The first ninety days of an engagement sets the tone for how the rest of that relationship develops. If first impressions are everything, then early mistakes can easily become unrecoverable.
It is generally accepted that over 70% of churn occurs because of the customer's first 90 days but the magnitude of the problem is rarely appreciated. Customer Onboarding, much like a person's Probationary Period in a new job, is a race against time to demonstrate success. If this "time to value" doesn't yield recognized results, it converts the client into a passive agent or, potentially, even a detractor for your brand. It also creates a scenario from which sales and services teams rarely recover: they will always be chasing the renewal, generating opportunities against the account, and ultimately, making the customer rightly feel "transacted against."
Conversely, time and energy spent on a thoughtful and valuable onboarding process is the fastest path to more revenue for a company. A "5% increase in customer retention produces more than 25% increase in profit," reveals a Harvard Business Review study from decades ago, and we now know that customer onboarding can reduce churn by over two-thirds, more than any other effort later in the client journey! So it remains perplexing why the onboarding process is so often trivialized into little more than training exercises by most product companies and services providers.
Effective and impactful customer onboarding does not focus on meaningless utilization metrics (such as logins or interactions), nor should a valuable client implementation rely upon completion of largely arbitrary project management milestones (such as configurations, customizations, and quality assurance through the deployment process). At Aeternium, we focus on business outcomes for customers and for onboarding, this comes down to a measured and methodical approach to ensuring customers receive timely, relevant, and valuable business results from their relationship over the first ninety days.
- First 30: Discovery
Customers are generally aware of your value proposition since, after all, your organization successfully sold them upon the promise of its potential. But even mature scaled companies with sales processes that embed solutions and success professionals as a part of the opportunity pursuit often misunderstand the customer's operational business drivers, because purchasing stakeholders and end-customers have different measures of success. Engaging in generous listening to learn about your new stakeholders' business needs, their challenges they are looking to overcome and the opportunities to succeed, will create an early vision of how to align on key performance indicators. The Onboarding must be calibrated to the conditions and circumstances of your clients. Do not make them feel like they are going through a one-size-fits-all "cookie-cutter" approach; ensure that your processes are built upon best practices but malleable. Exercises to undertake in the first 30 days include:
- Intake Questionnaires, to understand client stakeholder roles and responsibilities, other competing initiatives, and customer-specific timelines.
- Strategic Planning, or "kick off" meeting, to walk through and jointly-define an onboarding process that centralizes the client's business drivers.
- User Workshops, to better understand end-user needs and identify risks or issues that will need to be mitigated and addressed through onboarding.
Upon the conclusion of the Discovery phase, your company and your client should have a firm understanding of value drivers answering questions such as: how is work successfully executed, why has the client engaged your organization, and what is the measurable business result reflective of a successful partnership and, specifically, a well-run onboarding. Document this collaboratively in a Strategy Brief.
- Second 30: Design
Understand the impact of value drivers and map against the client priorities. Demonstrate that you have listened to the client's needs by outlining the steps for a successful onboarding, showcasing the major challenges raised by the client that need to be addressed. Focus extensively on a process that both incorporates client review and formalizes customer sign-off; both feedback and approval are essential for maintaining buy-in and accelerating forward motion. In particular, pay close attention to how people need to be set up for success, any programs or systems that both your team and the client team will use to remain tightly coordinated and synchronized, and any process considerations necessary to address gaps in knowledge, skills, or capabilities that might otherwise threaten the success of the onboarding.
Unique considerations for the client onboarding, such as customizations to your approach or configurations of your product, must be documented and approved by your client to ensure that they are in control of the process while benefiting from your company's maturity and experience in the delivery of your valuable and differentiated offerings. Outline this Action Plan, the steps, timelines, milestones, and dependencies in a Project Brief.
- Third 30: Deployment
Execute upon the action plan by demonstrating agility in your bias for action while also exhibiting a high degree of customer-centricity in how you manage your client relationship and solve unexpected problems. Keep your deployment metrically driven by using the key performance indicators that the client identified in discovery and you incorporated in your design phase. Focus on measurable business results that are being tracked to throughout your deployment process by addressing end-user needs, which are often grounded in a classic triumvirate of awareness, adoption, and action.
- Awareness is achieved by maximizing educational information about your product and service being onboarded, making it relatable and accessible.
- Adoption is not just about use through training, but actually making a person's time at work and life easier through your partnership.
- Action is represented through the conversion of the end-user into an evangelist for what your partnership can do for others in the client organization.
Ensuring that the deployment is conducted in an agile approach remains critical: team members should be receiving daily support on overcoming blockers, the client should be receiving regular updates on the onboarding's progress, and the key measures of success should remain at the heart of your effort's goals. Deployments often have unforeseen challenges, and addressing these with accountability and transparency will directly influence the customer's perception of you as their embedded partner, not just some transactional vendor.
Debriefing from an onboarding should be an opportunity to both celebrate and recognize this critical customer journey milestone and aligning on a go-forward plan. There will be future initiatives, improvements for subsequent onboardings or phases, and action items for the relationship. Forward momentum anchored on the client's business needs help maintain the relationship as a true partnership, and prepare the client for monthly health checks and quarterly businesses reviews that keep business outcomes centered on your work together and will ensure both you and your customer evolve together.
Why do Customers Churn?
There are three fundamental causes of customer cancellation or discontinuation of the business relationship, and all three of them have their origins in the first ninety days of a relationship that the above principles are designed to thwart through onboarding.
- Improper Solution. Products and services must have a timely application to a relevant underlying business problem that the customer needs addressed.
- Inconsistent Adoption. End-users must be integrated into the onboarding process to ensure they are well-educated and well-supported for their daily routine.
- Incomplete Value. Relationships must be grounded in clear alignment to well-defined measurable business results that are revisited and reviewed regularly.