Setting expectations during customer onboarding

At Propel23, Mike Sasaki talks about the importance of setting expectations during customer onboarding.
April 24, 2023
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Mike comes with over 15 years of experience in the world of SaaS and Customer Success. He has worked with some of the largest brands around the globe. Mike is currently the VP of Customer Success at Emburse where he partners with customers to achieve their business objectives through optimal use of solutions.

At Propel23, Mike Sasaki makes the case for setting expectations with customers and your CS counterparts from the get-go. With  over 15 years of experience in the world of SaaS and Customer Success, Mike has worked with some of the largest brands around the globe. Mike is currently the VP of Customer Success at Emburse where he partners with customers to achieve their business objectives through optimal use of solutions.

In his session, he talks about:

  • The definition of customer onboarding
  • The customer journey map
  • What are expectations and why should you set them?
  • How to set expectations?
  • Best practices in setting expectation

What is customer onboarding?

Mike breaks down the definition for customer onboarding into 4 parts:

  • Timeline:The timeline for customer onboarding is from signing to the customer receiving the first value. Make sure to have this time measured.
  • Purpose: The purpose of customer onboarding is to familiarize new customers with your products and services, confirm and set expectations, and nurture multithreaded engagement. The customer onboarding process has a lot of benefits for the customer, and is also where you can set the foundation for future expansion and minimize churn. The seeds of churn are planted early, and the same goes for expansion. As soon as the customer signs, you need to start considering how to ensure they get value from your product or service, and any challenges or risks that could prevent that. And customer onboarding is where you need to tackle these issues, to ensure a seamless journey for your customers.
  • Participants: Figuring out who to involve in customer onboarding depends heavily on your product, your customers, and the journey they will take. To get a better understanding of this process, you need to create a customer journey map. The map should be centered around the customer, and will help you determine which participants are needed at each stage of the customer journey during onboarding.
  • Desired outcomes: Your desired outcomes need to be aligned with those of the customer. Clarity trumps everything. The most important thing is to get the customer up and running with a quality implementation, clear expectations, and realistic business outcomes.

Remember: Onboarding is different from implementation. Using them interchangeably will lead to problems. Customer onboarding contains implementations, contact mapping, expectation setting, adoption, training, etc.

The customer journey map

Customer journey mapping is cross-functional. It helps you get an idea of the moments or milestones that matter to the customer so you can invest your time and resources wisely. Without a journey map or a holistic view into what’s going on, what you see is different functions, trying to solve their problems in silos.

Why should you set expectations with customers?

The more you set expectations, the less uncomfortable it gets over time. Setting expectations is crucial for customer success and taking the position of the lead in the customer relationship.

By establishing clarity, transparency, and trust, you can ensure that you are driving the customer towards their desired outcomes. It is important to be consultative and provide expert guidance, leveraging data and insights from other successful customers.

While customer happiness is important, prioritizing customer success builds trust and loyalty in the long run. Embracing conflict early allows you  to gauge customer reactions and address any misunderstandings or gaps. Defining the engagement model and mapping contacts ensures effective communication and avoids single-threaded relationships. Set clear roles and responsibilities internally to drive clarity in external interactions. Overall, setting expectations, fostering transparency, and addressing conflicts proactively help you contribute collectively to customer success.

8 areas of expectation setting for effective customer onboarding

There are 8 types of expectations that you need to set with customers.

1. What customers have bought and what they expect

Taking the time to go through the details of the product is a huge part of customer onboarding. It might seem like a no-brainer, but it's crucial that you keep up with it and stay on top of things. It's an ongoing process that needs your attention.

2. Billing: Billing start date and expectations

This can change from business to business. More often, customers assume they start paying only when they start using the product. But if the contract states otherwise, it should be made known to the customer. It's important to make sure that customers understand this and remind them multiple times, especially when implementation or onboarding gets delayed. Remind them of their contractual obligations and keep doing so until there's clarity.

3. Implementation timeline: A realistic timeline, and go-live date

Customers tend to expect things to happen very soon. But if it were to take longer than expected, it's best to raise the issue early on, rather than trying to fix it or ignoring it and dealing with it later. It's important to be proactive and bring up any potential issues that could arise, even if it might be uncomfortable. Doing this will help you out in the long run.

4. Resources: Resources required and when

To be super specific, figure out what resources are required from your end and the customer’s for the onboarding. Additionally make a note of when you will need them, and how long you'll need to use them.

5. Adoption: The product adoption ramp timeline

When customers purchase a product, they often have an expectation of how quickly they will be able to use it. However, unless you're just rolling out the product to all your customers at once, there is usually a gradual process of adoption which could mean that the timeline for them using it isn't what they may have anticipated. To avoid this, it's best to set realistic expectations and give users time to get used to using the product.

6. Maintenance: Any post-implementation requirements

Customers might think that once the product is live, there won't be any more work to do, but that's not usually the case.

When it comes to products, ensure that your customers are aware of any activities (upgrades, for example) that may take up their time as well as any development resources they might need after the product has gone live. 

It's important to make sure they're prepared to fine tune and optimize how they use the product, so there's no lag in those processes.

7. Operational model: Defining clear roles and responsibilities 

This is just like using a RACI chart for your projects. Make sure to communicate and set clear expectations with the customer on what everyone's roles and responsibilities are, and make sure that everyone knows exactly what they have to do.

8. Escalation path: Communication mapping and cadence

Before a situation escalates, map out an appropriate escalation path. This is especially important for customers so they know who to contact if the team isn't showing up to meetings or following best practices. It's also beneficial for you, so you can reach out to the relevant executive and let them know if their team is not meeting expectations and how this could delay their outcomes.

Customer contact mapping

Customer contact mapping is an essential practice to ensure effective communication and avoid strained relationships with customers. It helps you identify and connect with key stakeholders, particularly executives, who may be critical to addressing churn risks or accessing higher levels of decision-making. The onboarding process presents a valuable opportunity to establish these connections. 

By mapping contacts, such as executives, administrators, customer success managers, technical resources, and implementation personnel, you can enable comprehensive engagement with the customer. This approach also brings clarity internally, defining roles, responsibilities among counterparts, minimizing overlaps and gaps within the organization. The customer contact map serves as a visual representation of these connections, facilitating discussions during onboarding. If there are any disagreements during contact mapping, shift the focus to finding a common ground to drive clarity and successful collaboration.

What happens if you don’t set expectations?

  • Lack of measurable success criteria: Without clearly defined expectations, it becomes difficult to assess and achieve success. Continuous expectation setting is crucial to ensure your customer's success and mitigate risks. Delaying the establishment of expectations only makes it harder and increases the stakes involved.
  • Implementation delays and increased resource requirements: When expectations are not set from the start, it can result in implementation delays. This not only increases the requirement for additional resources but also escalates the risk of complications and challenges.
  • Wasted time and lack of organization: Without upfront expectations, both parties lack organization and coordination. This leads to inefficiency, wasted time, and energy spent on rectifying misunderstandings and trying to align on requirements and deliverables.
  • Absence of a clear escalation path: Without a well-defined escalation path, you will find yourself constantly firefighting issues and dealing with problems that could have been prevented. A clear escalation path ensures efficient communication and prompt resolution of any concerns.
  • Lack of a weekly summary with score: A weekly summary with scoring is essential to keep customers informed about their progress. It allows you to present a clear picture of their current status, including the number of tasks completed, overdue tasks, and tasks that are yet to begin. This transparency helps manage expectations and keeps everyone on track.
  • Challenges with customer requests, credits, and churn: As a Customer Success Manager, it is your responsibility to address any issues raised by customers, including requests for credits, product-related challenges, or even potential churn. While you may seek support from others, resolving these problems ultimately falls on your shoulders, and you must take the lead in finding solutions.

So, it’s important to set expectations with customers upfront. Do it proactively and be on the offense instead of on the defense.

Best practices for setting customer expectations

  • Hire and enable/train the right persona: When it comes to hiring the right customer success manager, it's not just about finding the most experienced candidate. Training and enabling are equally important. Make sure to provide them with the tools they need to approach difficult conversations with customers. Show them how to be honest and push back when necessary. It's also okay to make mistakes while working with customers, so don't be afraid to give your CSM the freedom to mentally operate as they see fit.
  • Develop a formal Customer Onboarding Program that includes expectation-setting motions: Developing a customer onboarding program not only puts the customer at the center of the experience, but it also helps make your operations more efficient. Plus, this type of program makes the onboarding process consistent and easy to follow.
  • Implement a 3x3 approach: Set each expectation 3 times with 3 different title levels. To make sure your customer is well aware of the expectations you have set for them, you may have to reiterate several times and with different people to ensure everyone is on the same page.
  • Document each expectation that was set (who and when): When you're planning your kickoff presentation, keep in mind that you need to make sure the audience has at least three key takeaways from the presentation. It isn't about how long your presentation is - it's about making a lasting impression.
  • Set up alerts for when expectations creep out of bounds: Alerts are really important, whether they're manual or automated. It's important to keep an eye on them, and if something goes out of bounds, it's time to bring it back in. It's good to have a mix of both manual and automated alerts in place to make sure everything stays on track.
  • Leverage tools that can assist in organizing and scaling strategies. Trust, transparency, clear guidance, proactive communication, and seeking feedback are key elements in setting expectations. Requesting feedback should be prioritized to identify areas for improvement and make necessary adjustments.

Pro-tip: Have a customer expectations playbook

When it comes to setting expectations during customer onboarding, it is crucial to review and confirm various aspects such as products, services, timelines, and success criteria during the initial meetings. 

Build executive connections and clarify expectations, including cadence and quality. Create a shareable success plan and ensure alignment among all stakeholders.

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Shuvedha Subramaniam
Content Marketer @ Rocketlane

Marketing analyst @ Rocketlane. An Advocate by choice and a penwoman for the love of it. When the world zips, I like to zoink. Also, being happy by being kind.

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