An engaged customer base is essential to growing a successful SaaS business. And there’s a direct relationship between increasing customer engagement and improving customer retention. In fact, engagement can be more impactful than acquisition for the long term healthy growth of your business. Strong engagement increases your customer lifetime value, makes your customer base happier and helps you improve your product faster. To successfully engage your customers, you need to understand fundamental engagement levers of your product, and then identify proactive tactics that will drive engagement and enhance the customer experience. In this guide, we’ll cover seven different engagement approaches across onboarding and retention.

 

What is a customer engagement model?

A customer engagement model is the process that you use to approach your ongoing relationship with your customers. You’ll sometimes see this process defined as one that starts post-sales, but we believe that a holistic engagement model should begin with your first interaction with a potential customer. You can think of customer engagement in terms of a few different stages: pre-sale, post-sale onboarding into your product and then ongoing product adoption and use. A customer engagement model is part of a larger User Success strategy designed to help you fully understand how your users are engaging with your product to provide them with a personalized experience that helps them become evangelists. There may be different stages that make sense for your particular product, but we’ll focus here on onboarding and ongoing retention.

 

Stages of Customer Engagement

An effective customer engagement model starts with an understanding of the customer journey, and then moves customers through the stages of customer engagement. We’ll outline five stages of customer engagement below. While you may choose to use customized stages based on your particular product and customer journey, these standard stages provide a good starting point. The first handful of stages in the model align to a typical customer funnel or buyers’ journey, while the later stages focus on creating deep and lasting relationships with your customers. The stages that you choose to manage will also inform the customer success metrics that you track.

 

Unawareness

At this stage, a customer (or technically, a prospective customer) doesn’t yet know anything about your company or your product. They may even be unaware of the solution space in which you operate. To capture the attention of prospects and raise their awareness, you should focus on building content and creating a brand. Brand awareness is important for establishing trust with consumers. It gives your company an outlet to better connect with consumers, receive feedback, and provide a compelling story surrounding your product. To do this effectively, it’s critically important to understand your target personas, their pain points and how they think and talk about potential solutions.

 

Discovery

In the discovery stage, prospective customers are beginning to learn about your company. As with awareness, you’ll want to develop compelling content targeted to your prospect personas. Think about the questions they may have or the solutions they’d be looking for and tailor your content strategy appropriately. During this phase, you may begin to collect information about who these prospects are, their roles and their companies. As you know more about them, you can further target and engage your prospects

 

Consideration

During the consideration stage, prospective customers are seriously thinking about investing in a solution, but they’re likely comparing your solution to those of your competitors. This presents an opportunity to make sure that every interaction a prospect has with your company is a positive one and to position yourself in a way that’s clearly differentiated from your competitors. Content such as testimonials and case studies from existing customers can help improve your chances of winning new customers.

 

Conversion

If you’ve successfully convinced a prospective customer that your solution is the best fit, they will “convert” to a customer. Just because you’ve won a new customer doesn’t mean your work is done! In fact, to build a successful SaaS business delighting and retaining customers is even more important that acquiring them in the first place. So make sure that the onboarding experience is a positive one. The process involves a series of steps, resources, and active support to help customers incorporate your product into their workflow so that they can achieve “success”. It’s important to set up clear goals and a clear process for how the onboarding journey should flow in order to ensure that customers are quickly getting value from your product.

 

Ongoing engagement (creating evangelists)

Once your new customers are onboarded and up and running, your goal is to drive increasing engagement and to make your solution an essential part of your customers’ life. Make sure that you’re listening to and effectively managing your customers’ feedback, which will help you make your product or app better, faster. Happy engaged customers are less likely to churn, will deliver more lifetime value, and will become evangelists for your brand, helping you acquire more customers.

 

How do you choose the right engagement model?

Now that we’ve covered the stages of customer engagement, how do you choose the right customer engagement model for your business? What’s the right way to engage customers and drive customer success? As we’ll cover below, there are high touch models, low touch models and hybrid approaches. The right customer engagement model for your business will be determined by the complexity of your product, the cost of your solution and your target customers. For example, high touch models are costly to operate, so they won’t make sense, nor are they needed, for low cost, relatively simple products. Conversely, if you have a very complex model that needs a lot of hands on support or integration to get up and running, a low touch model won’t work. Let’s look at some different engagement models.

 

Onboarding Models

Different onboarding models will make sense depending on the nature of your product and price point. Some products will use a very low touch model, which often makes sense for higher volume, lower price offerings. Others use a very hands-on, high touch model, which can be more appropriate for more complex and costly products. And many companies adopt a hybrid of the two approaches. We cover each below.

 

High touch models

High touch models tend to make the most sense for relatively high cost products, given that high touch models are much costlier to support than low touch models. As contract prices increase, so does customer lifetime value, justifying the allocation of more resources in the onboarding process. We often see high touch models used by complex software solutions that likely involve multiple stakeholders across different teams.

High touch models leverage live interactions between your team and your customers. Onboarding often starts with a warm introduction from the sales team to an implementation or success team. The high touch experience then may include live online or in-person training and a multi-step onboarding success plan, with regular live checkpoints. Advantages of this approach include the ability to tailor onboarding and success criteria to each customers’ specific needs, as well as the flexibility to adjust the onboarding interactions based on how the customer responds. This approach ensures that your users are set up to be successful and it’s also a chance to deepen your relationships with your customers.

 

Low touch models

A low touch engagement model tends to make more sense for lower priced, higher volume solutions, which are usually less complex. While the goal is still to ensure that your new customers are onboarded and equipped to be successful in your product, it’s typically done through very limited 1:1 human interaction and relies more on automated, scalable onboarding and training resources.

To develop an effective low touch onboarding model, you need to understand the stages of onboarding and how you will measure success. Your low touch or automated onboarding experience is then designed to deliver the interactions and resources that new customers need to successfully progress to each stage. Because this model is often used for companies with higher numbers of lower cost contracts, you’ll have a higher volume of data to use to measure successful progress to each stage.

Components of a low touch onboarding experience may include an automated checklist of steps mapped to the success criteria, self-paced online training and self-serve support materials. A well-built low touch onboarding model will result in high user engagement from new users of your product.

Hybrid models

As its name suggests, a hybrid onboarding model combines elements of both high touch and low touch onboarding. You can think of onboarding models as spanning a spectrum from high touch to low touch. In reality, most companies use a blend of the two. Where they fall on that spectrum will likely be determined by the cost and complexity of the solution. 

Some companies may apply a primarily high touch approach, but supplement it with some automated emails and training materials. Others may employ a primarily low touch model, but make live onboarding support or training available for customers who are struggling with successful onboarding. As with the models we covered above, the ultimate goal is to drive high engagement from new users.

 

Retention Models

Once you’ve successfully onboarded new customers and set them up for initial success, you need a process for ensuring their ongoing engagement and success on the platform. Strong customer retention is as important, or even more important, than a successful customer acquisition strategy

Retention models should include education to equip users to be successful, communicating product updates to your users, monitoring engagement to understand the health of the customer relationship relationship, and ongoing engagement of users to continuously improve your product. 

If you can successfully make your product a regular and important part of your customers workflow (that is, design a sticky product experience), you can be sure that high retention will follow. There are a handful of different models that can be used and they can be used and, as with onboarding, these models can be used in combination with each other. We’ll cover CSM-driven retention models, automated models, as well as ways to engage your customers in developing your product roadmap.

 

CSM-driven

As with onboarding models, the resources that you can allocate to retention strategies are dictated by the nature of your product and the cost of the contract. One common high-touch model involves assigning a dedicated customer success manager (CSM) to each account. The ratio of accounts per CSM will be driven but the cost and complexity of your product. For very high value contracts, a CSM may only manage a handful of customers. 

These CSMs will work directly with customers to ensure that they are getting value from the product. CSMs will monitor usage and experience metrics for their owned accounts and then create programs customized to the needs of each account. So if one account is showing unhealthy usage metrics, the CSM may increase their interactions with that account to get them back on track.

A CSM-driven model makes the interactions between product and customers more human, strengthening this relationship and ultimately increasing engagement and lifetime value.

 

Automated retention

For less complex, lower price point solutions, automated engagement models can work well. The goal is still to drive ongoing engagement and retention. Automated retention models will include monitoring the engagement and health of the account and delivering continuing education and support.

In CSM-driven models, CSMs monitor the engagement and health of each account. An automated model will likely use software to monitor engagement across the large volume of accounts. Exception-based reporting processes can flag any accounts that are showing dangerously low engagement and in need of extra attention.

Automated email nurtures can be built to provide continuing education resources to customers. And tools like chatbots can automate much of the support process. Product announcements can also be delivered through automated channels such as email, or better, right in the app. The key is to make sure that you keep your users aware of changes to your product, and show them why they should care and provide the information necessary for them to understand and use the new capabilities.

 

Collaborative product roadmap

A collaborative approach to building your product roadmap is a powerful way to show your users that you care about their input. Your users know your product best, so why not provide easy ways for users to make product suggestions? You can unburden your support team from having to triage feedback by routing feedback directly to your product team. And then use feedback management software to surface themes, prioritize them based on business impact and then validate with your users. 

Even though you can’t build every feature that your users ask for, enabling them to give input into your roadmap will make users feel valued. Providing transparency into upcoming releases will help users understand what improvements you’re focused on, and will show them that your product is a living, constantly improving thing.

Hybrid

A hybrid approach combines different elements that we covered above. As with onboarding, most companies tend to adopt some mix of these retention models, based on their unique user needs, the product complexity and the price point. Whatever approach you apply, it should be designed to make your users successful, help your product become an essential part of your customers’ workflows and allow users an easy way to provide feedback about your product.

 

Conclusion

An engaged customer base is an essential part of a successful SaaS business. The onboarding and retention models that we discussed in this post can be applied as part of a customer engagement strategy, but each company has a unique product and unique customers needs. So the most important thing is to build a model that works for your business. An effective customer engagement model will result in happier customers, increase retention and lifetime value and help you improve your product faster.