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Building a Self-Service Onboarding Process: a Guide for SaaS Businesses

How self-service onboarding can improve your product adoption and save your bottom line — plus all the details on getting started.
Written by
Beth Ellwood
Last updated
October 23, 2023

When it comes to SaaS products, hooking customers is only the beginning. To ensure customers stick around and keep coming back for more, onboarding them effectively — showing your product's features and how it drives value for the user — is absolutely essential.

And good onboarding is critical to your product’s sales too — 63% of customers consider the onboarding process when deciding whether or not to purchase a product.

A powerful way to enhance your SaaS onboarding experience is to adopt a self-service approach. Self-service onboarding places customers in the driver’s seat as they get to know your product and onboard themselves. Customers can make their way to the features they want and start using them ASAP, improving product adoption and reducing customer friction and churn.

In this guide, you’ll learn how self-service onboarding can benefit your customers, your team, and your bottom line. Then, you’ll get the scoop on building a self-service onboarding process of your own.

What is self-service onboarding?

Self-service onboarding is when new customers are given the tools to get started with your product on their own. Instead of being guided by a member of your team, customers are directed by self-service resources built into the onboarding flow. Tools like interactive walkthroughs, help center widgets, and product tooltips assist customers through the initial set-up and first use of your product.

The self-service onboarding process is built around your product but led by the customer. This means that customers have agency over the features they want to adopt and when they want to adopt them. They can skip any information they don’t need and spend more time discovering the features that matter most to them.

Why is self-service onboarding a better approach?

Many businesses are embracing a self-service approach to customer onboarding, especially in the SaaS space. That’s because handing customers the reins can do amazing things for the success of your onboarding. Here are some key benefits:

It decreases time to value for customers            

When done right, a self-driven approach enables your customers to start using your product sooner — and experiencing its value sooner, too. Self-service onboarding is built to pull your customers into your product and get them using the very features they were promised in your sales pitch. 

Since self-service onboarding is product-led, learning is contextual and crafted around the user’s actions. By nature, customers get practice using the product as they set it up. For example, an interactive walkthrough can prompt users to take specific actions to reach a goal, like creating their first promotional banner on a graphic design platform.

Customers are incited to use your product’s features, paving the way for “Aha!” moments and turning them into active users who see value in your product. This is a game-changer because customers who fail to experience the benefits of your product will soon get frustrated and look for an alternative product.

Customers are in control, reducing friction

In contrast to a traditional onboarding process, a self-service approach is led by the customer. This means customers are in control of the pace and content of their learning, instead of following a pre-defined flow that’s established by the provider.

This is important because most SaaS products have different use cases, which means some customers will only need to use certain features. For example, if a customer is only interested in creating promotional banners, they shouldn’t have to sit through product tours for every graphic tool on your platform. Instead, they can go straight to the feature they’re after and spend as much time learning about it as they need. 

Above all, a self-directed approach removes friction. Instead of being frustrated by features they aren’t interested in or overloaded with more information than they can retain, users can jump directly to what they want to know at that moment. And when they’re ready to learn more, the customer can dive into more resources with a few simple clicks.

It’s highly scalable — and better for ROI

Self-serve tools help new customers set up and begin using your product independently, without needing direct guidance from sales and customer success teams. As a result, your customer onboarding process can handle growing numbers of users without necessarily needing more agents, which leads to major savings.

A high-cost onboarding process — similar to any other inefficient process —  can hurt your profitability and make your growth unsustainable. By contrast, a self-serve onboarding process costs much less and frees up your customer success team to focus on providing a great customer experience and adding value for customers. This will improve retention, and the longer a customer stays with you, the higher their customer lifetime value and the better your ROI. (Research suggests that improving your retention by 5% can increase your profits by 25%!)

How to build a self-service onboarding process

While self-service onboarding lets customers take the lead, they are by no means on their own. The onboarding process is guided by different resources created by your team.

Here are some ways you can use self-service resources to pull together an effective onboarding process:

Use a welcome flow to collect customer info

A welcome flow is the first message a customer sees when they open up your product. It can consist of a single screen or a series of screens and is typically used to welcome users, set expectations, and drive engagement with your product. 

A welcome flow can also be used to collect valuable data about your customers, through an embedded survey. These surveys tend to include questions to help you better understand your customers, such as asking for their job title and the number of people at their organization. They can also target a customer’s motivations for using your product, such as their goals, the problems they’re trying to solve, and the actions they want to achieve. 

Armed with this info, you can choose to segment your customers by use case and then tailor the onboarding experience to specific needs. For example, based on their survey answers, you can send a customer an email or an in-app notification about a product or feature you think they’ll enjoy.

Design an onboarding checklist to guide customers

An example of onboarding checklist
An example of onboarding checklist

Another valuable resource for your onboarding flow is a checklist that steers customers through the initial set-up process. This list will consist of a few actions that users should take to get started using your product. Items can include things like exploring the product, downloading the desktop app, connecting their social media accounts, or choosing a plan.

Here are a few tips for a successful onboarding checklist:

  • Design the checklist so that it can be followed out of order. In many cases, these onboarding steps won’t necessarily have to be followed in order. To give customers further agency, design the checklist so that they can skip certain actions and come back to them later. This will reduce customer frustration in cases where a customer is ready for one task but not another.
  • Show users their progress. Many providers use visual progress bars to show users their progress throughout the onboarding process. This not only helps orient users within the onboarding journey but motivates them to continue — customers are less likely to abandon a sequence when they feel they’ve already made progress.
  • Engage users with gamification. Some companies choose to add extra incentive to their checklist with gamification. For example, you can provide customers with credits for completing checklist items that can be redeemed toward product purchases. Alternatively, you can send customers a discount once they’ve completed the checklist in its entirety.

Create a drip campaign to capture and inform users

A drip campaign is when a business sends a series of automated emails to its audience. An onboarding sequence can be used to educate new users about your product and might contain helpful tips or calls to action (CTAs) to upgrade their plan. These emails keep users informed and engaged when outside your product.

Drip emails can either be sent on a pre-set schedule or in response to user actions. For example, time-triggered emails can be sent out every couple of days to familiarize users with product features one step at a time. Or a check-in email can be automatically sent out after a certain period to ask customers for feedback or see if they need help. 

Behavior-based emails can be sent out when a user completes a certain action like signing in to a particular product or using a specific feature for the first time. These emails can contain tips and useful information related to the action the user just took or is about to take. Behavior-based emails are powerful because they allow you to support customers at their time of need and encourage them to get more out of your product.

Use in-app messages and guides to educate users

Next on our list are in-app messages. Within your app or product, you can embed timely messages that engage and inform users. These messages can be used to introduce features and drive adoption, by prompting users to take certain actions like trying out a new tool. In-app messages help educate users while ensuring they stay within your app and maintain their productivity.

Popular types of in-app messages: 

  • Interactive walkthroughs are a series of prompts that guide customers step-by-step as they learn to use specific features. Walkthroughs can be extremely effective, as they enable customers to learn by doing. Customers get to practice using the product as they set it up, versus watching a product tour without interacting.
  • Native tooltips are relevant tips that show up when a user hovers over or clicks on a particular element. Tooltips provide context-sensitive information, driving engagement as users discover new features.
  • Slideouts are messages that slide out from the side of the screen at pre-programmed moments. Slideouts are often used to collect feedback from customers (e.g., asking a customer to rate the user experience) or to prompt users to take an action (e.g., a CTA to sign up for a meeting with your team).

Build a rich knowledge base to support users


An example of a knowledge base

A knowledge base provides users with access to a treasure trove of information about your product, which they can access at any time. It’s a hub of helpful articles, how-to guides, and in-depth documentation that users can access to learn how to use your product or troubleshoot problems. Helping customers navigate early problems is essential — 55% of customers have returned a product because they couldn’t understand how to use it.

A knowledge base allows you to include information about your product that’s too detailed for in-app messages or emails. It can include a “Getting started” section that hosts the most useful info for new customers, like answers to common set-up issues and how-to guides for essential features.

SaaS companies can choose to embed their knowledge base within their product as a help center widget. This widget can be programmed to showcase helpful articles that are relevant to whatever page a user is accessing. Users can easily access the help center widget from the side of the screen, instead of having to open a separate tab. This reduces friction and keeps customers within your product. 

Leverage Q&A to encourage peer-to-peer knowledge sharing

Q&A built with Bettermode
Q&A built with Bettermode


A great tool to assist customers along the onboarding process is a forum or a Q&A tool. These tools enable customers to seek help from other users who are further along the customer journey. Users can ask questions and find solutions to common set-up issues that have been solved by others.

There are a few features that can make your forum more impactful. First, a robust search function is vital for helping users quickly locate answers to their questions. Impressive search functionality also helps eliminate duplicate questions. 

Another key feature is the ability to label posts with helpful tags. For example, you can tag an awesome reply as a “best answer” or tag a question that has been answered as “resolved.” This simple function makes it easy for users to navigate through the noise and find the info they need as quickly as possible. 

Finally, a forum with analytics and reporting tools (or one that integrates with your favorite analytics provider) can be highly beneficial. Forum metrics can help you understand how users are interacting with your forum, which questions are getting the most hits, and which answers users are finding the most helpful. You can also use these insights to identify the most challenging parts of your product set-up. You can then choose to create new knowledge base articles or in-app messages to cover these topics.

Launch an academy to deliver further value


Tutorial library built with Bettermode

Some SaaS providers make use of academies — structured courses that walk customers through the use of your product. Academies, sometimes called universities, are especially useful for complex products. Training videos can cover the initial onboarding process and beyond, as you convert new customers into sophisticated users of your product. Academies help users get the most value from your product by teaching them additional skills and knowledge related to your product and industry. 

Providing customer support beyond self-service onboarding

Self-service onboarding plays a crucial role in guiding customers through their first use of your product and directing them to immediate value. But it’s not enough on its own. For one, self-service resources typically cover the most common use cases and will bypass more niche questions that are specific to sophisticated product users.

Onboarding is also only the start of the user journey. It doesn’t cover the next phase of learning as customers delve deeper into using your product. For these reasons, your support team should be ready to supplement the self-serve onboarding process in a few key ways. 

Best practices for supplementing the self-serve onboarding process:

  • Ensure help is always within reach. Make it easy for customers to access support when they need it. Within every self-service tool, include resources like a customer service number, a live chat icon, or an email button.
  • Familiarize your support agents with your self-service tools. Make sure your support agents are familiar with the self-serve onboarding process and understand how to assist customers along the way.
  • Pinpoint user actions that indicate a need for help. Use analytics tools to identify actions that signal that a user is stuck. For example, if users tend to abandon the onboarding flow in the middle of a particular action, this may signal a point of confusion or frustration.
  • Assign a customer success manager to strategic customers. Companies typically assign a CSM to work one-on-one with their most valuable customers. These are usually customers who have purchased advanced or enterprise plans and have higher expectations for personalized service. A CSM can guide them along the way, answer any of their questions, and assist them in meeting their unique goals.


Elevate your onboarding process with self-service

Bettermode can help you scale your customer success program with a self-service onboarding process. With Bettermode, you can create a centralized customer hub to host your knowledge base and customer forum, publish help articles, and offer courses.

Click here to see how Bettermode can enable you to drive product adoption and retain customers.  

Beth Ellwood
Content writer

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