Customer Onboarding Guide: Process, Methods & Examples

Arsh Manzer
April 5, 2022
min read
November 17, 2023
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Learn how customer onboarding supports the entire customer journey, and how to optimize your process.
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In 2005, Salesforce had a $2 billion market cap and saw a triple-digit booking rate. The company's success was cut short because of a single factor: an 8 percent customer churn. Salesforce was losing nearly 75 percent of its customers annually which severely hemorrhaged its growth.

Clearly, Salesforce was doing something wrong.

Customers chose Salesforce over its competition because they believed it was a better fit for their requirements. Unfortunately, the company‘s leadership failed to reassure them they’d made the right choice. 

Realizing its folly, Salesforce started working towards successfully introducing customers to its platform. Prioritizing customer onboarding helped the company add nearly 250,000 subscribers within a year.

So, what is customer onboarding?

Customer onboarding is a nurturing process where you gradually show customers everything you have to offer to provide value as early as possible. It covers the entire customer journey—from initial sign-up to product activation and first use — and aims to make customers comfortable with your product through step-by-step product walkthroughs and prompt customer guidance and support.

Customer onboarding isn’t just about teaching new users how to use the product. It’s also about ensuring customer success from every individual user’s perspective and aligning the product’s use-case with their goals.

What do they want to achieve from your product? How can they use the product to make their lives easier? What does success look like to your customer? 

Depending on your strategy, customer onboarding can positively or negatively impact your company’s entire customer journey and directly affect customer retention.

Why is customer onboarding important?

Nearly two-thirds of customers say the level of support they’re likely to receive post-sale heavily influences their purchase decisions. What's more, 90 percent of customers feel companies should put more effort into onboarding new clients. 

Effective customer onboarding helps you keep customers happy and coming back for more. It has lasting benefits for your customers and business, as it sets the tone for the ongoing relationship your customer has with your product.

Here are some substantial benefits of a successful customer onboarding process:

  • More revenue and increased customer lifetime value.
  • Reduced new customer acquisition costs.
  • Improved customer retention and lower customer churn.
  • Better customer engagement.
  • A loyal customer base.
  • More referrals from existing customers.

Having a customer-focused onboarding strategy helps you achieve customer delight and deliver a positive post-sales experience. You can set your customers up to get maximum value from using your product immediately and repeatedly, which is imperative to customer retention and, in turn, your company’s growth.

5 Steps to create a customer-centric customer onboarding process

When onboarding a new customer, you have to factor in their specific requirements. This means you can’t show them a generic welcome video and be done with onboarding. It doesn’t work that way.

You have to make new users familiar and comfortable with all the features of your product. Below, we’ll show how to successfully onboard new customers and introduce them to your product in the best possible way.

Step 1: Establish specific onboarding goals

Setting specific goals helps guide your focus and keeps onboarding on track. It gives you an end vision, allowing you to channel your efforts in the right direction and achieve maximum success. 

For effective goal-setting, you can always rely on the SMART framework. The acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound and is a well-established tool to plan, achieve, and measure your goals.

Choose the right onboarding goals that delight customers with aha moments early in their journey.

Step 2: Build a reliable team to onboard customers

A successful onboarding process has various components, including:

  • Designing and writing onboarding content
  • Planning and running training sessions
  • Managing client relationships 
  • Adopting the right customer tools
  • Taking customer satisfaction surveys

If you’re a small business, you can have a single person handling the entire onboarding process. But if you’re a SaaS business dealing in complex products, you’ll need a well-functioning team.

Your customer success team should know your goals and understand the process to achieve them. This is a huge responsibility, which is why you want team members that are:

  • Experienced and well-versed in the basics of onboarding
  • Comfortable using customer support tools
  • Proficient in clear client communication and handling

A customer success representative or team with the right knowledge and skills is more likely to leave a lasting impression during onboarding, keeping customers happy and satisfied.

Step 3: Draft your onboarding framework

Decide how you want to shape onboarding and the level of involvement you want from the customer support team.

Do you want to give product walkthroughs, send emails, or assign a dedicated customer success to them? Or do you prefer onboarding through self-service?

For example, if you finalize a self-service (no-touch onboarding model), customers can self-learn and progress at the pace they want. But if you offer dedicated service (high-touch onboarding), you‘ll have to assign customer support agents and provide customers personalized solutions.

Alternatively, you can opt for low-touch onboarding models like emails and customer chat support that are suitable for slightly complex products but not to the level that requires in-person support.

Step 4: Measure customer onboarding success

After completing onboarding, create a system that allows you to measure the success of your onboarding. This involves tracking key customer onboarding metrics, such as:

  • Time to First Value (TTFV)
  • Net retention rate
  • Rate of upgrades and/or converting
  • Customer engagement
  • Customer churn rate
  • Net Promoter Score (NPS)

The best approach to measuring customer onboarding success is to work with multiple metrics. This will give you a holistic picture of your customers’ feelings and behavior towards your brand and help you fine-tune your process for superior results.

Step 5: Build a review system to continually refine onboarding 

Onboarding isn’t a 30-, 60-, or 90-day affair. It’s an ongoing process that involves an open line of constant communication between your customers and your internal team.

Build a review system to monitor and grow your onboarding program. Encourage customers to give feedback, document successes and failures, and routinely review your standard operating procedures

A successful onboarding experience should guide new users to their first aha moment. If it doesn’t, it isn’t good onboarding. Plain and simple.

6 elements of a typical customer onboarding process: best practices and examples

Although there’s no cookie-cutter approach to customer onboarding, there are a few similar elements. Here we'll explain the typical elements of a successful customer onboarding process, complete with best practices and examples, to make customers feel acquainted with your product or service.

1. Account sign-up

Your sign-up process should be intuitive and simple. Since it’s the first touchpoint between the customer and your product, it sets the tone for the rest of the user experience.

Heap found the average conversion rate for its sign-up process was 36.2 percent. You may not have similar results, but if you see a higher than average drop-off rate, it means you’re asking for too much information too soon. 

Airbnb’s sign-up page ticks all the right boxes with its simple, minimalist style.

In addition to having a pleasing sign-up form aesthetic that doesn’t overwhelm users, Airbnb also breaks questions into small parts. Adding social sign-up buttons further helps speed up the sign-up process.

Sign-up process best practices

  • Opt for multi-step forms instead of single-step forms. VentureHarbour found multi-step forms outperform single-step forms when it comes to lead generation. Multi-step forms ask for sensitive information towards the end, which makes them less intimidating for visitors.
  • Keep your sign-up form simple and easy. Make your sign-up process convenient by only including necessary fields to carry on your business objectives. Studies suggest that shorter forms with fewer fields usually result in more conversions than longer forms, but the right form length varies depending on the industry. So it's better to keep sign-up forms contextual and simple.
  • Include social sign-up buttons with popular services, like Google, Facebook, or Slack. 77 percent of users agree having the option to sign up through their social media profiles is more convenient. Why? Social sign-up buttons remove all the friction from the sign-up process, allowing customers to sign up for a service at the single click of a button. 

2. Onboarding emails

The next step in your onboarding process should be to send a well-drafted onboarding email welcoming new users while also directing them back to your product. This enables users to start using and getting value from your product immediately.

Good welcome emails have a simple formula: they include a note of thanks to users for trusting the company and offer resources like video tutorials and blog content to familiarize them with your company and product.

Many companies send a single welcome email, but you can also send a series of emails to customize the overall onboarding like Sleeknote.

Sleeknote‘s first email asks customers to segment themselves. After the reader clicks on a link, they’re directed to a specific onboarding, complete with emails created for that particular segment. 

For example, if they click on the e-commerce link, the next few emails sent will include links to a few relevant e-commerce blog posts on Sleeknote’s blog and other relevant tools, such as an ROI calculator. This does a good job of providing upfront value to the user.

Sleeknote finally offers users a free live training session in Email 3 to familiarize users with its product. While this works, we recommend directing customers to the product immediately to ensure immediate value.

Welcome email best practices 

  • Have a courteous, friendly tone. As your customer has taken the time to sign up for your product, you must welcome them with a friendly message to let them know you value them. Be sure to send the welcome email immediately, too!
  • Set future expectations. Inform your subscribers what to expect from your company and future emails. This is also a good time to remind the customers about your product’s benefits and how it can help them. Keep the overall copy snappy and digestible to ensure subscribers read the whole copy. 
  • Send them back to your product. The most prominent CTA in your welcome email should be a link directing them back to your product. Sharing additional resources, such as a product tour link or links to blog posts and product FAQs is good, but getting users to use your product should be your top priority.

3. First log-in

The first time your customer logs in is their first real impression of your product. Therefore, you want to get them set up and ready as smoothly as possible. This stage usually includes a set-up wizard or a product tutorial to take your customers through every step of the set-up process.

ClearBrain’s set-up process is a great customer onboarding example. It shows users an overview of the entire setup phase, which helps set expectations and lay out the whole roadmap for a successful trial. 

First log-in best practices
  • Make it obvious. Don’t make your customers guess where to log into their accounts. Use a welcome pop-up or a set-up wizard to show customers around and get started with your product.
  • Clearly show password requirements. Display password requirements near the password control so customers can clearly see them when entering their passwords. Additionally, if the password is invalid, don’t leave them guessing the reason why. Explain the reason why the entire password is invalid and how the user can correct it.
  • Give customers a quick win. Customers should get meaningful value from the product right off the bat to stay engaged with your product. A good tip is to give them small milestones or quick wins to accomplish and celebrate.

4. Team invites, data imports & integrations

If you’re selling a B2B product, the customer onboarding process will likely involve more than basic-level documentation. 

Why? Your product is now part of the user’s technology stack and they’ll have to set up integrations with other tools in their system, invite team members, and import data from other sources to get the most value from your product.

Asana does a brilliant job at simplifying account setup. ‍

After users create their workspaces, Asana allows them to enter the emails of the team members they want to add to get started. 
  • Make it optional. Not all users will want to set up integrations, import data, and send out team invites right away. Respect their preferences by not making this step compulsory for onboarding.
  • Automate processes for faster setup. Whether it’s integrating your product with other platforms or importing data, you can automate processes to remove sticking points that lengthen the process or prevent customers from getting value from your product right away.
  • Provide an adequate level of support. Mistakes happen, and integrations fail. Keeping this in mind, give new users plenty of onboarding support to fill knowledge gaps and help new customers set up integrations, import data, and add team members.

5. Product tutorial 

The easiest way for your customers to learn your product is to start using it first hand. Product video tutorials and walkthroughs that guide them through each step can be incredibly handy here. 

Slack ensures new users know exactly what to do to get started. It provides live, animated links that teach them how to complete each task by themselves, familiarizing them with the entire platform faster.

Product tutorial best practices
  • Make it optional. Your new customer may already be familiar with your product, which is why having a skippable product walkthrough or tutorial is a no-brainer. Compulsory tutorials may be a barrier for customers already familiar with how your system works.
  • Keep it short and sweet. New customers are keen to get started with your product, so you don’t want to overwhelm them. Overly long product walkthroughs and tutorials only add friction to the overall onboarding process. Generally, 3 to 5 steps are enough for a smooth onboarding.
  • Be sequential. Structure is super important here. Each step in your product walkthrough should be clearly defined and move users further down the activation path. Don’t show customers a random collection of tooltips and techniques.


6. Follow-up

Ongoing communication is vital to keep customer engagement alive and make the customer feel valued. It’s why onboarding doesn’t end after your customer logs into your system for the first time. 

Send customers additional follow-up emails that offer useful tips and pointers to help them use your product and derive value from it.

One of the best ways to engage customers is to include a survey link in your follow-up emails. This follow-up email template from Super Office lets you collect customer feedback and get a real insight into what your customers think of your product and customer support.

While you can have customers reply directly to your email, it’s better to use a survey tool to collect all the answers. Survey Monkey and Typeform are great tools to create customized surveys to collect feedback.

Follow-up best practices

  • Build a follow-up cadence of short emails. Send short follow-up emails frequently to engage your customers with your product and content. Instead of covering a wide range of subjects in a single email, focus on familiarizing customers with one feature or use case.
  • Share useful tips and resources. Your follow-up emails can include links to your knowledge base, share tips on using specific product features, or introduce customers to new product updates. Remember, each email you send customers should add value and help them achieve their goals.
  • Add social proof. Adding customer quotes and testimonials is a great way to remind customers of your product's value and why they signed up in the first place. 

Successful customer onboarding promotes growth & engagement 

Acquiring a new customer is just half the battle—you also want the same customer to stay with you for the long run. 

With an effective customer onboarding process, you can ensure customer success and retention. Use our tips to create a successful onboarding process that gives your customers the experience of a lifetime. The sooner your customers can derive value from your product, the more they’ll start trusting you, and the longer they'll stick to your brand.

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