8 Tips for Client Onboarding in an Uncertain Market

As a sales rep, enablement professional, or customer success manager in SaaS, don’t breathe a sigh of relief just because the ink has dried on a new customer deal. In fact, the client onboarding phase that follows a closed deal is one of the most decisive risk areas anywhere in the sales cycle.

Knowing how to handle new clients in a changing market can be tough — and even under regular circumstances, not knowing how to handle them can hurt your business. Onboarding churn accounts for 23% of all customer churn, accounting for a slight majority of all customer loss that falls within the "Customer Success" stage of a vendor/customer relationship. What’s more, a newly onboarded customer is three times more likely to churn than one who has been on your books for more than a year. That’s a lot of risks.

That’s why having plenty of client onboarding know-how is useful, especially in an uncertain market. The key is to acquaint yourself with the risk vectors and to understand the many ways that onboarding churn can affect your sales process.

Why Client Onboarding Is Important

Client onboarding is fundamentally the act of teaching your new customer how to get the value they need out of your product. This would be reason enough to give client onboarding considerable priority. But the numbers also speak to its importance: between "40% and 60% of software users will open an app once, and never log in again.” Without cultivated onboarding, churn is a distinct possibility at the post-deal stage.

Clients are truly onboarded with your company once they achieve a standard of customer success.

This happens when you help customers reach the following milestones:

  • Product adoption: The deal is signed, you’ve delivered the product, and your customer is deriving value from their use of it.
  • Retention: If the user is still on track to fulfill their plan without activity churn (cessation of product use) or payment churn (canceling a plan), then you can tick the retention box off your list.
  • Expansion: The holy grail of customer success — when the client upgrades on their plan. Expansion revenue should be an active goal for your revenue organization, particularly during market downturns, because it represents an excellent way of preserving a good ratio of customer lifetime value to customer acquisition cost (LTV:CAC)

Onboarding is key to building customer familiarity with your product, setting up expansion pathways for the future, and generally building a relationship with your client. A proven strategy in SaaS sales is good relationship management, taking the time to show that you’re on your client’s side, and you’re determined to help them succeed.

Given the high rate of onboarding churn and the uncertain market conditions, a robust onboarding policy is more vital than ever. Try to maintain a churn rate lower than around 1% to see consistently viable growth. With higher churn rates, cash flow can become a critical issue. Because uncertain markets mean difficult-to-predict sales funnels, which ultimately endanger cash flow, doubling down on churn reduction is a sure shot to maintain stability. And onboarding is a key means of doing so.

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How COVID-19 Has Changed Client Onboarding

The exact effects COVID-19 is having, or will have, on customer onboarding will come into stronger relief as more and more businesses reestablish their preoutbreak pipeline velocity. However, there are a few broad-stroke changes to expect.

Activity churn that may not commute to payment churn

COVID-19 has radically rearranged business priorities. As a result, it’s normal to see an activity churn spike as companies reshape their processes to cope. Ordinarily, activity churn is a precursor of payment churn. While it may be the case that drops in usage will result in that user churning, it’s also possible that your user has, in fact, just had a lot on their plate to deal with. They may be cutting back on their use in order to devote time to other areas; they might have just forgotten about this shiny new product.

If customer success professionals pay attention to early relationship activity churn, they can mitigate against the likelihood of initial fluctuations in the degree of use.

Higher likelihood of personalized/Smaller subscription plans

It’s possible that, during these cash-strapped times, you may need to offer a higher number of smaller deals to get more reluctant or price-sensitive customers on board. These will require more detailed next-step pathways during customer onboarding to prevent later churn or a low LTV:CAC.

On the other hand, you may have begun offering custom plans to help your customers see more direct value out of the product features they most need. In which case, your onboarding specialist or customer success specialist may be handling a slightly different version of your product for each customer. In such a case, it’s important to ensure that onboarding plans are accordingly tailored.

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8 Tips for Client Onboarding in an Uncertain Market

With the fundamentals of onboarding in mind, let’s look at how best to get clients up to speed in an uncertain market. If you’re seasoned with customer onboarding, this mostly involves refreshing the old order of business with a few additional touches and provisions.

Schedule the KickOff Call

On your first client call, establish your client point of contact. Knowing your POC is important so that you’ll understand who will be responsible for working the product on the client end. Having confirmed that, set expectations for the onboarding process, including ramp-up time, and how fast they can expect to see value from your product.

This is one area where expectation management is so important. Candidly remind your client about the difficulties of the present market situation, but stress that looking beyond it is necessary to get the best out of your product.

Make a clear schema for customer success

Before you tell your customer what a successful onboarding experience will look like, you need to know what it looks like yourself. A clear schema for customer success is an imperative part of a good client onboarding checklist.

Difficult market situations make getting to the customer success threshold all the more important.

As a result, create detailed visions of what customer success looks like for your new additions:

  • To predict an adequate length of time for this onboarding checklist, look back to previous onboarding sessions on the same plan with a similar type of client.
  • To predict the level of initial ROI a customer can expect following the onboarding process, assess historical data you have. See what similar customers saw after the same period, and scale it according to market conditions to set a new expectation.
  • To predict how long it’ll be before your customer considers expanding their plan, consider their starting plan, the size of the department that will use your app, and their current cash flow. Then, adjust your initial expectation according to market conditions

This vision of customer success will not only steer your client but also guide the efforts of your account executive or onboarding specialist, who will help the client get there.

Consult with Clients on Their Vision of Success

There’s no better way to begin client onboarding than by asking your client to verify their goals. Devote additional time in your kickoff call, or even devote a dedicated call to discussing the subject.

Get your client to expand on any new or outstanding pain points that could alter onboarding planning, or open routes to upsell. Look to the future. As elsewhere, be candid about the possibilities for exceeding expectations or falling short of them in an uncertain market.

Practice Good Data Hygiene

Data hygiene on your end is a fundamental component of coherent customer onboarding, but it’s not, per se, part of the onboarding process. Rather, it’s important to observe good data hygiene before you actually get to the point of onboarding.

Customer success pros need to be able to leverage a lot of data from across the sales process. This isn’t merely a case of a customer success specialist knowing their way around a spreadsheet.

There’s often a good deal of information about a customer, their circumstances, and their needs hidden in the earlier sales process. It can easily get misplaced among multiple email threads. Sales reps can forget to record key data points. A customer success specialist may not have access to all of the information that can make their job — onboarding the client — easier and more effective.

To make sharing client context and key pain points simpler, consider a tool like Chorus’s Deal Hub.

Deal Hub makes it easy to centralize all your information about a client, from early-stage email correspondence to key late-stage deal information. It makes the rep-to-customer-success handover that much easier.

Make Sure You TACKLE any Compliance issues

It may seem somewhat circumstantial, but no onboarding process is complete until the ink is drying on the contract and you’ve addressed all legal matters. Onboarding is an excellent opportunity to guarantee that compliance/legal aspects are taken care of — so ensure that it’s incorporated into your new customer checklist.

Create a Welcome Packet

Setting up materials and expectations and then leaving your client to their own devices after the kickoff call is only a half-finished onboarding. Create a “welcome pack” for your clients to commemorate the start of your relationship and recap key information.

Your welcome pack should provide the client with summary information about everything covered in the kickoff to reference later. Also include reprised social proof and customer success stories in your packet. In an uncertain market period, having these reminders of your product’s past successes may prove vital if circumstances change for the worse.

Schedule a Client Training Session

If you have a product that requires use by a specialist, then perhaps the key phase in your entire onboarding plan will involve scheduling and hosting one or more client training sessions. A training session can boost your client ahead through the product-adoption phase of customer success. In an uncertain market, there’s a big psychological boost with the idea of getting through that first use of a product successfully and immediately seeing its value become apparent.

Run your POCs through the entire gamut of feature options on their plan, and, after asking them to complete a few basic exercises, ask for a sample instance where they intend to use your product for demonstration.

A good training session allows you to address any immediate client concerns, especially opportunities for upsells (“Is there a way we can do X?”), as well as spot early warning signs of poor product fit or scope creep.

Arrange Next Steps

The best panacea for COVID-19 business anxiety is to look to the future — and, happily, doing so is a fundamental part of the onboarding process. Once your client is happy with their training, their feature array, the expectations set, you can begin thinking about next steps with them.

Arrange to check in with your POC fairly regularly, and hold monthly reporting sessions where applicable and desirable. Make sure your client is familiar with how to submit support tickets. Where appropriate, schedule a subscription review session. This is particularly good for enthusiastic clients who’ve had to subscribe lower because of current budgeting. The COVID-19 market downturn won’t last forever!

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In Stormy Weather . . .

Enthusiasm, product-client fit, and, to some extent, even customer success can all seem much less secure in an uncertain market than they would otherwise. However, you can do a great deal to mitigate against the effects of a bleak-looking market with a great onboarding program. It’s all about shortening the distance between your customer having an impression of your product’s value and seeing it manifest. Beyond that, it’s about showing your client that you’re looking out for their interests.

To some degree, client onboarding in an uncertain market is like regular onboarding, but with a little extra TLC and additional mindfulness of the client. However, those small distinctions can go a long way toward making client onboarding, and the deal it’s supporting, more or less secure. Make sure your account executives, customer success specialists, and sales team are consistently landing on the right side of that line.

Want more cutting edge sales insights to beat the post-pandemic downturn? Tune in to Chorus’ Weekly Briefing series for the freshest and best hot-takes from top industry leaders.

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