Onboarding ≠ Implementation


You close the deal and jump right into configuring, customizing, and implementing your product. That’s because going live with your product is the most important outcome for a new customer, right? Wrong. You won’t create customers for life if all you focus on is implementing. Onboarding is much more than deploying your product in a new account. While implementation is a critical element of onboarding new customers, a comprehensive onboarding program starts before the deal closes and continues after the go live date to build enduring relationships and renewing customers.

Don’t start in the technical weeds

Implementing, or deploying, your product means making it active and effective for your customers. Implementations may include gathering requirements, migrating data, configuring and customizing software, adding custom objects and fields, embedding into other applications, setting up users, running tests, and branding. After all this deployment you get to launch your product to your customer. This is when the software goes live and is released to the users with all the customization and integrations (mostly) working. Implementation takes anywhere from a few moments to several months depending on the complexity of your product and the number of customizations and integrations needed on the customer side.


The problem with equating onboarding with implementation is that implementation is very tactical. You focus on the account, not the people; on checklists and project plans, not the relationships; on tactics, not strategy; on technical outcomes, not business outcomes. Plus, when the implementation team moves on to the next new customer to deploy, there’s no lasting connection with the account. Of course, implementation is crucial because without it your customers don’t have a product to use and you don’t have a license to renew. The problem with equating onboarding with implementing is you miss what’s most important with new customers. The relationship. That’s where onboarding comes in.

Onboarding is the key to customer success

Onboarding is the action or process of familiarizing new customers with your products and your services. According to my Orchestrated Onboarding Framework, shown below, onboarding starts even before the contract is signed to build trusting relationships with new customers. During the first stage of Orchestrated Onboarding, Embark, you set expectations with new customers about what the post-sales experience looks like. You tell them about your prescriptive onboarding program and dedicated teams that help them on their journey.

When the deal closes you to move to the Handoff stage. This is when you formally transition the relationship from the sales teams to the customer facing teams. The handoff is also when you define how your teams and the customer’s teams work together for long term success, including getting everyone aligned on the objectives. During Handoff you validate what you already know about the account, usually gathered during the sales journey, and gather new information to build an impactful success plan tailored specifically for this account.

The first two stages of onboarding are important because they build trust. Even though you haven’t implemented a thing yet, you’re establishing the foundation for a smooth deployment and launch. Learn why trust is so important and how to build trusting relationships in my articles The Neuroscience of Customer Onboarding and Trust, the Missing Piece of Customer Onboarding.



When and what to kickoff

After you establish relationships, and after the business goals are defined, validated, and captured, then you Kickoff. As you see in my Orchestrated Onboard Framework, the Kickoff stage comes after the Embark and the Handoff stages. Now the trusted relationship is established it’s appropriate to get tactical with technical requirements and projects plans, so hold your Kickoff meeting and get into the technical requirements, timelines, and deliverables.

Start simple and build momentum

After the Kickoff comes the Adopt stage. This stage incorporates all the steps required to deploy your product, including user adoption and possibly change management. The challenge with the Adopt stage is when there’s a long and complex deployment, new customers quickly become overwhelmed. This is exactly what happened at one company I talked with. Their Head of Customer Success told me new customers are immediately thrown into the most complex scenarios in their product. His teams assumed if new customers embraced the big picture, they would naturally figure everything else out in their product. When I asked how that’s working for their customers, he replied, “It’s not.” Both the onboarding and implementation ground to a halt.


The Chief Customer Officer at a company I work with shared how her CSMs and implementation consultants highlight the amazing features and configurability of their product with new customers. Instead of benefiting from the options, however, this blank canvas leaves customers overwhelmed. They stall out. I talked with both companies about how to avoid the trough of disillusionment with phased deployments. That’s right, rather than pushing for an all-encompassing go live, consider phased deployments. Start simple, incorporate quick wins for customers to quickly first value, and build from there. Phased deployments generate momentum, rather than kill it.

What happens after the implementation?

Onboarding continues after your product is deployed. As you can see from my Orchestrated Onboarding Framework, there are two stages after Adopt: Review and Expand. The Review stage is where you check in with new customers to find out how the onboarding and implementation experience is for them. The Review also delivers valuable feedback to improve your onboarding program. The Expand stage helps customers maximize their value in your product. If you want customers for life, it’s up to you to define customer maturity and then drive customers along that journey. Otherwise, they stay stuck on their first set of objectives.

"There is a huge opportunity to solidify a customer for life by engaging with customers proactively and strategically from the start,” share Jay Nathan and Sheryl Hawk from Customer Imperative. A cohesive onboarding program is your strongest lever to create near-term profitability and long-term success. Orchestrated Onboarding builds trusting and enduring relationships, increases customer accountability, and drive product usage. Customer onboarding is about the account, the people, and the relationships, in addition to launching your product. Onboarding ≠ implementation.

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