A Founder’s Guide to B2B Onboarding (Self-serve edition)

Paula Alcalá
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If you’re trying to build a product that’s easy to use (aren’t we all?), self-serve onboarding flows are one of the most important things to get right.

The problem I’ve found with self-serve onboarding is how much information is required to create a good first experience for our users. There are infinite questions to answer, and nobody gets it right the first time.

Since trial and error is our best learning experience, we need to create systems that help us learn from our first users and improve our product design, messages, and overall onboarding experience.

I’ll share a simple process to improve your self-served onboarding journey and optimize it for conversion in this guide.

Should we all build self-serve sign ups? 🤔

Self-serve onboarding means giving prospective customers a way of trying, buying, and using the product for themselves.

After product-led B2B companies like Slack or Dropbox showed explosive growth, everyone suggests having self-serve signups in any software business. But good onboarding flows takes a lot of time and resources, especially if you want to improve conversion.

So the question is: should you build a self-serve flow if you have an early product? I think the easy answer is: YES.

You should give your prospects a road to take if they’re interested in your product. The more walls you have between your prospects and your product, the more time it will take you to learn from actual users.

This doesn’t mean spending months of design and development time in a sophisticated onboarding flow. You can start with an MVP and slowly improve it.

What we usually mean by self-served onboarding

Every blog post about onboarding mentions a few things every product should have:

  • A good flow that leads customers to value as quickly as possible.
  • Drip email campaigns that nudge new users forward.
  • Educational content to help new users understand what your product does for them.
  • Amazing customer support available when needed.

Now, this is A LOT of work when you’re an early-stage product. And the problem isn’t just time and resources, it’s also information.

When you’re early you don’t really know what’s most important to your users at each stage of their journey. Of course, you can make educated guesses, but I wouldn’t recommend taking weeks to create beautiful content and email campaigns that may add zero value to your customers.

And since we need to learn from actual people going through our onboarding, I’d say it’s best to start with something simple and then improve it.

How to optimize your onboarding as an MVP

1. Design a simple onboarding journey

The onboarding journey is the series of steps your users will take when they first sign up. I mentioned a similar journey when talking about Free Trials, every onboarding path looks something like this:

Step 1: Signup.

Step 2: Setup (something users need to do before they can actually use your product).

Step 3: Getting to value (something users do that actually delivers value to them)

Step 4: Engaging with the product (depending on what you do this can mean sharing, inviting a coworker, or coming back repeatedly).

When we talk to Palabra users about this, we always suggest thinking about a simple and linear journey for onboarding. The more possibilities, user segments, or steps there are to consider, the harder it will be for you to improve conversion.

If you already have a complex onboarding process created, I suggest rethinking what are the most important things you want your users to do. Try to reduce unnecessary setup steps, and point every user flow towards your value-adding feature.

2. Track each stage

By tracking I mean using something to see where your customers are in this journey. To improve your onboarding journey you should be able to see where people are dropping off, and which types of users struggle most when first using your product.

Each step of the onboarding journey should be translated into actions your users take. If they just added a profile picture, that might mean they’re on the setup stage.

I’ve seen early teams do this manually with a spreadsheet or CRM. If you have less than 10 weekly users, it might make sense to keep track of users this way.

If you want to build a system that can scale right away, I suggest keeping automated tracking as simple as possible:

  • Choose one thing your users do (click or page view) that represents each stage of your journey.
  • I recommend using Segment’s startup program (free for about a year) to track events.
  • Send it to a platform that allows you to see who is at each stage of their journey.

I’ve seen companies send this information to Pipedrive or other CRMs through Zapier, but it’s a solution prone to error.

You can also workarounds with analytics platforms (like Mixpanel and Amplitude) or messaging apps like Intercom. They require some manual processes for it to work since they weren’t built exactly for this use case.

We built Palabra with early customer journey optimization in mind, so let me know if you’d like to talk about onboarding tracking.

3. Manually help people move forward

By having clarity over where each customer is in their onboarding you can reach out to those that haven’t completed it. I’ve seen companies do this by giving a phone call to each new customer. If your users aren’t tech-savvy they will probably appreciate the human touch.

You can also send a quick email to those that signup pointing them to their next step. Keep it as simple as possible at first, and make sure you’re helping them focus on their next step instead of drifting off.

The reason I suggest starting manually is that you get to talk to as many customers as possible. You can learn what words they use to describe their problems, where they usually struggle, and what worked for you to help them move forward.

This information is what will allow you to create awesome messages, automated in-app tours, and even make UX improvements to your product later on.

4. Measure conversion

Very basic step-over step conversion can help you find where the biggest drop-off is. From what I’ve seen our users do, I noticed analyzing week over week conversion is what makes the most sense at the early stages.

You can do this with a very simple spreadsheet, and manually note how many users get to each stage every week. This will give you a baseline conversion rate you can then consistently improve.

You can also get these if you’re using Palabra to track your onboarding journey.

When does automation make sense?

Automated messages that move users forward while you work on other things is a very appealing idea for every founder, but it should be used with caution. Setting up an automated message and creating content to nudge users often takes more time than starting small, and can lead to nowhere.

For automation to make sense you first need to know what your journey looks like.

Ideally, you should be able to learn from your onboarding MVP, and know a few things first:

  • Your baseline conversion rates for the onboarding journey.
  • Most common problems your users face when using your product for the first time
  • Which messages improve conversion (how many people click on messages and actually move forward).

It’s getting easier every day to create automated campaigns or in-app tours without coding it yourself. I suggest starting with a very very simple onboarding campaign but still keep manually following up on users if you’re early.

By starting small and manually you’ll be able to understand exactly what customers need when they first use your product, and that will allow you to create an effective onboarding campaign after just a few weeks.

Final thoughts

To me, working on an early product feels like continuous trial and error. Over the years, software makers have created processes to structure this chaotic learning strategy.

I think the best thing we can do as founders has put these systems in place. Processes that continuously allow us to learn from our users and improve our product and messaging.

We’re building Palabra to help that exact process, that’s why we chose to prioritize simple customer journey creation. We think every founder should have access to information about how their users interact with their products to make them better.

If you’re struggling to get access to where each customer is in their journey, I’d love to help. Go ahead and book some time to chat!