Customer onboarding strategies for scaling your startup

Emily Garza, Head of Customer Engagement, Unit21, shares her advice on what customer onboarding strategies you can implement for long-term success.
Madhushree Menon
August 11, 2023
Ep25
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Emily Garza, Head of Customer Engagement at Unit21, is our guest for this episode of The Launch Station. She is a passionate customer-focused CS professional, adept at delivering exceptional experiences for business impact. She is also the creator of Value CS with Emily, a platform dedicated to sharing her customer success learnings and experiences. 

Emily built the CS function from the ground up at Fastly and over the past few years has been responsible for all post-sale functions.

In this episode, she shares:

  • Strategies to evolve your customer onboarding process
  • Tips on reducing  time to adoption
  • How teams should differentiate between onboarding and implementation
  • The KPIs to measure onboarding and implementation success

… and more. Tune in now!

Check out our conversation with Emily below.

Sri: In this episode of The Launch Station, our focus will be on developing your onboarding strategy, a crucial step in growing your startup.

Our guest for today is Emily Garza, who began her career at AT&T and successfully built the CS function at Fastly. Emily has been a prominent figure in the customer success community, known for her insightful posts on LinkedIn and appearances on various shows.

Currently, she serves as Head of Customer Engagement at Unit21, overseeing customer success, support, and implementation teams. Additionally, Emily runs her own website, valuecswithemily.com. If you haven't already, make sure to check it out. 

Thank you, Emily, for taking the time to be with us today.

Emily: Thank you for hosting me on the Launch Station, Sri!

Sri: Let's start with a fun question to break the ice. If you could pick a different profession, what would it be?

Emily: That's a challenging question. If I were to focus on earning money, I would likely opt for a career in real estate. Exploring diverse houses with unique designs seems like a delightful experience. 

However, if making a large income wasn't a priority, I would thoroughly enjoy coaching kids' sports. Witnessing the growth and development of children as they acquire new skills is truly rewarding.

Sri: That’s very interesting. Do you have a particular sport in mind? 

Emily: Soccer has always been a big part of my life since I was young. Now that my son is almost two, it brings me joy to see him having fun pushing and kicking a soccer ball. It's becoming a shared interest for us, which is really enjoyable.

Sri: Thanks, Emily. Now on to the world of customer success. You have extensive experience in customer success. Let's discuss the transformation of this field. Specifically, in recent years, what notable changes and advancements do you believe have occurred in customer success? How do you perceive it to be evolving?

Emily: Over the past few years, there have been several recurring themes that everyone seems to be discussing. In 2021, the focus was on customer-centered metrics. This was driven by the pandemic and budget cuts, which made it necessary for us to understand and speak the language of our customers – so we could effectively communicate their needs internally. 

In 2022, the emphasis shifted towards improving operations and efficiency, with CS Ops emerging as a distinct role. Another topic of discussion was the role of digital and tech-touch in customer interactions, weighing the benefits of automation versus human involvement. 

Looking ahead to 2023, there is an increasing focus on driving value through community and customer-led growth, involving customers directly in their engagement and growth with the company. 

From a customer success standpoint, the overarching theme is to do more with less. But this notion can be challenging given the already lean and stretched resources of many teams. Instead, the emphasis should be on becoming better at prioritizing so we can focus on the most impactful tasks as a team and organization, given our limited time.

Sri: Prioritization is extremely important. Without experience, we often try to tackle everything we're told to do, rather than finding the right balance of what is truly important at each stage. 

I'm interested to know if you have any insights on prioritization that could benefit a young startup with a small customer base. What advice would you give?

Emily: A key aspect is ensuring that you, as a team or functional leader, have a strong voice and are not overshadowed by the CEO, particularly if you have the experience. The CEO should focus on setting the overall company strategy, while you, as the functional leader, possess the knowledge to work effectively with customers and understand their pain points and process optimization. 

As you are closer to these matters, it is essential to seize the opportunity to voice your insights and help establish priorities. It is also your responsibility to explain and gain the support of your peers or the executive team, highlighting the significance of these priorities. 

To do this effectively, it is crucial to demonstrate the impact of these actions. While saying "we will fix this process" may not sound exciting, emphasizing that it will decrease onboarding time and benefit customers can create greater engagement. Connecting these improvements to the ultimate business outcomes is essential to align everyone's understanding of why prioritization is crucial.

Sri: The topic of decreasing onboarding time reminds me of our previous conversation. You mentioned implementing changes to the onboarding process at your previous workplace. These changes resulted in a significant reduction in adoption time, from five months to just two months. 

Could you explain how you successfully achieved this? What were some key changes that brought about such a positive change?

Emily: I must give credit to my team for their contributions. It is crucial to have a strong team when facing such challenges. We took a two-fold approach to address the issue. Initially, we recognized the importance of outlining the entire process. Some of our team members had been with us for a while and were familiar with the tasks. However, without a clear overview of all the steps involved, it was difficult to identify time-consuming processes, potential delays, or areas for optimization. Hence, we began by outlining all the necessary steps. 

This step allowed us to ask relevant questions, such as why certain processes were taking longer than expected, or if we had suitable templates in place. We wanted to ensure that we followed each step diligently and avoid missing any crucial elements that could lead to future delays. By doing this, we could save a significant amount of time, approximately a month, by understanding the necessary information required at specific stages. Consequently, we could better manage customer expectations and set realistic timelines.

The second aspect is due to the remarkable efforts of my team. We recognized that reducing the time it took to onboard customers was essential. A five-month onboarding process poses challenges since customers initially sign up with excitement and enthusiasm for our product or service. 

However, maintaining that excitement and engagement over such an extended period can be challenging, as their focus may shift. Therefore, we aimed to decrease the onboarding time to not only have customers up and running faster but also ensure they start experiencing the value of our tool sooner. This, in turn, could potentially lead to upselling opportunities or enable us to utilize them as references. The team was well aware of the significance of achieving this goal and put in significant effort to make it happen.

After initiating a brainstorming session, we realized that our internal skill set had limitations in improving the process. Therefore, we decided to bring in a consultant who had extensive knowledge of the ERPs our customers use. This consultant provided us with a template and framework that considerably expedited our development and launch time with customers. Instead of tackling unfamiliar ERP integrations or building from scratch, which would have required more time due to our team's limited experience, we utilized data analysis to identify the common systems encountered. By seeking the expertise of someone with specific knowledge of those systems, we successfully established a framework that facilitated a faster onboarding process.

Sri: How was the budget for hiring a consultant approved? Usually, it is more challenging for sales teams, especially those with limited resources, to request funds for hiring consultants or experts in unfamiliar areas. How did this come about in the case of our post-sales team?

Emily: The marketing team often handles the task of bringing in consultants by default. Recently, I had the opportunity to lead a brand exercise with my current company that was facilitated by a consultant. 

This type of collaboration felt very natural in that particular setting. However, in departments like post-sales or other areas where working with consultants is less common, it is crucial to discuss the return on investment (ROI). In our case, rather than hiring full-time employees with expertise in various systems, we found a consultant with experience in those areas and worked with us on specific projects to ensure our success. 

This approach allowed us to avoid increasing overall operating expenses since the consultant's services were a one-time cost. Additionally, we didn't require that skill set on a full-time basis. Once we had the necessary frameworks in place, our team could continue to build upon and adapt them as we engaged with more customers using different ERP systems. 

It is important to distinguish between long-term needs that may warrant a full-time hire and instances where initial support is sufficient to get the team up and running. In the latter case, bringing in a consultant to bridge the gap in skills and experience can be an excellent solution.

Sri: That makes sense, Emily. I also recall our previous conversation about the need to distinguish between onboarding and implementation. In terms of these functions, how do you believe organizations should approach their thinking? Additionally, when is it appropriate to establish a distinct customer onboarding function? We briefly talked about skill sets before, so I am interested in hearing your thoughts on this.

Emily: Certainly! Often, we tend to use the terms implementation and onboarding interchangeably, myself included. However, they are distinct concepts. Implementation primarily focuses on technical integration, where we consider how our tool fits in with your existing data, systems, and tools. This aspect requires a certain level of technical or product knowledge. 

Onboarding, on the other hand, is a more comprehensive process. It encompasses implementation but also includes stakeholder management, change management, and training. The goal of onboarding is to ensure that your team is not only ready to adopt the tool but also equipped to effectively leverage its capabilities. 

If we solely prioritize the technical implementation aspect, we may observe slow or challenging adoption from the customer's perspective. Customers sign up for our tool because they aim to address a pain point or gain certain benefits. However, even with their excitement, change can be difficult. This relates to my personal experience with some internal tools where although I know it would benefit me, I struggle with the learning curve. This alone can act as a barrier. 

Therefore, it is crucial to make the onboarding process as seamless as possible. We should guide customers through this change journey, breaking down any obstacles they may encounter. Instead of overwhelming them with a long list of features, we should focus on what will be impactful for their specific use case. By starting with small, achievable wins, we can help them gain confidence and comfort with the tool. Gradually, we can expand their usage. 

Overall, a good onboarding process goes beyond customer launch. It extends through the initial thirty, sixty, or ninety days, ensuring that customers successfully adopt the tool and engage with it in the manner they initially intended, based on best practices that we believe will set them up for success.

The second part of your question is about how roles can be split and how this evolution can be managed. This is an exciting aspect of working at a startup because you get to witness teams growing and changing over time. When considering the splitting of roles, it is important to assess where individuals spend their time and what their skill sets are. For instance, the technical implementation requires a specific skill set, which could involve deep product understanding, coding, or database awareness. 

However, individuals with these skills may not possess strong abilities in project management or customer success management. This is completely normal, as it is valuable for people to have focused skill sets and areas of specialization. Initially, it may be necessary to have someone who can handle multiple tasks, given the limited headcount. However, as the company expands, it becomes possible to identify areas that require specific focus and determine how to leverage the existing team or add members with the necessary skills to optimize focus.

At my previous company, we faced a challenge regarding the implementation process. Managers were handling almost all aspects of onboarding, except for some training at the end. This led to a lot of context-switching for them, as they had to switch between discovering customer needs, deciding on the solution, and actually implementing it. They were wearing too many hats, and as a result, we couldn't learn and improve consistently, as everyone was stretched too thin. This experience made me realize the importance of dividing the role and clearly defining the responsibilities, to ensure our success and ultimately the success of our customers.

Sri: I understand that there are varying opinions about the recent change. Some individuals may view it positively as it allows them to focus on their strengths and engage in work they enjoy. However, in the case of smaller startups, there may be individuals who feel that their area of expertise is being limited and some responsibilities are being taken away. If someone is unhappy about the narrowing scope of their role, how would you handle it?

Emily: Indeed, that's a valid point. Some individuals prefer to have a broad skill set and engage in various tasks. Therefore, I believe there are two crucial aspects to consider. Firstly, it is important to communicate the reasons behind implementing this change. This includes enhancing team efficiency, providing a better customer experience, and outlining the benefits such as reducing context switching and developing expertise in a specific area. It is crucial to respect individuals' preferences and allow them some choice in selecting a specialized role rather than imposing it on them. 

Secondly, it is essential to recognize when a role is no longer suitable for an individual. I consistently emphasize to the team that everyone is on their own career journey. If someone feels that their current position is no longer aligned with their goals and aspirations, that is perfectly fine. As a manager, my responsibility is to support their success. If their success lies outside of the company, then I want to assist them in finding the right path. While it can be challenging, especially for new or inexperienced managers, to let go of valuable team members, it is important not to hold them back. If the new structure conflicts with a person's desired role or aligns poorly with the company's values, it is necessary to acknowledge this. When implementing changes within an organization, a misalignment can occur between the company's direction and the aspirations of current employees. Consequently, it is crucial to help employees understand the reasoning behind the changes and strive to bring everyone on board, while understanding that not everyone will be a good fit for the new direction.

Sri: Do you understand? Can you also mention any other benefits you can think of when it comes to dividing rules? Additionally, how many of these divisions does your organization currently have for the post-sale team?

Emily: Currently, our organization is well-structured and streamlined. Our implementation team is responsible for all onboarding processes, including scoping and re-scoping. During the sales cycle, it's common to not receive complete information, especially when the sales team is prioritizing speed and momentum. 

This can lead to technical details being overlooked, particularly when the sales and implementation teams are separate. To address this, my team is now focused on gathering detailed technical information early on and setting clear expectations. We use this information to create project plans and establish regular meetings with customers. We also provide initial basic training before handing over to the Customer Success Manager. 

In my previous role, we divided these responsibilities into three or four different roles. We had someone dedicated to initial discovery and scoping, addressing feedback from implementation managers who felt stretched thin by including this in their workload. We also had a team focused on designing and implementing the solution post-sale. 

To ensure effective project management, we had a dedicated role responsible for setting up meetings, documenting notes and action items, and keeping customers accountable. Lastly, we had a role specifically focused on providing customer training, ensuring users were familiar with the product and its application in their environment. While currently we have consolidated the responsibilities, in the past, we divided them among these four roles.

Sri: It's fascinating to see the different roles involved in a project, such as the technical architect, customer architect, implementation manager, project manager, and training specialist. I'm particularly interested in the project management aspect. Is it necessary to have a dedicated project manager for every type of project? Or is it more common to have the implementation team handle project management for smaller deals? In the case of larger enterprise projects, do you typically bring in a full-time project manager solely for those projects?

Emily: As a small startup, we had a project manager overseeing all our clients. However, the level of involvement varied depending on the complexity of the deal or the company. To streamline the onboarding process, we created different templates for each use case or package of features the company chose.

Using these templates, the project manager could quickly update the status and provide the next action items, making it easier for us to onboard customers, even if they were smaller and had a less complex onboarding process. 

Sri: How can we effectively divide the responsibilities between the implementation manager and the project manager to clearly define their respective scopes?

Emily: It is extremely important, especially as you specialize in different roles and allocate responsibilities across teams, to have a clear outline of roles and responsibilities. Change management can be difficult, and if someone already knows how to do something, they might think it's faster to do it themselves without involving another team. 

However, this hinders the adoption of new processes and the leveraging of new roles. To drive success, we used a simple Google Sheet to outline the steps and actions, and assigned responsibility for each task. 

This way, people could reference the sheet to understand their scope and whether they should seek information from another team. Sometimes, there may be coaching or guidance required during this change process. Having clear boundaries and a reference document is truly helpful.

Sri: Could you please provide some examples of how this change has led to success for the team and organization, as you mentioned earlier?

Emily: Earlier, we discussed a major accomplishment that had a significant impact, which was reducing the onboarding time for customers. This initiative successfully decreased the time from five months to just two months, resulting in customers being able to utilize the system much faster. 

As a result, they were able to experience the initial value and witness the positive outcomes of using the tool. The tool itself offered quantifiable results, enabling customers to easily recognize the revenue impact it had. From a customer success standpoint, this was beneficial as it allowed us to demonstrate the value internally. 

Another aspect that I find personally enjoyable is witnessing the growth and development of individuals. Through our role specialization efforts, we observed team members stepping up into more strategic positions, helping to shape processes and drive evolution.

Additionally, we were able to provide opportunities for individuals to progress in their careers, including leadership roles. This was made possible by creating different teams and offering career advancement pathways. 

Such opportunities, whether they involve promotions, increased salaries, or exposure to new skills and perspectives through various company meetings, are vital for the growth of our team. Although this may not have been the direct aim of the project, it served as a positive side benefit.

Sri: Are there any disadvantages to the new process of having multiple people involved in the customer experience, compared to the previous approach where customers had one point of contact for everything? Specifically, in terms of solutioning, engagement, follow-ups, and training, where one person had all the necessary information. Are there any negative consequences to having four different people involved throughout the onboarding timeline? Have you received any feedback from customers about these changes and how they have affected their experience?

Emily: Let me start by addressing customers who only know the new change. This change is all they have experienced, so it does help them adapt more easily. On the other hand, some customers had an onboarding process before this change. They have developed a strong rapport with their designated person, whom they see as their buddy throughout the process. 

Even though they have now been transferred to a Customer Success Manager (CSM), they still rely on their previous contact for assistance. So, part of the challenge lies in educating and training these customers. We need to ensure they understand who their new point of contact is and how they should interact with various departments, such as the CSM or the support team. 

Some customers embrace this transition more readily than others, and constant reinforcement is necessary. Although we don't publicly acknowledge it, there are cases where we understand that it's best to accommodate certain customers by working within their preferred approach, even if it requires more effort on our part to redirect our resources.

I believe it's important to address the confusion that customers may experience when interacting with multiple members of our internal team. It can be disorienting for them to switch between different people and not know who to turn to for questions or assistance. To mitigate this issue, it is crucial to establish clear expectations upfront. 

When a customer signs a contract, we should schedule a kickoff call to discuss the various roles they will encounter. However, it's important to remember that a single call may not provide all the necessary information, so we may need to further educate and redirect customers as needed. 

Our goal is to clarify who they will be interacting with and explain the reason behind these divisions. By bringing in focused experts, we aim to ensure the best possible experience for our customers. Once they begin interacting with different team members, these individuals should remind customers of their respective roles within the onboarding process and the specific responsibilities they have towards the customers. 

However, to convey this clarity externally, it is essential to establish clear internal communication. It was a valuable lesson for us to realize that operating with undefined tasks and teams, only complicates matters when trying to explain to customers who they should work with. 

Therefore, we need to develop and communicate clear roles and responsibilities internally, which will also enable us to present a clear picture to customers.

Sri: It's certainly important to have both individual and shared goals for the implementation team as a whole. For instance, you might aim to increase customer acquisition, ensure timely launches, and minimize project duration. When considering goals for this multifunctional team, you'll need to determine if each subfunction should have its own specific objectives, or if there are common goals that all team members should work towards collectively. How did you approach defining goals in this context?

Emily: The roles in the onboarding process have common goals. The focus is on Time To Live and time to first value. The project manager ensures that the customers stick to the plan and flags any deviations, driving accountability. It is essential to get customer buy-in on deadlines and steps to maintain accountability. The solutions engineer or technical architect ensures upfront scoping of the customer solution to avoid rework. These different roles have specific focuses within the team, all working towards the overall metrics.

Sri: Absolutely. It's great to hear about the team's shared goals and how they contribute to a common initiative. This ensures that everyone is aligned and working towards the same set of key performance indicators. 

Now, let's shift gears to another segment of our podcast episode. We'll have a rapid-fire round with a few quick questions. In this context, could you share a movie or a book that has truly inspired you?

Emily: I recommend two books that I find extremely valuable. The first one is "Radical Candor" by Kim Scott. I am particularly drawn to the way she discusses giving feedback and the importance of providing it directly. Giving feedback in this way is actually a gift to people, as it allows them to make necessary changes and improvements. 

The second book is "Genius Habit" by Laura Garnett. This book contains exercises that help you identify and understand your unique talents and strengths. It helps you discover your special sauce and how you can apply it in both your personal life and within an organization.

Sri: What is your special sauce?

Emily: I am a versatile collaborator who excels at incorporating the customer's perspective into various organizations. I can break down communication barriers and ensure that the customer's needs are effectively conveyed. Instead of simply stating what our team requires, I understand the importance of presenting information in a format that can be easily understood and embraced by other departments. 

Each department, such as product and finance, has its own perspective, and it is crucial to tailor our communication to their specific lenses. By considering our team's perspective, integrating customer feedback, and finding ways to effectively engage with other teams, I foster improved collaboration and teamwork.

Sri: What is a customer onboarding objective you have for the year 2023?

Emily: In my current organization, we have encountered a unique situation with some customers. After signing a contract, they haven't started the onboarding process, which we call the deviation phase. This has become a goal for us this year - to create more momentum and ensure implementation begins promptly after contract signing. 

There are various reasons why customers get stuck in this phase. Sometimes it relates to compliance requirements, where having something in place is prioritized over actual usage. Other times, early-stage customers delay implementation until their business is fully operational. 

To address this, we aim to capitalize on the initial excitement of purchasing our tool and involve the team in the onboarding process. One challenge we face is the disconnect between selling to the business team and working with the technical team for implementation. 

To overcome this, we have found success in including the technical team in the sales process. This approach may face resistance from the sales organization as it can slow things down or raise questions, but it is crucial to ensure alignment before the contract is signed. 

By bridging this conversation earlier, we can prevent the situation of the business customer signing the contract only for the engineering resources to be unavailable for months to come, leaving us stuck.

Sri: What trends do you anticipate in customer success?

Emily: In the past few years, the evolution of various themes has made it crucial for customer success professionals to become skilled storytellers with data. It is important to deeply understand your customers' activities, goals, and their accomplishments facilitated by your product or service. It is crucial to connect specific metrics to these achievements.

Sri: Thank you for answering all the questions, Emily. I appreciate your time. I realize the questions may have been a bit too fast-paced, so I'll slow down next time. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed hearing your answers. I have one final question to wrap things up: What advice do you have for other leaders who are scaling their startups?

Emily: I have two main points that I would like to discuss. Firstly, I highly recommend starting to measure metrics. It may seem inconvenient if you don't have a centralized system for your data or if you haven't collected certain aspects of data yet, but it's important to start measuring what you do have. 

Even if you're using a simple Google Sheet and updating it on a weekly or monthly basis, having something that allows you to track trends is crucial. It's difficult when you reach a point where you need to make decisions but lack data from the past year. So, start measuring something now and you can evolve and determine if you're measuring the right things or if more specific metrics would be more impactful.

Secondly, I've noticed an evolution in this area, but as a broader customer success organization, there is still room for improvement. It's vital to truly understand how your work impacts the business. When joining a new organization, I often sit down with the finance leader to gain insight into how the business generates revenue. 

It may seem obvious that customers pay the company, but understanding the costs of the business is equally important. Are there significant costs related to headcount or infrastructure? How do the various roles on your team contribute to these costs or affect the profit margin? Having a comprehensive understanding of your function, the people in it, and how your work drives the business and potentially impacts valuation or expansion opportunities is incredibly powerful. 

This knowledge allows you to make more informed decisions when building and developing your team, and it positions you as a well-informed member within the executive team and the organization as a whole.

Sri: It's great to hear your answer. I believe it's valuable for all CS leaders who are beginning in a new role, especially if they've recently changed jobs. They should definitely reach out and have a conversation with their finance leaders. 

Your insights are greatly appreciated. Thank you for being on our show today, we truly appreciate your time.

Emily: Thank you for inviting me. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation.

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