Customer Onboarding: The Definitive Guide

Did you know that an average app loses 77% of its daily active users after just 3 days?

You will lose the majority of your user base in their first week with your product, if you don’t do anything about it.

You can start by creating a great customer onboarding, which is one of the main factors that determine whether someone will become a loyal customer, or abandon a product.

Customer onboarding is not just the process of getting a user registered on a product and using some of its functionality.  Customer onboarding needs to quickly and painlessly guide the user to the point where they understand the problem your product solves. It is when they start to see the value that someone who is interested in a product can be converted into a loyal customer.

Customers won’t care about any particular technology unless it solves a particular problem in a superior way.

~ Peter Thiel, Co-founder, PayPal

What tools should be used to facilitate this process, whether onboarding checklists, tutorials, or interactive walkthroughs, depends on the target audience and what problem the product is designed to solve.

But while the tools differ, the underlying characteristics of a good customer onboarding experience, and the overall process for developing one, are fairly universal.

In this article, we are going to take a look at the characteristics of good customer onboarding, and the process that teams should go through in order to develop onboarding experiences. We will conclude by briefly looking at some of the tools that can be used to facilitate customer onboarding, depending on the needs of the individual situation.

Before we start, make sure you are aware of the differences between User and Customer Onboarding. Check out our top tips for User Onboarding here.

Also, here are some of the best examples of customer onboarding.

The Characteristics of Good Customer Onboarding

What exactly a good customer onboarding experience will look like depends on the individual product, and who its users are. 

It is not difficult to see that the customer onboarding process of an app such as Instagram, a relatively simple product for a general audience, and the onboarding process for a complex accounting application, designed for qualified accountants, will be very different.

The former will need to be an in-app experience that uses intuitive design, tooltips, and walkthroughs to show the user the steps that they need to take. The process for the accounting software will probably include online tutorials and maybe even in-person workshops. 

But while the methodologies are different. In both cases, the underlying principles of good practice are the same.

According to customer onboarding guru Samuel Hulick, five common characteristics of good customer onboarding are:

  1. It is user-centric. The customer onboarding experience is focused on the user, and teaching them how to get what they want out of the product. It is not focused on showing off the product or collecting “nice to have” data.
  2. It is action-oriented. Users should be encouraged to learn through doing, rather than being told what they will need to do. Most humans learn better through doing.
  3. It is informed. Customer onboarding experiences should be based on user research. Research should look at what the user wants to do with the product in order to get value out of it; what the tipping point within the product to get users to this point; and what the most common barriers to value are for the majority of users.
  4. It is constantly evolving. Just as products themselves are tweaked and improved based on learning from real-world use, the same should be true of customer onboarding experiences. Real customer use is likely to reveal better and more useful value metrics and onboarding methodologies.
  5. It is holistic Customer onboarding is not a one-off thing that happens the first time that a customer uses a product. Onboarding support should be constantly present and available, and secondary onboarding experiences can be used to push users to engage more deeply with the product and gain additional value after they have achieved the first value return.
what is customer onboarding

The Process of Developing Customer Onboarding Experiences

A poor onboarding experience is hard to come back from and is the fastest way to lose a customer. It’s critical to actively think about the entire customer journey. Define it, Map it, Document it.

– Paul Phılp

The process of developing great customer onboardings starts with ensuring that it is a priority throughout the product development process, and not something that is left as a separate task once product design and build is done and dusted.

Considering the main reasons given by users for abandoning a product are (1) that they can’t figure out how to use it, or (2) they didn’t see the value of the product, it is clear that effective customer onboarding is essential to reducing high churn rates.

Working on customer onboarding while the product is in development can help you identify things that are going to be onboarding issues further down the line at the early stages. This enables you to focus on reducing barriers to onboarding as part of the design of the product itself. In other words, you will have a better and more usable product.

Also, this phase is an opportunity to decide whether you will use a 3rd-party-tool or insource solution for your onboarding, and decide which onboarding tool suits you the most.

Bear in mind that 90 percent of customers think that companies could do better when it comes to customer onboarding, and 86 percent of customers say that they are more likely to stay loyal to a company that invests in quality onboarding.

The actual design of customer onboarding processes should focus on identifying value metrics and understanding touchpoints.

Identifying Value Metrics

To begin creating an onboarding experience, the first step is to identify where the customer needs to arrive in order to start seeing value from the product.

This is often called the “Aha!” moment, when the customer internalizes what the product can do for them, and therefore become invested as a user.

This is unlikely to be as simple as getting users to register their data and provide their payment details. Even at this point, there is no guarantee that the customer won’t cancel payments or walk away after a free trial period. They need to have a reason to continue using the product.

With brand new products, this can be difficult to define. Imagine that you are launching a product such as Instagram. At what point does the user gain value? Is it when they like someone else’s picture, is it when they publish one of their own, or is it when someone else likes their publication? With a product that is not yet on the market, this is a challenging exploratory research task.

With products that are already on the market, you can look at the data to identify what factors differentiate customers that leave from customers that stay.

For example, Twitter identified that customers that followed a minimum of 30 accounts within three days of joining the platform were significantly more likely to become regular users than customers than followed fewer. Thus, they identified their value metric – the point within the product that they need to get the user in order for them to start seeing value – as following 30 accounts within three days of registering.

This suggests that what Twitter users find most valuable is feeling like they are receiving interesting information from other accounts on the platform, rather than necessarily publishing their own thoughts. And following 30 accounts in three days is the tipping point for getting that value.

Thus, Twitter’s customer onboarding is geared towards getting new users to this point. This is why when joining the platform you are not immediately shown how to create Tweets. Rather you are asked what interests you so that Twitter can find relevant accounts for you to follow.

The same principle applies to more complex products. Take for example the financial system Oracle. The value metric may be creating a report that shows income and expenditure defined by certain relevant terms. But unlike the Twitter example, actually reaching this value point is much more complex.

For example, the user would have to fully register their company on Oracle, register clients and suppliers, send out and pay invoices, and then, at some relatively distant point in the future, produce a report. There are a lot of steps in this process that are likely to require quite a lot of complex training. But the principles are the same.

It can also be useful to identify what the user does not need to do in order to reach their value metric. For example, a customer doesn’t need to provide all of their personal details in order to publish a photo on Instagram. In fact, they might find the request for a lot of information from a product from which they are not yet getting value off-putting. This barrier of needing to provide data can make users more likely to abandon the product.

This does not mean that collecting data that is valuable to the product owner should be completely jettisoned from the customer onboarding experience. But it is perhaps better left until after the customer has realized the value metric. This kind of data gathering can be included in a secondary onboarding process, which is often easier to implement as the customer is already familiar with and invested in the product, and therefore more willing to cooperate.

Mapping Touchpoints

Once the “Aha!” moment and the value metric have been identified, it is then necessary to map every step the customer will need to complete and every touchpoint that they will need to pass through in order to reach those points.

This process is usually called journey mapping.

Journey maps should be detailed. They should cover every step, down to the individual clicks and page reloads. They should also identify the potential friction and pain points, and differentiate the steps that the user is likely to find intuitive from those that might need significant assistance.

It is also useful to identify the customer’s emotions and feelings at each step in the process. For this, creating personas is a solid method.

Here are some examples of user personas.

Personas are fictional descriptions of potential users of the product. But they should be as realistic as possible and based on research into typical or target customers. A product will generally have a series of target user segments, and each segment should have at least one associated persona.

Descriptions should provide basic background information such as gender, age, and occupation, and should also cover things such as their needs, concerns, and goals as they relate to the product. This should give the product team sufficient insight to track feelings and emotions onto the onboarding journey map.

Mapping emotions is important, as negative feelings on the journey represent parts of the onboarding process that need more care and attention.

Design the User Onboarding Experience

With these resources in place, it is then possible to begin designing the best way to take users through the necessary steps to gain value.

It is likely that more than one approach will be valid, and all hypotheses about the best way to achieve successful onboarding should be stress-tested through user testing, and final solutions tweaked and optimized in the same way.

how to onboard customers

Common ways to Onboard Customers

There are a wide variety of tools available to support customer onboarding, and most onboarding experiences are likely to include a combination of tools.

These tools are generally divided into two different categories: service and self-service tools. Self-service tools are mostly automated tools that the customer can use to educate themselves about the product.

Service tools are more commonly used for big B2B SaaS tools, and involve direct interaction with representatives from the product company, in the form of training, account set up, and so forth.

Take for example signing up for a new online service, such as an email marketing tool or a task management tool. The customer onboarding process is likely to include an online sign-up form, and then a welcome and confirmation email that takes the user into the product. Once in the product, the user will likely need to be guided through completing their registration and then be taught how to gain value from the product.

The types of elements that are likely to support this in-product part of the customer onboarding process include:

  • Step-by-step registration processes – a series of screens asking the user to provide information or select preferences.
  • Empty states – workboxes that have sample content visible within them to show the user what they need to do.
  • Tooltips – speech bubbles that pop up or appear when hovering and supply information about what certain elements of the product do.
  • Checklists – that inform the user what steps they need to take in order to complete registration and get to value. Read our full article on customer onboarding checklists here. 
  • Product tutorials – which use film or animations to show the user the steps that they will need to take.
  • Interactive Walkthroughs – that use animations and feedback to walk the user through the steps they need to take to complete certain tasks. Here is the main reason why you need an interactive walkthrough.
  • Documentation – comprehensive instructions on how to use the product usually provided in a separate repository.

While this list covers the most popular elements when it comes to facilitating customer onboarding, it is by no means the limit. Everyday product owners are looking for new and better ways to make onboarding customers more straightforward, intuitive, and compelling.

UserGuiding is the key tool to create the perfect Customer Onboarding

UserGuiding is a third-party software that is perfect for creating self-service customer onboarding flows as it lets you create interactive user manuals, user guides, checklists, tooltips, help centers, and NPS surveys.

Trusted by over 2000 companies in onboarding customers, UserGuiding can help you fight churn and increase product adoption. It doesn’t require any technical or coding knowledge and you can create your first guide in minutes!

Try UserGuiding for free!


Good customer onboarding makes the difference when it comes to converting interested potential customers into loyal customers. The more quickly people understand how to use a product and start getting value from it, the more likely they are to continue using the product and continue investing in it, in terms of both time and money.

There is a plethora of tools available to facilitate customer onboarding, many of which rise and fall with the latest fads. But product owners should never fall into the trap of using the latest onboarding technology because it is the latest.

Good customer onboarding processes focus on the user and what it is going to take to get them from nothing to getting value from the product in a way that is as effective and efficient as possible. In the best-case scenario, the process that gets them to the aha moment should also bring them a little bit of joy, and it should definitely never feel like it was a battle.

Therefore, while good customer onboarding should follow the same principles, around being user-centric and value-metric oriented, it should be technology agnostic.

Frequently Asked Questions

⛵️ What is Customer Onboarding?

Customer onboarding refers to showing a user not just how they can use your product, but its value and encouraging them to obtain that value.

❓ Why is Customer Onboarding important?

Most customers churn during the first few days of their journey with your product, customer onboarding is the only certain way to prevent it.

🚀 How can I improve my Customer Onboarding?

Making sure that the onboarding process is designed based on the experiences of real users can improve your customer onboarding significantly.

Selman Gokce

Selman Gokce is the Senior Inbound Marketer of UserGuiding. He is highly invested in user onboarding and digital adoption, especially for SaaS, and he writes on these topics for the UserGuiding blog. When he's not writing, you can find him either listening to LOTR soundtracks while cooking or getting angry because he lost in a video game.

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