May 18, 2017

Read Time 7 min

The importance of defining your users’ onboarding story, tips to up your QBR game, how to hire a proactive CSM


Stellar product adoption is the holy grail for Customer Success teams. We are constantly strategizing how we can get more users to use the product more and get more value so the customer will want to buy more users and/or modules – we always want more, more, more. In fact, in the State of Customer Success and Trends for 2017 survey by UserIQ, the number one goal for CS teams this year was to “increase product or feature adoption.”

This intense focus makes perfect sense from a business perspective; when you have high user adoption, so many other pieces of the customer acquisition and retention puzzle fall into place. Converting users at a higher rate drives down your cost of user acquisition, which in turn makes your marketing resources go even further. It also increases the likelihood that people stick around longer, driving up average lifetime value and letting you invest your product resources more strategically. So what’s the secret to getting there? You guessed it: it’s all about identifying the must-have experience that keeps people coming back and then making sure new users experience it. In other words, it’s about onboarding.

But as a recent thoughtful post by Samuel Hulick, founder of the forum UserOnBoard, explores, ensuring your new users get that experience is a responsibility put on onboarding, but onboarding itself is rarely designed to deliver it. Rather than relentlessly focusing on progressing the user to success, most onboarding workflows seem content to simply introduce the interface and then call it a day. In order for an onboarding experience to answer its higher calling, it has to go beyond moving people through a product tour. To do this, you need to have a strong story that drives your onboarding experience – and that story shouldn’t be about your user interface, it needs be about your user.

  • Setting the stage of successful onboarding: When you boil it down, onboarding is really all about changing people’s behavior. Your customers are frustrated with the way they’re currently doing something and are hoping your way of doing things is better. Onboarding strives to make that behavioral change a successful one for as many people as possible. Hulick offers a perfect metaphor: “Onboarding experiences, when working well, are less like instruction manuals for weight benches and more like personal trainers: they don’t stop at merely showing you how the equipment is used, they make sure you get all the way to attaining your fitness goals. So it goes for user onboarding: in order for it to be successful, it must ultimately engender success in others.” He emphasizes that before you start thinking about interface options (“should we do a intro video or a series of tooltips??”), you need to be extremely clear on what your users are trying to get away from and where they want you to take them. So how do you get there?
  • Determining why are people “hiring” your product: Hulick suggests beginning where your users begin: the situation they don’t want to be in anymore. Clayton Christensen, innovation expert and bestselling author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, calls this motivating situation the “Job to Be Done”. The essence of the concept is that products are acquired from a viewpoint very similar to a company opening up a position in their organization: recognizing that there’s a need to grow or adapt and addressing that need by making a “hire” to fix it. As Hulick explains, “Frustrating situations open up new ’employment’ opportunities and intimately familiarizing yourself with them helps make sure your user onboarding nails the ‘interview’. You can’t discover them through demographic research or behavioral data, however – in order to fully understand what drives your users, you have to go straight to the source with interviews.”
  • Who should be interviewed and when: Hulick recommends that, whenever possible, you should interview people who have just crossed the finish line to becoming highly-engaged users, or people who have just experienced “the switching moment”. Why is this timing important? If you’re approaching users before they’ve made the switch, you run the risk of interviewing a lot of people who won’t actually stick with your product. Approaching them too long afterward, though, means they’re likely to have already forgotten what drove them to change things up to begin with. As Hulick puts it, “People who have recently switched are proven customers but still have the emotional memory of the whole process readily available for recall, which is exactly what you’re looking for.”
  • Where does their story ACTUALLY begin: When conducting your interviews, try to keep the participants focused on their actual actions and feelings when making the switch. People are notoriously unreliable at predicting their future behavior and attitudes, so framing everything around what really happened (not what usually happens or could have happened) during their onboarding experience keeps your emerging story tethered to the realm of reality. Hulick suggests asking for specifics also helps transport people back into the actual moment, which brings up lots of super valuable accessory details: “Rather than asking them if they had an easy time with setup or not, get to specifics by asking which part was the trickiest, and deeply explore that moment. By way of a real-world example, while someone might not have a lot to add to ‘Are you a safe driver?’, asking them to specifically recall the last time they were pulled over would immediately thrust them into a story rich with emotional details.” Additionally, Hulick advises tracking every story’s breadcrumb trail as far back as you can get your interviewee to remember. The narratives that lead up to decisions can be surprisingly long – much longer than the surface would show. As he puts it, “If your user onboarding story was a movie, your product itself wouldn’t appear until long after the action was already underway (remember, the user is the star of this show, not you). Retracing their steps — especially the ones before your product comes into the picture — provides you with the context you need to kick the transition off right.”
  • What has to happen for the adoption to succeed: Now that the starting place is so well-explored, have your interviewee recount their steps forward all the way to the moment they became fully up and running with your product. Hulick points out that it’s very unlikely to have been a direct path, so encourage them to meander or head off on seemingly-unrelated tangents – many times, those provide the richest insights of the entire conversation: “Cataloging the external tedium involved in getting set up with your product not only provides you with plenty of low-hanging fruit for making the transition much easier for your new users, it also gives you a clearer picture of all the pressures they’re dealing with that surround the (probably rather small) time they actually spend inside your product.”
  • Who else has to be successful for the adoption to succeed: Hulick puts it pretty clearly: “While it’s crucial to understand what makes your ‘onboardee’ tick, there’s no need to stop there. People are social animals, and understanding an individual’s motivations often requires understanding the motivations of those that surround them. Nowhere is this truer than in the land of business software. Budgets need to be approved, technology needs to be reviewed, processes need to be changed and colleagues need to be trained. Understanding what motivates the budget-holders and technology-reviewers in your user’s life can help you ensure things get past all those surrounding parties as quickly and easily as possible.” Ask as many questions as possible about who applied pressure to the process and what pressures those people were dealing with themselves. Teeing your user up for success doesn’t – and shouldn’t – have to exist solely within the confines of your product’s interface.

Interested in more info on building a successful onboarding program? We recommend this read, this read and this read.

Customer Success Around the Web

  • Tips to up your QBR gameQuarterly Business Reviews (QBRs) are absolute table stakes for any Customer Success strategy. But what’s interesting about the QBR practice is the various ways that they are performed and what they may not include. This excellent post offers three tips to up your QBR game: SMART goals, research and follow-through. A great read for all CS teams who are looking to drive positive impact to their customers.
  • How to hire a proactive Customer Success ManagerMuch of the recent discussion in the Customer Success community has centered on transforming teams from reactive to proactive. Proactive work (building relationships, quarterly business reviews, uncovering opportunities) is the main reason for having a CS team in the first place. After all, most companies also have support or service teams who handle inbound questions from customers. If becoming more proactive is an initiative for your CS team, start by making sure your new hires are compatible with your vision. This interesting post offers five questions to ask to determine whether your next customer success candidate is proactive. A must-read for any teams that are actively hiring.
  • Why innovative companies invest in Customer SuccessInnovative companies face a unique challenge: if the customer fails at using the technology, the company is to blame. They’ll blame the innovator even if they only logged in once or never fully implemented the program or only used a fraction of the feature or used it for the wrong purpose. Without a longstanding reputation and proven track record, customers are likely to blame the innovators for the failure of the technology despite their own negligence in using it. This post discusses how Customer Success can mitigate the need for blame, making CS an critical investment for innovative companies. A quick but thoughtful read.

Word to the Wise

This week’s wisdom comes a recent post about the top 5 business strategies for increasing Customer Success. The entire read is worth your time but one bold statement really got us thinking this week:

No customer support is required if customer success is done 100% right. Customer Success is a professional function that maximizes the value customers receive from a product or service, and by extension, aids business success by maximizing the customer lifetime value to the business. Customer Support is still important, but it is a reactive function that covers a specific part of the customer life cycle – dealing with issues that arise primarily from product usage. Make no mistake, this is a critical function, but delivering outstanding support is not the same as delivering outstanding value. This is because customer value is a function of product usage and adoption and the overall customer experience, and great support is only a part, albeit an important one, of the overall equation.”


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