Building an easy onboarding process for new customers

Product Business

Long before there was SaaS (Software as a Service), there was ASP (Application Service Providers) and while they're not exactly the same, they've all been “hosted products.” Those are the kinds of products I've been working on since 1995. And in the last twenty years of doing this, no phrase has ever been more true than this:

“The seeds of churn are planted early.”Lincoln Murphy

Since discovering Lincoln Murphy's site a year or so ago, I've really enjoyed many of his posts. Two of my favorites focus on the onboarding process for new customers:

His articles are worth reading. That said, here's a super quick summary of his key points:

  1. Make sure your “time to first value” is short.
  2. Make sure you know how you've defined success for your free trial
  3. Tie your onboarding email sequences with a prospect's progress
  4. At each step in the process, figure out the very next step
  5. Make progress easy so that the quick wins propel people forward

If you don't do these things, you've likely planted the seeds of churn early in their interactions with you. And at that point, it's not “if” they'll leave you, it's more likely “when.”

At this point you're wondering, if Lincoln Murphy has written so many awesome posts on this topic, Chris, what am I doing here? Shouldn't I just head over there? And yes, you should.

Let me give you an example where onboarding is still suffering (WordPress Hosting) and what it would look like if we fixed it. The same can likely be applied to many different WordPress products.

In the WordPress ecosystem, there are now tons of managed WordPress hosts (my favorite is WP Engine as I've been hosting sites with them for years). In the last year or two, I've seen FlyWheel do some pretty remarkable things to help create a different user experience for designers (and developers) who use their hosting.

But before we talk about FlyWheel and what they did, let's ask a simple question.

Why do people buy hosting?

If you're like me, you're likely going to get a bit cheeky and reply with, “because they want hosting.” And I know that's the amusing answer. But it's not actually accurate, is it?

Ask yourself a different question.

Why do people buy electricity?

At this point the question drives a completely different kind of answer—that should give us a hint on answering the first question.

People purchase electricity in order to do stuff with it. Not because they particularly like the idea of buying it. It's a utility, purchased for its utility.

Hosting is pretty similar. It's a utility purchased for its utility. People want the website and what it can do. They just happen to need the hosting to power their site.

So what does this have to do with FlyWheel and/or onboarding. Let's get into it.

Ease of use and targeted focus

Until the introduction of FlyWheel, most hosting companies offered hosting like the utility it is. But they also marketed it in the same way—ugly and frustrating.

Do you remember buying a cell phone in 1995? There were charts and tables. You didn't know if you could call until after 7 without it costing you. Except on weekends. The price per minute, for overage usage, depended on your plan, but also the day, and also the time.

Remember that?

That's the way people were selling hosting. I'm serious. You have this much hard drive space included but your overage depends on your plan. And you had to decide between shared hosting, VPS hosting, and eventually cloud hosting. OMG.

I want to say FlyWheel was the first to make things easy to use and on the eyes.

I think Pagely may have been the first to try to bundle themes with hosting to make it easier. I think WP Engine was the first to make most things pretty easy.

But I can assuredly say that FlyWheel was the first to make things comfortable to look at and easy to navigate. And they focused on the providers of those websites that people wanted. They made the designer (or developer) their customer, not just the end user.

That targeted focus help them focus their onboarding because they knew who they were really selling to. And it wasn't, “everyone.”

Building an easy onboarding process for new customers

So the example I'm using, when talking about an easy onboarding process, is hosting – because you've likely purchased hosting at some point in your life.

An easy onboarding process allows the customer to get what they want with little friction

You want a site.

  1. What a host normally asks is to create an account.
  2. To do that you have to pick a hosting plan.
  3. To do that you need to evaluate features and options.
  4. To do that you need to understand the link between what you know and their options.
  5. To do that you need to know how RAM and HD will map to users and traffic.

But what you want is a site. And what you got was friction.

An easy onboarding process asks customers questions they can answer

While you can't answer questions about RAM and HD space, you know other things like what you want your site to do, and how you want it to look.

Most hosting sites don't ask you this because they think of their services as “intention-agnostic.” (They sell their products as a utility.)

But you don't want to be intention-agnostic. You want to ask people questions about their use. You want to ask people questions about their goals. And you want to tailor that onboarding to map to the things they have no trouble articulating.

An easy onboarding process creates moments of celebration

If you've never heard of, I don't blame you. They're a small hosting company based in Paris. But they've been working on a different approach to hosting. One that brings celebration to the table for their prospects quickly.

If you time it, the process of getting a new site takes less than 5 minutes and results in a fully functional and beautiful website. Remember, you always want to focus on the end result that a customer wants—not just the technology that supports it.

The process is really simple:

  1. Create free trial account by giving your name/email
  2. Click “add a new site”
  3. Pick a theme from tons of options
  4. Have a site

You can celebrate in 4 minutes. But that's not all.

Because they integrated their latest themes with Elementor—a page builder—people can edit their new site directly on the page, and hit Save. (GoDaddy just rolled out something similar with Beaver Builder.)

When they do that, they get another moment of celebration—the success of making their site their own.

In fact, when you look at their approach, it's hard to say if they're an all-in-one player or a hosting company. But that's a distinction that their customers aren't making—because they're delivering the thing that customers want, and they're doing it quickly.

An easy onboarding process limits what's required of you

I'll end with what should be a simple and obvious point, but if you try to buy hosting, you'll discover all sorts of pain.

Some companies will send you an email after you've started a trial. They want to confirm that you wanted to start the trial. That's great. But do you have to click on a link, go to a page, fill out a form, and then fill in 2 more pages of configuration before you can get started? Sometimes you do.

Or you purchase hosting and end up with an email that tells you about FTP, SSH, and other ways to connect to a site. So now you need an FTP or SSH client to help you connect. You now have to become a software engineer to use the trial.

Some companies activate a theme or plugin with the hosting, and then you have to walk thru the pages in the settings to get it to work—which could take you 20-40 minutes.

What I like about‘s trial is you don't have to do much. You don't have to learn WordPress. You don't have to learn how to install a theme. You don't have to do a lot. You just get a site and then you can edit it.

With little or low friction, with limited requests of my effort, and with all sorts of things to celebrate, they do onboarding right.

Questions for you

As you look at your onboarding process, here are a few questions for you.

  1. When a person lands on your offering page (landing page, home page, etc), is it clear who you serve? And who you don't?
  2. From the time they sign up until the time they reach their (not your) objective, how many clicks does it take?
  3. From a time perspective, how long from sign-up until celebration?
  4. How long does it take for them to log in 5 times? (In other words, is your email campaign bringing them back?)

I think as you answer these questions you'll find you've developed a stronger onboarding process for new customers.