Best Practices for SaaS User Onboarding
Last updated on
December 2, 2022
How confident are you in your user onboarding process?
Would it surprise you to hear that almost 90% of SaaS customers believe that companies could do better with onboarding new users?
User onboarding is your chance to make a good first impression. It sets the stage for your customer’s entire relationship with your company.
Therefore, it’s something you really want to get right.
To put you on the right track, we’re presenting you with the best practices to improve your SaaS user onboarding.
We’ll start with the three basic onboarding models and explain the merits of each one to help you select the best model for your product.
Then we’ll provide tips for simplifying the customer onboarding process to ensure users are adopting your features quickly and efficiently, before going over different communication channels you can use to support your customers on their onboarding journey.
Finally, we’ll offer some tried and true tips on personalizing your onboarding.
Table of Contents
1. How to Choose the Right Onboarding Model for Your Product
Before you start developing your onboarding process, take some time to evaluate your target audience and the nature of your product.
Are you targeting a lot of individual users or a handful of large enterprises? Is your product simple to use or does it take some getting used to?
Your answers will point you to one of the three basic onboarding models.
Here they are, side by side. We’ll explore each one in detail in the following sections.
This model is pretty self-explanatory: your users do everything to onboard themselves.
This model works best for simple software products that don’t have many complex features. Also, since self-service onboarding is fully automated, it’s a great choice for inexpensive products with a large number of users.
Self-service onboarding consists of a sequence of guidance screens triggered when the user opens the app or software for the first time.
Your goal here is to enable users to understand how your product works with a few simple steps so they can start finding value immediately.
Here’s an example from Instagram. Their onboarding process has several quick steps that can be completed in minutes.
After the users download the app, provide their email and phone number, they create a profile. Then, the app suggests some profiles for the user to follow and provides instructions on uploading their very first picture.
And that’s it! The new user is now ready to use the app successfully and explore more advanced features on her own.
With consumer apps and simple software, such as Instagram, there is no need for a dedicated customer success team.
Furthermore, your users don’t expect you to hold their hand every step of the way. This makes this model very cost-effective and easy to apply.
Low-touch onboarding is the middle ground between self-service and high-touch onboarding. Like the self-service model, it doesn’t require human interaction, but limited human support is often available.
On the other hand, this model is more elaborate than self-service and includes more elements, such as product tours, checklists, and interactive tutorials.
This is the most appropriate onboarding model for more complex SaaS products with a greater variety of features than simple consumer apps. Nevertheless, these are still software products that don’t require technical expertise on the user’s part.
You’ve probably experienced the low-touch onboarding model if you’ve used products like Zoom, Mailchimp, Dropbox, or Slack.
Let’s illustrate this model with a couple of examples.
The onboarding process for the communication platform Slack features a helpful chatbot that guides new users through the app’s main features.
Slackbot checks in with the user and suggests actions like sending messages, attaching documents, and setting up rooms. This way, the user is encouraged to learn by doing.
This is an excellent approach to onboarding because it adds a bit of personality to your brand. The onboarding process, which would have been a bit tedious and dry otherwise, is transformed into a playful and enjoyable experience.
Other companies, like Box, use a short checklist.
An onboarding checklist provides the user with a start and endpoint to the process and presents the product’s features in list form. Going through the checklist, the user has a sense of progression and a sense of achievement as each task is successfully completed.
As you can see above, Box’s checklist turns onboarding into a game where the prize is an extended free trial.
Clever solutions like chatbots and checklists make onboarding an interactive experience that keeps your users engaged and helps them internalize how the product is used.
At the same time, low-touch methods are fully automated, meaning you’re saving resources that would otherwise have to be spent on support staff.
It’s no wonder that this model is so common in the SaaS industry. It does a fantastic job of demonstrating value in a highly engaging way while keeping costs low.
If you have a highly complex product with many features that requires more specialized knowledge, the self-service and low-touch models probably aren’t going to suffice. What you need is a high-touch onboarding model.
At this point, you’ll need to dedicate human resources to each account in the form of customer support and customer success reps who will offer a highly personalized onboarding process.
Of course, that will only be possible if you’re serving a small number of high-value clients, such as large enterprises.
Your dedicated reps can personally help your new customers get acquainted with every feature relevant to the customer’s needs.
They can do that using communication channels such as email, video calls, or live chat, as you can see in the example below from LiveAgent, a SaaS product that specializes in live chat and helpdesk software.
Think of high-touch onboarding as a dialogue. The client expresses her specific needs and problems, and it’s your company’s mission to find solutions and help the client achieve success.
The onboarding process is only completed when your client masters your software and has extensive knowledge of every feature she needs.
As you can imagine, with this kind of onboarding, customers are very inclined to keep using your product for a long time, even at a very high price. Therefore, if you can afford to employ experts to onboard your high-value clients, you definitely should.
Usually, your clients will be successful enterprises who won’t mind paying a higher price to receive optimal support on their way to success.
2. Simplifying Onboarding for a Frictionless Experience
Do you know the main reason why people abandon SaaS products?
They never learn how to use them.
Yes, almost 55% of customers stop using a product simply because they weren’t properly onboarded. Imagine that!
That means it doesn’t matter how many new customers you’re able to attract. All of that revenue can be lost since more than half of customers are likely to churn very soon after purchasing software.
Let’s face it, learning anything new requires time and mental effort. If you make this process simple, you positively impact the customer’s experience and build a solid foundation for a long and happy relationship.
Additionally, making your onboarding process short and simple means you’re investing fewer resources. That way, you’re keeping your costs low because your clients take less time to become independent users.
There are a couple of good practices you can adopt to simplify your onboarding process:
- Break down onboarding instructions into simple tasks
- Demonstrate only the key features
- Only ask for essential user data
Let’s demonstrate these key ingredients on real examples, shall we?
Here’s Productboard, a product management platform to help customers gather feedback. Their onboarding starts with a simple landing page that has a prominently displayed CTA button.
After that, you’re taken to another page where you can enter your email or use your Google email account.
By providing third-party authorization through Google, Productboard is already speeding up the onboarding process. It only requires one click, and the customer is taken to the app.
But if the customer enters their email in the provided field, the next step is to validate that email.
Productboard accounted for friction in this step. So, they offer the top three most used email providers in the suggestions, so the customer can access their email inbox and validate their email for Productboard quickly.
After that, the customer is asked to supply additional information.
See how they were careful to stick to asking only for the essential information?
That’s a great practice as nobody likes filling out tedious forms. If you need more information about the customer, there will be ample opportunity to gather it later.
Finally, you get into the app, and you’re presented with this checklist.
By using a checklist, Productboard is further breaking down the onboarding process into smaller steps. That way, the customers clearly see what they’ve already done and what else they need to do to finish onboarding.
Even though Productboard is a fairly complex product, they managed to break up the onboarding process into just six steps.
That way, the user never feels overwhelmed and is highly likely to complete the process. To reiterate a previous point, short checklists like this one help users learn quickly and speed up the onboarding process.
Now, let’s see an example of a company that only shows its product’s key features during onboarding.
Here’s how Ninox does it.
First, Ninox uses five popups to show the customer how to use their main dashboard.
That’s an excellent place to start because customers will spend most of their time in this product section after onboarding.
But the company doesn’t overwhelm the user with an extensive tutorial on navigating the main dashboard. Instead, Ninox takes users through a few simple steps to familiarise them with their product.
Ninox only focused on two main features of their product in their onboarding process. One is creating a database, and the other is adding a table.
That way, the customer immediately understands the essential functions of their software and how to get value out of using it.
In a nutshell, Ninox managed to reduce the time it took to educate their customers about their product by providing simple steps to only showcase the key features of their product.
In the end, this made the onboarding a nearly frictionless experience. And that’s what onboarding should be about. To provide a simple and frictionless experience so the customer can quickly start using the product independently.
3. Strategies for Successful Two-Way Communication During Onboarding
Even if you give your new users all the necessary information about using your product, you should still account for any user questions and issues.
These can come in many forms: maybe the user wants to know more about your product, or they’re having problems with a particular feature, or they’ve encountered a minor bug. To help them solve these problems, you must have readily available communication channels.
By keeping communication channels open, you’re not just solving their immediate problems; you’re assisting them in having the best experience with your product and company.
In other words, effective communication signals to the user that you care about them and that you’re here to help them achieve their goals.
When you assure the new user you have their best interest in mind during your onboarding, you build a lasting relationship with them.
With that in mind, let’s look at the most effective communication channels during the onboarding process.
According to a recent study about Customers’ Digital Experience that focused on communication channels, the main ways of communication between businesses and their customers are emails, chat, and social media.
This may seem obvious, but it’s worth emphasizing that the best SaaS companies concentrate on these channels and monitor them carefully so that customers never feel ignored.
A key factor in communication during onboarding is the time you take to reply to customer inquiries. In this beginning stage of your relationship with the customer, they will judge your performance by how long you take to get back to them.
If you take too long, you risk losing your customer over a minor issue with your software, and that would be a shame.
When it comes to the most popular communication channels, customers expect answers to their questions via email and social media within 24 hours.
As you can see, taking more than 24 hours to reply is almost unacceptable to most customers.
However, the average response time for emails and social media ranges from a half-hour up to an hour. It might be a good idea to aim for the same result to keep your customers happy and successful.
Below is an example from Mailchimp. They responded to a customer’s tweet in just two minutes! That is a great response time to give the customer further instructions on how to solve their issues.
Here, Mailchimp is actually directing the customer to email where they can offer the customer more in-depth guidance to solve their specific problem.
That’s another thing you can learn from Mailchimp—don’t stick with just one communication channel during onboarding.
To give your new users the best possible experience, you should adopt an omnichannel communications strategy.
We all have communication preferences, and it’s important to accommodate as many users as possible. Some may prefer talking over the phone, while others may prefer using live chat.
Like this one, for example:
This customer didn’t know how to interact with a specific feature, so it was very helpful to have a chat option to communicate with the software provider.
In this example, a quick direction to HelpCrunch’s knowledge base helped the customer get back on track and continue learning about using HelpCrunch’s product.
Remember that open communication provides customers with consistent support during their onboarding process.
In this way, they’re educating themselves about your product, but the immediate support gives them the confidence to finish their onboarding.
4. No Two Customers Are the Same: Tips on Personalizing Onboarding
Once your product hits the market, it will become available to millions of users with different backgrounds, levels of expertise, and goals. They will use your software in a myriad of ways.
Your onboarding process should reflect this wonderful diversity by providing a personalized experience.
Making onboarding more personal is an excellent way to increase user engagement and create deeper relationships with customers.
Happy and engaged customers, in turn, have a much easier time finding value in your product (activation) and stay with you longer (retention). Consequently, that means you’re bringing in more revenue.
In fact, as the graph above shows, those small steps compound, and just a 10% improvement in activation can expand into a 25% improvement in recurring revenue!
Right now, you might be thinking that personalized onboarding sounds like a lot of work.
However, a big part of personalization can be automated, using the information you collected at the signup, such as the customer’s name, company, and job title.
You can use that information in your emails, push notifications, welcome screens, and other communication channels.
For example, take a look at this welcome email.
It uses the customer’s first name to welcome her to the app. Personalizing welcome emails is a great first step because they have the highest opening rate of any email you’re ever going to send to your customer.
Just remember to keep it timely and contextual for every customer and watch user engagement grow. Next, let’s see how you can personalize the landing page for your product.
Apart from calling the users by their name, you can factor in their job title and send them to the landing page that they will find most useful.
As you can see above, the process is straightforward. You can use job titles to segment users and funnel them into the landing page they will find most useful.
Remember, whatever approach you’re taking to onboarding, you can take steps to make it more personalized.
That’s even true for low-touch onboarding models where you can segment users according to use and behavior, then onboard them for the features they’re most likely to use.
Let’s support this with an example.
Canva proudly calls itself the “All-in-one design tool”. It offers design templates and editing tools that are incredibly easy to use and a free version of the product for widespread use.
Just imagine the different people who could use such a tool: grocery store owners announcing a sale, corporate design teams collaborating on a new product, students slaving over their English lit presentation, moms announcing a bake sale with a cute banner on Facebook.
Now let’s look at how Canva approaches onboarding.
As you can see, the first question the app asks the user is how they will be using Canva. Depending on the answer, Canva will offer tutorials and tips tailored to their needs.
These are just some of the ways you can personalize your onboarding experience. Feel free to experiment with them and see if you can add your own twist to the onboarding process.
The beginning of any relationship is fraught with challenges. This also applies to a moment when a customer starts using your software.
In this sensitive stage, it’s your duty to provide your customer with support and assistance in the form of a well-thought-out user onboarding process.
Depending on your audience and the complexity of your product, there are multiple approaches to onboarding. Nevertheless, whichever method you choose, keep in mind that the optimal process is as simple and personalized as possible.
Also, remember that onboarding works best as a dialogue in which users are free to ask questions and report problems, while the company provides support, so keeping the lines of communication open is a must.
Nurturing your customers on their way to becoming successful users is one of the biggest steps you can take to increase customer satisfaction and retention. Make sure you give this aspect of your product the attention it deserves.