Jun 17, 2022

Read Time 18 min

How to set baseline SaaS onboarding metrics


Onboarding sets the tone for a customer’s entire lifecycle. It is here, that the seeds of renewal are sown.

Every onboarding task, meeting, communication, and training must serve a single purpose—and that is to get the customer to realize value.

But how do you know if your onboarding tactics are working? How do you know if the targets you’ve set are overly ambitious or not big enough?

You don’t want your customers biting off more than they can chew. At the same time, your onboarding needs to be fairly intensive so that customers see early success, not only potential.

Striking a happy medium between challenging and realistic starts with you measuring the right things, inferring meaning from their output, and using that insight to inform your strategy. It requires a genuine understanding of your customer cohorts and their goals, perceptions, and needs.

To share how to choose, track, and act on effective onboarding metrics, ChurnZero Customer Success Enablement Team Lead Bree Pecci joined CSM Practice for a drill-down into customer-centric onboarding.

In her role, Bree lives and breathes measurement. She collaborates with CS leadership to create internal learning paths that align with ChurnZero’s CS philosophy, processes, and best practices. She also oversees onboarding and new hire training as well as ongoing education for the ChurnZero CS team.

Tune into the conversation, view the episode highlights, or read the transcript below.

Episode highlights

1. Onboarding metrics serve two main purposes.

First, they identify early successes and potential risks for a specific customer. Second, they ensure efficacy and efficiency across the onboarding journey today and into the future.

2. Basing onboarding metrics on your internal operations can produce false positives.

Track metrics that represent the customer’s actual progress versus your internal tasks. Your team could hit all their deadlines and your customer may still not realize ROI.

3. Customer Success teams overlook the most important onboarding factor.

Most teams do a good job at tracking early platform usage and commitment. But they miss the key ingredient to onboarding success: value. Ask yourself if the customer is using the tool in the way they intended when they purchased it? And are they realizing value from that usage?

 4. Commitment, engagement, and impact matter most.

The most important metrics to track include customer commitment to the platform (spending time in the app and exploring its full breadth), customer engagement with your team (interacting with the CSM for high-touch models and with support and resources for low-touch models), and impact on business outcomes and time to value.

5. Customer cohorts set your metric baselines.

Compare your customer’s time in app against customers in similar onboarding journeys (past and present). Is the customer an early adopter, a lagger, or right on track? Identify early usage patterns among your most successful customers; identify features that bring early success. Determine if the customer is meeting those thresholds and using those features. Identify early usage patterns of customers who have churned. Evaluate if the customer is trending in that direction.

6. Product usage is only a piece of the puzzle for adoption.

To dig deeper into app usage, look at the features used and the value derived from those features. Track your customers’ reason for purchase. Are they using features that align with the value they seek? Does it provide ROI? Focus on the value gained from the action. Log success stories when a customer achieves the value. Create an action plan/agenda item for your next meeting when they miss the mark. Factor both into the overall onboarding health of a customer.

7. Engagement goes beyond product logins.

Engagement expectations differ depending on your business model. But some of the most common metrics you want to track include CSM engagement (meetings, emails), support tickets (volume, frequency, topics), and resources (engagement with help guides, courses, videos, etc.).

8. The customer’s perception of success is everything.

An onboarding can look successful on paper, but if the customer doesn’t feel it was successful, then none of that matters. Ideally, their perception and the story your metrics tell align. A good CSM should proactively communicate achieved milestones and wins along the way. Use post-onboarding surveys (NPS, CES, CSAT) to confirm. Recognize and follow up on any individual customer’s concerns. Identify emerging trends to better refine your onboarding journey and remove bottlenecks.

9. Onboarding needs its own health score.

Customers in onboarding behave differently than tenured customers. They’re still learning, tweaking settings, and finding their groove using the product. Create a specific onboarding health score that accounts for these variances as well as the customer’s journey progress or lack thereof.

Note: this transcript has been lightly edited for readability and concision.

Irit: Hi everyone. Irit Eizips here from CSM Practice, the customer success strategy consulting firm. Today, I’m going to have a fabulous discussion about onboarding metrics with the one and only Bree Pecci from ChurnZero. If anybody should know anything about this topic, it’s her because what she does for ChurnZero is onboarding customers. Well, you’re not really onboarding customers, maybe you should tell them what you do.

Bree: I do customer success enablement for ChurnZero. It’s not necessarily doing all of the onboarding but putting a lot of the strategy and the metrics and the resources behind how we actually manage customers from onboarding to renewal and beyond.

Irit: Today, you’re not going to share everything, like all of your expertise and experience, but rather we’re going to focus on a very specific and very important topic within the onboarding phase which is how do we track that our customers are onboarding successfully, their health during onboarding, and what type of metrics do customer success organizations need to track when onboarding customers.

Irit: Bree, you talk to customer success leaders all the time being that you work at ChurnZero. You do enablement for onboarding for ChurnZero so you get a lot of exposure to what is going on in the industry. Have you seen a recent push in actually getting better at tracking onboarding metrics? If so, what are the main changes that you’ve seen in the market towards onboarding?

Bree: Onboarding metrics overall have become a hot topic. Over the last year even more, because it is known that onboarding sets the tone for a customer’s entire lifecycle. Customer retention, churn prevention, all of those efforts start at the very beginning. As soon as a customer signs a contract and onboarding kicks off, retention should be underway. To do that and to really manage this process well, you need strong metrics to track during that process. They’re going to be really important, I would say for two main reasons. One is to identify the successes and potential risks for a specific customer early on. We need it for that customer, but it’s also important because these metrics will inform the efficiency and efficacy of an onboarding process. It identifies those opportunities for optimization. Those two themes, every time I talk about a metric they’re going to come up. When we talk about each metric, how is it useful for an individual customer so that CSMs can drive adoption, drive retention, but also how is it useful for someone on the CS leadership team or the ops team when they design and refine the onboarding journey as a whole.

Irit: As you work with so many teams, what metrics have you seen predominantly being tracked as it pertains to customer onboarding process?

Bree: The key that I want to start out with here is that it’s really important to track customer progress as opposed to just your internal process. When I speak with customers, almost everyone already tracks their internal tasks and their progress—and yes of course, that is critical to the customer getting through this journey—but your internal team could be doing everything right and still not see those tangible results on the customer side.

Irit: You’re absolutely right. Most of the applications we have for onboarding are for how many hours did we spend onboarding, where we are with the project plan, are we meeting the SOW requirements. They’re really internal to what we need to achieve and how do we manage profitability in onboarding. Is that what you’re alluding to?

Bree: Exactly. It’s a common mistake to only look at that. That’s a part of the equation, but when we start to talk about meaningful onboarding metrics, there are really three important pillars and they’re on the customer side of things. It’s something like customer commitment to your solution, so things like spending time in your application, exploring the full capabilities. It’s customer engagement with your team. This varies between high- and low-touch models but it includes things like leveraging the CSM, utilizing self-service resources, and leaning on the support team. Then also, the most important one is the impact your solution has on the customer’s business outcomes. A lot of people overlook this in onboarding because they say, “Well, they’re just getting set up. It’s too soon.” But we need to start tracking it during onboarding and the time it takes to realize that impact is also very important.

Irit: So it’s time to first value and whether or not first value was delivered.

Bree: Definitely. I’d say about two-thirds of the teams I work with do a really good job of tracking some of the customer commitment and customer engagement things I talked about. But they don’t take it to that next level: the time to value. Is your customer using the tool in the way they intended to when they purchased it? But not only that are they seeing the results and the value from that usage? We need to look at that time to value but also confirm that it matches the intent there.

Irit: You’re breaking it out into two categories. One, it’s the usage of the solution The other one is the level of engagement but also are they engaged towards reaching their outcome. Maybe we can dive into those two categories, and you can break them down for me a little bit.

Bree: Let’s start with the usage piece because there are a lot of powerful indicators there. When we look at usage during onboarding, we need to look at both the general usage and then usage related to customer-specific goals. We do a lot of this tracking in ChurnZero and we use our own application to do that. I actually have a sample dashboard here that I’m going to use as I talk about some of these metrics so you can get a sense for some of the visuals and layout options. This dashboard has a lot of key onboarding metrics. When we look at in-app behavior, I want to point out is that the best metrics are going to be those based on your actual data. Something here that you can see is our time in app. We want to make sure that customers are spending time in the app. We’re looking at at least five hours a week. But you can’t just pick a number and say if my customer spends five hours a week in my app that’s ideal. You need to have informed metrics. So, look at the full cohort and that history. Compare a customer’s time in app and set that threshold compared to customers in the same onboarding journey both past and present. Now when we have an informed metric, an informed threshold of at least five hours a week, we can see where this customer is compared to similar customers. We know if they’re a super adopter, a lagger, or right on track.

Irit: I see a bunch of names and some of these names have a much higher usage. Is this dashboard for a specific customer?

Bree: This is a holistic view. This would be something that an operations team or an onboarding manager or even a chief customer officer could look at. What this is showing is a group of all of the accounts in onboarding. We’ve got 68 customers in onboarding right now. Then, it’s also very helpful to see how many each of our reps has.

Irit: Are these are your customer success managers or sales reps or onboarding managers?

Bree: These are our onboarding specialists. We’re breaking these out here so that we can see different loads. Now, we definitely know contextually that we’ve got some people who are just finishing up a lot of implementations and waiting on the next sales cycle, maybe someone like Brian. We also know that our more tenured team member over here who does some of our more self-service onboardings is going to have a lot more. This is going to be a great way to see people’s load and make sure we’re actually assigning onboarding correctly.

Irit: This is more on the inside view. You have though a couple of graphs here that are very much related to usage that you talked about before. Those two are really interesting. The first one is the feature adoption for business goal. It’s not only did they adopt X number of features, but actually did they adopt the features related to the business goals that they convey to you.

Bree: Exactly. When we talk about specific feature usage, I always recommend two layers to that. Like you said, overall feature usage and completion but then taking it to that business goal. That is so important. A customer can look wonderful down here because they have done the admin account setup, they’ve configured everything, they’ve used your feature and sent an email campaign first if you’re an email provider. The important things to look at here once again are of course data based. What do your successful customers do in their first month? Let’s set that threshold. Same thing with usage patterns among the unsuccessful customers or churned customers. What did their early usage look like? They were spending perhaps less than five hours a week in the app. Perhaps they got access and did not log in right away. We’re able to really look at these and identify some of those general trends that we know may trend toward unsuccessful launch or churn.

But like I said, you still at the end of the day need to look at these business outcomes. You need to track reason for purchase and do goal setting upfront to determine is the customer using the features that align with the value they’re looking for. We’re able to then track how each customer is progressing. A very big thing here is not just when we think about on-track and off-track, not just are they using that feature, but do they actually get value? It’s not just the action, it’s the value gained from the action. For example, I’m an email provider, and a customer’s feature usage might look positive because they were hoping to extend their outreach. They’re sending 10,000 emails a week in their first couple of weeks. But if I dig in and I see that their click rates or open rates are poor, ultimately that customer is realizing pretty little value from the product. It’s critical to look at the full picture. We should be logging these success stories and business goals and visualizing them so that we can report on and communicate the need or value for this customer.

Irit: You talk about logging success. Can you expand on that? How is that related to tracking usage?

Bree: There’s an opportunity for a little bit of automation in here as well at ChurnZero. For instance, we have a series of alerts as well as customer-based achievements that we track. It is all automated. We look for different successes achieved. In the case of an email provider, if they launched a campaign and then had over X percent open rate, we can then track that and fire an alert or complete an achievement for this customer which can automatically notify your team. We can use that to then determine if this was a successful action—a successful use of this feature—or if it was unsuccessful. Then, we can use that opportunity to show actually we’re a little off track here. Again, you can use that individually with the customer in a coaching session. Leadership can also use that to think about how do we provide more coaching upfront so that people don’t hit this silo, and they’re successful off the bat. A lot of what we’re seeing here is not only for the specific customer, but to make sure that we’re optimizing everything across the journey.

Irit: Bree, you also mentioned another category. We’ve talked about the usage category. What was the other category of metrics for onboarding that you definitely recommend those who manage the onboarding phase to track?

Bree: That would be engagement. Engagement and the customer’s willingness and excitement to engage with you and your solution at the beginning of their term is critical. I have another sample dashboard generated through ChurnZero here. It’s going to look similar, but we’re looking at a couple of extra metrics now, specifically around engagement. I want to call out here that I know engagement looks very different from company to company during onboarding. Even within a company, different segments of customers certainly have different expectations for engagement depending on tier or product. But engagement should be measured whether you are on the highest of high-touch models or the lowest of low touch. It’s just that the things you are tracking are going to be a little bit different.

Irit: The main change from the other dashboard is that portion right in the middle with the widgets.

Bree: Exactly. I’m going to dig into all of these because they represent some of our really big pillars here. They’re things that every team can really track, if not track their equivalent. One is going to be CSM engagement. For the individual customer, it’s very important to make sure we’re tracking their commitment to you and your solution. Engagement levels are typically some of the highest at onboarding across the board. They are excited. They need your expertise, so if they’re not engaging with you right off the bat at the cadence you have set, that’s going to be a red flag. This is absolutely something that your team needs to be focusing on, and perhaps an individual CSM needs to get involved with. When we start to track CSM engagement, we can definitely look at the full picture and determine which interactions are very meaningful versus what might be repetitive. How many customers do we have that are foregoing a certain call throughout the process? Is there a better use of time and a better way to share resources? Support is a big one as well. This applies to people no matter their type of model when it comes to onboarding. Unhealthy support engagement here, it sounds vague but really that’s because it’s a bit of a compilation of a few factors. It’s looking at support tickets and it’s looking at volume.

Irit: So, how many support tickets times how many per week.

Bree: Yep, we are definitely looking at the volume of tickets on a weekly basis; how many tickets are they submitting? We also look at this in a 30-day period. Now, there is going to be a certain level of support engagement that is healthy.

Irit: How do you come up with a benchmark? How do you decide what’s healthy and what’s not?

Bree: It’s very data based. There’s a lot of analysis that goes into this, whether that be around excel. Through dashboards, we can actually put out an entire spread of customers in onboarding journeys and how many tickets are average. So again, you don’t want to pick something at random. We need to be informed. I will say that while the numbers vary between everyone I work with, what’s consistent is that zero tickets is typically negative. If they’re not asking the questions, that is still a red flag. But above a certain threshold, let’s say 10 in 30 days, more than 10 tickets in 30 days is a sign that your admin doesn’t have enough early knowledge or comfort with the platform. A lot of times, if you’re working with the admin on setup and rollout, how can we expect that admin to then train their team in champion usage if they themselves can’t work through the basics. When we talk about unhealthy engagement, it’s on both sides of the coin: underutilization of support and overutilization. Your threshold should be found within your data.

Irit: You’re looking at support and technical issue engagements. You’re looking at if they’re engaged with the CSM, assuming that they’re a strategic customer. The third one is, are they taking the training? Are they taking the time to learn the solution?

Bree: For this example, we’re talking about training. A lot of people have learning management systems with training modules and they track course completion there. That’s a great option. I certainly want to make sure that most of my customers are getting through that. We’re able to track are they learning what they need to learn or are they missing key content. Are they now missing items and tips and tricks that they should know at this point in time? On this front though, there are a lot of things that can go into resource engagement. So yes, training courses are a big part of that but it could be knowledge base engagement with your help guides; this could be overall whitepaper downloads on how to best set up your system. Even if you don’t have these formalized training courses that you track, you should still be tracking those resources, especially anything that is self-service. Make sure that every customer is getting this content. If someone’s consistently missing content or if half of your customers are not completing trainings or not hitting this article, what is that barrier? There’s got to be a barrier here. Now again, taking something to evolve a process is identify those barriers and improve accessibility and distribution.

Irit: One would say that during onboarding, as part of the engagement, we want to know if the engagement itself was valuable to the customer. Because we do want to add massive value, not just from our solution, but from our own partnership with the vendor. What do you think about that?

Bree: That is by far something that we need to put into account. The customer’s perception is really critical here. I could have a customer on this dashboard that looks perfect on paper, but if the customer doesn’t feel it was successful or valuable, then none of that really matters. Ideally, in a perfect world when this is set up right, both the metrics and the customer’s perception of their onboarding experience is going to match, good or bad. Also, a good CS team is really proactively communicating milestones, acknowledging issues, and celebrating wins along the way. These should be very in sync. There should be an open feedback loop. But we always need to confirm that these measures match. Whether that be for meetings or for something like, we’ve completed onboarding let’s measure satisfaction overall, we do need to get the customer’s opinion. In the name of automation, in the name of streamlining things, in the name of making sure that everything is as efficient as possible, I recommend automated surveys throughout onboarding.

Irit: Let’s talk about that because I have a lot of customers that ask me what are best practices for surveys. Should we send out the survey at the end of onboarding? If my onboarding is taking a really long time, should I also survey them in the middle of onboarding? What do you think about that?

Bree: I’ve got a lot of thoughts on that. Like you said, it definitely does matter how long your onboarding process is. If you know for a fact that your customers are all getting done in 30 days, it is a 30-day process and then they go live, that is definitely a use case for an end of onboarding survey. You could send NPS; that’s a common one. I would say in onboarding too, even more common is customer satisfaction score (CSAT). So, how satisfied were you with this process? Even a customer effort score (CES), how difficult was this or how easy was this? How much work was it on your end? Always getting those measurements at the end of onboarding.

Now, take ChurnZero for instance, there’s a lot of data setup, workflow setup. Then, you do your configuration. It’s not just 30 days. There are key phases; we have key milestones within an onboarding. We’ve got technical implementation; we’ve got our tool and workflow configuration; we’ve got our training and go-live. There should then be a survey at each point. I would almost recommend three surveys. There’s one for technical implementation, one for how did you feel we supported you throughout your own setup, and then one for your go-live; how did everything go? It will always be important though to avoid over-surveying.

Irit: That’s what I wanted to ask you. Hot damn. Three surveys in one onboarding phase. Let’s suppose we did that. How do you recommend avoiding survey fatigue? Do you ask like one or two questions and that’s it. Because we know companies love having like 40 questions in each survey.

Bree: When we do onboarding surveys, and in most surveys, I feel very strongly that they should be short and sweet. Give me your answer, say it’s your NPS, and then give me the comment: why? Let’s ask you why you gave that score. It’s very short and sweet. What I will say is that it should always be milestone-based. You completed part one. We present in our onboarding experience, that yes you’re in onboarding for this length of time, but you’ve actually got distinct phases. It’s all about framing. You definitely want to make sure you are framing a phase for the customer and they are aware of when they complete one aspect and move on to another

Irit: Now you have all these touch points. You automate them with the survey. You get the results which feed the engagement score and the satisfaction score and the value score that the customer might have as a perceived notion around your onboarding phase. It all accumulates into very important metrics that we all should track for customer onboarding.

Bree: Now you’ve got that full picture. You’re able to see how they’re using the tool. You’re able to see if they’re meeting success thresholds and if they’re realizing value and actually getting to their goals. You’re able to see if they are engaged and satisfied. This is going to definitely give you that picture. Course correct during onboarding and also ensure you know how to help them once onboarding has been wrapped up.

Irit: It sounds like a lot of metrics. How do you centralize all of that? Do you put it in an onboarding health score? What do you do with it? Because it’s a lot of metrics.

Bree: It is a lot of metrics, and the best way to do this is going to be through a customer journey and a customer health score. The customer journey though, this is something we do in ChurnZero, and I’ll actually show you what a a journey looks like within ChurnZero. Here is an example of a journey. I know it looks like a lot of steps but this is your whole map of the customer lifecycle. You’ll notice it’s broken out into milestones. This is something I mentioned. We need these milestones that then underneath of that have all of the to-dos. Something I want to point out is we talked a lot about in the beginning about internal process versus customer progress. We break out all the tasks and assign those to our team members but then also these super important customer progress achievements. These are those achievements where they’re completing certain things. Even beyond this, we can expand upon this user setup and training and start to look at those really important usage metrics and features that they need to be adopting.

Irit: Essentially, you’re highlighting the value moments in the customer journey as well as the internal steps that we need to take in order to help them achieve them.

Bree: Exactly. This is your holistic view. Now, I can easily benchmark customer onboardings and identify people who potentially are deviating from the prescribed plan for success. We’ve got this awesome Gantt chart that tells me when everything’s due and when a customer begins to fall behind. This is my view for an individual account, but we’ve got a really big aggregate-level view we can look at. That’s where you’re going to be able to catch bottlenecks and snags and improve time to value for future customers. Definitely eliminate those barriers and use your data to figure out the correct flow and the correct timing.

Irit: Do you recommend having an onboarding health score and then change that health score’s criteria and factors once go-live is complete?

Bree: Yes. I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a specific health score for customers in onboarding. Customers in onboarding are not doing the same things as your live customers. They’re just not. Their usage is going to look very different, and there are specific things that we know must be done that we need to track and incorporate. With the onboarding health score, you must have things like their progress: are they on-track? What’s their time to completion look like? Of course, those are general. But then digging into everything we just talked about, everything you saw on that dashboard needs to be in your health score because that’s going to give you that really good roll-up metric in one unified place. It’s really great to dig into the individual aspects when we’re trying to get a customer back on track or when we’re trying to refine our journey. But when we just need to look at the aggregate metric here and see a summary of how this customer is doing, you need that onboarding health score that reflects this journey we’re looking at and that reflects the early indicators of customer product usage, the customer engagement with your team and resources, and most importantly and most heavily weighted, the value the customer has realized or is on track to realizing based on their goals.

For more tips on how to step up your onboarding experience, check out our guide, “How to crush SaaS customer onboarding.” It features a roundup of expert advice from CS leaders on topics like how to segment customers for onboarding, how to avoid overloading customers, and how to manage post-onboarding outreach.


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