relationship.

The final stage is Expand. This is really an ongoing stage because even though the product may go live, there are always new users to onboard. And you need a way to handle that.

I talked with a company that provides project management software where they have this whole onboarding framework for new customers, but no way to onboard new users. They're not enabling all these new users, which could negatively impact them long-term.

And then, especially with software, you might have regular product or feature releases. So you need to keep driving your users to value in all of your new products and features. This all happens in the Expand stage.

How would you save a customer that had a poor onboarding experience?

I would meet with them to learn what worked and what didn't and listen, mostly listen. I think we're often too busy trying to sell to customers. If they're not getting value, we need to find out how we can provide it. They might need a higher touch, white-glove treatment to get them back on track.

What's your opinion on charging for onboarding services versus having it baked in?

I think it's important to charge. When I work with companies that charge for onboarding, they find their customers show up for meetings and do what they're expected to do. They actually use more of the product and they're way more engaged.

It also helps companies take the customer success and onboarding function seriously. You might not be a high-margin profit center, but if you can show you're covering costs, you are more likely to get the resources you need to provide better services.

The cost might be baked into the license fee. It might be something that's renewed every year so it's more of a customer success package. So year one could be onboarding, training, and implementing, but year two and beyond might be health checks, performance tuning or best practices—the things that help customers get to the next level.

What's the most objective way a company can assess whether they have an onboarding problem?

There are several signs. One is if the process takes too long. You might be getting new customers, and you've got all this new revenue coming in, but then it's taking a long time to get them to go live and get them to value. This can cost you a lot of money.

Another sign is if frustrated customers are pausing and canceling their subscriptions, especially in the first 30 to 90 days. You might get your product to go live, but all your customers are annoyed with you and you need to chase them down and win back their confidence. 

Or you might be trying a high-touch engagement that you can't scale. And so customer-facing teams can't manage the load anymore. You have to onboard a new account, but you can't focus on it because you're so busy trying to get other users onboarded. 

Do you have anything to say about onboarding and implementation that I haven't mentioned? 

The main thing is that it's important to know your customers and what they want and need. Often people will ask me, “what should we do?” But the first thing to do is to listen to your users to find out what they want and need. Let's say you think you need a tech touch onboarding. First, find out if users feel the same. 

One company I worked with had all this self-paced content. But when I interviewed their customers, we learned that those who had instructor-led training, where they really covered the concepts and contexts, and not just the product, were transforming their business as a result. So it's really important to learn what makes the difference from their perspective.

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