Navigating the future of customer onboarding

Donna Weber shares her perspectives on how customer onboarding has changed, and what teams can do to adapt.
June 7, 2024
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Mukundh Krishna

Customer onboarding as a function is currently going through a paradigm shift. For the last few years, companies were taking a growth-at-all costs approach. Today however, the priorities have shifted.

Profitability is the name of the game, and customer onboarding, thanks to its perception as a cost center, is one of the first to get axed.

Donna Weber, one of the world's pre–eminent customer onboarding experts, has been observing this phenomenon from the sidelines and has a playbook that CS teams can follow in these challenging times.

Here's a broad overview of Donna's approach:

  • Deliver value, not deployments
  • Start with quick wins
  • Continue with value journeys
  • Scale with hybrid onboarding
  • Sell premium packages

Feel free to skip the specific section that addresses your problem :)

State of the (CS) union

The frenzy of the past few years has come to an end. All technology businesses are now aggressively pruning costs, which has led to two things:

  • The mandate to do more with less
  • Loss of several tech jobs (close to half a million)

Teams and professionals across the board are still in shock, and haven't fully been able to shake off the bad–habits they developed over the years.

  1. Stuck in high–touch: CS teams, by default, have gotten used to hand–holding all customers, without paying heed to the profit margins for that particular customer. Amazon, the pioneer of customer success, can afford to do this. Your average VC–backed SaaS business cannot.
  2. Customer onboarding costs too much: As a result, onboarding costs have skyrocketed and profit margins per customer (on average) are in the negative. Excessive spending on a customer, especially the smaller ones will delay break–even on said customer, ultimately impacting the bottomline.
  3. Monolithic deployments: The standard for software deployments is no longer to the tune of several months. The consumerization of software has permanently shrunk the expectations for value delivery. Four to six months for value delivery is a one way ticket to massive churn.
  4. The Value Cliff: Monolithic deployments lead to customers falling off the 'value cliff', wherein they are showered with lots of love and attention by the CS team, which is suddenly pulled away. Predictably, this has led to (some) angst.
The main reason customers leave in the first year is because they never get value from your product in the first place. They fail to launch.

The art of designing value journeys

The first thing to understand about value delivery, especially in the software business is that standardization doesn't work. Value varies across the length and breadth of your intended personae, and delivery journeys will need to be designed accordingly.

Failing to do so results in the customer falling into the dreaded 'trough of disillusionment', which refers to the period between the closing of a deal, and value realization (by the customer).

This is especially a problem for companies that have shorter deal cycles and (abnormally) long implementation cycles. It's a bit like ordering something on Amazon in a few seconds, and having it delivered to you after several weeks.

The solution to traversing the trough of disillusionment is to shorten it, i.e. you go for fast and iterative value delivery. Donna's preferred approach is to administer 'quick wins' via 'value drip'.

What are quick wins?

For Donna, quick wins are more a function of communication than execution. It's more like announcing the different stops on a train journey to the commuter, instead of just informing them of departure and arrival.

Such a strategy would then feed into the manner in which the value journey is designed, thereby conveying progress to the customer such that it's easy to realize.

Quick wins are generally measured in days or weeks, not months. CSMs would be well advised to commemorate the several 'wins' in the journey, while catering to customers in their own context.

Some of the many benefits of the quick win approach are: constant endorphin hits, engaged customers, reduced churn, and more importantly, increased revenue.

That being said, the question still remains, how do you cater to the same customer base with a (much) leaner team?

GenAI is the answer, just not in the way that you might think.

Customer onboarding in the age of AI

Donna suggests using a hybrid approach where A.I is embedded to free CSMs from manual, repetitive tasks, so they can focus on the phases that can't be automated. Donna's suggestion is to identify the million little gaps in the workflow of your CSM team, and deploy AI in them.

Some examples of such gaps/moments:

  1. Low–touch moments in a high touch journey
  2. Low–touch moments in a digital journey
  3. Digital touchpoint in a low–touch journey

Donna also suggests incorporating a host of 'one to many' approaches that allow the Customer Success team to have more leverage. A few examples:

  1. Office hours
  2. Live–online/Self–paced courses
  3. In–product chat
  4. Webinars
  5. In–product guidance
  6. Community
  7. Email campaigns

The intent behind these actions is to elevate the people and abstract the machine, i.e. relegate all the grunt–work to machines so people can focus on the stuff that they are best suited to do.

All of this is in service of doing more with less, and also to increase revenue. Donna had one last trick that CS folks could use, a technique that she borrowed from McDonalds and Savile Row.

Packaging and servicing, for the 21st century

One technique that Donna advises most (if not all) her clients to adopt is that of packaging services while also selling bespoke experiences when circumstances allow.

Packaging services akin to a 'happy meal' that prospects can opt for, while also allowing for the possibility to purchase custom solutions for niche use cases is the way forward for most technology services firms.

Donna's parting suggestion was for companies to start creating entirely new Go–To–Market plans that take contemporary realities into account. You can learn more about her strategies here.


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