6 Dos and Don’ts for Improving Your Customer Onboarding

Is your customer onboarding turning into a fixer-upper?

The proper upkeep and continual improvement of a home (and onboarding process) are essential to maintain its value over time. When done right, it’s a worthwhile investment that substantially increases your return.

Of course, you need good bones and strong foundation to build from—no aesthetic enhancements (or amount of shiplap) will remedy a weakening structure.

If you’ve neglected routine maintenance or put off (or a Band-Aid on) needed repairs, you’re only exacerbating the problems and costs down the road.

Don’t delay: know how to recognize the signs that it’s time to revamp your onboarding.

Then, follow these six dos and don’ts to improve the most influential phase of your customer’s journey.

This article was adapted from a portion of the webinar “How to Streamline Onboarding to Reduce Churn” presented by ChurnZero’s Bora Lee.

Don’t: Fly Blind

flying blind

Have you ever experienced a situation where your boss asks you a question that you know you should have an answer for but don’t?

Like when they ask how many of your customers are behind schedule in onboarding, and you’re all…


Not having answers doesn’t feel (or look) great.

To be a competent and confident Customer Success Manager, you should know where your customers are in their journey at any given time. If you don’t, and the customer is struggling, then you cannot help them. Conversely, if the customer is excelling, then you cannot recognize and reward them either.

You should always be able to answer this question (although not necessarily off the top of your head, unless you’re a memory master): How many of your customers are on track, behind, or stuck in your onboarding process?

A caveat: if you’re a high velocity team with thousands of customers, then you may want to track progress as a percentage and not an actual number.

For customers who are behind or stuck, you need to have processes to identify and manage escalations both internally with leadership and externally with the executive sponsor.

To establish your onboarding status thresholds, start by estimating task durations based on the productivity of your average customer. Then, work towards adjusting to reach your ideal customer timeline; this is based on a “perfect fit” customer who always prepares, does everything right the first time, and truly invests in the product and processes. That’s your end goal. Not all customers will follow this, but if you trend towards your ideal timeline, you’ll begin to improve your processes and the customer experience.

Do: Collect and Apply Data

collecting data

If you have a Customer Success platform, a shortage of data is likely not your problem. More often, the problem is that users don’t know how to apply the data they do have to their work in a meaningful way.

So, here’s a practical application of onboarding data for process improvement. 

Use a cohort report based on customer onboarding date to evaluate your onboarding performance over periods of time. First, identify your minimum viable success for onboarding. Then, create a cohort report to compare how frequently and quickly customers complete onboarding.

You should see gradual improvements over time with your most recent customers seeing the highest rate of success yet. If customers who onboarded five years ago completed onboarding at a greater and faster rate than your customers today, that’s a bad sign.

This time-trend analysis ensures you don’t unknowingly slip into a regression or mistake minor, incremental setbacks as inconsequential or random.

Lastly, if you believe your data is too insufficient to draw conclusions from, don’t replace it with your own speculations or best guesses. Simply ask the customer—whether that’s through a survey, review request, or a more informal phone conversation to learn about their experience.

Will there’s a will to uncover insights, there’s a way.

Don’t: Fix It If It Ain’t Broke

fix it

Good enough doesn’t mean good forever.

Things constantly change. When you ignore or postpone needed enhancements, you only create more work for yourself in the future. You also expose yourself to the risk of improvements shifting from recommended to essential under less-than-ideal circumstances.

As Boston Consulting Group (BCG) Managing Director Grant Freeland writes in Forbes “[W]hen things are going well you can afford to experiment and fail. And try again. When you’re up against the wall it’s do or die.” Freeland concludes, “Waiting until something is obviously broken before you fix it is often too late.”

Complacency is the silent killer that thrives in our successes, routine tasks, and busy schedules.

You might be executing in grind mode, but once you catch your breath, conduct a retrospective to identify successes and failures. Reflect and ask yourself:

  • Where are the majority of my customers getting stuck in my process?
  • Where is the majority of my team’s time spent when onboarding a customer?

You can create a survey to analyze a week’s work. If time is primarily spent on email and administrative tasks, are there ways to template or standardize information? Can you automate processes to alleviate time strains?

Another way to uncover workflow improvements is through fresh perspectives from an unbiased audience. Luckily, you already have access to on-call, objective participants: your new employees and users.

Both groups are required to complete your onboarding process with the expectation that they’ll be proficient users by its end. They can tell you exactly where they felt process gaps and confusion without the subjective, negating side effects of product familiarity or expertise.

Do: Create a Feedback Loop


You may have noticed that a few points have already touched on the importance of talking to your customers. That’s because customer feedback should permeate everything you do.

Creating a feedback loop with your customers is one of the most effective ways (if not the most effective way) to improve your onboarding.

You cannot replace firsthand experience. So, find out what’s working and what’s not from the people that are going through it.

But like data, what good is feedback if it’s not accessible and applicable?

Adults have an average of 50,000 thoughts every day, according to Lifehack.

With this much mental congestion, making mental notes is a futile attempt to document.

Details blur. Sentiments lose potency. Memories become nebulous.

So, make sure you always thoroughly document customer feedback. Because even if you don’t act on that feedback today (due to its relevancy or your roadmap), it may be valuable in the future.

To help prioritize onboarding feedback (both internal and external), create a central repository. This will uncover overlap and prioritize the majority’s opinion over the loudest person in the room.

Don’t: Think You Can Control Everything


“The only thing you can really control is how you react to things out of your control.” – Bassami Tazari

In light of the pandemic, truer words have never been spoken.

Turbulent markets and shifting circumstances are uncontrollable. And sometimes, customer churn is truly out of your hands. Like when a customer leaves due to bankruptcy, an acquisition, or bad fit (such as wanting a feature you never had).

Stop stressing over what you can’t control and focus on what you can: your attitude and actions.

For example, instead of writing off an acquired customer, ask yourself how you can:

  • Increase the likelihood of a mutually beneficial outcome?
  • Connect with the acquiring companies’ executive sponsors?
  • Resurface best practices to promote your expertise?

When situations seem unmanageable, remember the 90/10 principle.

Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.

“[W]e know a negative attitude will never lead to positive results. Nothing will slow your progress like a negative mindset,” says Hugh MacLeod in his book Humanizing Leadership.

Be positive, purposeful, and pragmatic in your response.

Do: Define What Success Really Looks Like

mission accomplished

Onboarding success should not be defined by its mere completion.

Instead outline what your customer needs to experience during onboarding to be successful. This definition of success doesn’t have to entail full use of every single product feature.

Start simple and set realistic expectations. Define the bare minimum tasks that your customer needs to achieve to see initial success. For example, if a customer’s first priority is to organize their data in one place for easy analysis, start there. Define their success as aggregating data from disparate systems into a central view. Then, when you encounter other customers who have the same criteria for success, you can create a segment to streamline their onboarding personalization to focus on data organization.

Lastly, you also need to define what success looks like for you. Again, you don’t need to focus on the entire customer lifecycle to start: choose a subset of it. You could focus on defining what success looks like after implementation. What should the customer have accomplished? How should they feel?

The key to progress is breaking large, overwhelming milestones into manageable, achievable tasks.

Adapt as you go

Onboarding is a dynamic process with many different variables. Your customers’ circumstances, use cases, and goals are unique and always evolving. If a process hinders a customer’s success, then adapt as needed. Don’t prioritize process over progress. Have the curiosity and initiative to question your operations if they don’t add value.

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Fighting Churn is a newsletter of inspiration, ideas and news on customer success, churn, renewal and other stuff and is curated by ChurnZero.

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