SaaS user onboarding part 1 – the who, what, when, where, why
Published November 15th, 2021
“Building a good customer experience does not happen by accident. It happens by design.”
Sr. Director of Marketing at Tiny
Lately, user experience (UX) has almost reached buzzword status, as everyone’s touting it as the ‘silver bullet’ to companies' problems. Why? Because focusing on user experience allows them to scale and grow to new heights – over and above what they’ve ever done before.
Often when people think about user experience, they think about how someone interacts and engages with a product, how they get started and how their users are onboarded. In other words, your user onboarding is a core part of your user experience.
Depending on your organization, user onboarding can be quite sophisticated or simple. In fact companies now sell out-of-the-box templates for onboarding (I just need to look through my emails to know this). However, a great onboarding experience isn’t something that can be templated – it’s a customized process that’s used to make your company (and product) stand out.
This three-part series on SaaS user onboarding, covers how it can be used as a tool to facilitate product-led growth:
- Part 1 – The who, what, when, where, why
- Part 2 – The commercialization of onboarding
- Part 3 – Iterative testing and ongoing investment
What is a SaaS user onboarding experience?
User onboarding aims to create a positive experience for new users, as they learn to use your product or service. It actively guides them to find different aspects that add value and delivers ‘aha’ moments along the way.
It’s often said that when you meet a person, you have 5 seconds to make a lasting first impression, and your product is oftentimes no different. Here at Tiny, we talk about the first 5 seconds, the first 5 minutes and the first 5 days.
We work to split our onboarding experience into these three buckets – so we can best manage and create a cohesive journey across the entire onboarding flow. Is it always successful? No, we make mistakes, but so does everyone when trying to create and optimize the best onboarding experience possible for users. The important thing is that we iterate and learn from each of those mistakes.
According to HelpScout, customer onboarding is the process that new users go through to get set up and start using your product. It’s not just the initial sign-up, it’s also about activation and your product’s first use.
Why care about user onboarding?
When you’re always competing for internal resources for projects – particularly for the resources of Engineers and Designers – it often becomes an argument about what’s the highest priority, what’s the most valuable, what moves the needle fastest or the most.
There are plenty of other blog posts that talk about why onboarding is so important. But, if you want it summarized into a single phrase: it’s about capturing the user value as quickly as possible, to increase revenue. Afterall, let’s be honest, most businesses are about generating as much revenue (with as little cost) as possible.
When you’re considering why you want an onboarding process, think about your goal, is it to:
- Create more loyal customers?
- Increase the number of users?
- Improve product adoption?
Decide on the motivating factor behind the creation of your onboarding, and why it's important to your company.
...before you create a user onboarding process, think about… who's this for?
Tiny’s onboarding workflow
Tiny, as a company, is somewhat unique within this respect, because we have an open source core. Unlike many companies that claim to be open source but are only employing it as a marketing tactic, for Tiny, open source is a way of life. You’ll often hear discussions in the virtual hallways of Tiny, about how we can better engage in open source, how we can build something in open source, or how we can better contribute to the open source community.
Our open source heritage and ethos is something that deeply influences our onboarding process and has underpinned our work from the first release of TinyMCE, in 2004.
Of course, we also have our monetized projects and the largest team of engineers globally working on a commercial/open source rich text editor model. So, that takes money. To balance
the numbers, we monetize certain areas that focus on providing greater value to commercial customers. This commercialization/open model allows us to retain our core as free and open source, while we can also sustain our ongoing engineering and innovation efforts.
We care about onboarding users into the TinyMCE product, because we want developers in the wider community to have access to the best enterprise-grade rich text editor on the market. That means getting them started quickly, so they can get their project shipped to market in equally quick time.
That’s why we spend time building, iterating and improving our onboarding process.
What types of SaaS client onboarding processes are there?
Usually in product-led businesses, there’s consistent talk about the heavily automated versions of onboarding. But, there are many different kinds of onboarding series and processes and most companies use a combination of them to service their customer base, including:
- Low-touch / automated onboarding – best for supporting a high volume of sign-ups
- High-touch / white-glove – this is where your high-value sales-managed deals have customized onboarding sessions and contacts to assist them through the process
- Hybrid approach – a little bit of automation and a little bit of manual. Again, this is usually handled in a sales-managed world, where part of the set-up is automated, while still having access to Customer Success Managers and onboarding sessions to help
For the sake of simplicity throughout the rest of this article, we’re generally referring to the ‘automated’ style of onboarding.
Who owns onboarding?
It’s the perennial question, but there’s no single right answer to who owns the onboarding flow. Even a google search doesn’t shed any definitive light on the topic. So, which department is responsible for user onboarding?
The difficulty lies in the word, ownership. That's because ‘ownership’ means different things, and a lot of people have their ‘hand in the pie’ when it comes to onboarding flows.
Here’s just a short list of potential departments that may end up owning onboarding:
- Customer Success
Honestly, I’m sort of surprised that finance hasn’t tried to get in and own a slice of the onboarding pie!
You need to identify who’s your most important customer and then work with the relevant team/s to design (and implement) the onboarding.
Onboarding ownership in smaller SaaS organizations
In a small organization, often onboarding goes to the team most enthusiastic about owning it and getting it built and running. In my experience this is either Product or Marketing. However, if your Marketing Leader isn’t trying to get involved in user onboarding, it may be time to find an actual marketer!
That said, your Product Team is essential because it’s inherently a complex process – especially if you’re looking to create an automated onboarding flow.
Onboarding ownership in larger SaaS organizations
In a larger organization, it’s more likely going to be multiple departments ‘owning’ different pieces of the onboarding pie. But generally, there’s one or two executives/senior sponsors who are ultimately responsible for the outcome and decision. At Tiny, it’s shared between Marketing and Product.
Interdepartmental onboarding inputs
Regardless of who’s the ultimate decision maker, every department needs to work together and collaborate to establish a quality onboarding program.
Again, let’s use the example of Tiny:
- Marketing likes to get involved in a lot of things – call that a positive or negative, I’ll let you decide!
- Marketing owns the email flow – so all those beautiful onboarding emails are from us!
- Marketing owns the content – we work closely with our Product Manager to ensure there’s a smooth journey throughout the entire account experience
- Marketing owns the web experience – before you click sign-up
- Marketing owns experimentation – here, Growth comes under Marketing, so we own the iterative experimentation schedule of our onboarding process
- As above, we work closely with Product on determining the entire customer journey and reducing any friction points
- A great Product Manager is worth their weight in gold – the onboarding experience is where you need your gold-plated Product Manager
- Product is responsible for everything within the account from when users click sign-up – all those interactions within the account and the onboarding flow within the account are all their domain
- As above, Product works closely with Marketing to determine the customer journey and reduce friction points
- Where would we be without reports! Operations own the backend reporting, (although I may drive them crazy with the amount of reports I request!)
- Engineering owns the implementation and technology behind the account (plus all the integrations into our other systems).
- They are the well oiled machine that helps keep it all running
- Customer Success (CS) are the people you turn to when something goes wrong!
- Our CS Team entirely own the sales-managed onboarding process – liaising and working with other departments when they need help
- Here, our CS team also includes our support team
That’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen – so what happens when there’s disagreements? How do we decide and get things done?
Maybe it’s a byproduct of our culture, where you can openly voice (with respect) disagreements and differing opinions with anyone, including the CEO… and you’re listened to with an open mind. We're an opinionated bunch, but all our different expertise and viewpoints frequently come together, and end up with a much better decision.
Who’s the user onboarding for?
Working in the technology space, there’s a tendency to automate everything – and make it as streamlined and effective as possible – so it runs at scale.
But before you create a user onboarding process, think about… who’s this for?
Before you say users, think about who it’s actually for – is it new customers? Self-service customers? Deals closed from the sales team? People trialing your product? Each answer leads you down a slightly different path.
Customer journey mapping
Your onboarding process needs to reflect your thinking on the customer journey. If you sit down and map out exactly who’s undertaking your onboarding, what they need and how they need it, you’ll likely end up with different journeys for each different type of customer.
It’s important not to get overwhelmed at the amount you need to make – that’s where your Product Manager can help set-up a roadmap. You need to identify who’s your most important customer and then work with the relevant team/s to design (and implement) the onboarding.
For example, at Tiny we have different onboarding series for:
- Those who sign-up online for a free account on our open source TinyMCE product
- Another for those who sign-up for a paid plan online
- Another for those who sign-up through our sales team.
That doesn’t mean that we’re not starting from scratch for everything, we are reusing components, we’re just being very purposeful in their journey about where we want to branch them off and send them on different onboarding paths – ones that are more customized to their wants and needs.
The questions to consider when creating your onboarding process are:
- Which customers are going to use this path?
- What do they need to be successful?
- What can we do to make them more successful in reaching their goals?
- What’s the most simple and efficient way to help them achieve their goals?
When to invest in a user onboarding program
Investing in an automated / self-directed onboarding program is not a cheap exercise.
Appcues estimates it costs about $57.35K to build an onboarding experience – that’s just the Product, Engineering and Design costs. On top of that, there’s the stakeholder consultation, integrations with other systems, and the costs of other departments (like Marketing) getting involved.
Given there’s such high upfront costs, when’s the right time to invest in an onboarding process? The minute you sign-up your first customer!
Your very first user onboarding series doesn’t need to be automated. Automation can come into play when you’re at the scaling point of the business – so it may not make dollar sense whilever there’s under 100 customers.
A small number of users can be manually managed by one person, in a fairly simple manner. Besides, the chances are that at this low number, you’re still trying to find a product/market fit for your SaaS product – so being hands on and talking with the customers is key to getting insights.
Scaling your SaaS customer onboarding
The truest answer to this question lies in a more complex answer than... when you can’t manually manage it anymore. Because, if you wait until your headcount resources are consumed by onboarding and managing customers, then it’ll already be too late. By the time you build and launch it, your staff will be overwhelmed.
As you gain traction within the market, you’ll most likely need to invest in an automated onboarding experience (even if it’s only partially automated) as a way to scale. Then you’ll be able to better manage the increasing number of people signing up and trialing – otherwise your headcount resources become a blocker.
It’s also worth spending time with key internal stakeholders (most likely your strategy/executive team) discussing the long-term roadmap. Below are some questions you can try to answer:
- At what number of customers can we no longer support a manual-only process?
- Working backwards, if we want to develop an automated process, how long would it take us to scope, design and build it?
- If we want to have automated onboarding, who’s the most important customer (type) we need to service? What does their onboarding journey look like?
Follow the money
When it comes to deciding whether (and when) to invest in a SaaS user onboarding series, it’s important to take a step back and figure out your who, what, when, where and why before you jump into the project.
Another big part of the yes-no onboarding decision is how much extra revenue you’ll generate and how to commercialize it... so Part 2 of the series covers just that!
This is part one of a three part series on user onboarding and how it can be used as a tool to grow your product-led business. Read the other parts of the series:
- Part 1 - The who, what, when, where, why
- Part 2 - The commercialization of onboarding series
- Part 3 - Iterative testing and ongoing investment
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