Customer-centric Growth by Lincoln Murphy

Customer Onboarding: How to Design and Implement an Effective Onboarding Process

The phase of the customer lifecycle that gets the most attention is Customer Onboarding, yet ironically (or tragically), most people fail to understand what onboarding really is, and few do it well.
And even though Onboarding is something people talk about all the time, experts abound with advice and blueprints and templates, and thought leaders drone on about “first impressions,” the fundamentals of effective customer Onboarding seem to be totally missing.
So I put together a list of things that will help you design an effective Customer Onboarding process that truly does set your customer up for long-term success.
Here we go…

Designing an Effective Customer Onboarding Process

As with everything I publish, this is just an article. It is necessarily incomplete and generic. I cannot tell you exactly what you should do and if someone who doesn’t know your business and your customers tells you exactly what your Onboarding – or any process – should be, run away. Far and fast.

BTW, one of the main reasons companies bring me in – unfortunately – is to help clean up after they hired a “consultant” who took the easy way out and just applied one of their pre-written, generic BS blueprints to this unique business and, frankly, messed everything up.

So take what I give you below and apply the knowledge you possess about your customers, your company, and the unique intersection thereof to make it actually useful.

Now is not the time for copying, but rather for critical thinking. I hope what I share gives you direction in that thought process.

Four Steps to Effective Customer Onboarding

It’s just four simple steps, with a bunch of steps between those four steps, and a lot of work to do for each of those interim steps.

But it’s just four steps.

  1. Determine when a customer is “onboard”
    1. This definition of “onboard” is missing from roughly 102% of the onboarding processes I come across
      1. How can you have an onboarding process when you don’t have a clear definition of when a customer is onboard?
      2. In fairness, companies often have a complete Customer Success Management process when they don’t even know their customers’ Desired Outcome, so this shouldn’t be surprising
    2. What milestone have they achieved to be considered “onboard?”
      1. You may want to get to know the concept of Success Milestones
      2. This milestone should be the first time the get value (for more simple products or services) or see the value potential in their relationship with us (for more complex products or services)
    3. Is this definition of “onboarded” universal or will there be different definitions depending upon the type of customer?
      1. Hint: it’s probably the latter
    4. A customer should NOT be considered “onboard” simply after a certain amount of time has passed
      1. In general, using how long a customer has been doing something as a marker for success – or even simple progress – is fraught with risk
  2. What will it take to get them to that point of being onboarded?
    1. Meet them where they are and take them where they need to go
      1. Are all customers starting from the same place?
      2. Are their different initial use cases, maturity levels, etc. that we need to consider?
    2. Will all customers get the same plan or will we be meeting different types of customers in different places (their maturity as a company, maturity with the processes we help operationalize, the type of customers they have, their size, etc.)?
    3. Once we understand where we need to meet them (Point A), what are the steps to get them onboard (Point B)?
      1. It’s probably a good idea to think about – and orchestrate – what comes after Point B, too.
    4. Consider everything that has to happen:
      1. On their end
        1. In the software
        2. Beyond the software
          1. where do they need to get data from, what systems do they need to interact with, who all needs to be involved, etc.
      2. On our end
        1. What we do for them
        2. What we do with them
        3. What we need to get them to do
        4. Who all needs to be involved
    5. Once the steps are outlined we can begin working on the modalities of intervention to move them along the way (meetings, 1:many, self-service, emails, calls, etc.)
      1. This is a good time to check out the Customer Engagement Communication Model and the BEAST Message Framework
    6. Consider the different types of customers and what we think would be appropriate to them
      1. We know a lot about them, but this might be a good time to really think about:
        1. What are they used to from other vendors?
        2. What do they love or hate about other vendors?
        3. What do we think would be appropriate for them?
          1. Bigger more mature customers may not need much from us at all
          2. Smaller customers may need a lot, but self-service and 1:many is what they expect
  3. What is the next step after onboarding?
    1. This is the “post-Point B” I mentioned earlier 
    2. After they reach the onboarded threshold, what do we need them to do next?
    3. We can start orchestrating this early so the transition form onboarding is expected and understood
  4. How long should it take to reach “onboarded?”
    1. Time to First Value (TTFV) is the KPI to pay attention to
    2. But TTFV is just a goal, not a “they’ve been with us 30 days so they’re onboard” situation
      1. If they reach “onboarded” in less than the TTFV goal time, that’s great!
      2. If it takes longer than the goal, that’s bad
        1. The sooner we can see that they’re not on track to hit the TTFV goal, then we need to intervene to see what the hold-up is
        2. Is it on our side? Their side? What’s the plan to move this forward?
    3. We can use TTFV as a sales metric, too!
      1. Each customer is associated with the sales rep
      2. Sales rep is managed and/or compensated on the customer achieving TTFV
      3. This helps ensure the handoff is handled properly and ensures the customer is a good fit and not oversold

There you go… now, what goes into each of those things will totally, 100% depend on your unique situation.

Further Reading on Customer Onboarding


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