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Best practices in SaaS onboarding: How to create a great experience for new users

Customer Success

Beating customer churn is how the best-of-the-best Customer Success orgs shine. And it all starts with their onboarding experience.

No matter how intuitive and well-designed your product is, you can’t expect your buyers to know how to use it. They need some hand holding to help them become proficient.

So how can you help your customers achieve value faster? How can you increase engagement for your software as a service (SaaS) app?

Simple. With an effective SaaS onboarding process.

In this article, we’ll explain what SaaS onboarding is and why it’s important. We’ll also break down each step of the onboarding process and best practices for you to follow.

What is SaaS onboarding?

SaaS onboarding is the process of getting new users set up with their accounts. The goal is to help them reach that first “aha moment” of seeing value from your product.

SaaS onboarding flow

Most onboarding includes product tours and tutorials that showcase different features. The idea is to help users get set up and familiar with the platform.

However, onboarding goes beyond teaching customers how to use a product. The best SaaS onboarding processes help buyers achieve their goals and make it part of their workflow.

Why is this important?

Because helping users achieve desired outcomes can increase retention rates.

Onboarding has the biggest impact on retention in the customer lifecycle. Get it right, and you can retain more loyal customers. 

Why is SaaS onboarding important?

Proper onboarding sets the tone for a long-lasting relationship. Whether through a free trial or a sales-led motion, providing a strong onboarding experience to new users is a must. 

Here’s why.

Reduces churn rates

Churn, also known as customer attrition, is the percentage of users who cancel a recurring subscription within a given period.

Customer churn rates

The formula to calculate churn is as follows:

  • Churn = (Lost customers / total customers) x 100

Let’s say that your SaaS company had 300 customers at the beginning of the month and lost 8 customers by the end. Based on the formula above, your churn rate would be about 2.67%.

While some degree of churn is inevitable, a strong onboarding experience can help you increase customer retention and reduce churn rates.

Increases net dollar retention

Net dollar retention (NDR) measures how much your recurring revenue has grown or shrunk. It factors in customer expansions, as well as downgrades and cancellations.

NDR goes hand-in-hand with churn rates. When you take steps to reduce churn rates, you’re turning customers into longtime users and increasing their NDR.

However, if buyers aren’t achieving desired outcomes, your chances of retaining them decrease significantly. 

An effective onboarding process can help you boost customer retention rates and increase your NDR. With a higher NDR, you can adjust your sales strategy (e.g., targeting certain industries or companies based on their size).

Lowers customer support costs

By providing users with clear instructions on how to use your product and the resources that are available to them, you can reduce the number of messages sent to your customer success team.

This can help reduce your overhead costs and free up your customer success team to focus on more complex issues.

Boosts user engagement

No matter what product you offer, its success ultimately depends on engagement. 

A strong onboarding experience can get users to that crucial “aha moment.”

Getting users to their first aha moment with a SaaS product

That’s not all.

If you offer a free trial period (or a pilot), onboarding is your chance to make a great impression. Help trial/pilot users realize value within their first few uses, and you can increase your trial-to-paid conversion rates.

More importantly, it gives users more of a reason to log back in. This helps your SaaS become more “sticky” — when buyers return to your products because they find them engaging and useful.

How to create an effective SaaS onboarding process (with examples)

Creating an effective onboarding process that delights your users isn’t easy. It requires thoughtful planning and tons of trial and error.

Here’s a full breakdown of the important steps of an effective SaaS onboarding process with examples for each.

1. Welcome new users with personalized onboarding emails

When a customer signs up for your product, they feel optimistic about their decision. Help your customers reinforce their buying decision with a well-crafted welcome email.

Congratulate new users on their purchase and include a link for them to sign in and set up their account. This is also a great opportunity to provide new users with helpful resources.

Here’s an example of a welcome email that Harvest sends to new users for its time tracking and invoicing software:

Example of a welcome email from Harvest

(Image Source)

Harvest’s email does a good job at welcoming users — it includes a personalized welcome, a short description of its value proposition, and a link for them to sign in.

It also encourages users to start tracking just a minute of their day. This is important because getting users to perform a small task is the first step to driving engagement.

Finally, the email includes a link to its help center that new users can access if they have any questions about how the software works.

Here are some quick tips to make the most out of your welcome emails: 

  • Include the recipient’s name to add a personal touch
  • Take the time to thank your users for signing up
  • Use prominent call-to-action (CTA) buttons
  • Share helpful resources to get them started
  • Keep the email short and simple

2. Define your product’s “aha moment”

A strong SaaS onboarding process helps users get to their “aha moment” — the key moment when users first realize value with your product.

Think of them as small milestones that deliver quick wins for your users. It can be as simple as starting a timer or as complex as building an automation.

These impactful moments vary for every company.

Here are examples of “aha moments” for various tech companies:

Aha moments for various tech companies

(Image Source)

Finding these moments will help increase engagement and drive long-term growth. 

Here are some ways to find your product’s “aha moment:”

  • Look at your analytics data: You’re looking for actions or behaviors that correlate to retention. In its early days, Facebook’s growth team realized that users who added just seven friends in 10 days were more likely to stick around.
  • Get feedback from your users: Analytics data can help you form hypotheses that you can test to increase engagement, but don’t stop there. Reach out to your top users and schedule interviews to get their thoughts. This will also help provide more context on the data you’ve collected.
  • Send exit surveys: You can learn a great deal from users who didn’t stick around. Send exit surveys to users who canceled their subscriptions and ask open-ended questions like, “How can we improve our product?” The answers can reveal friction points in your onboarding process. 

Once you find behaviors that correlate to customer retention, your next step is to guide new users to those actions.

3. Provide in-app guidance and interactive walkthroughs

New users may already be somewhat familiar with your product. They may have watched a video tour or even gone through a personalized demo with a sales rep.

But don’t make any assumptions here. 

Users shouldn’t have to find themselves facing a blank screen with zero guidance on what to do next. Providing in-app tooltips is a great way to highlight core features and get users set up.

Here’s an example of how Slack onboards new users with a series of helpful tooltips:

Slack's new user onboarding with tooltips

(Image Source)

These tooltips open automatically in a set order. Users can click the link in the prompt to skip the tooltips and start using the platform right away. 

Another way to help users get to their first “aha moment” is with an in-app checklist. 

Checklists are incredibly effective at driving engagement because they give users a sense of accomplishment as they check off each item.

Here’s an example of how Evernote uses checklists in its onboarding process:

Example of Evernote's onboarding process using checklists

(Image Source)

Evernote, a note-taking app, kicks its onboarding process off with a checklist that consists of just four items.

New users can get their first win within seconds of logging in. Of course, no one likes to leave a checklist incomplete, so users will likely continue with the setup process until they check off all items.

Create in-app tooltips, interactive walkthroughs, and checklists based on your product’s “aha moment” to increase engagement and get users to experience value as quickly as possible.

4. Follow up with helpful onboarding emails

86% of customers say they’re more likely to remain loyal to companies that provide more engaging and educational onboarding experiences.

However, while you want users to experience the full value of your product, you also don’t want to leave them feeling overwhelmed.

A better approach is to send a series of follow-up emails that direct users to other aspects of your product. This will keep your buyers engaged and give them a reason to log back in.

Here’s an example of a follow-up email that Zapier sends to users:

Example of a follow-up email from Zapier

(Image Source)

The email goes on to explain what a Zap is and how it works. It also includes links to Zap templates that users can try out for themselves.

Focus on just one feature in your follow-up emails to avoid overwhelming your users. Explain what it is, how it works, and how it makes their lives easier.

5. Iterate and improve your onboarding process

Onboarding isn’t a “set it and forget it” ordeal. It’s important that you continue to test and improve your onboarding process.

Review your user behavior analytics data often.

How are users engaging with your products? Are they completing those actions that you’ve identified as “aha moments”? If not, where are users dropping off?

By digging into your analytics, you can identify points of friction in your onboarding process and come up with experiments to improve engagement. Examples can include testing welcome emails and experimenting with in-app tutorials.

Continue to seek feedback from your users. Send out surveys and schedule interviews. Then, use those insights to improve your onboarding process.

SaaS onboarding best practices

Follow these best practices to build a more engaging onboarding process for your users.

Minimize friction during sign-up

Buyers generally don’t want to provide more information than they need to. Only ask for as much information as you need for users to get started with your product. 

As an example, Shopify only requires an email address to start a free trial:

Shopify's homepage with a simple sign up form

(Image Source)

Conduct a formal sales-to-success handoff

The sales-to-success handoff is when the sales team passes a new account over to the customer success team. It typically occurs after a prospect becomes a customer.

A smooth sales-to-success handoff ensures that customer success teams have the right information to start onboarding a customer, including what their pain points are and what their desired outcomes are.

Offer personalized onboarding flows

Your product’s “aha moment” may vary from one customer to the next. Make the onboarding process more engaging by offering personalized flows that are specific to a user’s role.

Have users fill out a brief survey during the sign-up process or let them choose their preferred learning path on your welcome screen.

Schedule training sessions

Offering personalized training sessions is a great way to help your users get the most out of your product and achieve desired outcomes.

Tailor training sessions based on the user’s persona and use case. This is important because a team manager will likely use your product differently than an associate.

Help leaders integrate your solution

Chances are, your users are already using various solutions. Connect with business leaders and help them integrate your solution into the rest of their technology stack.

Offer self-service options

Create a self-service knowledge base with answers to frequently asked questions. Make it easily accessible so that users can troubleshoot any issues on their own before reaching out to customer support.

Set up weekly calls

Schedule weekly calls throughout the onboarding process to check in with your users and answer any questions they might have.

Once users become more proficient with your product, you can move to quarterly reviews to discuss their goals and how you can help.

Taking these steps will show your users that you’re invested in their success. 

Track onboarding metrics

There’s always room for improvement. But you need to understand what’s working and what’s not before making any changes.

Measuring and tracking onboarding metrics

Keep a close eye on metrics like completion rates, usage time, and time to value, and use the data to inform iterative improvements to your onboarding process.

For example, a low completion rate means that users are dropping off before they finish your onboarding process. Once you identify the problem, you can begin working on a solution.

Transform your sales process and close more deals

By creating a solid onboarding process for your buyers, you can help them experience meaningful value and show them that they’ve made the right decision. 

Remember that customer onboarding is always a work in progress. Gather data from your analytics and users and make iterative improvements.

Are you looking to add more customers to your onboarding process?

Sign up for a demo to see how Gong’s customer success software can help you close more deals. See what’s working (and why) so you can replicate those results in your sales process.

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