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How to build a customer onboarding checklist

Emily Wang
10 min read

What is a customer onboarding checklist?

Customer onboarding checklists capture the key actions (sometimes called tasks) that should happen, in order for a customer to effectively get value from the product or service they bought.

We’ll largely focus on onboarding for software products, but many of the same principles apply to client services.

Internal checklists

Often, when a product is just starting out, the onboarding checklist is entirely internal-facing. In fact, it might be just inside someone’s head!

Over time, there’s a need to jot down the various steps, whether it be a kick-off meeting, gathering a certain amount of customer data, or configuring something on behalf of the customer. Like many todo lists, these checklists help the person, whether a customer success manager or sales person, make sure that things don’t fall through the cracks.

But as the process becomes more streamlined, or as the software allows for more user-facing actions (like creating a project or workflow themselves), these checklists evolve to being customer-facing.

Customer facing checklists

Customer facing checklists, much like internal ones, often start as traded emails and notes. “Please do X by a certain date (insert URL)”. 

Better customer facing checklists are shared in a single place (ideally in-app) so that the customer has a single point of reference, as well as insight into the whole process upfront. 

Collaborative checklists

Sometimes your product’s onboarding can be done entirely by the customer. But when there’s a mix of tasks that they own, and ones that the internal team owns, putting all of this into a shared list can be helpful for visibility and accountability.

The most common place to do this is in a commonly used shared document, like Google Docs or Notion. Most of the time, customers don’t want to sign up for another service just to use your product, and will push back on using another tool to track progress. Either way, whether a doc or a 3rd party project management tracking tool, the biggest point of friction is getting your customers to engage there. They have a hard enough time remembering your software’s URL. Asking them to find that other document or tracker URL is a whole other ballgame.

What are the benefits of having an onboarding checklist?

As with many things, anything that is done repeatedly should have some way of tracking. For starters, that’s the only way to scale beyond one person doing whatever comes to mind first.

Single place of reference

An onboarding checklist gives all stakeholders – internal and customers – a single place of reference for their onboarding journey. Otherwise, if steps are scattered throughout “next steps” slides and emails, it’s nearly impossible to keep track and agree on what is next.

See the whole journey and not just get stuck in the nitty gritty

We’ve all been through software wizards which have a screen with 2 actions, and when you’re done, show you another screen with 3 actions. And you begin to wonder: when will this end? Or worse, close out because you thought you were done.

Setting context and expectations is critical. Much like during the sales process, socializing the tasks that users will need to do, and creating compelling tie-ins to the benefits they’ll unlock with each step, sets them (and you) up for success.

Track progress and use for accountability

Finally, most checklists have a way of setting step completion. Whether it’s checking off a step, or marking it as done, that progress tracking is wonderful for a sense of accomplishment and for actually knowing where you stand. 

In cases where different users are responsible for different steps, assigning a person and even a due date can create accountability. If all parties agreed to it up front, it makes for an easier conversation around why something is slipping, and how to bring it back on track.

Why should you build an onboarding checklist?

The biggest pushback we hear when companies say they don’t have an onboarding playbook or checklist is: “my onboarding is constantly changing!” And while we hope that is true (because if not, that means you’re not learning and adapting!) there’s why you should build a checklist anyway.

1. You’re doing it already.

Unless you’re literally making it up on the fly, you’re already writing down next steps in slides, emails, and in notebooks. Instead of doing this work multiple times, put it in one place and rinse and repeat.

2. Create consistency across customers

Unless you only ever have 1 customer, it’s important to create some sense of consistency across customers. For starters, they talk to each other (and write on forums and review sites). Second, that’s the only way you’ll be able to create efficiencies and measure which customers are going off track and which ones are speeding along.

3. Structure learnings for your internal team

Finally, with a consistent process, you’ll be able to take the lessons around what went well, and what went poorly, and start to identify which are caused by process issues, which are caused by inconsistent behavior across customer success managers, and which are just chalked up to the customer.

How to get started

The most common way to start building an onboarding checklist is to start from the beginning, and jot down all the things that need to happen. Problem is, that quickly feels overwhelming because it’s often not clear when things end. It also captures your process only as it is today. And since you’re doing this to make improvements, take the opportunity to step back and start fresh.

Work backwards: start with the milestone/goal you want to hit

Surprisingly few customers start with the outcome, and that might be that the outcome is not one milestone, but multiple.

For example: rolling out my software to everyone at the company might be a fantastic outcome, but it’s unlikely that the customer is in “onboarding” until that moment. A milestone ahead of that might be “rolling out to the first team” and a milestone ahead of that might simply be to have a successful test run of a workflow.

We recommend starting small. Feel free to list out all the milestones of success, but then pick the first (and smallest) one to start creating the checklist. That will make the process feel achievable to both you and your customer. Plus, no one wants to be staring at that same checklist for 4 months!

Define the critical inputs

We call this the “critical inputs”, because similarly to the exercise of defining the “end” of onboarding, there can often be a multitude of inputs. 

For example, let’s say you’ve narrowed your first milestone down to ‘launching a successful test of workflow”. Well, to do that does the customer need to configure every option? Upload a profile picture? Invite a friend?

There might be many things that you’d like the user to do, because you think it’ll make them enjoy the software more, but in the early days focus is key. 

The critical inputs should be defined as actions and inputs where, if it doesn’t happen, you literally cannot achieve the outcome you’ve defined.

(By the way, we start with this focus because inevitably the list is diluted with things that are nicer-to-have but still “spark joy”. So, start focused, and that gives you room to indulge a bit).

Map out who needs to do what

Finally, with that set of critical inputs, define who (can be a name, or often, a role) needs to do each. But go deeper than just “engineer”. Is it an engineer with access to a certain part of a 3rd party tool? Is it an engineer who can also make product and design calls? 

The more you can define the qualities of the person you need, the easier it’ll be to align with your main stakeholder to identify the right person.

Best practices for onboarding checklists

Now that you have the content of your onboarding checklist, let’s take a look at other best practices to create an experience that feels compelling and motivating for customers.

1. Fewer than 5

Having fewer than 5 sections (steps, cards, sections) makes it easy for customers to “keep it in their heads” and not feel overwhelmed. 

The fastest way to not do the dishes? To see a pile that overflows the sink.

Hopefully the exercise above have already focused the list to just the critical 5, but if you have more, you can use visual structures to make them feel less weighty.

2. Use different formats to create visual structure

Visual designs with nested lists (for example as an accordion) can be a good way to create “chapters” of steps. As long as you have fewer than 5 chapters, you can still achieve the same sense of being able to hold it in your head.

Reward users for progress! Either color completed steps, strike them out, or even remove them from the list gives users a feeling that they’re making progress. We’ve all experienced the surprising satisfaction of scratching things off the list, and creating that same visual experience with your onboarding design is important.

3. Start with easy wins

Finally, see if you can start with an easy win. Maybe the most critical first step is actually a little hard. Could you find a way for the user to make forward progress (and even feel value) earlier? For example, instead of having the user create a workflow from scratch, allow them to duplicate a template and work off a non-empty screen.

Now go get started!

  1. Next time you’re about to onboard a new customer, take 30 min beforehand and take a stab at this checklist, starting backwards. 
  2. Then, put it in a doc and add some links and videos where helpful.
  3. Finally, use a tool like Bento to build the checklist and embed it directly into your app’s home page, so users can see it and even get started as soon as they sign-up.
  4. Measure progress and identify drop-offs (or areas with lots of questions) and iterate!
  5. Remember, this checklist should evolve. Whether that’s quarterly or based on a big product release, know that this is but a (good) starting place.

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