One size onboarding does not fit all

Main illustration: Molly Mendoza

When it comes to guiding customers to success, a one-size-fits-all approach just won’t work. Instead, try differentiating your onboarding to help all your customers master your product.

Before becoming a Customer Success advocate I spent 12 years as an educator, designing curriculums and making sure every student truly learned the subject matter.

One of the fundamental challenges of teaching is the fact that not every student learns in the same way or at the same pace. Some learn best by reading. Others prefer listening to a lecture or watching a demonstration. The kinesthetic doers rather than watchers, want to dive in and learn by doing it themselves. And regardless of style, sometimes it takes a little one-on-one tutoring to fully grasp a concept.

The basic idea is that the primary educational objectives – making sure all students master essential knowledge, concepts and skills – remain the same for every student, but teachers may use different instructional methods to help students meet those expectations. This is a concept known as differentiation.

You should differentiate your user onboarding as well. Not only can you have different types of companies using your product (startups, SMBs, enterprises) that move at different speeds, you can also have differences in the individual users’ learning styles.

As in the classroom, your goal for onboarding is the same for every user: help them extract value from your product so they become satisfied, paying customers. Build differentiated support structures so onboarding can happen at different speeds and in different ways.

Teachers call them scaffolds, we call them docs

In a classroom setting, teachers provide students with scaffolds, or temporary support structures, to help them access challenging content and complete tasks they couldn’t otherwise. In software, scaffolding looks like great written documentation, how-to videos and best practice blog posts that hit on multiple learning styles.

Thinking about the organizational structure of your documents will pay off.

Spending a little extra time thinking about the organizational structure of your documents will pay off. Match them to the logic of your product will make them more user friendly. It’s the same reason scaffolding follows the contours of a building. At Intercom we’ve organized our documentation by the different jobs our customers use Intercom for.

This blog is also organized thematically. We regularly publish posts by members of our team in their areas of expertise. Our customers also get to tell their own stories of success with Intercom on our Customers Page. All of these are great examples of peer-to-peer learning – a research driven educational technique.

These self-serve resources are great because customers can go back to them as many times and as often as they want. They let you link out and provide more details to customers who contact you for help, while also acting as a resource for customers who would rather figure it out themselves. Everyone wins.

As a bonus, some of these structures, like best practice blog posts and videos, can also be used to market your product and position your company as a thought leader.

An old fashioned conversation

Teachers build time into their lessons to take student questions and hold discussions about high level concepts. It helps clear up confusion, contextualize theory, and engage students. These kinds of conversations stretch student understanding of content and concepts. It also lets teachers assess how well their students have grasped what they’re trying to teach them.

A great support conversation tool will always be a crucial
part of user onboarding

In the same way, a great support conversation tool will always be a crucial part of user onboarding and retaining more customers. A tool like the Intercom business messenger lets customers get answers to questions you didn’t anticipate in your docs or that they can’t answer independently. If you find the same questions are being asked over and over again, this is great feedback about the usability of your docs, your product, or both. Teachers adjust their lessons based on this type of informal assessment all the time. You should too.

At Intercom, our Customer Support team tags every conversation twice. One identifies the team responsible for that area of the product, and the other categorizes the type of conversation (confusion, bug, feature request, etc.). These tags help our product team iterate and plan our roadmap.

One-on-one and group tutoring

One-to-one teaching is the ultimate form of differentiation. That’s why teachers’ doors are open at lunch or after school for students who needed extra help. That’s why they build in time during lessons to check in and make sure students are understanding the material.

Individual demos can help new users get a head start in your product while also making personal connections. Customers who are not successfully using your product will eventually quit and take all that revenue with them. Identifying these customers and proactively reaching out to offer a demo will definitely be worth your time. Intercom can even help you automate this process using the data you’re tracking to proactively trigger demo offers to a targeted user segment.

For example, a project management tool might want to trigger an auto message offering a demo to users on their Pro plan who signed up more than 7 days ago, started at least one project, but haven’t used their super amazing reporting tool. Why? Because these users are not taking advantage of a very useful feature. This makes them less likely to see the value of the tool and more likely to churn.

Webinars are a great way to scale this personal onboarding approach. They allow one person to give a more personalized experience to a large number of customers at once. They’re great for customers who want to learn by watching a live demonstration and asking questions. They also support those who prefer to just listen.

Webinars and personal demos offer opportunities for your customers to connect with someone on your team or interact with other users of your product. Relationships like these build loyalty while they help customers get the answers they need to achieve success in your product.

Use data to customize your message schedule

Not every user needs every onboarding message. If you are talking to every user the same way, you’re likely over messaging many and annoying some. Or at least training them to ignore you. At the same time other users are left struggling to find answers or don’t discover valuable features. By tracking User Events and Attributes you can automate a message schedule that is tailored to each user.

If you’re not differentiating your messaging based on customer behavior, you probably find yourself having a lot of reactive conversations. You’re fielding support questions from people who are already struggling and frustrated.

A proactive, data-driven onboarding message schedule means you are talking to your customers based on their use of your app. Sometimes helping customers before they even realize they need it, and reducing your support load.

This “just enough, just in time” approach means you will send fewer messages to more of your users. The ones who do get a specific message are the ones whose behavior indicates they need it.

A little theory can go a long way

Educators know that differentiation is hard, but worth it. That does not mean all 150 students a teacher sees every day get an individually tailored lesson. Rather, the best teachers plan variety into their lessons so there are multiple points of access to the content throughout a unit and the curriculum.

In the world of software at scale, it doesn’t mean hand holding every new user through the onboarding process. Differentiated onboarding means strategically building a few structures that will help your users get the information they need, when they need it, in the way they understand it.

Intercom on Onboarding book (horizontal) (1)