Signed, Sealed, Delivered, but Not Used

For an early-stage founder, closing a deal is cause for celebration. It validates your idea, gives you the confidence to keep pushing on, and of course sets you up for more work. This two-part series focuses on that subsequent work. Just because a client has signed does not mean they’re “live,” and being “live” certainly does not mean that their usage is where you want it to be, nor where it needs to be in order to secure the renewal.

Here, we’ll focus on proper post-sale customer onboarding and implementation, specifically as it relates to seed and pre-seed ventures. Much has been written (for example, this post by Amity) covering sales and customer success at larger organizations, but a few key changes in the early stages can position a young company for greater success down the line.

Part 1: Implementation

Congratulations! You’ve convinced your first customer that your product is worthwhile and will make their life significantly better. But what has to happen before that customer will actually use your product? The answer to this question falls into the all-encompassing word “implementation.”

For those early customers, implementation can be a time-consuming, hands-on and often ad hoc project. But a smooth implementation process is a mission-critical part of your company’s success, so you should invest the time upfront to ensure that your customers have a successful launch and longstanding relationship with your company.

Here are some tips and best practices for client implementation and onboarding for early-stage companies, all of which should be incorporated into your workflow from the very first customer you bring on.

1. Documentation. I can’t overstate the importance of comprehensive documentation right from the get-go, and I’ll get into this more below. In short, detailed documentation serves as the foundation of your entire implementation process, and will help inform your customer interactions, as well as your internal customer success tools.

2. Communication. While communication is always key to successful client relationships, it is especially true for your earliest customers, as you’re still figuring out the exact onboarding process, and what works best for both them and your team.

3. Data collection. During client implementation, defining success might require you to track certain key pre- and post-implementation stats. If your product claims to make me taller, but you don’t ask for my height during implementation, you will have a difficult time tracking toward the causal value of your offering. Even if your product delivers on its promise, contract renewal will be more difficult if you haven’t gathered accurate pre-implementation data from your customer.

4. Error handling. A customer signs up for a new tool and something goes wrong. We’ve all been there. But whether this is a graceful failure (“Please click here for further support”) or catastrophic (the customer find out a week later that she has to start the whole implementation process again) is up to you. In the early days, when all of your client onboarding is high touch, any failure should be a graceful one, and you should do your utmost to keep customers happy and using your product. As you scale, build in the necessary support and automation to ensure that any failures are handled quickly and effectively.

As I mentioned above, documentation is the essential first step in developing a successful implementation process. By documentation, I’m not referring to formal, client-facing documentation, but rather something as simple as a living Google Doc that founders and early employees can add to and reference. The contents of that document are not written in stone, of course, but having something in writing will help you iterate more effectively in the future. This step is especially critical for early-stage companies and it should not be glossed over, despite the many other things founders have on their plate at any given moment. Here’s why:

  • Proper documentation will allow you to more accurately set customer expectations.
  • It will help you better communicate your value and expertise to your clients.
  • It is the first step toward building the tools to train your customer success team.
  • The steps you document might make for excellent product improvements in the future.

So, what should this living document contain? In short, it’s any and all steps that lead to a successful implementation process and, where possible, the expected amount of time each step will take. Imagine you were teaching an alien how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. That’s how detailed and comprehensive your documentation should be.

As you start building your customer onboarding journey, you will likely be writing these steps for the first time. Not surprisingly, some parts of the process might seem very impromptu. But somewhere around the fifth to tenth onboarding, you should be able to record, in a fairly concise way, exactly what it takes to get a new customer up and running. Maybe it is as simple as an API key, maybe there’s a three-step process, or there might be a multi-week engagement that involves multiple different teams. Whatever is required, and the more (and more clearly) you can articulate your process and keys to success to the customer ahead of time, the better the foundation of your relationship. By nailing these pieces of the puzzle, you’ll be greatly increasing your customers’ success and satisfaction with your product.

Once your customer is fully onboarded, you will closely monitor their usage to see if they are using your product as intended. Stay tuned for Part II of this series, where we will define the term “usage,” and uncover tips for driving usage and adherence for early-stage companies.