You know when you heat your food in the microwave and it sounds like the world is ending, but then when you frantically stop it and open the door, you find a hot plate and cold food? That's how I feel about businesses that overhype their product or service and then fail to deliver that "wow" experience that they'd sold me on. It's a letdown—and it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
Businesses spend a lot of time, effort, and money trying to acquire new customers. So it's only right that we put just as many resources toward making sure that our customer onboarding and fulfillment processes live up to the marketing and sales hype.
In most industries, companies tend to follow the same template when it comes to onboarding their customers. This is a massive missed opportunity: differentiating your onboarding experience from your competitors can increase the perceived value you offer, which can lead to increased loyalty and better retention rates. Here's what I learned through some trial and error about how to differentiate your onboarding experience.
Read more about why client onboarding may be blocking business growth—and how to unblock it.
Start by knowing your customers
Customer onboarding is the process of welcoming new visitors to your business in a way that educates them about the value you'll provide. It reassures them that they made the right decision by choosing you and sets the tone for what it'll be like to work with you.
The best way to differentiate your customer onboarding process is to cater it to your customers. And to do that, you need to know your customers. Here are the main things to focus on.
Understand the customer journey
This isn't just about creating a generic persona. It's about doing the work to uncover who they are, what their frustrations are, and where your business fits in as a solution.
This customer research phase will help you map out the buyer journey, so you know where in their journey they are when they find you. When you know where you're meeting your customers, it's easier to plan out the next steps that will eventually help them get to where they want to be. Those next steps, of course, are your onboarding.
Understand your customers' goals
Each customer has a goal they want to achieve by using your product or service, and the goals may be different across different customer segments. Keep that in mind because your onboarding will need to convince your customers that you're solving for their goal.
I used to run a nail bar, and we had people coming in for all different reasons. Some wanted to make a bold statement with their nails—a kind of artistic expression. Other people wanted something subtler. But the end goal was always related to how their hands and nails made them feel about themselves. Our customers wanted to look and feel good, and remembering this helped us stay in the right lane during onboarding.
Understand what a good experience looks like
This step isn't about whether the customer achieved their desired outcome; it's about the experience that led them to that outcome. Yes, my customers wanted beautifully groomed hands and nails (the outcome), but this grooming was part of their self-care routine, and the environment mattered. They wanted to be pampered: to feel calm and stress-free.
Of course, a good experience may be subjective, but you can't leave it to chance. Do your research to understand what your customers would consider a good experience, and it'll be easier to prioritize what activities will contribute to a positive onboarding experience.
Similarly: make sure you know what your customers don't want. We asked new customers who had switched from competitors what they didn't like about what the competitors were doing. And we also asked difficult questions to customers who stopped coming to us to determine what they didn't like about what we were doing. Often, the answers were things we could easily address in our onboarding.
Moving toward a differentiated onboarding process
The insights from your customer research will help you identify any points of friction and possible opportunities to improve your current customer onboarding process. But having a good onboarding process is very different from having a memorable one.
If everybody's doing the same thing, then there's nothing for your customers to write home about. That's why you need to give people something memorable. Not only will it help you win raving fans, but it'll also get you the referrals that come with them.
Here's how to get started.
Map out and review your current onboarding process
Mapping always helped me see the visual structure of my processes and made problematic areas become clearer. Below is a simple diagram showing what my onboarding looked like.
This was the industry norm. You went anywhere, and this is likely how your experience would be. Clients would either call in to book with a client rep or send a DM/text. There would sometimes be back-and-forth communication or calendar ping-pong while looking for available dates. Customers would experience holds while we confirmed schedules, and if there was no space, we'd put them on a waiting list. All this fuss just to book an appointment.
Not once did I think to examine my process until I tried to make a booking for myself and realized just how tedious and frustrating it was. This wasn't by any stretch of the imagination contributing to the calming, relaxing, or stress-free experience our customers expected.
Solicit feedback from your customers about your current process
Once I realized there were big areas for improvement, we surveyed customers about our current onboarding process. Instead of asking them what they wanted, we asked what they didn't like about the existing experience.
Our survey was filled with frustrations, and we saw them as opportunities.
Make your process different...
Based on the feedback, we used what-if analysis to test different scenarios. And what we came up with was that we needed to give the power back to customers by allowing them to be in charge of the booking process—a fully self-service option.
But it wasn't just about letting people book—we also wanted some special touches. For example:
We sent personalized emails with a standard video welcome from the team. The video was a huge hit—customers couldn't stop talking about it. Why? Because we were doing something that nobody else was doing. (You could use an app like Bonjoro to take it up a notch and send everyone a video personalized to them.)
We requested client information that would help us prepare for their appointment ahead of time. That way, when they arrived, we knew who they were and what they wanted, and they could just sit back and relax.
We sent new clients reviews and pictures from our portfolio to reassure them that they would be in good hands.
We sent them the list of payment options we accepted and gave them the choice to pay ahead of time or at the appointment.
...but not too different
None of this was revolutionary—and that's good because it means people felt comfortable with the process. It was just enough to take the stress out of the process and connect with new clients enough so they'd feel compelled to let us know if they couldn't make it (and ideally, rebook).
It's important not to complicate the process and overwhelm clients. If a customer can be fully onboarded in one simple step, then leave it at one step. If a customer feels confused or like they're jumping through hoops, that's a big barrier to entry. Don't make your life easier at your customers' expense. Give them the information they need when they need it—and nothing more.
Test the new onboarding experience
We didn't want to just assume the process would work perfectly, so we selected a small number of customers to try it out on. I recommend rolling it out to a small group like this first, so you can work out any issues and make sure that there aren't any edge cases you missed or technical issues that slipped through the cracks.
Measure your success
Once we rolled out the new onboarding experience in full, we added a survey that would automatically be sent out after their service, which allowed us to continuously improve how we onboarded and served our customers. In addition to this more open-ended feedback, there are also a couple specific ways you can measure your success:
Net Promoter Score (NPS). When your NPS is high, you have a healthy relationship with customers who are likely to act as evangelists for the brand, fuel word of mouth, and generate a positive growth cycle.
Retention rate. Your retention rate helps you understand if your processes are keeping customers happy. Some customers will churn for reasons beyond your control, but your onboarding process is a key factor in keeping customers happy and loyal. Make sure to check your industry standards for retention to be sure you're on track.
The benefits of differentiating your onboarding
The onboarding period is an excellent time to get to know your customers and why they chose you. Not only does this help you serve them better, but it also helps you better understand how to market your business. It's also your chance to show that the value you marketed to them is real. It shows that you're living up to your brand promise: hot plate, hot food. Do this consistently, and you won't have to tell your customers that you're different—they'll be telling everyone else for you.