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Smart Route Podcast

How to Crush SaaS Customer Onboarding

by CallTrackingMetrics

After 14+ years in the SaaS industry, Naomi Aiken, ChurnZero’s Manager of Customer Success, learned a thing or two about what gains – and retains – SaaS customers. 

Her conclusion? It’s not just a great product – it’s also great customer onboarding.

It takes two to complete a successful onboarding journey: customer and company. To achieve long term results, both parties must be equally invested in maximizing customer product education and usage. Unfortunately, selling professional onboarding to customers is a struggle in the SaaS space. After spending a large sum purchasing a product, many customers are reluctant to spend more; they prefer to try onboarding themselves. For plug-and-play products, self-deployment may work just fine for customers. However, for softwares that are more complex, professional guidance on implementation and use is paramount for long-term success. 

Listen now to Smart Route’s episode “How to Crush SaaS Customer Onboarding” with Naomi Aiken and host, Courtney Tyson, to learn practical steps you and your company can take to boost ROI for clients, create achievable onboarding timeframes, and find the perfect balance between automation and personalization. 

Listen now:

Additional Resources:

About Naomi Aiken:

Naomi Aiken is a Manager for the Customer Success team at ChurnZero, which is a real-time Customer Success platform. She joined ChurnZero in 2018 after more than a decade in SaaS software in the higher education space. Naomi enjoys doing arts and crafts projects with her two young children, reading biographies and memoirs, and seeking out the best bakeries in her area.


Episode Transcript:

Courtney Tyson

Hello and welcome to Smart Route. This is our eleventh episode. Thank you for listening in. I’m your host Courtney Tyson, Strategic Partnership Manager here at CallTrackingMetrics. Today, we’ll be discussing how to crush Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) customer onboarding. Onboarding in SaaS is crucial to customer adoption and the overall stickiness of the client relationship with the vendor as well. And so, to help us learn more about how to properly manage customer onboarding, we’ve invited Naomi Aiken, Manager of Customer Success at ChurnZero, to share her expertise. Thank you for being here, Naomi, it’s so great to meet you and we’re looking forward to learning from you today.

Naomi Aiken

Hi! Thank you so much for having me. Awesome! Let’s do it.



So, for our listeners who are unfamiliar, ChurnZero is a real-time customer success platform that helps subscription businesses fight customer churn. Fight Churn is their motto. Naomi joined ChurnZero in 2018 after more than a decade in SaaS in the higher education space, and so now she manages the customer success team at the company. So let’s dive in. Naomi can you start off by telling us a little bit more about your background and how you came to ChurnZero?


Naomi Aiken

Yeah, absolutely. So I’ve been in SaaS in a variety of customer-facing roles for going on 14 years now. I’ve done implementation professional services and consulting account management, customer success一you name it, I’ve done it. I really have a passion for working with customers, sharing expertise, and seeing them be successful, and am very excited to talk more about that today.



Great. So I guess let’s start with learning a little bit more about ChurnZero. Can you tell us a bit more about ChurnZero, what it does, and what problems you guys help to solve.


Naomi Aiken

Absolutely! ChurnZero is a customer success platform. So we are built to help SaaS companies manage their account, so manage your customers, increase product adoption, increase customer engagement and, ultimately, retain those customers and expand those accounts.



So nurture those relationships, make sure they’re happy and stay with you. That’s great. So let’s talk a little bit more about training. I think we’re all familiar with what training means, right? but could you explain a bit more about how training and onboarding are so different, especially in the SaaS space?


Naomi Aiken

Yes, definitely think about onboarding as the entire picture, the overall journey that your customer is going to go through and you are going to guide them through. I always find that training is a part of onboarding, a nd it actually takes many forms throughout the onboarding in a typical, let’s say simplified onboarding for a SaaS company There’s usually some aspect of an admin training. And then, later on, an aspect of end user training, so we do see training take multiple forms throughout an onboarding.



Okay, that makes sense, so it’s the entire picture, it’s more so getting them hands-on in the platform, being able to take the reins themselves.  So what’s your opinion around a typical timeframe for onboarding new customers? 


Naomi Aiken

Definitely. I Feel like in Saas everyone likes to say 90 days. It’s the magic number for some reason. But, honestly, it depends on the endpoint of your onboarding and this is up to you as a company to set. Okay, so, you have to declare an endpoint, whether you like it or not, and then we have to measure against that. Many companies say, “well you know the onboarding never really ends.”  We’re always training. We’re always adding new features and helping our customers. But the initial onboarding has to have a defined endpoint. From there you move into adoption, to nurturing, to increasing product adoption. But you have to put an endpoint to that initial onboarding and measure against it. Keep it up-to-date and figure out how long does it actually take your customers in your business with your product and to fully onboard.



Okay, so they say 90 days is the magic number. But really, there’s a magic number for every company because every company is different. Their customers are different. So it’s about really understanding that endpoint and then being able to measure the onboarding from there. 


Naomi Aiken

I’ll add one more thing there, a company might have multiple magic numbers when it comes to the typical timeframe for onboarding. Perhaps you’re selling multiple product lines. Perhaps you have different onboarding timelines and expectations.



But moving.


Naomi Aiken

For smaller customers versus larger customers it’s okay to have multiple targets. But again, we have to define it. We have to define the endpoint and then truly measure against it.



Okay, that’s really great advice and it’s interesting to think about looking at your customers in different buckets, too. And so maybe you have different sets of onboarding for different types of customers. That’s interesting. So, you know, Saas providers clearly understand the value of onboarding new customers, but it’s surprising how many customers still try to self onboard on a new technology. What do you think, is professional onboarding the best way to go? And how do you communicate how important professional onboarding is to clients so that they engage with your company’s onboarding? 


Naomi Aiken

So for some SaaS companies and their given product in the marketplace it might be simple enough to allow for your customers to self-deploy. If that is truly the case, great. Do it, let them do it. This is the case with simpler tools, plug-and-play tools. Perhaps they don’t have integration requirements and implementation needs, and that’s perfectly fine, but I will say more and more SaaS products in the market (Churn Zero being one of them) also just, in in my general experience, and in my SaaS roles at various companies, does require integration work, consulting work, and a certain level of interaction with your assigned csm or implementation specialist, or someone at the company to really and truly think through and achieve the onboarding and the configurations to allow for that. And ROI, which is what everyone wants. That’s a shared goal between the customer and the company, is to get that customer to ROI so that, ultimately, this becomes a solid customer in your customer base that you retain, that you expand, and that you can see success with. I do feel that. If your company is truly investing in a tool that is going to impact your business, it’s going to have a price tag, and along with the price tag of just that tool might come a price tag of professional onboarding. Sometimes this means that you have to put up some extra cash, you know, but if you want to see results, if you want an ROI, if you want it done right, and if this is meant to impact your business, do it right.  Invest in onboarding in the same way that you’ve invested in the tool itself.



I think that’s such a great point, and that’s that’s actually a great way for even sales teams to talk about paid onboarding to their customers. You know, if you’re investing in this tool and it’s going to have an impact at your organization then you need to invest in it as well and invest in your knowledge in that tool, and that’s what onboarding is all about. So I love that statement, Naomi.  So let’s talk a little about a little bit more about onboarding processes. You know automation versus personalization, I think a lot of onboarding processes nowadays use both. You know there’s like the automated walkthroughs, but then there’s also onboarding that their customer success managers do that help customers. We were wondering, how do you strike a balance between them, and how do you make automated parts of onboarding more personalized?


Naomi Aiken

This is a really fun art form that I certainly enjoy, not just in my current role, but in other roles, too. And what I often find is wording is important. Phrasing is important. If your messaging  is going out to your customer that, let’s say, is automated. It’s generic. It’s stale. It’ll feel robotic, right? Your customer’s going to know this is just automated. What I encourage you, and what I encourage my team to do, is use common phrasing, use humor, make it feel natural, make it feel real.  Even though some of these messages are automated they can still have that aspect of personalization. Additionally I think a really, really important part about automated messaging is making sure that the recipient knows how to get in touch with an actual human. Do they actually have a designated CSM? Should they go to a support resource or other type of community discussion board? Where should they go if they need help? That also adds that aspect of personalization and something a bit more real that you can offer in an automated message and allows that customer to feel really taken care of.



And I think it makes sense to offer automated versus the personalized onboarding as well, because I think we all like to do things differently, we all like to consume things differently.And we all learn differently. So, like the automated process might work better for one person and the personalized process might work better for another. That’s good for our listeners to keep in mind as well. 

You talked a little bit earlier about what you need to focus on after onboarding a client has been completed. Let’s talk about that a little bit more. So what are some ways you can keep a customer engaged after they’ve completed onboarding? 


Naomi Aiken

My biggest tip here is tell your customers how they’re doing.  So what I always remind the CSMs on my team is that we see the forest from the trees. The customer only knows their onboarding and then their launch and their usage of the product. We are looking at it from a much higher view. We’re working with different customers, using our tool in different ways, seeing different types of successes, letting your customer know, “ Hey, I work with a lot of customers and you’re doing a great job. You are on track for success.”  That goes a long way. And sometimes your customer doesn’t know to ask that of you, to say, “Hey how am I doing?”  Right? They might not say that, but you can proactively tell them. Additionally, there’s the flip side of, “Hey, I’m working with a lot of customers right now and I’m worried you’re missing the mark in your usage. We’re not doing x, y, and z and I want to help get you there. Let’s talk about this.”



That’s all it’s all about, being honest and transparent with the customer through the process in order to ensure they have a good experience and they’re successful at the end of it, right? 


Naomi Aiken

Absolutely, yes.



So we talked a bit about offering that complementary onboarding and also the possibility of investing in paid onboarding, which I think a lot of SaaS companies offer either or both. So, how do you know it’s time for a customer to go up to the next level of onboarding—for example to the paid level—and how do you handle that conversation?


Naomi Aiken

One of the most important things is don’t blindside your customer with a surprise new cost. I think some of this messaging needs to start in the presales process. You know, that we offer paid onboarding and explaining the value and the benefit of that now, whether or not the customer signs up for that, fine. But at least we gave them that opportunity. We explained it. Let’s say here I am, the CSM working with the customer who has not signed up for that paid onboarding, but I know they could benefit from it. The moment you get that inkling that they need more guidance. They need more help. And that they’re going to need to pay for that, start talking about it. I think if you keep that kind of quietly to yourself and then all of a sudden start bringing up the potential of additional costs, that might feel jarring and unnatural and not-so-good to the customer. So be extremely upfront about it. Be honest, become that trusted resource with them. 

Along with that, just make sure they understand the value. So, going back to something I said earlier about this company that has invested in a tool that, hopefully, is going to impact their business. This is then an additional investment on top of that to make sure the tool is as successful as possible.



Sure, and I think the theme here in talking about onboarding and what you’ve learned and how to be successful throughout your career and onboarding is all about being honest and transparent with your customers and letting them know that. You are invested in their success and you’re here to help them in any way, and I think that’s that’s a big thing here is, you know, we’re all human right? We all just want to achieve our goals and have success professionally, and if you’re investing in a tool that’s going to have an impact then you want to make sure you’re getting the most out of that investment because in the end it’s going to benefit both parties involved. 

So to wrap things up, just one last question for today about your top tips. And again, I said I think there were definitely some themes here that we’ve chatted about today, but if you can identify three things that our listeners need to know and practice when onboarding customers,  what are those three things?


Naomi Aiken

Okay, let’s see, to no surprise I think my first thing is be as transparent as possible with your customer. Lay it all on the line. No surprises. Here’s what to expect, here’s how it’s going, here’s how it went, and what we do next?

After that I’d say also take a look internally, at your company. Take a step back, evaluate your processes, and do this a couple times a year. Don’t let your onboarding get stale because realistically, especially in the SaaS world, onboarding is evolving as your product is evolving as your customer base is evolving, and things happen really quickly these days. So invest in that internally at your company, to not let onboarding get stale.

With that, another item that I would say, one of my top three is, don’t skimp on your onboarding hires. So just as you might be asking your customer to invest in onboarding,  perhaps to a paid level, you also, as a company, need to invest in onboarding with the proper hires, whether those are implementation people or CSMs. However, that happens at your company so that you can onboard your customers appropriately. We all know from data, and also just from personal experience, that if that onboarding goes well and you set that customer up for success you’re setting your company up for long-term success and long-term relationships that are worth it.



That’s great. Thank you Naomi. So to recap, in order to crush onboarding SaaS companies should remember to be honest, be transparent. Don’t surprise your customers. Let them know what options you have available at the onset of that relationship. There is no perfect onboarding plan for any two companies, right? It’s important to look internally at your plan and develop it based on your customer’s experiences and their adoption of the product and to evaluate your onboarding regularly as your product evolves. And, finally, don’t skimp on onboarding hires. Invest in those hires because, in the end, it’s just going to help you develop those strong, sticky relationships with your customers. Awesome.


Naomi Aiken

You got it. 



Naomi, thank you so much for being here. This has really been great, I know I learned a lot and I know our listeners have learned a lot about the importance of customer onboarding and how to be successful, and I think you you really kind of dial it down for us and and helped us think in kind of one lane of what needs to be done in order to be successful, and you really helped us try identify some important points as well. So thank you so much and thanks to our listeners for listening in as well. We appreciate your support. 


Naomi Aiken

Thank you! It was a pleasure to be here.



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