Best SaaS Customer Onboarding Strategy: 6 Effective Practices

Do you have a clear picture of your SaaS customer onboarding process? That includes a clear objective that distinguishes this stage from your lead generation and customer retention goals. Customer onboarding is the specific phase in the whole customer acquisition strategy, when prospects use your product for the first time.

Often, this is the free trial sign-up, but that is an incomplete process. You should extend the SaaS customer onboarding to include milestone customer encounters that require data migration, user training, integration, customization, data seeding, etc. In short, each of these encounters requires a successful onboarding process, in which product adoption hangs in the balance.

No matter how good your marketing is or your product features are, if you mess up the onboarding experience of customers, you’ll end up wasting the lead generation effort. To make the most out of customer onboarding,  keep these six insights close to your heart when welcoming prospects to your product.


1. Identify Value Stages in Onboarding Cycle

Customer onboarding isn’t just the technical onboarding, when customers are guided through the steps on “getting started”. Rather, onboarding, like a sales funnel, has value stages that can be defined the better you manage outcomes. A value stage is a milestone success achieved by customers using your product at different levels. With this perspective in mind, you shouldn’t confuse a free trial conversion for a value stage. That’s your value stage, not your customers’.

So, what are the value stages in onboarding? Admittedly, that’s hard to pinpoint and it requires having a clear Ideal Customer profile first. If you’re not sure what it is, read our article on the importance of knowing who you’re selling to.

Your Ideal Customer will tell you the customers’ desired outcomes when they use your product. Be aware though, that the Ideal Customer can consist of different personas, for instance, the CEO, CFO, middle managers, and the staff end-users. Each of these has his or her own value expectations; hence, identifying the onboarding cycle stages involves a great deal of understanding the needs of your personas. That’s not easy. But it’s workable. How? Ask your customers.

Create a parallel process to your autoresponder sequence. Pick a good representative of each persona and develop an onboarding email marketing road map. Plot a schedule to ask them these questions that aim to get their perspective about your product:

  • What do they want to achieve using your product?
  • How do they evaluate their success?
  • How are they evaluated by their boss?

You can further narrow down the questions to be more specific to the industry of your customers. Remember, the questions are trying to reveal your customers’ point-of-view, so you’ll need a great deal of empathy here. Take note also that onboarding is a cycle, that means, you may go back to round 1 of questions at every product upgrade that customers take.

2. How B2B software review sites can ease onboarding pains

Visitors of B2B software review sites often have serious intent to purchase. When they check your product page on these sites, they are already at the third stage of their product research. They have gone through a lot of research and have sorted through the noise, compared products, and read guides on a B2B software review site like FinancesOnline. By the time they discover you, they are more keen to use your software. So onboarding prospects coming from these marketplaces will be much easier.

For instance, vendors here in reported of enjoying an average 10% conversion rate; and for well-known brands the rate is even at 20%. Most vendors know that by tapping marketing services of a review platform they can stand out in the crowd and vie for high-quality leads that actually convert and make your customer onboarding easier.

Here’s a typical high-quality prospect’s journey on a business software marketplace: A Google B2B marketplace study reported that 71% of buyers start their product research with a generic search. Generic business app searches like “top CRM for small business” or “best business intelligence solutions” often lead them to a B2B software review sites like FinancesOnline, where they compare products, read user reviews, shortlist their options, and decide which software to try. On such platforms you will also be able to get your software in front of potential customers with various premium positioning options, or distinguish yourself from the competition with industry awards. The possibilities are really huge.

So, it is important that you factor in the critical role of B2B software review sites in your onboarding process. You can easily add your product review here if you want to increase your visibility on our platform.

Here’s how a sample product review on FinancesOnline looks like

3. Get more Conversions Out of Free Trial

Make no mistake, free trial conversion is an important metric in onboarding. But rather than just looking at conversion as analytics, look into user behavior. Here are three ways to get more out of your free trial:

Tell users the why, not just the how, during tutorial

You need to be more intuitive about the free trial offer. This goes beyond telling users your product’s bells and whistles, but why they need these. A good way to ensure you’re being intuitive in your tutorial or tips is to always ask the why in a feature. Let’s say you’re explaining how to use Google Analytics. Also ask them: why they need the real-time traffic data; why the audience insight is important; or why identifying traffic sources is important, even as you explain the how. Brief case studies about each major feature can surely paint a clear picture of the benefit to users.

Look into your users’ world

In a way, your product is asking users to disrupt their work routine. No matter the gravity, asking people to change their habits is a tall order. If you only talk about the great features of your product during onboarding, users might be impressed but won’t be driven enough to change their workflows. But if you talk about how these great features give users a competitive advantage in their industry, they’re more likely to stop and consider changing their ways for the better. You need to learn the industry of your users, too–its current state, needs, issues, trends, etc.–so you can better position your product to fill in the gaps. Push case studies and user testimonials of actual clients per industry that you target during onboarding.

Know all users

More likely, your product will be evaluated by a team, not an individual, so our first two free trial tips will be drastically different for each user type. For example, in explaining the why of a feature, telling an IT user about your product’s benefit to the bottom line may not make a connection; but the benefit will definitely ring a bell to the CEO user. Similarly, an administrative end-user will focus more on the benefit of drill-down tools, while a manager user will likely evaluate the features on insights and reporting. One way to sift through user types is to create a squeeze page (yes, it’s still useful) asking the user his or her position so you can funnel the user to the right evaluation process.

4. Bridge Your and Your Customers’ Desired Outcomes


Lincoln Murphy calls it the Success Gap, the chasm between your desired outcome and that of your customers’. He said the gap can also be interpreted as what you think a customer success is versus what customers think of their success in using your product.

Many companies think they have a clear definition of customer success by simply knowing how far users have reached through the free trial. Some marketers even use one simple metric: free trial conversion. That can be a distorted view of onboarding because users can still feel unsatisfied even after completing your free trial or even paying for a plan at the initial stage. They may like your product, but they’re still waiting for that eureka moment to tip them over to being happy customers. They can also be believers, but they’re having a difficult time justifying to their bosses a clear benefit other than your product is cool. If this gap is unaddressed, you’ll lose these customers in the long run.

So, how do you fill in the difference between your and your customers’ desired outcomes? By thinking beyond the scope of your product. That means teaching them the best practices in email marketing if you’re selling a mailer; showing how to do data analytics to reveal insights if you’re selling CRM; in short, creating how-to guides that matter to your customers’ business. If you’re paying close attention, this bridging-the-gap strategy is actually content marketing via email. So have one during onboarding.

5. Put Active Users “Back” Into Onboarding

We mentioned earlier that onboarding should be extended far beyond the technical “getting-started” stage. That’s because active users do churn long after you’ve thought they’re loyal. But if you define onboarding to include milestone encounters, you can anticipate active users when they’re about to churn… and hopefully keep them.

Let’s analyze a sample scenario. A client has been using my basic helpdesk plan for a year now, which allows for 3 reps tops. If I see this scenario as past the onboarding stage, I’ll probably be content that I have this client as a loyal user.

On the other hand, if I consider the client as still being onboarded, something will alert me: he’s been having only 3 reps for a year now, which means his business is either stagnant or sliding. Right off the bat I’ll be warned that this client may soon fold up or unsubscribe simply because of lack of cash. What do I do? I’ll better follow tip no. 3: help my client to grow his business so he can move up to my premium plan that allows 10 reps. See the big difference? Onboarding is a great way to keep you on your toes… always.

6. Monitor Customers Beyond Usage Data


Usage data is commonly treated as a metric to measure onboarding success. Actually, it only tells you about those who didn’t finish the free trial and those who converted. This is the same thing as viewing a film in black and white; you’re missing a lot of hues that can distinguish a red car from a really red car, or in our case, critical clues that lead to varying levels of abandonments and conversions. You’ll see the importance of seeing in full color in this scenario:

User A abandons right away because, to start with, he’s never interested, just curious. User B abandons because he didn’t get a satisfactory response from support. User C signs up because he wants to extend usage to further assess your product (in essence, he’s still going through free trial), while user D signs up because he’s genuinely impressed.

If you look closer, you’ll realize user B and C could easily exchange places. Had user B got the desired reply, he’d probably convert. On the other hand, user C might lose interest at the end of his own free trial pacing. Or, user B and C could end up as a loss or both a conversion. Instantly, you have four scenarios if you look beyond usage data.

So, what too look for during onboarding beyond usage? Here are a few good indicators:

  • Tickets – they reveal the customers’ level of interest or frustration.
  • Engagement – whether via chat, knowledge base, social media… a more engaged customer means a more interested one.
  • Training demand – if a customer consumes a lot of training, he’s probably more likely to convert than the one who didn’t bother to open a tutorial video link.
  • Add-on purchase – customers who have more investment in your product mean they have more vested interested in your product.
  • User reviews – positive comments mean users who are happy; but equally important, negative comments mean users take the time to try your product. At some point, they showed interest, so they can be persuaded back to onboarding with the right incentive.


Customer onboarding goes beyond ensuring users can “get started”. It involves a lot of user behavioral analysis the better to manage onboarding outcomes. In this article, we showed how complex onboarding can be, and it pays to see it with a clear perspective to maximize ROI off onboarding.

Allan Jay

By Allan Jay

Allan Jay is FinancesOnline’s resident B2B expert with over a decade of experience in the SaaS space. He has worked with vendors primarily as a consultant in the UX analysis and design stages, lending to his reviews a strong user-centric angle. A management professional by training, he adds the business perspective to software development. He likes validating a product against workflows and business goals, two metrics, he believes, by which software is ultimately measured.

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