Steps to a successful onboarding process

5 Steps to Creating a Successful User Onboarding Process

One of the biggest challenges facing SaaS companies is converting more free trial users into paid customers, and keeping churn at a reasonable level.

In the video below as well as in this blog post, I’ll share with you why your onboarding sequence is one of the top root causes of these challenges, and how to improve it for significant revenue and user growth.

The 5 steps to an effective onboarding sequence

When you create an onboarding sequence, I always like to recommend that you follow these  5 steps:

  1. Know the desired outcome,
  2. Identify success milestones,
  3. Put everything together,
  4. Get people to learn by doing; and
  5. Identify your methods

I’ll got into more details for each step later in this post, but before I get into details I want to make it clear that these 5 points aren’t hard rules or tactics. Together they create a process to follow in order to be able to create a revenue-generating, churn-reducing onboarding experience. Follow the process and your task of creating an effective onboarding process will become much simpler.

1. Know the desired outcome

Before you start planning your onboarding process, you need to know what your users want to achieve with your software. The truth is people aren’t using a software for the sake of using it – they’re using it because it’s helping them solve a problem.

For example, imagine you’re building the onboarding process for an accounting software for a small businesses, and you want to find the customer’s desired outcome. Users aren’t using the software to reconcile transactions, to categorize expenses & revenues or to collaborate with their accountants.

They’re using it to keep their books in order! Shift away from “feature-thinking” and look at the greater purpose of the software. Focus on what every piece of your software will enable your users to achieve as their end goal.

For example, by using the software they’ll save money, they’ll save time, they’ll have organized finances, they’ll save themselves accounting headaches, and so on…

Knowing the user’s desired outcome is the foundation, but I have to warn you not to fall into the trap of identifying YOUR desired outcome. Having people upgrade to a paid plan is not something your users want to achieve, that’s one of YOUR goals.

The desired outcome you want to pinpoint is your user’s goal… the problems they will be able to solve by using your product.

2. Identify key success milestones

Now it’s time to dive deeper than the desired outcome and identify the key behaviors users need to take WITHIN your software in order to reach their desired outcome.

This is important, so in other words, you need to know what your users need to achieve within your software in order to be able to solve the problems your software is designed to solve.

Let’s put this into perspective and go back to our accounting software example. If a user’s desired outcome is to have their small business finances in order, how can they achieve that by using  your platform? Simply signing up won’t magically solve their problems…

In this case, break down what needs to happen between the signup and the desired outcome for the desired outcome to actually materialize. And remember, if the desired outcome doesn’t materialize, the customer is simply not achieving success with your software and you have lost a sale (and naturally won’t upgrade and will probably stop using your product altogether).

Now let’s focus on the key success milestones of our accounting software example:

If the desired outcome is for the customer to have his small business books in order, actions such as connecting their first bank account & credit card to the software, inviting their accountant to collaborate, and reconciling their first 5 transactions are valid examples of micro success milestones.

Makes sense?

Now I want you to step back for a bit and think about YOUR software. What specific action, or combination of actions do your users need to take in order to achieve their desired outcome?

Map them out, and pro-tip: do it in reverse. Identify success milestones starting from the desired outcome instead of starting from the sign up. By reverse engineering, it’s usually much easier to identify exactly what’s needed for users to achieve their goals.

3. Link everything together

Now that you’ve identified your users’ desired outcome, and the milestones they need to achieve in order to reach their goals, you’ll need to create a logical sequence between each and every milestone you’ve identified.

To do this, ensure that each action your onboarding process requires your users to complete  should be focused on achieving the next milestone, not the outcome. If we go back to our accounting software as an example, you don’t want to show a user how to see financial reports and their final results just yet…

You want to lead them towards achieving milestone #1, then milestone #2, then #3, etc until all the required milestones have been achieved and you’ve reached the user’s final, desired outcome.

If you focus solely on the final outcome, and not on achieving one milestone after another, you’re more likely to add unnecessary or irrelevant steps and information to your onboarding process. This would add friction, create confusion, and potentially frustration. If it doesn’t feel natural for the user and if they don’t feel like they’re achieving success on their way from point A to point Z, they’ll simply want to skip the onboarding. If they do skip onboarding, they’ll be navigating your software on their own… and your churn could definitely start to increase.

At the end of the day, focus on getting users to achieve success with individual milestones instead of shooting for the end goal right away.

4. Teach by having users take action

You don’t want to tell your users how to achieve their success milestones along the way, you want to guide them and hold their hands to achieve the milestones. It’s easy to launch a video or a text tutorial to show new users how to use the software, but that will lead to…

Increased friction: A video or text tutorial is one more thing standing in the way between the user signing up, completing milestones, and reaching their desired outcome .

Slowing down users’ momentum: Your users decided to sign up, so they took action and are on a momentum to keep taking actions. However, if you’re showing them a video tutorial you’re asking them to pause, watch, then resume their course. This will kill their momentum and motivation to keep going.

Users are unlikely to remember what they’ve watched or read: If users actually take the time to watch the video, they’re still left on their own with no proper guidance or “hand-holding” to facilitate the success of achieving their first few milestones.

Instead, teach by hand-holding and get them to act

Without being intrusive, be interactive. Guide users towards their milestones, then think like a video game designer and aim to make the onboarding experience rewarding.

The messaging platform Slack is a great example – they get users to actually use the product by interacting with a bot in order to discover and get familiar with the platform.

The whole onboarding experience should feel natural and be straight to the point. Remember that the goal of onboarding is not to teach users absolutely everything, but rather to get them to execute a few major actions they need to take in order to reach their success milestones, get activated, and lead them to their desired outcome.

5.  Pick your methods and tools

It’s unlikely the onboarding experience will be a flawless experience for each and every one of your users. Some might leave your site before the onboarding is complete, others might choose to skip it completely, and some might even get stuck. It’s normal, and it will happen.

This means you need to be preventative, and choose more than one method to stay engaged with your users. During the first days, or even minutes, of someone becoming a user, engaging and building a relationship is absolutely critical.

Think of ways to keep the relationship alive outside of the software in order to keep their interest.  How about having an account manager give them a call? How about sending behavioral drip emails based on specific events triggered by the user?

Don’t just have a plan A, make sure you’ve got an arsenal of onboarding strategies that go hand-in-hand to convert first-time users into long-term, paying users.

And finally, don’t forget to test it all!

Summary

An onboarding sequence will increase user retention and is key for getting customers familiar  with your software. Don’t forget the 5 steps to follow:

  1. Know the desired outcome of your users,
  2. Identify the success milestones your users need to reach within your software in order to achieve their desired outcome,
  3. Link everything together by ensuring each success milestones leads to the next,
  4. Help people to achieve their milestones getting them to interact, instead of simply showing; and
  5. Identify other methods to use, such as drip emails, to solidify your onboarding strategy.
  • Hey Raphael,

    I strongly agree with your point. Onborading and customer’s success are closely related to each other. A high-touch user onboarding is always necessary for all saas marketers no matter what is the size of their company is.

    Thank you for the post