In the last few years, the concept of “product-led” growth has been making the rounds in the SaaS community. Big boys like Calendly, Dropbox, Slack, and Zoom have been spearheading the movement by using product-led strategies to skyrocket their growth.
Product-led growth is the idea of using your product as a main driver for growth.
It’s a simple concept:
- Users sign up for a free trial
- Experience initial value within your product
- And thanks to the brilliant habit-building UX, these users convert to paying customers.
All that without involving any humans. The product sells itself.
Conversely, sales-led growth uses human touch and sales processes to move people down the customer lifecycle.
The main difference between the two strategies is the human input involved in the process of converting leads into users and customers.
So, which approach is better? Product-led or sales-led?
In this post, we are going to help you choose and build the right strategy by focusing on just one fragment of the SaaS funnel — the onboarding.
Why the onboarding?
The onboarding process is the fundamental difference between the two approaches. While both sales-led and product-led companies could, for example, share a similar top-of-the-funnel demand generation strategy, it’s virtually impossible to have a product-led SaaS without a trial and a sales-led SaaS without people selling and/or demoing the product.
In other words, in product-led, it’s impossible for people to see value without a trial, and in sales-led, it’s impossible for them to experience value without the assistance or full guidance of a real human. Thus, at its core, your strategy will be practically most impacted by the onboarding approach you choose.
So, going back to the initial question — product-led or sales-led onboarding?
The answer to this question, like many other things in life, is — it depends.
Often when new SaaS businesses try to replicate big successful product-led companies like HubSpot, they find that the product-led vision is more of a dream than a practical lever for their product.
- They carefully create their product.
- Implement a frictionless signup process.
- Build a seamless in-app onboarding.
- Craft personalized targetted onboarding emails.
Yet, very few of their trials convert to customers.
So what are they doing wrong even when we’re doing everything right? Why is the product-led growth not fulfilling its promise? Should they start doing demo calls and neglect the in-app onboarding and onboarding emails?
Conversely, if you’ve been doing demo calls but want to transition to an easier, more cost-effective onboarding process, what do you need to do? Is this transition even possible?
In this post, I want to answer these questions and help you choose the best onboarding process for your SaaS.
What makes me qualified to help you with this challenge?
I had the pleasure to run two SaaS businesses:
- HeadReach — where we relied on a self-serve, low-touch onboarding process. We grew that startup to 300 customers and eventually sold it.
- Encharge.io — in its beginning we used a high-touch, sales-led onboarding to convert some of the fastest-growing SaaS companies like Landbot to paying customers. Today, Encharge has a hybrid model and serves more than 1,000 active businesses on its platform.
Both SaaS tools couldn’t be any more different from one another.
At HeadReach, we were bringing 20-30 signups a day, had 0 demo calls, but high monthly churn (around 12%).
At Encharge, we convert all of our high-quality long-term customers through a long, high-touch onboarding process that involves multiple calls and communication cadences. Encharge has a much lower churn rate.
Before I explore why SaaS companies are so different, I want to unpack the two onboarding concepts and make sure we’re all on the same page when we talk about product-led onboarding VS sales-led onboarding.
What is a product-led onboarding strategy?
“Product-led growth (PLG) is a business methodology in which user acquisition, expansion, conversion, and retention are all driven primarily by the product itself.”Product-led Growth Collective
Product-led onboarding is a fundamental part of product-led growth and a critical stage in the customer journey in a product-driven business. It’s the process when a user signs up for your SaaS and experiences value from your product without interacting with any humans (or at least not interacting with them as the only and primary method of converting).
To have a product-led onboarding process in SaaS, you need to have a free trial or a freemium model. But merely putting a free trial in your product doesn’t mean you have a product-led onboarding if you’re not able to onboard and convert customers.
Key characteristics of product-led onboarding include:
- Free trial or a freemium business model.
- Users can try the app without interacting with sales.
- Users can self-serve in your app.
- Users can experience value and reach the Aha moment without interacting with any humans.
- Users can achieve their desired outcomes without relying on sales/customer success/support.
- Users can become customers without interacting with sales.
The benefits of product-led onboarding include:
- Faster time-to-value – users can test and experience the perceived value at their own pace, as they are not forced to book calls and wait for sales experts to call them. In a competitive landscape, this can be crucial when evaluating
- Lower customer acquisition costs – sales reps and their commissions can quickly increase your acquisition costs and, in some cases, make the unit economics of your business unprofitable. As a sales pro and founder of Close.io, Steli Efti, says SaaS businesses with customers with less than a few hundred dollars in MRR should not employ sales.
- More leads and wider data – with a free trial, you get more free users to experience your product. You are casting a wider top-of-the-funnel net, which can generate more user activity and feedback.
In short, a product-led onboarding process is low-touch, low-effort, and has low overhead for your business.
What is a sales-driven onboarding strategy?
A sales-driven onboarding process means that you need to rely on humans to onboard and convert customers.
You can still have a free trial, but what really drives growth is the high-touch, personalized approach to sales and onboarding.
The process usually includes the following steps:
- A lead books a call on your site, live chat, or lead nurturing emails.
- A salesperson qualifies the lead through a call, live chat, or email conversation.
- If a good fit for your tool, the salesperson or customer success rep demonstrates how the product can solve customer problems and deliver value.
- The lead becomes a user by signing up for the product, or they become a customer if no trial is available.
Not required, but this onboarding process often involves investing upfront resources for expert setup and training or other consultative services.
Of course, there are tons of variants of the sales-driven approach depending on what your sales and marketing funnel looks like, but the gist is always the same: real people drive leads/users to the first purchase.
The main benefits of sales-led onboarding include:
- Higher retention rates – fewer people will end up using your product, but the ones that do will be more qualified and usually stay longer. Due to the personalized onboarding process, they are also more likely to experience more value and generally be better onboarded, which ultimately leads to higher CLTV.
- Fewer problems during onboarding – In contrast to the product-led approach, where customers navigate the onboarding process based on product cues, the sales-led model offers personal guidance from customer success experts. This almost always guarantees that users will experience fewer roadblocks and challenges in the product and generally quicker onboarding in the long run.
- Target higher-value customers – big customers and enterprise organizations almost always expect some high-effort dining and wooing during the onboarding process. They also require more advanced features and custom services that can often only be implemented by manual human work or at least a deep understanding of the product.
Product-led Onboarding Vs. Sales-led Onboarding: Which one to choose?
Let’s make something clear right off the bat:
I don’t think product-led is better than sales-led onboarding, or vice-verse.
Don’t get me wrong. As a founder of a marketing automation tool, I have much to lose by not singling out product-led as a winner.
The reality is that if you’re the founder of a small or medium-sized SaaS company, you should avoid adopting trendy buzzwords and trends just because they’re popular at the moment. Instead, what you need is a well-defined method for determining the most effective onboarding strategy for your SaaS business – in other words, identifying the onboarding process that generates the most revenue.
To help you with the decision, I’ve outlined two methods in the next sections.
Use your Ideal Customer Profile to choose your onboarding strategy
Below is a diagram inspired by Travis Bryant’s, former Head of Sales at Front and SVP Global Sales at Optimizely, approach to figuring out your sales model (and consequently your product onboarding process):
Travis believes that your Ideal Customer Profile (ICP) should “lead you to the right sales motion”.
Defining your ICP gudes us into the next consideration:
Is the product design itself capable of driving the initial conversation with your ideal customer?
For companies like Slack and Zoom (both horizontal productivity tools), Travis points out that users can pretty quickly (via free trial) understand the value without having to be convinced “by a human doing thoughtful business process discovery, demonstrations, proof of concepts that lead to that first purchase.”
By contrast, Optimizely is a business process solution (built for A/B website testing), which doesn’t really start delivering value by simply being dropped in — “there’s a whole bunch of knowledge that has to come along with it.”Source
We’ve covered how to identify your ideal customer profile before, so make sure to check out the post.
Your ICP should contain information on:
- Are they B2C or B2B?
- How big are they? Are they prosumers, SMBs, or enterprise?
- Where do these people hang out? Communities, mediums, and channels.
- How accessible are they?
- Are they used to trying out new tools and figuring out solutions on their own? Or do they prefer to outsource solutions and avoid getting involved in the execution process?
- How proficient are they? Do they have the skills required to use your app in a self-serve model?
- How many decision-makers are involved when selecting a tool from your category? For example, our previous startup, HeadReach, could be used by a single team member. Conversely, Encharge needs the approval of pretty much everybody on the marketing team, as well as input from the development team and the C-level.
Once you know who exactly you want to target, this approach to choosing your onboarding process gets much, much easier.
If your customers need to be reached by human-to-human connection, then you need to focus on a sales-driven onboarding process. “Alternatively, if you can make the connection without human intervention, you’re staring down the path of being product-driven”
Choose your onboarding strategy based on your product UX and economics
The second approach to selecting the right onboarding process is driven by your product and its business economics.
To guide you with that approach, I’ve put together a table. Use it to see where your product fits best based on the attributes in the table.
Product-led onboarding strategy for SaaS
Sales-led onboarding strategy for SaaS
B2C, Pro-sumers, B2B
Customer lifetime value
Medium to high. Easy come, easy go users.
Place in the value chain
Turn-key solution. Doesn’t disrupt or depend on other units.
Critical or infrastructural solution.
Facing the end customers
No. Only used as an internal tool.
Product learning curve
Small. People can get the hang of the tool on their own and experience value quickly.
Big. Documentation, webinar, and help docs are required
Product UX and usability
Very well executed. “Show don’t tell” customer experience and UI
Allows for compromises in the UX and usability if the onboarding involves personal hand-holding.
Few steps and self-serve. No additional assistance is required.
Long, multi-step setup.
Only one team member or just a few people are involved in the onboarding process.
Requires multiple members from different departments to complete the onboarding
One or just a few
Customer acquisition cost
Top of the funnel volume
Wider top of the funnel. Many people are trying the software. Especially if it has a freemium model. E.g. you get many trials.
Narrow. Few people are trying the tool. E.g. you get a few trials only.
Take this grid as a general direction. Certainly, there will be exceptions to these guidelines.
For instance, a SaaS with a product-led onboarding could have a high retention rate. For example, Slack reports a churn of only 2%. That said, if you have a product with high customer acquisition costs and a tough setup, you don’t have any choice but to have a low churn rate.
A hybrid SaaS onboarding strategy
Is it possible to have a sales-led and product-led onboarding process?
It is absolutely possible if your product UX and business economics allow for it. In fact, a report by Redpoint Ventures shows that sales-assisted onboarding increases conversion by 3.5x+.
In the diagram below, you will see that companies with $0-5k Average Customer Value that employ salespeople as a part of their onboarding convert at 18%, while purely product-driven companies convert at only 7%.
Also, you will notice that as the price point goes higher, the unassisted onboarding drops to 0.
How to implement a hybrid onboarding process?
To give you a practical example, at Encharge, we put trial users into two parallel buckets or swim lanes:
- Automated email onboarding sequence
- A sales-driven cadence
We use our product to orchestrate these onboarding activities/emails and get a full picture of the onboarding process of the person.
Every trial user gets in the first bucket and receives a series of time-based and trigger-based emails. We want to get our trial users to follow the shortest path to their desired outcome.
An active user in our platform is someone who has imported email contacts, created at least one email and activated an email flow.
We strictly follow what we call the “simple email formula” that each email should have one goal, one desired outcome for the user, and just one call to action.
In the email example below, we nudge people to create their first automation flow by providing the quickest shortcut — using templates in our platform.
On top of this, we use HubSpot to execute and track sales activities that we follow for the hot leads.
The sales process is broken into three calls and supported by multiple email/social media follow-ups.
- The first call is a quick, 15-minute qualification call that we use to figure out if the lead fits our customer persona and if our software is going to help them.
- The next call is an extended 45-minute marketing automation strategy/email review call, where we try to provide as much business value as possible. This is more of an advisory call than a product demo call.
- The last call is an onboarding call where we discuss technical details, demonstrate specific product features, and answer specific questions.
Apart from implementing the right processes, it’s important that your sales and marketing teams are aligned together.
Learn more: With our native HubSpot integration, you can integrate a hybrid onboarding model using Encharge for product-led emails and HubSpot for high-touch sales. Learn more on how to connect HubSpot and Encharge and automate the customer lifecycle stages.
Implementing the right onboarding strategy
Once you’ve made the final decision of what onboarding process you need to build for your product: product-led, sales-led, or hybrid, you need to get to business and implement it.
Implementing an onboarding process is a topic worth a blog category or two, but I want to give you a few top-level tips about what you need to focus on regardless of which approach you choose.
Key things to focus on for:
Product-led onboarding strategy for SaaS
- Increase your top-of-the-funnel traffic and trials.
- Create a frictionless setup process.
- Build in-app onboarding tours that lead users to aha moments quickly.
- Add behavior-based email onboarding with simple emails with clear CTAs.
- Build a thorough marketing automation strategy that automates your whole marketing funnel.
- Reduce your customer acquisition costs.
Sales-led onboarding strategy for SaaS
- Create a bottom-of-the-funnel thought leadership content.
- Nurture your leads with valuable content.
- Develop an effective sales process with a qualification call and free-strategy call.
- Qualify and score your leads based on value and activity in your app.
- Act proactively with your trials. Reach out to them with personalized messages.
- Create sales scripts that handle objections, closing logistics, and include an effective call to action.
There’s no perfect approach to onboarding that’s applicable to all businesses out there. Use the methods shared in this post to figure out whether you need to focus on product-led or sales-led onboarding and implement it!
If you need help with choosing the best method for you, feel free to book a free strategy call with us.