Customer Onboarding: Best Practices Guide

Ten customer onboarding best practices to retain more customers, improve NRR, and build loyalty.
December 20, 2022
No items found.
Mukundh Krishna

We're not sure how you stumbled upon this piece, but the fact that you clicked on it suggests that you:

a) Recognize how difficult and complex customer onboarding can be.

b) Are looking for ways to improve your current methodology and streamline the process.

We've got you covered if you're nodding in agreement. In this blog, we'll go over some of the best customer onboarding practices to help you retain more customers, build stronger relationships with them, and provide them with an experience they won't soon forget. Let’s jump right in.

1. Engineer a great first impression

When it comes to customers' first impressions about working with your team, never leave things to chance. Ed Powers, one of the world’s leading Customer Success influencers, spoke about the neuroscience involved in customer journeys during his session at Propel22.

Ed talks about how customers form an early impression about working with you as a vendor/partner; from there, it's hard to get them to change their stance.

If you made a great first impression during the customer onboarding phase, they would excuse something that went wrong as a one-off. If they judged your implementation as sloppy early on, then any mishap solidifies their belief, and they lose trust completely.

‍So how do we get into their good books early and earn their trust?

You can engineer a great first impression with them by creating some wow moments right at the start of the customer onboarding journey:

  1. Show up highly prepared for your customer meetings with great hand-offs. All the context and goals should get re-iterated so the customer feels safe in your hands.
  2. Introduce some learning moments for the customer, so they are wow-ed by your knowledge as domain expertise.
  3. Put up a professional front on all your plans, material, communication, etc., which makes them respect the kind of company you are (decks, shared plans, content, emails).  Rocketlane can help!
  4. Go the extra mile - have a fun quiz as part of a training session, show the effort in personalizing the kickoff and plans, and take their inputs and feedback at each critical step.
  5. Have a maturity survey that helps customers understand where they stand

You can also help cement that impression by collecting feedback and ratings immediately after delivering those wow moments. The customer is forced to think about their experience, and if they rate you 5-stars, that will help them remember these unique experiences they've had with you. Try this out with great care with the next few customers, and you’ll start seeing a huge difference.

2. Set the right cadence for communication

Having a clear communication protocol early on helps keeps things on track and creates a better experience for everyone involved. You come across as a professional team, which also helps keep everyone accountable and avoids issues arising from lack of visibility (such as people dropping the ball). Here are some essential areas your communication plan should cover:

  1. How often will you be publishing the status of the project?
  2. What gets highlighted in the status? What's the format?
  3. What is the communication that will go out to executive sponsors?
  4. How often will you have meetings? Who will be invited to them?
  5. Who will publish the meeting minutes, and where can anyone who wants to see the minutes access them?
  6. What modes will be used for async communication, and how soon can parties expect responses?

A slide in your kickoff deck that covers all of this establishes the rules and expectations for smooth team engagement. It also is a forcing function for your team to follow the communication process.

Handling escalations

Any disputes regarding project communications must be resolved without derailing the project in any way. To ensure projects stay on schedule and issues are resolved, you could use the following escalation model to deal with communication issues. The table below defines the priority levels, decision authorities, and timeframes for resolution.

While there's no correct configuration for communication and meetings, it is still crucial to establish and get on the same page with respect to how you will run the customer onboarding. To know more about how you can create an effective customer communication plan, click here.

3. Make your onboarding process repeatable

If you’re juggling multiple implementation projects simultaneously, you can’t be wasting precious time in setting up projects from scratch each and every time. You’ve to figure out a way to create project plans, tasks, and necessary documentation in advance that you can reuse with minimal tweaks. You essentially need to create once, and reuse forever.

So how do you create such project plans and tasks? You guessed right if you said templates.

Each set of tasks, activities, and phases in your customer onboarding plan can be turned into template blocks with Rocketlane. You can then construct a new project plan in seconds by merging various template blocks together to tailor your plans according to each customer type/region/industry. You can even sync project fields from your favorite CRM to Rocketlane, and that can automatically create projects with the relevant phases and tasks included.

Pretty cool, isn’t it? Book a demo with us to see our advanced templating capabilities in action.

4. Optimize for faster value delivery over faster go-live

We're all used to equating completing a set of activities to a job well done. But nothing could be farther away from the truth during an implementation. You can't focus your goals on achieving a specific go-live date. You've to keep ROI and value delivery in mind at every step of the way. Those are the factors that matter the most.

During the discovery and scoping phase, ensure that your customer understands what value they will get with the scope clearly defined. During training, focus on the part of training that guarantees high ROI. For migration, make sure you're prioritizing migrating the data that matters and adds value. Ensure you bring that value orientation throughout the journey - in the plan, activities, conversations, and decision-making.

Another thing to keep in mind is prioritizing fast value delivery instead of loading all deliverables towards the end. You may not have all the integrations complete early on, but if there's some value for individuals working on your software, try running with that and add those other integrations later. Don't adopt an all-or-nothing approach. Make sure you have checkpoints along the journey to showcase to the customer that you have accomplished something useful to them. These milestones will go a long way in communicating progress to the customer.

5. Be flexible with your speed

Customers like their vendors to show some flexibility in their delivery. Customers also expect their software providers to know what they are doing, and the onboarding team to be experts.

This practice aims to tap into both elements to impress a new customer quickly and get the right initial handshake with the customer - to hold each other accountable for an on-time onboarding.

If your customer has a specific go-live date constraint or wants to do things faster, you should be able to accommodate their requirements as long as they promise to work with you with the same intensity.

Here's our recommended approach:

  1. At the kickoff or even pre-sale stage, showcase your standard customer onboarding process. Let's say you plan a 5-6 week journey for them. Show your customer/prospect the methodology and the project plan with the key milestones and dates mentioned. It is a powerful signal to the customer about your maturity if you have a well-defined onboarding plan (as opposed to sharing a spreadsheet with a few tasks on it).
  2. Tell them this is your standard plan, but you can move things around a little or compress the journey if they have tight deadlines or availability constraints.
  3. You could move phases/milestones around to pull back the overall go-live time or a specific milestone. Typically, this may be more about going live before a specific date, which need not have all integrations, data migrations, etc., completed before that - you just need the key ones. The rest can be pushed for later on in the plan. Discuss and understand things from your customer's side as you craft the new plan.
  4. Once you have their inputs, it'd be great if you have some quick changes in your mind that you can implement right on the call. Show them an updated plan in the same meeting (or just after) to get their agreement on the process. Get all key stakeholders to agree, and call out any risks you foresee.
  5. Once they confirm, freeze your plan and hold everyone to the timeline!

The more you do this, the more you will know where you can be flexible, what you want to deliver ahead, what you can keep for the next iteration, etc.

6. Do a weekly showcase and run weekly onboarding standup meetings

Weekly showcase

We saw this put to use in one of our recent onboarding projects. It's an agile practice that you can borrow for complex, time-critical projects, especially when a large team is involved in your implementation and setup. This may be evident to the agile practitioner or folks in project management, but not so much for people from customer success, support, sales, or engineering roles, who are running customer onboarding projects.

One of the common issues we run into when executing on larger/complex implementations with multiple teams and team members is that a lot of work gets 80-90% done and remains in that state, causing delays closer to launch. Things get marked as pending review or done, but the work could still be in its initial stages, and the reviews don't happen for a long while. Even worse, the team marks it as done and doesn't have anyone to review and point out what’s pending.

So how can we solve this?

One method we've seen work well is a "Sprint Review"-style demo to the steering committee or leadership at the end of every week or every two weeks to showcase the work done. Even when the onboarding project is waterfall-style, this helps in many ways:

  1. It becomes a forcing function to showcase what is completed and fully working in your setup.
  2. It pushes you to have a review session and incorporate feedback before the demo to the leadership team.
  3. It allows quick decisions on cutting down scope if anything comes up from these demos.
  4. Teams aren't talking about overall status and what remains, but are showing what work got done in the last two weeks - which allows teams to reflect on their progress and course correct if required.
  5. You have a much more realistic picture of the onboarding project’s actual timeline.

Onboarding standup meetings

Ever find out way too late that a customer is running many weeks late on their onboarding, and the customer is losing confidence in your product?

By week four, the delays have snowballed into a big mess, and the executive sponsor on the customer side now believes you haven't been proactive enough. Sigh.

So how do we keep a closer tab on this and ensure we aren't letting things slip?

Run a 30-min weekly onboarding standup meeting with your team. Get team members in CS/Onboarding to come up with the status of every onboarding:

  1. Is it on track or delayed?
  2. How is the customer sentiment?
  3. How is customer engagement?
  4. Are there any internal dependencies?
  5. Any blockers or risks we need to pay attention to?
  6. Is the customer live with your offering?
  7. Is the customer acknowledging value yet?
  8. Are we sending regular updates?

You can run through the projects with delays, blockers, negative sentiment, low engagement, etc., and ask the team to discuss their plan for the week on those accounts.

This forces you and your team to think about these aspects and help you stay on top of all these dimensions for every account; it would result in your team strategizing their key next steps with customers. It also provides an avenue to identify patterns across customers and to brainstorm as a team - about solutions to top problems/scenarios.

This can also help you bring down time-to-value across all our customers.

7. Tailor your onboarding plans based on customer maturity

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to customer onboarding. You need to understand where the customer is today, meet them there, and pull them up to the right level. If someone's at level zero, you can't try to get them all the way to level five or maximize ROI in one shot. That's setting the project up for failure. Instead, you have to be realistic about where the customer can get to with the first phase of your onboarding.

So the first value you deliver needs to be about one essential aspect. Once you do that, you will build trust. And your customers will allow the time and space you need to help them realize the entire breadth of value from your offering over the remainder of their journey.

8. Measure Measure Measure

A wise person once said, “what can be measured, can be improved.” And we couldn’t agree more, especially within the context of customer onboarding.

  • Are my projects starting and ending on time?
  • How accurate are my time and budget estimates on a project, phase, and task level?
  • Which implementation projects get delayed/completed on time most often?
  • What are the bottlenecks causing these delays?
  • Did I overestimate/underestimate the time taken to complete any phase/task(s)?

These are some of the questions your team needs to regularly find answers to. And a dedicated customer onboarding tool like Rocketlane can come in handy to help you stay on top of these metrics.

The Operations Insights Report from Rocketlane can assist your team with important insights from your projects, so that your business can make data-driven decisions to improve overall performance. These reports help you identify project bottlenecks, improve resource allocation, boost customer satisfaction, and complete implementations on time consistently.

You essentially get to know what you're doing well and what needs improvement across all your projects, phases, and tasks. The more projects you execute on Rocketlane, the more insights you uncover. You can then use these insights to eliminate delays and proactively keep your customers' promises.

9. Collect continuous feedback

When you ask your Onboarding Specialist how things are going with a critical account, they tell you everything is under control.

"It's on track."

But four days before the planned go-live, you get an escalation from the customer. They were promised that things would happen on time, but now they're told it would take three more weeks to complete the requested integrations. Your team kept assuring them all this while, only to tell them otherwise at the last minute.

Does this sound familiar?

Here's another example. A customer pings you three weeks into the onboarding to share that they don't have confidence in your team's ability to execute on this implementation. They sort of have been unhappy ever since kickoff. The training thus far has also been sloppy, and they sense a lack of preparation.

So, how do you catch these tricky situations earlier? How do you ensure that your customers are always on the same page and aren’t caught off guard?

Through continuous feedback, of course!

Always poll the customer side executives and POCs for a CSAT at each key milestone in the journey. This way, you'll understand the customer's sentiment on an ongoing basis and act fast to turn a situation around when you sense things are not going too well. Even before an escalation, you will get to know if the customer isn't too thrilled with how you are delivering.

Similarly, you can see patterns across projects and people on your team:

  1. Is a particular Customer Success Manager or Onboarding Specialist typically receiving lower ratings for their training or solutioning workshop?
  2. Is the company getting a consistent 3/5 for the kickoff meeting? Are you not impressing them at that early stage?

You can answer these questions and more by looking at your CSAT scores and analyzing them over time.

If you want to try this out, Rocketlane has a native CSAT capability so you can survey your customers on the delivery of each key milestone in the onboarding journey!

10. Don’t overwhelm your customers

If you have a complex product, onboarding can be challenging, especially because the customer may not have the maturity required to use your product, and you may be trying to set them up for too much too early.

While the customer may enjoy the benefits of a fully set up product, they may lose hope along the implementation journey if it feels like too much effort from their end or a lot of learning and work before they start seeing any value. This is when they start ghosting you and tell their bosses or colleagues that your product setup demands too much of their time and they aren't able to get their work done.

If you hear that the customer "got busy with other priorities," one of your takeaways should be that they couldn't multi-task and take your implementation to completion because it was too much effort.

Why is a high-effort implementation bad?

  1. Churn: Customers may ghost you during implementation and churn
  2. Defensive CSM, slow growth: Delayed implementations lead to your team being on the backfoot with the customer, slower ROI, and lower the customer’s confidence in engaging more with you.
  3. Limited expansion opportunities: Even if they get through it, they negatively perceive your offering and dread engaging in such an exercise again. So they may not want to grow their use cases or engagement with your product.
  4. Lower NPS: If you have a low friction implementation that feels like a breeze to the customer, they will talk about it to their industry peers. You just missed a great way to get great word of mouth!

How do you get better at this? Measure your Customer Effort Score!

Start measuring what the customer feels the level of effort is for the onboarding, and try to understand which stages or steps they feel are the highest effort from their end.

Send out a survey to all customers going through the implementation journey with you - to collect how customers score you 1 to 10 on how complex your implementation was for them, and then information on what specific phases or tasks were hardest to get past.

This way, you can figure out how to make those steps easier, such as:

  1. Break them down into smaller pieces they can handle
  2. Offer a more prescriptive approach
  3. Provide help or educational content to help complete them
  4. Offer consulting services to bridge maturity gaps
  5. Bring in partners for some parts of the implementation
  6. Make it a phased implementation

Every month you can reflect on the effort scores from your customers and identify key tasks, phases, or milestones that need a revamp to make it easy for the customer.

BONUS: Do yourself a favor and get the best customer onboarding software in the market

Rocketlane, with its purpose-built customer onboarding platform, enables businesses to accelerate the time-to-value of their products, achieve faster go-lives, increase renewals and boost customer satisfaction. It brings the focus back to the customer in customer onboarding through a fully collaborative experience. Rocketlane replaces general project management, communication, and document collaboration tools with a unique, unified workspace that improves communication, collaboration, and project visibility for teams and their customers. With insights from trends and benchmarks across projects, teams can develop and optimize playbooks and best practices with continuous improvement.

See how parcelLab, Yellow.AI, and Jirav are using Rocketlane to create delightful onboarding journeys for their customers while saving 1000+ hours.  

Try Rocketlane today!

More resources

  1. Introducing the Customer Onboarding Maturity Model: An easy way to measure and up your onboarding game
  2. 5 easy ways to improve your customer onboarding process
  3. A customer-centric framework for onboarding
  4. Setting up your first customer onboarding team

Industry insights you won’t delete. Delivered to your inbox weekly.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Rahul Sridhar
Content Marketer @ Rocketlane

Content Marketer at Rocketlane. Former teacher turned tech writer. Occasionally dabbles in comedy and rap music.

You might also like...
Here are some other posts from us you may enjoy reading
Mastering subscription billing: Best practices for professional service businesses
A must-have guide for professional service firms on implementing subscription billing to drive growth and enhance customer retention.
Mastering modern customer onboarding: Your essential guide to success benchmarks
Explore industry best practices and benchmarks for customer onboarding that use personalization and technology for maximum efficiency.
Subscription models demystified: Choosing the right approach for your professional service business
A detailed guide to subscription models for professional services with core components, pricing approaches, metrics to track, and more.

Move your service delivery into the fast lane

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.