User Onboarding

What is "good" Customer Onboarding?

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How to start, scale and optimize you're customer onboarding program to drive long-term customer success!

Ramli John:
All right. Hey everybody. This is Ramli John, the host of the Product-Led Podcast. I am super excited to talk to Shareil. He is going to be talking about customer onboarding for Sprout Social. That's all he does right now. So we're going to learn a lot today. How's it going with you? How are things with you this afternoon?

Shareil Nariman:
Really good, really good. Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure and honor to be here. I'm excited to talk about onboarding and to get to know a little bit more about you.

Ramli John:
Yeah, let's jump in. But, actually, before we jump in, let's talk about Sprout Social, that's where you've been working out. For our listeners, what is Sprout Social?

Shareil Nariman:
I've been here for about two years now. Sprout Social, really our mission is we're trying to help customers build and grow strong relationships on social media. So we want to help you understand and reach that audience. We want to help you engage with your community, but we also want to be able to help you measure that performance across all those social media channels and to be able to do it in one platform. So we've really built that in mind, to build better connections between customers and their customers at the end of the day.

Shareil Nariman:
So, to give a little bit example, in current COVID environment, we're the tool that restaurants are coming to, to post their new menus, where the tool that healthcare systems are using to gather what people are saying about COVID in their area, or how musicians are sharing stories with their audience in this new world. So, we're trying to help customers stay connected with their audience, at a time when it's actually pretty challenging to connect in traditional ways, like meeting in person. So, we're providing that back end that allows customers to connect across Instagram and Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest, in a more streamlined way.

Ramli John:
That's super cool. That provides some context on what we're really going to talk about, which is onboarding. You're currently the customer onboarding program manager at Sprout Social. I believe before you were in customer success. Can you talk a little bit about what the onboarding looked like before you really became focused on just that?

Shareil Nariman:
Great question. And I'll take another step back. We actually built the product from the ground up to be intuitive and easy to use. And every part of the application is designed with that customer experience in mind. So, our design and product teams ensure that the decisions they're making actually keeps that customer experience in mind. And that's served us really well up until now, up until around the time I was starting to take on the role at Sprout. But over the last few years, our customer needs have become more complex, as has our product offering. And those are all good things. So we've added a lot of valuable features into the app, including advanced listening and premium analytics products. And one of the main reasons we wanted to build out this onboarding program was to ensure that we could really help customers unlock all of that value and solve the problems that they came to us.

Shareil Nariman:
So I personally started at Sprout two years ago and we had a small onboarding team, maybe two or three people, and they were great. We had a great help center. The resources you'd need. Plus, like I mentioned, an already intuitive tool. And to take a step further back, I worked at booking.com before joining Sprout, and I managed our onboarding CSM teams there and focused on really expanding product offerings across the region. So, I learned a lot about onboarding. I learned a lot about product value. And with that experience in mind, I started to think through how can we do onboarding just a little bit better at Sprout? What could it look like? So, fast forward two years, we now have onboarding CSMs and a professional services team that sits across multiple regions. We've stood up a learning portal, where we're offering on demand content and live webinars. And we've even launched in-app onboarding recently, with onboarding guides and onboarding tours.

Ramli John:
Oh man. So much to talk about. Pretty exciting. Let's talk about that shift. So, you shifted over to focusing on the customer onboarding program manager. What were the first things that you did to start improving that you were talking about, starting to think about how to improve customer onboarding at Sprout Social and what it could look like? What were the first few things that you focused on, at the beginning?

Shareil Nariman:
Yeah, it was. And, like you mentioned, I started as an onboarding CSM. It was a role that was available at Sprout at the moment. And I had fallen in love with the leadership and the people I met in the interview process and I wanted to join the company. So I took that role on, and then we realized there was a need to do a little bit more and get a little bit bigger. So, to your question, I think the first step was getting the right people into a room. And, to be honest, that early on, you don't really know who exactly those right people are. So, we got as many departments as we could to sit around a table and kind of come up with a plan and strategy. And so we pulled folks in from design and from product and engineering, and then all the customer facing teams, like success and support, our marketing team, sales, leadership.

Shareil Nariman:
So the takeaway here being that it was and continues to be a company wide effort. So good customer onboarding won't work, unless you have the support and buy-in from all angles of your company. So, after that meeting, we formed what we ended up calling our onboarding Guild which, at the end of the day, is just a cross departmental group of folks that are all focused on onboarding. And, obviously, my role is program manager for customer onboarding, but not everyone in that group holds that as their main job. So this is also on top of what they're already doing in their respective departments, which is great in a sense, because we can bring that perspective and that lens as well, to focus on how do we solve this onboarding challenge. And, throughout the last two years, we've also remained very fluid. So we kind of formed a core group of decision makers and project owners.

Shareil Nariman:
And depending on that month's focus, we might have new members supporting, we might have new members in the core group. But that core group, the original core group, has kind of been there from day one and have been in all the planning and meetings to get us to this point. So, after forming that, we had to define what we even meant by "Customer onboarding", at Sprout.

Ramli John:
Right. That's a good question.

Shareil Nariman:
Yeah. And that can be different, depending on the time or the stage of your company, depending on what you're trying to solve, depending on the type of product you're trying to onboard for. But we came up with a plan with our definition in mind and where we want it to go. And we started to chip away at it. I personally took a stab at focusing on writing our playbook and hiring a bigger onboarding team. And we quickly optimized that one-to-one onboarding program. And we took the pieces that started to work and, in partnership with our marketing teams, very quickly designed the live webinar program. And I mean in a couple of days, just to get something up and going.

Shareil Nariman:
So now I'm proud to say we run those pretty much every week, multiple times a week, with a live host and a co-host to answer questions throughout the webinar, focused on some of those core use cases of the platform. Once that got up and running and showed some value and traction. Then we partnered even further with our growth product teams and design teams, and started to map out what an in-app onboarding experience could look like. And, luckily for me, I have some brilliant counterparts and folks on those teams, that took learnings from our one-to-one and webinar programs and figured out how to incorporate those into the design and functionality aspects of the tool. And it's really cool to see, I mean, like really cool. We just have such a strong unit and such a laser focus on making sure that every single customer that comes to our platform has what they need and what they see as valuable in the tool for them to be successful.

Ramli John:
Man, that was such a good answer. So many follow up questions I have. One of them is you kind of mentioned a little bit already, you defined what customer onboarding meant for Sprout Social. It can mean so many different things. What did you guys, your team, your onboarding guild, come up with what customer onboarding is defined as? And, at that the end of that, what does successful customer onboarding look like?

Shareil Nariman:
Yeah. Great question. We went back and forth a lot on this actually, on how to define onboarding, what do we mean. Because as you start defining, ultimately, you're saying "How are we going to measure this? How are we going to track success? How are we going to do the latter pieces?". And so, at a high level, where we ultimately landed was "For Sprout, what are the steps we are taking to help our customers realize the value of our platform?" And, more importantly, realize the value for their problem that they're trying to solve. What's their job to be done, and how do we help them reach that value and realize that value? So we started there. That was our high level definition.

Shareil Nariman:
And then we start to map out: What are the steps to get there? What does value realization look like, at each feature level? How do you measure that? How do you track that? How do you optimize that? But it was really taking that big view and thinking "What do we mean by onboarding?". And then making sure to actually communicate that to the rest of the organization. So, one of the first things I did was I got to present at one of our company all hands and talk about this concept of customer onboarding and what we mean, and how do we define it, and then the work that's gone into starting the program, just to, again, ensure that the rest of the organization, that every department knows why we're doing this and the value it can provide to customers.

Ramli John:
You're talking a little bit about that value, or other people call it the aha moment. What does that look like for Sprout Social? And I'm guessing it really depends on the persona or the type of person that signs up for Sprout Social. But what are some... How did you define value for customer onboarding?

Shareil Nariman:
Yeah. And you're right. It really does depend on that customer, that practitioner, what is their need from a social media lens? Some of our customers come to us for community management. Some of them for crisis management. Some come for just a better ability to report on their posts and understand engagement data. Some come to us to be more effective at posting and a better strategy to put content out into the world, or to understand what content they can begin to curate. So really figuring out what is that job, and then making sure that we can drive them to see the value of that tool or that feature specifically for their job.

Shareil Nariman:
So, for example, if you're coming to us to publish and engage with your customers, you have to be using the publishing features. You have to be using the messaging, and the composing and understanding the reports and the data coming in from those messages. So it's really more "So what is your need? And what is the job you're trying to do?" But then, on our end, understanding our entire product value. So what is the value at those feature levels? What is the value as a collective features offering? What is the value for a customer who's trying to do all those things, and has an expert team on their end? What's the value for an individual who's just trying to save time and use pieces of the platform to see that value?

Ramli John:
That's such a good answer. And I want to talk about how you get the people who sign up for the first time, they log in for the first time. You talked a little bit about this earlier, already. How do you get people for the first time signing up directly getting and realizing that value, for whatever reason they sign up for?

Shareil Nariman:
We actually ask them that question. In the trial signup process, we ask "What are you trying to do? What are you trying to solve in our tool?" And as we capture that information, we share it with our sales teams, we share it with our success teams, we share it with our support teams, so that as those interactions continue to happen with that customer through their life cycle, whether that's getting them from trial to subscribe and then from the subscription and onboarding phase onward, to make sure we're actually addressing that need. So we physically capture that information and then use it to be able to serve those customers the right content at the right time, or the right resources at the right time. And we've actually incorporated that logic into the in-app onboarding as well. So, we're not just going to display the same guide or the same tour to every single customer. It should be dependent on what you're trying to do.

Ramli John:
I want to talk a little bit about that in-app experience. You did mention that you started mapping that out. What does it look like now, that in-app onboarding experience?

Shareil Nariman:
Yeah. We're [inaudible 00:11:57] a tool called Pendo. So building in-app product guides and product tours, and it was part of a bigger scheme, a bigger process of actually unifying our onboarding funnels. So we wanted to measure what success looks like across all of our onboarding pathways. So we have our one-on-one onboarding, we have our webinar onboarding and our live webinars and on demand onboarding. And then we have this in-app version. So we actually took what was working in one-on-one onboarding and in our webinar and on demand content and incorporated those pieces into the modules and into the guides and into the pop-ups. And, again, the end goal is not to be an annoying pop-up or get in the way of the customer experience. The design and growth product teams have made sure that that flows well as the user experience progresses through the tool, but it's really to drive them to that same value realization.

Shareil Nariman:
So, if you've told us you're here for publishing, our goal is to get you to the composed app. If you told us you're trying to be a better analyst or reporter, our goal is to show you how you're going to publish first, to then get that reporting data that you're looking for. So it really is designed with already what's working in mind, but also looking at those different pathways, finding some of those similar funnel milestones across each pathway, and making sure we're incorporating that into the in-app world as well.

Ramli John:
You kind of mentioned that [inaudible 00:13:25] it seems like it evolved over time. Did you start off with one-on-one or webinars? Or did you start off with one-on-one then you started with webinars and kind of evolved into this in-app customer experience now? Can you talk a little bit about that evolution of the onboarding?

Shareil Nariman:
Yeah, that's a great question. Because one of the earliest lessons I learned in this world is "Aim for progress, and not perfection". So get something going, get one version out the door. And my background was focused a lot on managing the teams that were doing the individual onboarding. And I had that experience myself at Sprout. So that was the easiest and fastest thing to stand up. So we started with that one-to-one onboarding world. And then, as that started to show progress and we're keeping eyes on metrics and actual progress that the customers are making, who are going through those programs, and we took out the bits of that, that worked, that we saw the best interaction with, or the best engagement with. And from that I helped build a webinar program.

Shareil Nariman:
So taking the highlights and taking the pieces that are working and then figuring out how do you communicate those over a webinar, but still make it interactive. And we landed on having both a host and a co-host, in our webinars, so that you can ask questions in real time and get answers in real time. And we offer them weekly so that we can have as many new customers get access to them as possible. And also to make sure that we offer them frequently enough, where they're actually not filled with too many people, so that you do have a chance to interact with the hosts and co-hosts, which is a part of the reason we offer them so frequently as well.

Ramli John:
What does that webinar look like? I'm curious, is it just you run through Sprout Social and show a demo to the crowd, or you have some slides that the host would show? I'm curious what that webinar looks like.

Shareil Nariman:
Yeah, it's actually all live and it's real demo. It's in the tool and we feature it based on use cases. So right now we're publishing and engagement webinar, we're highlighting a social listening webinar and we're highlighting and advanced analytics and reporting webinars. So those are three main use cases. And we have a live demo of those, and it's our onboarding CSMs walking customers through the actual tool, showing use cases, showing where to click and how to click and how to drive that value. And, throughout, trying to ask questions as well with the polls and with the Q&A session, and then chatting with customers. To make sure that, even though it's at scale, we're trying to cater to those customers who are in that particular webinar and what their needs are. So we've tried to make it as interactive as possible, knowing that customers all learn differently.

Shareil Nariman:
And for some people a live webinar setting might work. And for some people, an on demand version might work. And for some people, a one-to-one version might work. And then you have the customers where none of that works for their learning style. So, again, it's offering enough options and enough availability to meet all the customer needs. But I think what we've done really well at Sprout is ensuring that regardless of which pathway you're on, it's a uniformed content stream. It's the same learnings that you would get, regardless of the path you go down, to cater to your needs, and you don't miss out on anything regardless of where you end up.

Ramli John:
I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about this. You said you wrote a playbook about the onboarding team where you can optimize the one-on-one onboarding program. What did that optimization look like? What are some sort of the things that you optimize for that program?

Shareil Nariman:
Yeah, it was. When I first showed up, like I said, there was an onboarding team existing. And I took what their current process was and started to think through "Is this effective? Does this work for customers? Should it be five calls versus three calls? Should we cover this topic versus this topic?" And I took a step back from that because I was actually doing the onboardings myself. And I really just started asking customers "What would be more beneficial to you during these calls?". And I was really just writing out procedures for myself to follow. And that kind of turned into this bigger playbook.

Shareil Nariman:
And, to give you some examples, we ended up going from a structure where we had five or six calls over the span of 60 days. And we were able get that down to two or three more essential calls and in a shorter time frame. And that is really with the mindset of, instead of trying to cover every single feature and every single aspect of this tool, let's talk to customers and ask questions and see what it is that they're actually trying to solve for, and then tailor that onboarding to meet that experience. So it was a lot of actually listening to our customers, reading surveys, reading responses that we were getting, reading feedback and product feedback, and focusing on those pain points that customers had and continuously operating on that optimization.

Ramli John:
That's always a good way to start trying to prove something is actually asking your customers, "How can we improve ourselves?".

Shareil Nariman:
Yeah. You'd be shocked how much you actually learn, if you ask some questions and listen to customers. And that's really the philosophy of our onboarding program. All those departments and teams I mentioned earlier, they've all done customer interviews, they've all sat and listened to onboarding CSM calls, they've shadowed calls, they've interacted with customers because every single one of those departments makes those changes and those needs, again, based on what customers are telling us.

Ramli John:
That totally makes sense. I want to talk a little bit about customers. Do you wait for the customers to raise up their hands to jump on a call? Or are you doing any kind of outbound, reaching out already before they even raise up our hands? What qualifies somebody to be reached out for those one-on-one calls?

Shareil Nariman:
Yeah. Great question. This is a strong partnership with our customer marketing teams as well. So we've set some parameters as to which customer can go down, which path of onboarding on our backend. And then depending on that, we'll either have our sales reps who are already working with customers ahead of even getting to that point, they introduce the onboarding CSM if we know they're going to go down the one-to-one route.

Shareil Nariman:
All of our welcome emails and all of our communications, earlier in the customer's life cycle, offers them the ability to sign up for some of these on demand webinars or the live webinars. So we'd link them to our learning portal early on in their customer life cycle. And even in the app itself, in our main dashboards, we have resources there where they can access all of those different onboarding screens. Again, depending on where that customer might fall. But point being the communications are consistent. And that goes back to the fact that we did a good job early on of explaining onboarding to the entire organization, so that when the time came to get to exactly this question, everyone knew what onboarding was, which pads were available, who can go down which path. And so we can offer that and really set customer expectations early in their life cycle, knowing then we can meet those expectations.

Ramli John:
Yeah, that totally makes sense. I want to shift gears. You mentioned the onboarding guild earlier, I want to know the mechanics stuff that. How often does that Guild meet and what stuff do you talk about in that guild? First of all, great name, guild, it reminds me of Dungeons and Dragons.

Shareil Nariman:
Yeah. We wanted something different. We have committees and squads and groups and this was new and we didn't know what to call it. So we landed on "Onboarding guild". And it's kind of stuck.

Shareil Nariman:
So that core group I was referring to, we meet on a... I think now it's a bi-weekly basis where we check into our progress for the week, the sprints we're working on, any sort of projects and updates, and we share it with each other. And then we have a monthly check-in for a little bit of a broader group. So more people that need to be informed or contributors that are maybe working on some of the projects, just to give them all updates and visibility into what's happening. And then, quarterly, we actually do a stakeholder check-in. So with executive members of our C-level suite and our leadership across the different departments, to also, one, share highlights, share wins, and points where we might need some support with them. But also to, again, ensure that the way we're building the program, the way we're thinking about optimizing the program is actually in line also with our business goals and our customer goals, and really to keep that uniform conversation moving forward.

Ramli John:
That totally makes sense. I want to start wrapping up, and one of the questions I'd like to ask from you is what were some of the things that you wish you knew about customer onboarding, before you really got started on this new role of the customer onboarding program manager? Were there any things that you look back now like "Oh, I really wish I knew that before"?

Shareil Nariman:
Oh man. A lot. But a couple, and like I mentioned earlier, I've been doing this for a few years now, so the learnings I've definitely been a lot. But I mentioned earlier "Don't aim for perfection, aim for progress", that's a big one. So, if you have an idea, start to ideate on it and start to get moving with it, just so you can start to get some results that they build off of. But then, another big takeaway for me has been, one, not every customer learns like I do. So just because I have a preferred learning style does not mean that that lands well for everybody else. And that's a really important lesson, I think, to learn early on, because hopefully you're going to have customers that have different needs, and that's why we have all these different pathways. But regardless of how you like to learn, as a customer, we try to set up an option for you. I think that's important.

Shareil Nariman:
And, like I mentioned, if you don't need any of those resources, that's also great. That's a compliment to the thoughtfulness that has gone into the design and functionality of the product. But we want to know that those resources are available for you. So, one, don't think about just your learning style, try [inaudible 00:23:31] that customer shoes, a great way to do it is to ask questions, and interview customers, and to hear all that. And then I would also recommend not trying to shove onboarding into a specific timeframe. So, what I mean there is onboarding shouldn't really ever stop. So you're going to add new users, you're going to add new features. Your customers, themselves, their jobs to be done could change over time. So, your program and your product should really be ready to keep up with those changes. So those would be some of my biggest learnings and takeaways that I'd share.

Ramli John:
So good. And one question is, there are marketers out there who are looking to improve their customer onboarding. You've been on this for a few years now. What would be your one piece of advice for marketers who are looking to improve their customer onboarding?

Shareil Nariman:
Yeah, first and foremost, there's not a blanket approach to onboarding. So what I love about our marketing and customer marketing teams is that they're part of the onboarding guild, for one, and they're true partners to us. So they understand onboarding, they're involved. They are part of the content creation process, they own a part of our learning portal strategy, they sit on customer calls and they shadow CSMs. So, again, point being is they're taking the time to ensure that their marketing communications and their efforts are both timely and relevant to the rest of the program. And they do an amazing job of helping us spread the word about our onboarding program. So my advice is that, for marketers. Be involved, be a partner to your counterparts and, be in those meetings and listen to the calls.

Shareil Nariman:
And to add a little bit to that, I'd also say don't get stuck finding that perfect approach. Again, there is no perfect way, perfect is the enemy of good. So don't get so stuck in a strategy that's actually going to limit execution and results. You can and should be rolling out iterative improvements. Like I mentioned earlier, we started our webinar program in a matter of days, with limited resources. And now we offer that on demand and in live format multiple times a week. So just make sure that you actually understand your goals as marketers and how you're going to measure them. And then, start to think about how you're going to further refine them,, as the program grows. So be flexible, be open and, and be involved.

Ramli John:
Great advice. And just as a final question, where can people find out more about you online and as well as, if people are interested in Sprout Social, what can people find out about that?

Shareil Nariman:
Yeah. Sprout Social, sproutsocial.com, plenty of information there about the company, about the tool, about offerings. You can sign up for demos or even sign up for a trial in there. And then me personally, check out my LinkedIn also Twitter. I'm starting to get more active on Twitter personally. And these are the types of updates I actually want to share and put out into the world. So, thanks for asking that.

Ramli John:
Awesome. Well, we'll add that in the show links and make sure to promote this out. Thanks so much, Shareil.

Shareil Nariman:
Awesome. Yeah. Thank you for the time. Really appreciate it.

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Gretchen Duhaime
Shareil Nariman
Program Manager, Customer Lifecycle at Sprout Social
My passion is helping customers be better at their own jobs! I've spent the last 9 years digging into the customer experience; primarily focused on getting the early stages right to set folks up for long-term success.