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Customer Onboarding: The Basics

Customer Onboarding: it’s a concept every entrepreneur needs to wrap their head around, but that too few understand. It represents a crucial element in the long-term success of your business, doing what neither marketing—nor even the strength of your product—can do. It’s how you keep the customers you earn. It’s how you guarantee that those customers get what they paid for. It’s how you keep them coming back for more.

Put simply, onboarding is how you create the experience your customer has immediately following their purchase. Whether it’s an online or offline business, a soft or hard product, a membership service or priced per item, it’s a must. What happens after your customer pays can’t just happen. It’s something you should plan conscientiously. It’s your chance to make your customers, customers for life.

Why Onboarding Matters

Onboarding is where your customers form their first impression as customers. As first impressions go, this one’s really important. It’s as important as—if not more than—the first impressions your marketing made on them as potential customers. This is the stage at which they can feel one of two ways: like you’ve gotten their money and moved on, or like you’re every bit the reliable, genuine problem-solver they’re paying you to be.

For the customer, it solidifies their relationship to your business and product. For you, the benefits of good onboarding are myriad. A quality onboarding system can:

  • Reduce the need for refunds. Surprisingly, many refunds aren’t the result of the product being defective or the customer being misled. Often, customers are dissatisfied simply because they don’t know how to use the product. They haven’t been guided in its best use, or how to get the most out of it.Even the most seemingly self-explanatory product should come with some basic guidance. sells razors, which at first seem like the kind of tools that don’t need instructions. However, Harry’s makes sure that each customer gets the guidance they need in order for the system to work for them.Other refunds happen because the customer never used the product at all! Sometimes, without the right encouragement, customers put the product aside for later…and later never comes. Unopened (literally or figuratively) merchandise loses the appeal it had on the day of purchase. Next thing you know, they’re un-buying it.
  • Reduce churn. For membership services, slowing the churn is always a top priority. How can you keep your members coming back month after month or year after year? Onboarding goes a long way towards this. By getting your new members started right away, you can create the habits that build the momentum of their dependence on your product.
  • Create more effective word of mouth. If your customers use your product right away, and they get what we call a “win” (a substantive result that addresses the need they’ve come to you for), they will be excited. They will share that excitement. That excitement will spread, and that excitement will bring you new customers to onboard.On the other hand, customers who don’t get a reasonably quick, concrete benefit from your product won’t be likely to sing its praises.
  • Reduce misconceptions about your product. Of course, bad word of mouth happens too—and it’s not always deserved. Customers who haven’t been guided to the best possible experience may have a bad one. They can get frustrated, and they can share that frustration. That’s not good.
  • Help with branding. A great onboarding experience makes customers feel connected and cared for. That in turn makes them see your business as something personal, relatable and un-corporate. These days it seems like every business—especially the massive über-corporate ones—are trying to appeal to people’s desire for the genuine and organic. If your actions show your business approach to be genuinely accessible and caring, you achieve better branding than McDonald’s could ever buy with all their ads for “artisanal” chicken nuggets.
  • Add perceived value. People seek out guidance on how to best use the products they already own. People even pay for it. By giving your customers more than just the product, you tilt the exchange further in their favor. When the business—not just the product—is there for the customer, it seems like money better spent.
  • Reduce the need for support services. Again, too many customers get frustrated with products they don’t know how to use properly. By engaging with customers right away through tutorials and walking them through their first use or two, you make them less likely to need help later. That makes them happier, and lowers your costs.

The 2 Kinds of Onboarding

There are countless examples of onboarding systems out there, some better than others. Almost every business follows an online order with an immediate follow-up email that includes a thank you, a receipt, and some kind of access password if applicable. Unfortunately, that’s where many businesses stop.

To fully engage customers in the onboarding process, you’ll want to go further. There are two main kinds of onboarding, and while one is more directly powerful than the other, it’s a good idea to use both.

In-product onboarding is exactly what it sounds like. The onboarding system comes with the product, so the customer is using it from the second they “open the box,” so to speak. On a physical product, it’s generally written instructions inside the literal box or on the product somewhere. For software and online products, it can be even more direct: popup windows that prompt customers through each step of the user process or a guided “tour” of the program.

For example, our software company WebinarNinja features an onboarding system that helps the customer create their first webinar. We recognize that if we don’t get the customer to complete their first webinar as soon as possible, we might lose them. We can’t let them get away without feeling what it’s like to accomplish this. Our goal is for them to come out with that first win.

External onboarding is everything outside the product. This includes the first follow-up emails, separate tutorial pages, support agents, forums and even how-to blogs. The difference is that the customer has to elect to seek these out; theoretically they could use the product without them—not that you’d want them to.

There are dozens of onboarding features to choose from when designing your own system. Before you decide what your customer’s experience should look like, ask yourself these three questions:

  • What should the customer accomplish? Between the moment they pay and the moment the onboarding is complete, what should your customer be working toward? For Webinar Ninja, we want the onboarding result to be a completed webinar. For a book, it may be getting the first chapter read. For a course, it may be completing the introductory lesson. Whatever it is, define that concrete goal and tailor your onboarding to its completion.
  • What “onboarding” strategies are you currently using? Even those who’ve never heard the term are doing something to follow up on a purchase. It may be inadequate, but we’ve all gotta start somewhere! What do your customers get after they pay? An email? A receipt? A handshake? Establish what you have, and build on that.
  • What’s your refund rate? What percentage of your customers are satisfied? How many are choosing to give your product back? See if you can find out why. You may be surprised to learn that it’s not a problem with your product, or with them. It may just be that there’s too wide of a gap between the purchase and the result they’re looking for.

Simple Onboarding

How much effort and money you can devote to onboarding will depend on the particulars of your own business. Fortunately there are many low-cost, relatively easy onboarding features that anyone can employ. Beyond that, there are some more pricey services designed to truly perfect your onboarding. If it’s possible, they’re worth considering too.

The first easy, simple onboarding strategy is to make sure you’ve got a functional onboarding page. Your customers should be directed there the second the sale is closed. For example, on the $100 MBA, the first customer payment automatically brings up a gif of myself and my partner Nicole. Underneath is a “Get Started” button. That button takes the customer to a short video of the two of us welcoming the customer, thanking them for their business, and offering some words of inspiration.

From the video, we encourage the customer to click the “orientation” button directly underneath (literally pointing at it from within the embedded screen). We do everything we can from the second payment is accepted to get them to click that button. That’s because that button starts the first lesson. Finishing that lesson is an accomplishment. Once it’s done, the customer is truly ours. If they don’t want to continue with our service after that, it’s not for lack of information.

The key is to create a controlled environment. Simply accepting payment and leaving the actual use up to the customer just leaves too many openings. The less guidance they have, the more chances they’ll have to get lost. Onboarding is like a cattle chute, except instead of leading steer to slaughter, you’re leading customers to a full commitment. Don’t leave it up to them to find what they need. Show them. Make it easy for them now, and they’ll be around later.

Yes, your customers are probably capable of figuring your product out, but if you relieve them of that chore, you can get the momentum going immediately.

Even for a physical product, try to excite the customer about its potential use. Even something as simple and self-explanatory as a t-shirt should come with guidance—what to wear it with, care instructions, whatever. As long as you start moving them towards the goal the product represents (even if it’s just having something to wear with jeans), you’re onboarding.

On the external side, set up automatic emails and schedule them for delivery upon purchase. While in-product onboarding is crucial, every bit helps. Go beyond a simple thank you and receipt. Offer tutorials and complementary products. Use the emails to forge a deeper bond, and the customer will be more enthusiastic about their purchase.

Advanced Onboarding

If you’ve got the capital, it’s possible to go beyond DIY onboarding. There are several services out there who specialize in the post-sale customer experience. They can help you analyze and perfect your onboarding and ensure maximum customer retention. Note: none of the following services are sponsors of the $100 MBA. is an onboarding service that we use for Webinar Ninja. It allows us to create the pop-up tools and tips that make the initial user experience so much more seamless and enjoyable than it would otherwise be. For complex, multi-faceted software products with multiple features, it’s an excellent tool. Best of all, it doesn’t require the business to write a single line of code. Of course, it comes at a cost: $99 per month for a thousand unique visitors. It’s not cheap, but we’ve found it to be worth the cost. provides an advanced study of the customer experience, right up to and including video of their reactions to your product, for $49/month. Hotjar is an analytics service that offers detailed breakdowns of customer activity on your sites, with options ranging from free basic service to an $89 “business” level. Both of these services exist to paint a picture of your onboarding experience so that you can determine how best to improve it.

Take the time to get your onboarding right. Before you launch (or relaunch) your next product, dedicate a full day or two exclusively to your onboarding sequence. Ask yourself the questions posted in this article, and answer them honestly. Give your customer onboarding the care it deserves. Study the results, and adjust as needed.

It’s a long-term principle, so it may take time to see the broad results. Once you do, you’ll be glad you gave it the same effort you give to your product, your marketing, and the rest of your customer service.