User Onboarding

User Onboarding vs Customer Onboarding

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    Home / User Onboarding / User Onboarding vs Customer Onboarding

    Imagine you are a bookstore owner. 

    People come into your store every day to check out books and buy them. But of course, as is in the nature of owning a shop, not everyone coming in is a book buyer.

    Some are just book browsers.

    They might buy, but they don't have to - unless you don't allow people to just read and browse 🤨 

    My point is, you would have a different conversation with a book browser and a book buyer. And that right there is the exact same difference between a user onboarding and a customer onboarding process.

    But before all that, let's look at the definitions of users and customers.

    No time? Check out our YouTube video ⬇️

    What’s the difference between a user and a customer?

    Before we discuss the difference between the customer onboarding and user onboarding process, we need to understand the difference between who a user is and who a customer is.

    What is a User?

    A user, in simple terms, is a person who uses a product. In the context of SaaS, a user is someone who uses any version - free trial, free version, premium - of your product. Their user experience is often focused on getting them to become paying customers, as any user is a potential customer.

    Usually, we see that users are more open to changes and they are more flexible than customers. Since they aren't paying customers, unless your product becomes useless or extremely hard to operate, users will be highly voluntary to cooperate with you to use your product.

    What is a Customer?

    A customer, on the other hand, is someone who uses a given product in exchange for a certain, set amount of money. A customer might have been a user of your product before they started paying, or they might have made the purchase before trying. In any case, customers are more stern about their needs, and because they are paying, they expect and require more than your product users.

    The most important thing to remember about a customer is the fact that they are still a user. So, more often than not, while users go through a user journey and user onboarding experience, customers go through a customer experience, customer journey, customer onboarding experience, AND user onboarding flows and other user-related elements.

    So then, what can we say the difference is?

    If we needed to lay out how a user is different than a customer, it would mainly be about payment.

    👉 A user is a user of your product. A customer is a user of your product who pays for additional features and more.

    You can repeat the saying ‘free users vs. paying customers’ in your mind to remember the difference.

    What are User Onboarding and Customer Onboarding?

    Now let me explain what user and customer onboarding flows are and lay out the differences.

    user onboarding process vs customer onboarding process

    What Is User Onboarding?

    User onboarding is the instructions showcasing your goods or service to the user and potential customer that starts from the moment of initial engagement. It can be achieved via short videos, animations, and interactive guides to reveal the value of your product. It is the first step of the journey with your product or service.

    👉 In simple terms, user onboarding is basically giving your users their basic needs to find value in your product and become a customer who will stick around.

    The goal of user onboarding is to make things clear and prove that you offer them a great experience and value. And the trick is not to cause the user to feel like they have failed or the product is complicated, and to help them get to their Aha moments.

    Some of the best user onboarding tools and the best user onboarding practices are:

    • User onboarding checklists for the initial onboarding,
    • Interactive walkthroughs with key feature highlights to guarantee a positive experience with the product and
    • Personalized experiences to build a connection that leads to upgrading to paying customers

    Keep in mind that a user onboarding experience is essential in not only hooking users to your product but also encouraging them to see the value in becoming paying customers.

    Drawing the line between the free benefits and paid features is key.

    What Is Customer Onboarding?

    Customer onboarding is a process that can take place simultaneously with user onboarding, or it can happen after it. To elaborate, the ads you put out on display are for customers in the feature who might come to you as users to turn into customers later on. We might say that customer onboarding starts with the first key action of being aware of your product. So, even when you are onboarding a user, you are actually onboarding a potential customer. This, then, means that the customer onboarding process includes the user onboarding process.

    customer onboarding vs user onboarding

    But if we wanted to put it simply, customer onboarding is giving your users who are now customers their further, more intricate needs so that they actually stick around as users and as paying customers.

    What is the difference between user onboarding and customer onboarding? (+ Example)

    The best way of illustrating the difference between the onboarding patterns for users and customers is to give you an example.

    Take Duolingo.

    Duolingo is a fairly famous platform, and thus, it works hard to perfect its onboarding every day. And I'll bet you might be familiar with its overall product experience and app experiences. 

    Duolingo offers a seamless experience overall and has a very subtle way of onboarding its users.

    Even with an eye for onboarding content and product adoption tactics, it is hard to detect because it's designed to cause as little user irritation as possible.

    The most obvious piece of onboarding is during the sign-up process, and product education is as little as possible.

    duolingo user onboarding example

    This is due to the fact that Duolingo keeps the app extremely easy to use and the onboarding app experience as minimal as possible to not take away from the learning experience.

    So when users decide to try out the premium version and be customers, the contrast is big.

    Duolingo prompts a 5-step onboaridng screen where the user/customer is introduced to product features, A.K.A., the advanced feature versions of the Duolingo core features.

    customer onboarding vs user onboarding example duolingo premium

    Now, even though Duolingo would not want to annoy users with full-screen onboarding flows, this is a must since they need to showcase the new benefits and exclusivity for the customers/premium users.

    Check out our Duolingo UX teardown for more on Duolingo's onboarding experience here 👈

    So, if we need to put it into perspective, what is the difference between user onboarding and customer onboarding?

    The simple answer is... the relationship dynamics.

    The goal of user onboarding is to get a user to be a paying customer. The goal of customer onboarding is to get the paying customers to stay paying customers or, better yet, upgrade.

    Essentially, user onboarding flows are tools to get your users to experience customer onboarding flows where the main focus is customer retention rate and upsell opportunities.

    And that, folks, is the main difference.

    What Do YOU Need: User Onboarding Or Customer Onboarding?

    user vs customer onboarding difference

    Let's face it: this one's a rhetorical question.

    Whatever your product might be, unless it is completely free, you will always need both user onboarding and customer onboarding.


    Depending on the nature of your product, how you acquire users, and how you retain them, you might need to improve one of the two more than the other. 

    And oftentimes, user onboarding flows tend to be more important.

    Remember, if there is no user onboarding process to ready your users to become customers, there is no need for a customer onboarding process.

    But how do you improve your user onboarding flows?

    With a good user onboarding software. And I happen to know just the one you need ⬇️

    UserGuiding offers user and customer onboarding capabilities, survey features, and other in-app experience elements with a simple UI and competitive pricing.

    To Wrap Up

    A user onboarding and a customer onboarding are more alike than you think. But at the same time, they are completely different.

    The key is to remember that a customer is still a user even when they start to pay, and customer onboarding still contains the user onboarding even when the product is upgraded to premium. 

    The difference is the dynamics of the relationship you have with the user or customer. Just as a book owner would have different agendas with a book buyer and a book browser.

    And as long as you know how to utilize both processes, the difference is of no matter!

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