Jonathan DeVore

By: Jonathan DeVore on July 9th, 2015

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My 3 Rules for Onboarding Customers to a SaaS Product


I'm not aware of any commandments, requirements, or laws for onboarding customers to a software platform - but I do have 3 rules that I try to live by:

  1. Find out what a user wants to do
  2. Motivate them to action
  3. Give them a map that shows them how to get wherever they want to be

Why live by those rules? Well, during the onboarding phase, it's really important that your customers experience "wins" early on. If you know what they want to do, it's easy to motivate and provide a specific map. If you don't know what they want, you end up overwhelming customers with too much information.


1) What does a user want to do?


Three weeks ago, I signed up for a trial of SubHub - a cool SaaS for creating a membership website.

The reason I signed up - I was evaluating options for a friend who wants to create a membership product, but doesn't know much about putting a membership website together (neither do I - but I offered to help out).

During my evaluation, what do you think I wanted to do? Was I ready to learn everything there is to know about SubHub? Did I have all of my content ready to upload to SubHub and start selling products?

Nope - I just wanted to get an idea of what the membership site would look like, and get an idea of what the workflow would be like for creating (and sharing) a paid course. If I boiled it down, I really only wanted to accomplish two things:

  1. Create a cool looking site, and
  2. Create one course.

If I could have done those, I would have experienced a "win" right away. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to do either of those very easily. That doesn't mean SubHub is a bad SaaS - it just means that being a noob, I struggled a bit without a specific onboarding guide.

How can you apply this?

Maybe you don't want to onboard prospects going through a trial of your software - maybe you want to onboard paying customers. Does anything really change?

Not really.

Simply ask your customers what they want to do. You'll be tempted to show them everything about your product - you may even call the session a "guided tour." The problem is that your customer doesn't experience any "wins" with a tour, and they're still not sure how to do anything.

Instead of a "guided tour," make your onboarding session very specific to accomplishing only what your customers want to do. 



2) Motivate them to action

Documentation, videos, and demos can seem daunting to get through - so you'll probably need to motivate your customer or prospect just a little bit to help them get through the onboarding process.

There are at least two ways you can do this:

  1. Shrink the change
  2. Show the end result

After you find out what your customer wants to do, see if there's a way to do some of the work for them (or make it seem like it's not that difficult). This works when I'm helping my 5-year old clean her room. At first, the task seems overwhelming - but then, I pick up a few of the princess dresses for her, and all of a sudden cleaning her room seems more feasible and she gets to work.

That's called, "shrinking the change," and it works really well for SaaS products. Think of those services that ask you for an API key, and all of a sudden everything is up and working like magic - all of a sudden numbers are popping up, emails are coming in, and dashboards are showing data.

That's really motivating.

Another option is to show an example of what the end result might look like. Pinterest is really good at this - my wife and her friends are constantly trying new recipes, fashion, crafts, decorations, and hair styles based on what the end  result might look like.

With our SaaS product, we set up an example knowledge base in every account so prospects get an idea of what their knowledge base might look like. We also show examples of what others have built.

Think of how you can shrink the change, or show your user what their efforts might create.

3) Give them a map with just enough information

You know what your customers want to do, they're motivated to give it a try, now the question is - "How much information should I give them?"

Barely enough.

Think about how you prefer receiving directions to a new location while driving your car. If you ask your friend, "How do we get to the Harry Potter Party tonight?" Which response is more helpful?

Response A

  • Take a left on Beatties Ford
  • Then drive for about 2 miles
  • Take a right on Mount Holly
  • Go down to the Wal-Mart
  • Get on the 85 South
  • Get off on exit 40
  • Take a left at the light
  • Take a right on Plymouth
  • Take a left on Anchor
  • The house is fourth on the left

Response B

  • Take a left on Beatties Ford
  • Drive for about two miles

Response A has a lot of information in it, but if the territory is new, everything after the first two or three bullets is going to be forgotten - not very helpful (in fact, it's really frustrating to have a navigator who rattles off instructions like this). So, you stop your friend mid-sentence and request that only the  information for the next turn be given. After you make the turn, they can give you the next step.

That's an example of the principle - too much information isn't helpful.

In your onboarding guide, try to limit your instructions to explain only what your users want to do. If your prospect just wants to send out a test email campaign to see what it looks like, make an onboarding guide that walks them through only those steps.

If your user only wants to send out a purchase order... well, you get the idea.

"My onboarding is more complex than that"

Have you been to an onboarding session where the trainer unloaded everything? It wasn't that helpful.

What if, instead, the trainer took a poll, asking the class what they wanted to be able to do after the onboarding was completed? And then, the trainer gave out maps that showed everybody how to do only those tasks?

Everybody would experience quick wins, feel more confident, and actually know how to do something.

Onboarding users to complex software solutions can be tricky because you want to share everything there is to know - the expectation is that if it's in a slide or it comes out of your mouth, it's understood and retained. Well, it's not. What you have to remember is that there will be other training, teaching, and support opportunities down the road.

Think of onboarding as a phase. The first phase. And during this first phase, the main goal is to help a user be successful early on. 

How are you doing?


For a while, we thought we knew what our prospects wanted to do. But after making hundreds of phone calls and sending out thousands of emails, we discovered that when somebody signs up for a ScreenSteps trial, they're evaluating it so they can show it to their team.

So, we've been making a lot of tweaks to our onboarding guides, email campaigns, and user interface to help new prospects experience quick wins, doing what they want to do. It's not perfect yet, but it's moving in the direction of helping our prospects and customers see success early on.

How about you? What do your prospects and new customers want to do? Are you motivating them to begin, and then helping them do it?

About Jonathan DeVore

Customer Success