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Why is Customer Onboarding still handled with spreadsheets in 2020?

Sai Arora

For a majority of B2B SaaS companies, the first thing a customer touches after signing a contract is a spreadsheet detailing what all they need to do! I’ve seen this as the standard at every startup I’ve worked for - and I’m sick of it. You and I both know our customers are as well.

My crash course in Customer Onboarding

I’ll never forget the first time I learned that I had to share a spreadsheet with every new customer as part of the Customer Onboarding Process. It was my first job at an organization where the ACV for a customer was over $50k/year. I was shown where the templates for these assets lived in Google Drive and what all I would have to change for each new customer I was assigned. Along with this, I was expected to manually update fields in our CRM to help us track our Customer Onboardings.

I was then drilled on this process for two weeks to ensure I understood how to do this. Here we were signing multi-year contracts for non-paltry sums of money and the first thing we were expected to do was send over a Google Sheet that looked like something a college intern had put together.

This “sheet” was all we provided for our customers to get started with using our “cutting-edge” solution. To top it off, my manager informed us that they were using the data we logged into our CRM as a proxy for measuring each Success Managers “capacity” aka “how many customers can you handle before it’s too much”. This whole experience left me feeling like we may not have been using tools and technology as effectively to own and present a world-class customer onboarding experience.

Unfortunately, it was only after I left that company and joined another that I discovered that almost all Success orgs follow this exact process and even consider it a best practice!

onboarding spreadsheet
This spreadsheet TOTALLY gets a customer excited to start using your product /s

What’s at stake?

This approach presents a myriad of challenges to both your customer and your employee experience. For new customers, this spreadsheet becomes yet another headache for them to manage and attend to on top of their daily workload. For your success managers, this spreadsheet presents another data source that needs to be manually copied over into the CRM, another potential opportunity for misalignment amongst customer stakeholders, and more manual work to upkeep and manage.

With so much time and energy spent ensuring proper data hygiene and manually adhering the process, it is almost unfair to expect a CSM to also provide a proactive customer experience, prevent churn and unlock account growth from their portfolios. For team leads, this spreadsheet becomes one of 100s that need to be tracked and measured manually with vigilant upkeep in order to properly gather insights on your onboarding process. While this makes sense in a perfect world. In reality, due to the entropic nature of most scaling organizations, these manual steps quickly get overlooked or forgotten.

What makes Customer Onboarding so difficult

The Customer Onboarding Process is a cross-functional process at its core and is meant to be shared equally amongst Sales, Product and Customer Success. Unfortunately, due to the respective incentives of these organizations, there is a natural tension that comes up in terms of who owns the onboarding process (something we’ve discussed in another post) with Customer Success generally getting the short-end of the straw. The Product Organization always has higher priority features to work on and the Sales team isn’t interested because an investment in the onboarding process does not net them more new customers. This is why spreadsheets end up being the most common strategy organizations use to “fill the gaps” of the Customer Onboarding Process.

The cross-functional nature of this process also makes it very difficult to find out of box solutions that can properly encompass the Customer Onboarding process. This presents a huge dependence on proper systems integration to ensure you’re able to provide the best customer onboarding experience possible.

It doesn’t have to be this way!

What can we do about it?

If an organization properly integrates their internal systems and processes, they can present all of their internal teams as one unified team focused on proactively driving their customers to their desired outcomes. The best part is, these organizations can integrate their team to feel like an extension of their product experience; proactive, slick and futuristic. Properly integrating these systems also helps set up your product team to quickly and nimbly build and test new features that augment and automate key parts of your customer experience without needing to completely go off-roadmap.

The first option to create this integrated experience is to lean on your engineering team to build it in house. However, this can have many challenges. Pulling engineers to build your onboarding flow instead of new features can slow down product growth. And when the product does change, so does the onboarding, creating perpetual maintenance and overhead costs. I’ve seen these projects take multiple quarters and engineering hours just to be turned down in a few years due to lack of flexibility.

The second option is to tie together multiple tools to approximate the integrated experience. Using tools like Asana, TypeForm, AirTable, and Zapier, you can create a much more organized process without the engineering overhead and heavy upfront costs. However, a system put together like this can be fragile, full of compromises and feels a bit like a Rube Goldberg machine about to break down.

For the last year, I’ve been working on Simplemnt to help Customer Success teams deliver this integrated experience without these compromises. If you are frustrated by your requests being brushed aside by product and engineering. If you are sick of using tools that don’t do enough. If you are tired of staring at spreadsheets all day. Let’s talk.

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