[Podcast] Who Owns Onboarding in Your SaaS?

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In this podcast episode, join special guest Emilia Korczyńska, Head of Marketing at Userpilot, and our host Claudiu Murariu, CEO and Co-Founder of InnerTrends, as they dive into Onboarding Processes Ownership.

Here’s what they talked about:

  • Who owns product onboarding: product managers, product marketers, or both?
  • What’s a healthy mix between product-led and sales-led onboarding?
  • What are the most important KPIs specific to the onboarding process?
  • What is contextual user onboarding and why does it outperform traditional, linear onboarding? 

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Who owns product onboarding (at Userpilot)?

[E]: We’re in a transitional phase where we still don’t have a separate product marketing function. So user onboarding sits at the intersection of a few revenue departments. It’s between product marketing, sales, and customer success. 

It makes it a bit tricky, having to align so many stakeholders on one goal, which is why for next year we will be building a separate product marketing department. But of course, it will be a handover process, which is a natural phase in the development of any company or startup. In the beginning, you simply don’t have enough work for the whole product marketing department, nor do you really have the resources to build one. So their responsibilities and competences are shared. 

Let’s say when we have a new product launch, we have a meeting with the product team to align on the rationale behind the new product launch, the value that its getting to the customer. 

Then we plan the whole go-to-market strategy. Marketing is responsible for the GTM. So essentially, creating release emails, informing our existing customer base about the updates. 

Then we liaise with the product team on building in-app onboarding flows, and once we’ve released that, we make sure that sales implement these changes and are able to convey the value of the new features to the new prospects. 

We also make sure that when the prospects are doing the free trial phase of the buyer’s journey, that sales helps them adopt these features if they have any questions. 

Customer Success then picks up where sales left off once you know the prospect has become a paying customer, and they help the customers further adopt these features. 

Again, this is more on a strategic level rather than a product level. So both sales and customer success help the customers understand how the feature they have been onboarded on by product and marketing can be used in their specific use case. 

This is why the super-personalized approach comes in.

For this year, we [Marketing and Product] only have one metric to focus on: Revenue.

So instead of us all having different metrics, we’re just looking at revenue. Marketing and Product look at Gross New MRR, Sales looks at Gross New MRR, and Customer Success is responsible for net, expansion revenue, retention, and churn.

[C]: When you talk with product managers or product marketers about onboarding, revenue is a metric that companies very rarely talk about. I love the fact that you currently have four departments – customer success, product managers, marketing and sales – and when you need to discuss onboarding, you all sit down at the same table. And now, you’re going to bring a fifth department or team to the table – a product marketer – not to replace the others, but to join the rest of the teams at the same table. 

[E]: Right, and they’ll take over some of the responsibilities which are maybe not given as much attention by the individual departments, because there is just not enough time in the day to do that.

From a vendor perspective, how many of your customers look at onboarding as revenue, and what are the metrics they’re looking for?

[E]: The reason why people are most likely not directly using onboarding as revenue is because there’s not a direct outcome of onboarding. There are a lot of other variables that come into play, right? 

That’s why revenue is a metric we all share and look at amongst the revenue team (we call ourselves a revenue team). And it’s the metric based on which we get our bonuses, because it doesn’t really matter how many MQLs marketing drives, for instance, if doesn’t add anything to the bottom line. 

But individually, within the separate departments or within sales, within marketing, we also look at the contributing metrics. 

So user activation would be the metric measured because it’s directly related to new user onboarding. 

And for secondary onboarding, the metric directly related would be feature adoption

Or if you zoom further out, it would be product adoption rate. So to what extent the product features are being adopted by different user segments, for instance. The onboarding flows in app can directly influence that.

[C]: What I see in many companies is that they have revenue as a main metric. They get their bonuses based on the revenue target. But a company member didn’t get their bonus this month, even though they did everything they could do to optimize activation . 

So they say it’s marketing’s fault for not sending enough leads, or question why they should be punished even though they did their job really well. They’re not getting their bonus, because some other departments may have failed to do their part, and they didn’t hit the revenue target. How does that work?

[E]: That’s why we’re looking at different aspects of revenue. 

So there’s the gross new MRR, for instance, which is the metric that marketing is responsible for. So these are the new customers. We don’t look at churn, we don’t look at retention, because this is not something we’re doing.

Coming back to the original question, Marketing and Sales are often responsible for new MRR, while the product marketing function, that’s building all of these onboarding flows and secondary onboarding experiences, would be closer to customer success in that they would be responsible for expansion, revenue, and retention.

The lower the churn, the higher their bonus would be. And this is something that you can directly influence with onboarding and Product Marketing.

What’s a healthy mix between sales-led and product-led onboarding?

[E]: As I mentioned before, people prefer to explore their products at their own pace, and they want to get instant answers when they get stuck. So you need to make sure that you have enough proactive onboarding – taking the user by the hand and showing them the features that are important only for their use case, and only to achieve the goal they wanted to achieve in the first month, let’s say, of using the product. Not all of the other secondary goals they may want to achieve in six or 12 months. 

And you also need to have reactive onboarding. So you need to really understand your user journey, and understand the shortcomings of your UX, and react to these kinds of places where the users are getting stuck. 

So as a product manager or product marketer, depending on who’s responsible for this on your team, you need to:

  • Watch a lot of session recordings that are segmented by the different user segments, different ICPs, different user personas that are signing up for your product;
  • Understand where people are getting stuck;
  • Plan for these reactive experiences, for instance, with tooltips so that people can get instant help without referring to a support person. 

This is important because everybody works in different time zones. People work from home. SaaS companies are getting customers from all over the world. It’s simply impossible to provide instant personal assistance like that. So it needs to be automated. 

If you think you are able to design a perfect user experience it’s delusional because in UX there will always be some places that are not self explanatory. 

I often get so frustrated about not having this information and therefore I need to write to support. 

That’s why I believe the ratio of self-serve, automated product-led onboarding, to sales-led, personalized onboarding, should be 80:20. 80 for automated, 20 for personalized support.

80% for automated – letting your users explore your product, but being there on standby and checking in with them regularly – say every few days, depending on the length of your trial – to see if they are doing well and monitoring their progress. 

And sales should be on standby to help with strategy. So things that are not product related, things that use-case related. This is very important to distinguish between the two. 

Most sales-led companies don’t think that they need any of the automated, in-app onboarding, because they are sales-led. And sales is not and should not be taking care of product-related issues. 

It’s a waste of human resources and it’s so expensive. And even big, successful companies often don’t see the distinction between helping the users achieve their goals that are specific to their company and to their use case. And that cannot be automated, versus tiny UX issues that can totally be automated, because they will be the same for say, all of the prospects on the same journey.

[C]: You mentioned that there are companies that are fully in the sales-led arena. But lately, and especially in the last two years, we’ve seen the growth of the product-led movement. I’m going to quote you here and agree that there are delusional people out there that think that everything can be fully product-led; that there is no need for human interference ever, of any kind. 

And I agree with you – I love the 80:20 Pareto law, it’s such a beautiful law that applies – and yet it’s the long tail that you always need to work with. You need to get into that area with human interaction because human interaction is a learning experience. If you are fully product-led and you don’t have sales people in the process, you can only understand what you see, but you can never understand what’s in the mind of the user. Talking to them is what gets you inside the mind of the user. 

Let’s say we have this ideal situation and you want to split the 80:20 – how do you select the 20% for the sales?

Do you select the 20% by the potential of paying higher packages? Or do you select the 20% by the ones that get stuck in the ugliest ways possible? Who do you want to talk with? What would you select?

[E]: I would say both. 

The first sorting criterion would be by their potential. So the lowest paying users, unfortunately, are not paying for this level of concierge human assistance. You need to view the sales-led approach as concierge, essentially helping with personal use cases and individual problems. So the higher the potential annual contract value (ACV) of a prospect, the more of the concierge services sales needs to provide. But it also needs to be smart, because people are not willing to, as I said, contact sales when they have a tiny UX issue. 

I ran into this problem with Clearbit, which is entirely sales-led. And they even refused to let people into the product before they had paid. And I think more and more high ACV enterprise customers will not be signing contracts with companies that are not showing them the product. 

It also depends on buyer sophistication. The less sophisticated the buyer, the more likely they will be to sign the contract without looking at the product. But if the buyer is very sophisticated, they’ll know exactly what they’re looking for.

So going back to your original question, ACV is the first criterion I would use, simply for business reasons. But then the second source should be inner behavior. You should observe what the prospects are doing inside your product during the trial. And this observation is not literal observation of them – it’s automated. You set up conversational bumpers. With Userpilot you use a tracking script to track what the users are doing in-app, and then sales can get a notification in HubSpot when the prospects have reached a certain stage. Either because they’re failing at getting activated, or because they are super active, and sales wants to work hard to make sure the prospect signs. 

[C]: There’s a hack I’ve read about and tried a couple of times where the CEO jumps into support calls with people that wouldn’t pay. He would do anything to give the user a great experience. 

When I learned about it, I initially wondered why he would do that. But then, when I started my own company, I tried it a couple of times. I went in and picked accounts of users who weren’t paying, and I’d choose them for different reasons. And I would offer them support that would otherwise cost a lot. 

It was almost like consultancy; I helped them by asking what their goal was, how they wanted to get there, showed them how to use the tool to get to their goal and how you can use other aspects around it. 

I say this is a hack only because if you do it a couple of times, it’s a learning experience. Yes, you will never get money out of it. But the learning experience of helping somebody and helping them see how much value they can get from talking to you is a learning experience can get you far. But only if you select them, not if they select you.

To select the accounts I was going to talk to I would usually look at their companies. I’d look at the company’s website to see if I loved what they were doing. They might’ve been a startup in its early stages, but if I liked their vision and where they were heading, I knew they were a good fit. I completely took money off of the table; I didn’t care about revenue at all, I cared about what their goal was and how they wanted to get there.

Let’s say they could use our tool forever, now let’s see how they get there. And I would learn the limits of my own platform – what my platform could and couldn’t do. 

With high paying users, you can’t really get into that. They’re not humble, they know what they like and know what they need. So it’s a learning experience that you can’t get from those accounts. 

But otherwise, sales should always be profitable; sales that’s not profitable will not hit the revenue metric, and the other departments won’t get their bonuses. And that’s why it’s about teamwork. That’s why I love Userpilot’s framework, because all of you gather around the same table and know that you depend on one another to hit the revenue, because it feels like it’s either all of you get bonuses for revenue, or none of you get bonuses for revenue.

How do you contextualize onboarding? And what’s the impact of doing it in a contextualized manner?

[E]: This is extremely difficult for us; Userpilot is a tool that allows you to build onboarding flows on top of any product that is a web app. So we don’t know what product that is when someone is signing up for the free trial from our website, we can only tell them how to build things, but we can’t tell them what to build, because we don’t know. 

This is something that product analytics – like InnerTrends – is trying to do to a large extent, and then give these prescriptive tips on what they should build. 

We have to compensate for that by giving more customer success resources to our prospects. So we’re hiring heavily for the customer success role, because we want our users to not only know how to build things in Userpilot, but also what to build. 

We produce a lot of educational resources. So for our prospects, we have free webinars covering all different topics, we also have these weekly Minimum Viable Onboarding webinars with customer success – they’re live, so people can ask questions during or after the webinars. If they’re currently in the trial, they get a lot of ideas for their onboarding flows. And then they can ask specific questions for their use cases. 

We’re publishing a ton of blog posts – in-depth guides covering all of the different facets of onboarding, product adoption, using surveys and user feedback to improve your product experience, etc. 

So we’re doing a lot to educate the market, but I also feel that the market is not entirely mature. But it’s improving already. We run this Rate of SaaS onboarding report every year. And every year, the adoption of the basic onboarding patterns and the proactive user onboarding is increasing. 

But I still don’t see the reactive and secondary onboarding increasing – so remembering the users that are already past their user activation stage. The larger sales-led companies still don’t think that this is important.

[C]: And especially for companies like Userpilot or InnerTrends, we see the same thing. We sell very powerful tools. In both of our cases, not only do we need to have tools that are very easy to use, but we also need to teach the buyer how to use the tool. 

I’m pretty sure there are a lot of marketing or user guiding experts out there, but the market is far from every company having one available. And that’s what the companies want. They don’t want to hire an expert for everything, so that’s why we go to these tools. But the job of our tools is to educate users on how they can become better experts without having expertise, and that’s very powerful. 

Final thoughts

  • Depending on how your organization is structured, onboarding is owned by a combination of product management, marketing, sales, and customer success. 
  • As people prefer to explore their products at their own pace, you need to make sure that you have proactive onboarding – showing them the features that are important for their use case. 
  • You also need to have reactive onboarding – for users that get stuck in your product, although they are already past their activation stage.
  • You improve the in-app guide experience by contextualizing it – via ML and product analytics
  • The ratio of self-serve, automated product-led onboarding, to the sales-led, personalized onboarding, should be 80:20

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