12 minute read · Published May 25, 2023

White glove vs. self-serve onboarding in SaaS

Latest Update May 31, 2024

Have you ever had overly attentive service? Wait staff can be overbearing. The minute your plate is empty, they whisk it away, offering dessert. As you take your last sip, they ask if you want to try another wine. "All good over here?" interrups every lively conversation.

This sucks! But you know what's just as annoying? Waiting forever to be served while you sit hungry and thirsty at the last remaining table.

The same is true with software products:

Have you ever signed up for a product and begged for it to stop spamming you with requests for sales and CS calls?

“It’s a simple product for my simple needs. Just let me get on with it.”

Or have you had the opposite? Finding yourself deep inside some overly complex dashboard while your every attempt to contact a real human being takes you further and further into a labyrinth of AI-recommended help articles with no end in sight.

(Yes, Azure, I’m talking about you. If you don’t like it, speak to me face to face. Mano a mano, cara a cara)

The customer onboarding process is important - and users will hate you or love you for it.

User onboarding, done properly, ensures your customers understand your product and realize its value (ideally, via an aha moment) - leading them to keep using it and paying for it. It directly impacts your product adoption, customer satisfaction, churn rate, and, ultimately your revenue.

But to get your user to understand your product, you first need to understand your user. You need to give them an intro to your product that fits their needs.

The two schools of onboarding in SaaS are self-serve onboarding and concierge or white-glove onboarding. Understanding the difference between the two and which one is suitable for your product is crucial.

In this CommandBar article, we will explore both and deep dive into self-serve and how you can showcase a product to keep customers coming back for more. We’ll cover:

What is self-serve onboarding?

Self-serve onboarding refers to a process where users onboard themselves onto a platform.

Common in product-led growth, this approach usually involves intuitive UX design, clear directions, and various resources like tutorials, FAQs, and community forums. The emphasis is on creating a user-friendly interface that allows users to explore and learn at their own pace.

Think of it as equipping your users with a map and compass and trusting them to navigate the terrain independently.

Self-serve onboarding tends to be much more easily scalable than other approaches because the hard work is done by the user and by software, and the cost tends to be fairly low as a result.

Many companies use a self-serve onboarding flow which leads into a freemium tier and aims to upgrade from there. In 2019, I listened to a lecture in Paris by the CEO of Typeform, Joaquim Lecha, at the SaaStr Europa conference. He told the audience they were receiving 190,000 signups a month, and only 3% of them converted to paid.

But all those people meant massive brand exposure and loads of great feedback. And, it turns out, running the freemium tier was only costing $180k a month - less than 10% of their monthly costs - so they rolled that expense into their marketing budget and considered it a win.

Even in an example like Typeform, where 97% fail to convert to paid, self-serve onboarding unlocks a whole new store of value for the company - which wouldn’t be possible any other way due to the massive scale they were achieving. Typeform raised a $135m Series C in 2022, with revenue up 3x from their 2018 numbers. So it seems to be working!

Self-serve onboarding is scalable, standardizable, measurable, and optimizable. And that’s why many companies love it.

What is concierge or white-glove onboarding?

On the other hand, concierge or white-glove onboarding is a high-touch process where a dedicated account manager within customer success teams will guide the user through the onboarding process to deliver a stellar onboarding experience.

It's an approach that gives users an expert to handhold them through the early stages of product use, akin to providing your users with a personal safety guide to show them all the way through user activation.

There are a number of scenarios where you’d want to consider white-glove or concierge onboarding:

  • For enterprise onboarding cases where the dedicated touch-point is part of the service. Often, the customer has chosen to pay for this because an account manager is something they want.
  • If your product requires a lot of customer data or action before it reveals value, you might want to assign a dedicated rep to ensure those steps can be completed successfully and the value accelerated.
  • If your customer will use the product for high-scale/volume use, it’s important to have someone who knows the product inside and out to assist with that implementation.
  • For VIPs and influential users as part of your power users strategy. Giving special access to your product team, or advance previews of new features is a useful tactic in nurturing advocates and champions within the community around your product.
  • This high-touch approach is also useful if you sell your product at a high price point and struggle to make self-serve work. Pivoting to concierge can protect revenue in the short term and help you understand onboarding problems for future improvements.

There are many options for how you approach implementing white-glove onboarding. One simple rubric is to put people first and focus on building relationships as much as revealing value. All face-to-face work is about relationships.

Is user onboarding and customer onboarding the same?

Yes, but also no. While often used interchangeably, user onboarding and customer onboarding are not always the same.

User onboarding typically refers to the initial process a new user goes through when they start using a product. It involves feature discovery, learning how to use the product, and setting up necessary preferences or settings. Its goal is to get the user to the "aha moment" where they understand the value of the product. This user might not even be a customer.

SaaS customer onboarding, however, is a broader and more strategic process. It involves not only user onboarding but also elements such as setting and managing expectations, understanding and meeting customer goals, and fostering a relationship with the customer. It's a more comprehensive process aimed at maximizing customer success and loyalty, starting from the user onboarding phase and extending throughout the customer lifecycle. As a B2B SaaS product, your real customer might not even be your user, but your user’s boss.

The distinction goes further.

In self-serve, you’re trying to educate the user about the product to maximize their value from the product. Whereas, in concierge, you’re probably speaking to some stakeholders who aren’t going to use the product but will benefit from the value it produces. You need to keep them happy to keep their business.

So, concierge rolls into the forever-onboarding mentality easier as it becomes account management very quickly and easily. Product education never stops. But in self-serve, you need to make sure you have efforts in place to effectively educate long-term users as you continue to ship new features and updates, and all the other good work you’re doing.

Is self-serve onboarding right for your product?

Whether a self-serve onboarding process is right for your product, or whether white glove onboarding is better fit depends on various factors. For instance, if your product is relatively simple to use, self-serve onboarding may be sufficient. The same applies if your user base is tech-savvy and prefers to learn at their own pace. On the other hand, if your product is complex or if it requires a significant change in your users' workflow, a white-glove onboarding approach might be more appropriate.

A self-serve customer onboarding process can be scalable and cost-effective, but it requires considerable upfront effort in creating comprehensive, user-friendly resources. Meanwhile, white-glove onboarding can deliver a personalized experience and deep customer relationships, but it can be resource-intensive and may not be scalable for a large user base. Another option to consider then, is a hybrid approach. Using self-service onboarding to cater to lower ACV customers, while reserving the white-glove treatment for Enterprise customers and power users.

What you need to do is find a way to very quickly and easily deliver the value of self-serve onboarding without the incredibly intense effort of building it all. Fortunately for you, CommandBar exists, and it allows you to get set up super quickly and then use an easy no-code interface to rapidly build the onboarding experience to be exactly as you want it.

“Now I know how easy and fast it is to create, but what should I make?” I hear you ask.

Let’s investigate…

7 ways to make self-serve user onboarding smooth and easy

If you choose self-serve onboarding, here are seven ways to make the onboarding flow as smooth and easy as possible:

Use intuitive and familiar UI/UX like tooltips and highlights

When it comes to self-serve onboarding, the user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) play a critical role in defining how easily users can navigate your software and become familiar with its features. Leveraging intuitive and familiar UI/UX design elements like product tooltips and highlighting can greatly streamline this process.

Tooltips are small, contextual pop-up boxes that provide brief explanations or guidance about a specific UI element when a user hovers over or clicks on it. They're an effective means of providing immediate, in-context help, enabling users to understand the function of an element without disrupting their workflow.

Highlighting, on the other hand, visually distinguishes an element or feature from its surrounding interface. This could involve using a different color, adding a glow or shadow, or even using animations to draw the user's attention. Highlighting is particularly useful for emphasizing new or critical features during onboarding, helping users quickly identify where to focus.

Introducing videos as part of your onboarding strategy can further enrich the user experience. Videos are engaging and visually appealing mediums that can succinctly demonstrate the functionality and features of your product. They can provide a dynamic walkthrough of complex processes, guiding users through a sequence of actions in a real-time scenario. Visual storytelling like this can make learning more enjoyable and memorable, unlocking quicker comprehension. Adobe, Loom, Vyond, and Arcade are popular options here.

Tooltips, highlighting, and videos are forms on in-app guides that leverage familiarity, as they're commonly used across many digital platforms, making them intuitive for most users. Implementing these elements in your onboarding process can significantly aid user understanding, allowing them to quickly learn and adopt your product's features.

Remember, the objective of your onboarding process is to make the user feel comfortable and capable within your product. By incorporating intuitive and familiar UI/UX elements like tooltips, highlighting, and videos, you can enhance user confidence by reducing user friction, facilitating a smoother onboarding journey, and ultimately increase product adoption rates.

As I keep saying: what makes your app special is the value you offer users, not a completely new take on how to provide software. So give your users a software experience they’re familiar with and use tried and tested techniques to convey simple information. Save your innovation budget for product functionality, rather than novel UI.

Give clear instructions and use precise language

Clarity is paramount when it comes to user onboarding in a self-serve setup. Using precise language and giving clear instructions can significantly ease the learning curve for users and boost their understanding of your product.

Whether you're describing a feature or explaining a process, ensure your language is concise, easy to understand, and free from technical jargon. It's better to assume that your users have no prior knowledge about your product. Explain each step, feature, or function in the simplest terms possible.

Make use of visual aids, such as screenshots, diagrams, or short videos, and different forms of in-app messaging to support your written instructions. Visuals can significantly enhance understanding and retention, especially when explaining more complex features or processes.

The language used in prompts, error messages, and notifications within your product also matters. Be specific and instructive.

Bad: a generic error message like "An error occurred"

Good: a more specific message like "Your password must be at least 8 characters long."

Consider trying to maintain a conversational tone in your content. This approach makes the instructions feel more friendly and less daunting, which can enhance user engagement.

By providing clear instructions and using precise language, you're ensuring that users can navigate and utilize your product with confidence and ease, contributing to a more positive onboarding experience and potentially improved user activation.

Build up slowly with progressive self-serve onboarding

You already have a manual on your website in your documentation. Now is not the time to overload the user with everything they might want to know about the product.

Instead of overwhelming the user with information, reveal features and functionalities progressively as the user becomes more familiar with your product.

A simple way of doing this is to use event triggers to display new information, tips, videos, or checklists, as a result of an action the user has taken.

This contextualizes the information while personalizing it to the user’s actions. It guides the user through the parts of the product they want to explore, and it leads them to related parts of the product you think they might be interested in right here, right now.

It seems like a simple recommendation, but it’s a super easy mistake to make. You already know loads about the product, so when you’re explaining it to someone else in a level of detail sufficient for them to use it, you’re going to gloss over some things and take some knowledge or memory for granted. It’s not your fault; it’s something we all do.

You have to be a tight editor on the flow and reduce it down to easy-to-consume chunks of knowledge that function as standalone instructions or tips, but combine to create a rounded understanding.

Develop interactive walkthroughs with product tours

Interactive walkthroughs that allow users to learn by doing can be very effective. These can be triggered based on user actions or stages in the product.

We all know what a product tour is. Here are some tips:

  • Gain the user’s consent to do the tour
  • Reward the user for finishing the tour
  • Keep the scope tight and short

Here’s a video walking you through how you can create a product tour for a new feature in CommandBar:

Provide in-app help docs and access to resources

In-app help documents and resources play a crucial role in enhancing the self-serve user onboarding experience. They function as a readily available, 24/7 guide for users who prefer to solve problems independently or need instant support.

Your in-app help resources could range from searchable FAQs, knowledge base articles, video tutorials, to chatbots. These tools provide instructions and support tailored to the specific queries or concerns of the users, effectively serving as a real-time troubleshooter.

For instance, a well-organized FAQ section can provide quick solutions to common problems, saving users time and frustration. Similarly, detailed knowledge base articles or how-to guides can walk users through more complex features or processes step-by-step, enhancing their understanding and proficiency in using your product.

Remember, accessibility is key. Users should be able to access these resources without having to leave your app, ensuring a seamless and uninterrupted experience. Making these resources searchable and organized also improves usability.

By integrating in-app help docs and resources, you're not just promoting user self-reliance but also providing a safety net that can reduce user frustration, improve user confidence, and foster a positive product experience.

Ask for user feedback and mine usage data

Okay, so for this one, it’s pretty simple: regularly ask for user feedback to understand where they may be struggling and make necessary improvements.

I think we all understand that.

A nice little 1-10 star thing pops up and asks whether you’d recommend it to a friend. The NPS modal then disappears, and a text box for feedback pops up. It's a familiar play.

Maybe you can go beyond this and reach out to certain self-serve folk to chat with them about their experience? There are loads of things you can do that you’re probably already thinking of.

But the feedback loops which fewer people think of lie in the product usage data itself. There are two types of onboarding data I’m interested in:

  1. Product adoption metrics. How many times has someone logged in? What’s your day 30 retention of new users? Of 5 different journeys you’re benchmarking against, how many customer journey completions do you see in a week? What’s your dropoff rate per screen in the signup flow? Do more trial users click this tooltip if the color contrasts with the product’s color scheme? Can we A/B test this? All this stuff.
  2. Search intent data. With CommandBar’s Universal Search users can treat the product like Google and just search for anything they need or want to know. This means you have a huge treasure trove of user intent your competitors don’t have, which can reveal loads of things to you that users might not tell you directly. This is a sneak peek inside the mind of your users - use it wisely.

Build self-serve onboarding checklists to keep your user on track

I’m a checklist fanatic. I cover why in detail in our bumper Ultimate Guide to User Onboarding. In short, it’s because they work. They’re effective, and they make tasks easier. What’s not to like?

You can use checklists as a cheat code to guide the user through the onboarding process, providing a sense of progress and achievement as they complete each step.

By tailoring your onboarding checklists to their needs, you can enhance their first impression of your product, improve checklist adherence, and ultimately improve the customer’s adoption of complex areas of your product.

And I do think that’s where checklists excel. They can walk someone through easy and simple things, yes, but they’re much more valuable for walking someone through complex and confusing things.

In CommandBar, checklists are called Questlists. Check out the video below to see how quickly you can put one together and how easy it is to do:

How CommandBar streamlines self-service onboarding

"We were able to get CommandBar up and running in production in only a few days, and our testing showed that it made our users’ in-app experience easier and faster." - Yoko Li, Senior Product Manager, HashiCorp.

CommandBar provides a full suite of SaaS customer onboarding features while leading the industry on how it deploys AI and search in-app. The search bar is one of the most powerful tools for onboarding and user education. Supercharging it with AI now adds a whole other level of power to the product and makes life easier for the user now than ever before.

You can easily integrate CommandBar with the platforms you already use, so signup now and start playing around.

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