Why great onboarding is a strategic advantage for customer success teams

Onboarding is the process wherein new users become proficient and start finding value in your product. The steps required to onboard users and measure their success look different for every company. But the goal of any onboarding program should be to help users become comfortable enough in the product that they start using it for its intended purpose—and make it part of their everyday lives. 

While this initial onboarding ramp-up period is connected to the overall product experience, it represents a much shorter—yet in some ways, more impactful—moment in a user’s journey. It’s the one and only first impression a product gets to make on its users. And anything short of a delightful experience can have long-term effects on customers’ happiness and product proficiency—and, ultimately, overall business outcomes.

Historically, onboarding new users has been a time- and resource-consuming task. It has typically involved many teams—from product to enablement to marketing. And it wasn’t uncommon for it to be delivered through “traditional” channels like email, PDF, or webinar-style training sessions. 

But these efforts—which rely heavily on human intervention and external channels—don’t scale well, particularly when they fall on the shoulders of customer success managers (CSMs) who are already busy managing a significant number of customer relationships and juggling multiple responsibilities. And the reality is that a lengthy “welcome” email or training session scheduled a week after login isn’t enough to drive successful learning and long-term adoption

The solution? Product-led onboarding. 


What is product-led onboarding?

Product-led onboarding (also known as in-app onboarding) is the process of helping new users become proficient in your product by leveraging the product itself as an introductory enablement channel. In product-led onboarding, users receive training and walkthroughs within the product or app itself. This way, companies can accelerate time to value for their users by providing contextual information as they use and navigate the product, while reducing the lag time often required when scheduling human-led onboarding with customer success (CS) teams.

It’s important to note that product-led onboarding does not mean humanless onboarding.

Product-led onboarding has a number of benefits for customers and users:

  • It gives users a personalized experience through targeted tracks or flows (e.g. onboarding based on use cases, persona groups, titles, permissions, etc.) so they only get the information that’s most relevant to them
  • It’s immersive, so users stay focused on their learning and don’t get distracted by the context-switching that’s often required when receiving training through a variety of channels
  • It lets users self-serve their onboarding experience, while also giving them the option to engage with a human if and when they want
  • It can be delivered in formats that cater to a variety of learning styles (e.g. videos, step-by-step walkthroughs, on-demand resources within an in-app resource center, etc.)

It’s important to note that product-led onboarding does not mean humanless onboarding. In fact, many organizations leverage both human- and product-led strategies to formulate their own hybrid approach. Product-led organizations and CS teams see the product as a vehicle to drive the most effective onboarding experience possible—allowing them to deliver immediate and contextual value to their customers.


How does product-led onboarding benefit customer success teams?

The growth of software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications has dramatically reduced the cost for customers to switch providers—and greatly raised the stakes for organizations hoping to retain customers. Because customers are far more likely to churn if they don’t realize the value of your product quickly, it’s critical to help customers see the benefits of your software as early in their engagement as possible.

Beyond improving a customer’s likelihood to renew, a great onboarding experience benefits CS teams in other ways, too:

  • It allows you to tailor your onboarding flows for various user segments, so you can deliver personalized (and thus more effective and sticky) enablement, at scale
  • It helps free up CSM time and resources by moving lower-value, historically human-led efforts inside the product—like basic account set-up or feature walkthroughs
  • It gets users into the product immediately, which helps CSM build on momentum coming out of the sales cycle
  • It builds trust with customers and users from day one by allowing them to experience the value of the product from the outset—which influences their overall perception of the company’s integrity and level of service

Best practices for building incredible in-app onboarding

Onboarding experiences vary widely from organization to organization, product to product, depending on the complexity of your app. For heavily technical products, you may need to create multi-step, phased onboarding flows. But for apps with more basic or familiar functionality, a simple product tour or feature walkthrough might suffice.

No matter the breadth or depth of your company’s product, as a CSM, you are uniquely positioned to help your organization shape its product-led onboarding strategy. You know your customers better than anyone. And that insight, combined with product usage data, is critical for informing and shaping onboarding programs that will actually resonate with the right users. 

Here are a few key considerations to keep in mind as you get started.

Know your goals

Consider what you know about your customers. Are they technically savvy? What are they trying to achieve? Which areas of the product should they familiarize themselves with first in order to see immediate value? 

Your deep knowledge of your customers should inform the KPIs you use to measure their success, help shape the goals you outline for their unique onboarding programs, and even impact the pacing and format of their onboarding flows. It will also help you determine which features of the product to highlight first, based on the outcomes they’re trying to reach (more on that next). The onboarding goals you set will depend on a number of factors, including the product’s complexity, your customers’ use cases, and even any other professional or ancillary services your customers are entitled to in their contract.

Focus on your most important features

There’s nothing worse than getting your hands on a new app and immediately feeling overwhelmed by how much there is to learn. So remember that while it’s tempting to show your customers all the great things the product can do from day one, the most effective onboarding actually focuses new users on only the most relevant features they need to use to accomplish their most important tasks. As a CSM, it’s your role to work with each customer to identify what those particular features are based on their use cases and challenges, and to then help users get comfortable with those areas of the product first.

In addition to the workflows you know are necessary to help your customers succeed in the product, product analytics can also help you understand which features other existing users are leveraging frequently and getting the most value from. If your analytics tool allows, examine this usage at both the individual user and account level. This will help you better tailor your onboarding program for specific user or company types, based on what’s been successful in the past.

For tips on setting goals and selecting the right features to focus on first, review our detailed playbook, How to choose which features to highlight during onboarding

Choose the right formats

After you’ve determined which areas of your product to highlight for your customers, it’s time to consider how and when to present them with relevant information. 

The beauty of product-led onboarding is that it brings all of the activities associated with new user enablement inside the app—so your audience is captive and the guidance is contextual. Depending on the in-app guidance platform you use, you may have a number of different in-app guide formats to choose from, like walkthroughs, lightboxes and carousels, tooltips, or videos, to name a few. Keep your customers’ learning preferences in mind when deciding which formats to use. Also think about the complexity of the particular action you’re asking them to take. Would a series of videos, delivered via carousel, help to illustrate the steps required to complete an in-depth workflow? Or would written step-by-step instructions, available in-app, be more appropriate?

Keep in mind that the best onboarding approach often combines several formats—for example, lightboxes to guide users through initial account set-up, walkthroughs to demonstrate how to complete a key action the first time a user navigates to a feature, and tooltips to remind users of the function of frequently-used areas of the product. This multi-format approach keeps things interesting and engaging, and helps ensure all users have the opportunity to learn in the ways that work best for them.

For more guidance on setting up your first onboarding walkthrough, read our playbook, How to build your first onboarding walkthrough.

Keep it concise

Just as new users don’t want to sit through hours of offline training, they also don’t want to feel bogged down by overly lengthy in-app onboarding programs. Aim to keep your onboarding flows as brief as possible—just enough so that users feel confident in their ability to get started. As a general rule of thumb, don’t extend walkthroughs beyond four or five steps. The same is true for carousels—any more than a few swipes and users will start to lose focus.

Also, resist the temptation to overload your in-app guides with text. Be concise and direct. Use a clear content structure that makes each guide easy to consume. And if your message starts to get lost in a sea of text, try embedding GIFs or videos into your guides to show (vs. tell) users how to do something.

Finally, be sure that each step in your onboarding flow has a defined purpose—for example, to welcome new users, highlight the key features of your app, or demonstrate why users should engage with a particular area of the product. Remember that you can always leverage an in-app resource hub where users can reference FAQs, read through detailed instructions, or revisit walkthroughs—it doesn’t all have to live within your initial onboarding. 

Make it personal

Onboarding doesn’t just start and end with an initial “welcome” message to your new users. With the right tool, you can create unique, segmented programs for specific customers or user groups. 

As a CSM, you’re in a unique position to lead the strategy behind these bespoke onboarding programs. For example, you could create distinct onboarding guides for individual contributors vs. managers, demonstrating key features or workflows that are most relevant to how each group typically uses the product. Or you could deploy individualized in-app guides to address a specific concern or need brought up by a customer during their kick-off call. This kind of personalization helps the onboarding experience feel as relevant as possible to each of your customers, and contributes to a delightful user experience from day one. 

For more best practices about setting up your “welcome” program (and beyond), explore our detailed playbook, How to design an onboarding welcome experience

Measure and iterate

Taking a product-led approach to onboarding means using product and behavioral data to continually iterate and improve your processes—and challenge your assumptions. 

Use your analytics tool to assess how your target audiences engaged with onboarding modules (onboarding engagement), how users are engaging with the product and how their behavior changed after completing onboarding (product usage), and how your onboarding programs influenced other business-critical KPIs (business outcomes). Collaborate with your peers in product, enablement, and marketing to understand what worked well and what could be improved. And use in-app polls and surveys to ask your customers for feedback so they can share their thoughts on their experience so far.

For more information about how to measure the efficacy of your onboarding programs, check out our detailed playbook, How to measure the impact of your onboarding walkthrough.