best practices customer onboarding

This is going to sound familiar to many product managers. And founders. And product marketers, developers, and….

You spotted a market opportunity, figured out what your customers need, built your product, did some marketing or other promotion. Or, to put it more bluntly, you spent time, you spent money, and you spent a huge dose of blood, sweat, and tears. And—amazingly—you find that people are downloading your app or signing up for an account.

Woot! What a good feeling. But then you realize they’re trying it once and not coming back. Or your conversion rates are uncomfortably low. Now that feeling’s a sinking one. What’s going on?

It might be all about first impressions. And I don’t mean just the bling. Getting started—effecting change to entrenched habits or processes—often is the hardest part.

The first few interactions a customer has with an app or a cloud service—the onboarding experience—arguably make up the most important chance you have to win a customer’s buy-in and engagement. Onboarding profoundly influences a customer’s views of a service, and it can make or break an entire customer relationship.

The discipline of user experience design (UX) in software is focused on usability, affective and emotional aspects of the product, making certain desired user activities intuitive, and so on. Designing the onboarding experience is a big part of that. In-app cues, incentives such as gamification, and triggered emails are all major drivers of the onboarding flow.

Most of these best practices apply to both B2C and B2B contexts. But what happens when requirements for getting started go beyond a user’s interactions with an app? For B2B services like SparkPost that power real-world business processes or that integrate with other business systems, onboarding encompasses broader considerations than getting through a series of steps in the app.

At SparkPost’s recent Insight user conference, our own Clea Moore was joined by a panel of customers who discussed their experiences with onboarding in the enterprise context. These professionals shared their (sometimes hard-won) advice about how to hit the ground running when moving business processes to a cloud-based platform. The discussion was wide-ranging and delivered a lot of insight into how to make migrating to the cloud a reality.

Here are some of the take-aways:

  • The cloud allows the businesses to focus on their strategic differentiators rather than managing commodity infrastructure. On this, the panelists were whole-heartedly in agreement. Seth Weisfeld of Pinterest observed that “cloud infrastructure is a strategic choice for Pinterest. It allows us to focus on our real value in content and experience.” Jonathan To of fashion retailer Tobi agreed, “To be able to focus on our customers and their engagement rather than infrastructure is just so great and so important to our business.”
  • Scalability and elasticity are big wins from an technical operations perspective. Travis Wetherbee noted, “I don’t have to worry about adding IPs, adding boxes, adding drive space to deal with peak volumes or to store and bounces.” Jonathan To added, “We’re not a huge company. We’re trying to stay lean. The cloud is a major win for time to market.”
  • Specialized expertise—for example, SparkPost’s deliverability services team—makes a huge difference among cloud providers. For mission-critical processes, cloud providers have got to back their technology with hands-on account management and real operational and onboarding expertise. Seth Weisfeld described, “It’s really huge to be able to trust our provider on issues like deliverability. We couldn’t always rely on that in the past.” Travis Wetherbee concurred, “Beyond the pure technology evaluation, services like deliverability expertise was a big criterion in our decision-making.”
  • Planning ahead makes all the difference for minimizing the risks of unexpected impacts or disruption. That includes technical legwork—Travis Wetherbee called out making sure DNS changes and suppression lists were managed systematically—as well managing the transition from a business perspective. Jonathan To added that “Thinking about the data you want to store means looking ahead and making conscious choices—even if you can’t use it today.” Seth Weisfeld described the importance of looking at the migration as a process, not something that can be done in one fell swoop. His advice was to begin with small, less critical mail streams and then gradually ramp up to the most strategic pieces as the system is proved out.

Learning from customers always has been the most rewarding part of my job. And, of course, getting information about how people actually use technology to solve problems in the real world is essential to every software or cloud product marketer. So, I was really thrilled to hear what the professionals on this panel had to say about their experiences moving their email infrastructure to the cloud.

By the way, in the coming weeks, I’ll be discussing the role of implementation and services teams in the onboarding experience. What do you think it takes for successful onboarding in the enterprise? Let me know—I’d love to hear about your own real-world experiences.

—Brent
@brentsleeper

 

Like this post? Check out some other Insight 2015 session recaps:

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Every day when I pick up my kids from school, I ask them what they’ve learned that day. They proceed to tell me what they did—in class, after school, what they had for lunch, who they played with at recess. But getting them to articulate what they learned is a lot harder. So in the spirit of setting an example, I thought I’d report on what I learned this year as a product manager for SparkPost.

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First, let me back up: it’s been a year of remarkable change and growth for our company. We made the leap from our origins as an established, packaged software vendor to a software-as-a-service operation. We architected an entirely virtualized, cloud-based infrastructure. We built and launched our core SparkPost offering. We expanded upon that foundation to introduce the SparkPost Elite service with dedicated instances and service level agreements to suit the world’s most demanding senders. We built out a world-class operations, deliverability, and customer success team. And, we changed our brand from Message Systems to SparkPost to better reflect all of these changes.

But those are things that we did. What did we learn? Here are four lessons about doing business in the cloud that really hit home for me this year.

  • Offering a cloud service means more than engineering a technology stack. It requires a deep understanding of how customers actually integrate technology into their business processes. It also means publicly staking a claim with the right product/market fit and countering a new group of competitors. All in the open.
  • Another key lesson for us at SparkPost has been just how critically important it is to reduce friction throughout the customer lifecycle, from selling to onboarding to daily ease-of-use and support. In plain language: the cloud means we need, more than ever, to make it easy for customers do business with us. In our market of high-volume, high-value email, we want to make it drop-dead easy for legitimate senders, while freezing out spammers and phishers. Ultimately, dealing with the bad guys in the email world is where our rock-star compliance and deliverability teams give us a real competitive advantage. But as a product manager, I can assure you that it takes a lot attention to detail to get that balance just right.
  • The cloud changes everything, including the business model. If you’ve spent any time in the traditional software industry, you know how big, perpetual license deals are the name of the game. But there’s a reason why the business model for cloud businesses is called “software-as-a-service.” Services aren’t a one-and-done deal; instead, our accountants report recurring revenue as the primary metric for our shareholders. For customers, that’s good news: less up-front capital expenditures, more bite-sized spending, and a real incentive for the company—that’s us—to keep customers happy and earn that recurring revenue.
  • And this brings me to the thing I think about every day of the year. Of course I want to develop a product that has the most compelling features in the industry. Of course I want to see my product beat out competitors on the biggest deals. But the discipline that the recurring revenue model enforces on us means that customer retention (and that really means customer satisfaction) is simply crucial. To be frank, the same simplicity that makes the cloud so compelling also makes it pretty easy for a customer to switch to a new service provider. So, that means that I am always working to make SparkPost better-performing, easier to use, cost-effective, and a step ahead of my competitors in all the ways that matter to our customers, including email deliverability.

That last lesson is the most important thing any company needs to remember, and doing business in the cloud simply makes it all the more obvious. So, what I learned in 2015 (and will keep focused on for 2016) really is a reminder of what I and my colleagues have always believed: keeping our customers happy is the key to our success. It’s not the technology, and it’s not the marketing, or anything else except you. So a heart-felt thank you from all of us at SparkPost and from me personally. I’m looking forward to an awesome 2016.

—Irina, Cloud Queen 👸