Implementation Stories

Nailing customer onboarding using the Project Management approach

How using project management principles to your onboarding projects makes the experience better for customers
August 13, 2021
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For Implementation Stories #14, we spoke to Krishna Kant, Director of Customer Success at Almabase, a SaaS alumni management platform. He’s also the community manager at SaaS Insider.

In this session, Krishna discussed:

  1. How customer implementations evolved at Almabase and learnings from the journey
  2. Using a project management approach to nail customer onboarding and implementation

...and more.

This post covers key takeaways.

Customer implementation at Almabase

Almabase is in the alumni engagement space, offering schools, colleges, universities a solution to manage their alumni engagement. Since it's a platform-based solution, there is a mix of front-end (set the site up, customize it for the customer to match their brand, etc.) and backend (data migration/upload, etc.) work during customer onboarding. They ensure the platform is ready to use for the alumni when they log in. 

An analysis of their onboarding process highlighted a gap in expectations between the customer and the Almbase team.

Krishna talked about how initially, the onboarding did not include the Almabase understanding the complexity of processes at the customer’s end and the level of resources required for the onboarding. As a result, they couldn’t set the right expectations with the customer’s team. The customers who sign up expected the platform to be ready to use right away. 

To fix this, Krishna and his team added a step in their process where they could understand the customer’s expectations. Whenever a customer signs up with them, the Almabase team starts by understanding the deliverables in terms of:

  1. The programs or benefits they want to offer their alumni via Almabase
  2. The kind of events do they want to create
  3. The kinds of fundraising efforts they want to have on the platform 
  4. The kind of communities they want to create

They addressed dependencies on the customer and the resource investment required of them. To ensure the onboarding process was thorough and to provide visibility to the customer every step of the way, Krishna and his team took the project management approach to their customer onboarding process. Almabase also set milestones with the customer for post-onboarding. This milestone would be what the customer wanted to achieve with Almabase at the end of a set period of time, after onboarding. 

Based on the information obtained during these exploratory discussions, Almabase divided their customer onboarding journey into three phases: ‘data onboarding’/’content creation’, ‘pilot’, and ‘launch’. Each phase had tasks and activities, timelines for each, and things to be done to complete each task. There were also checkpoints defined for each phase.

The Project Management approach

Here’s how Krishna applied the project management approach to customer onboarding.

Understanding the customer’s needs

The team started by understanding the problems that the customer wanted to solve. The information they collected were:

  1. The current process in place at the customer’s org
  2. The current programs and their success rates
  3. What success looks like to the customer (use this to arrive at success metrics)

They used this information to arrive at short-term and long-term goals. 

Use the kickoff meeting to align expectations, clarify goals and processes

The team redesigned their kickoff template to ensure they could meet their goal of aligning expectations. They used the template to:

  1. Walk the customer through every step of the process, ensuring the customer had visibility into every aspect.
  2. Emphasize where in the onboarding journey the customer’s team will need to invest time, effort, and people. They also listed out dependencies on them.
  3. Reiterate short term and long term goals of the customer

Ensure project visibility to the customer

The team also worked the customer onboarding process into their kickoff deck. They designed it to provide a week-wise view of the onboarding plan to the customer. Using feedback from customers, we also incorporated a view of the implementation journey for the customer, which also highlighted the milestones and success metrics. They’d create and share documents that the customer can come back to about their implementation journey—a guide of sorts. This is the document that the customer can refer to for 80% of their onboarding needs. It included information such as their (customer’s) beta site link, the data setup link, the kickoff call slide link, the kickoff call recording link, and other important links and files for them to access during the onboarding phase. The Almabase team also shares checklists of what the customer needs to take care of at their end, along with the ownership aspect of the onboarding journey.

For the convenience of their internal team, Almabase also created a section for change requests and queries that come from the customer during the onboarding phase. This helped the CSMs and the customer support team coordinate and they got on the same page faster.

Holding the team accountable

Talking about creating accountability and transparency within the team and ensuring the customer champions deliver on time, especially during the first 90 days of the customer’s relationship with the team, Krishna said that at Almabase, they set expectations during the kickoff meeting and map activities to specific people. They also email a monthly summary to all stakeholders on the progress of the customer onboarding project. This also eliminates the need to point out issues on either end, which could look like a complaint or an escalation—it’d be part of the summary, although he says it’s not a perfect solution. He says it’s an effective way to manage expectations. He also recommended mapping customer onboarding goals to the KPIs of the team.

Srikrishnan, co-founder of Rocketlane, recommended tying customer onboarding goals to the org-wide goals, so people could see how they’re impacting the business.

Establishing effective communication channels

Addressing the pros and cons of using WhatsApp or similar platforms create group chats with customers for their onboarding communication, Krishna and Sri recommended establishing early on (say, during the kickoff phase) the channels of communication that the customers can use to contact you for any queries or issues, and also specify a dedicated channel and point of contact for escalations. Using formal modes such as meetings, emails, help keep track of the interactions and decisions made.

Rocketlane X Slack: Collaborate from the comfort of Slack

Managing expectation mismatch after handoff from Sales 

Sometimes, the expectations created with the customer by the sales team aren’t the same that the onboarding team can deliver. To bring in a pragmatic perspective, Krishna recommends:

  1. Bringing in a CSM early on during the sales process
  2. Getting Sales to provide as much information as they can about the customer persona, what the customer wants to use the product for, what they expect to achieve by using the product
  3. Having a conversation post-handoff with the customer. During this meeting, state what you have understood to be their expectations and goals, and get them to provide inputs. Use their inputs to add/modify the goals and expectations, and get on the same page with the customer
  4. Reiterating expectations arrived at as mentioned in the previous point, during the kickoff meeting

Here’s Alex Farmer on how CSMs can contribute towards successful onboarding experiences. Here’s a Deep Dive into escalation and expectation management during the customer journey.

Preventing potential buyer’s remorse

During the onboarding phase, if the customer comes back to you pointing out that a competitor has a certain feature or functionality that your product doesn’t:

  1. Understand what need of theirs will be fulfilled by the said feature, and check if your product can meet that need
  2. Your customer would have evaluated competitors and chosen you at the end; it helps to know why, and you could tactfully reiterate the reason to them
  3. You could compare your package with the competitor’s, and point out why you have an advantage over them
  4. If the feature isn’t available on your product, check if it can be added to your product roadmap

Encouraging product adoption among unenthusiastic customer teams

If the ultimate users of your product at the customer’s end aren’t displaying enthusiasm in adopting your product, Krishna says it could be to do with the fact that change itself can be uncomfortable—the team could be used to a specific workflow, and are unable to visualize how your product would help them or make it better for them. He recommends:

  1. Getting the customer’s management team, who signed up for the product, to help their teams see how the product will be useful
  2. Replicating their workflows on your product, without any investment of time or effort from the customer’s end, will help them see it in action, and also give them a taste of the first success 

You might want to look at this Preflight conversation on improving product adoption.

Join Preflight today for exclusive access to more such insights and best practices from industry stalwarts on customer onboarding and implementation.

More resources

  1. Implementation Stories from Preflight
  2. Customer onboarding resources from Rocketlane
  3. The Launch Station - a podcast for all things customer onboarding

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Kirthika Soundararajan
Head - Content Marketing @ Rocketlane

All things content at Rocketlane. I run on coffee and cat videos. Follow me on Twitter @kirthikasrajan

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