Bringing Value Onboard: Optimizing the B2B Customer Onboarding Experience

By: Todd Nisbet, Rob Sherrell

The first days and weeks of a B2B relationship are critical toward driving customer satisfaction and building value. Companies must boost their customer understanding, fully align their functional groups, and improve communications in order to succeed during the onboarding period. And those achievements require appropriate investment.

If your firm just gained a new business-to-business customer, a strong focus on performance in the first days or weeks of serving that customer can boost the lifetime value of the relationship.

However, B2B product and service providers often fail to truly take advantage of the critical period immediately following a contract closure and before the relationship enters a “business as usual” steady state. Half of firms say they don’t do a very good job of delivering products and services when and where they’re needed during onboarding. Only slightly more companies report that their clients have a solid understanding of what to expect in this period. And only a third of firms rate themselves as doing a very good job of delivering accessible and uncomplicated customer interactions.

B2B suppliers face three major challenges during this period: limited customer understanding, lack of alignment of functional groups, and poor communications.

On the upside, companies that say they invest adequately in the onboarding period are much more likely to report success in meeting these challenges. More of these onboarding “Prioritizer” firms report higher levels of revenue growth as well.

These are among the conclusions of a global survey about B2B client onboarding conducted by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services among 330 executives (including 79 executive managers or board members).


Survey respondents agreed heartily on the importance of focusing on the onboarding period as a key driver of the overall B2B customer experience. More than 80 percent of executives said that an increased focus on onboarding offers significant or moderate positive impact over the life of the contract for revenue, client renewals, and client referrals. Similarly, 85 percent agreed that successful customer onboarding will ensure long-term customer loyalty.

Eighty-five percent of executives agreed that successful customer onboarding will ensure long-term customer loyalty.

“The client onboarding period is the honeymoon phase of the B2B customer relationship,” says Allison Bennett, chief marketing officer of business at JPMorgan Chase, and one of several prominent business leaders who commented on the survey. “Often so much of a company’s investment is in winning the customer, but it is just as important to onboard well and build a long-term relationship.”

“Onboarding can be such an important tipping point with customers,” agrees Melanie Wing, vice president for strategic marketing at Equifax. “If you mess it up, you can do irreparable damage to the relationship.”


Given the crucial nature of this honeymoon period in B2B relationships, what prevents firms so often from achieving success and enjoying its payoffs?

Surveyed executives pointed to a lack of alignment between functional areas (54 percent), inadequate communication (51 percent), and limited understanding of customer needs (44 percent) as the three most prominent issues. figure 1 Notably, they suggested that only 26 percent of the main customer failure points during onboarding are driven by insufficient staff resources.

Thus, a heightened focus on addressing customer understanding, alignment of functional groups, and overall communications may give firms their best shot at improving their performance.

Challenges in Customer Understanding

Successful B2B relationships are built on deep, actionable insights about customer needs and expectations. “During onboarding, the seller is learning about the buyer as much as the buyer is learning about the seller,” comments Frank Cespedes, senior lecturer in entrepreneurial management at Harvard Business School.

However, only 38 percent of respondents said their organizations are performing very or extremely well in achieving in-depth understanding of customer behaviors, feelings, and motivations. And a similarly small set of firms (37 percent) delivers a highly tailored onboarding process based on the understanding of specific customer needs.

Additionally, only 49 percent of executives in the survey agreed that their firms leverage data and insights to understand and predict higher-level customer needs, and just 51 percent of companies display nimble evolution to meet changing environmental conditions and customer needs.

These low numbers may be driven by a somewhat surprising lack of metrics for success during the onboarding period. About one-fifth of executives report that their organizations don’t use metrics for onboarding success at all. While 62 percent of organizations do look at overall customer satisfaction, only about a quarter—or fewer—of firms employ more tailored metrics such as customer attrition rate, customer adoption rate, and cost to serve for this period.

The lack of such customer feedback, and difficulties in embedding customer understanding across all the teams that may interact directly or indirectly with customers, can contribute to a lack of customer-centric behavior. “Every employee is doing what they think is the right thing to do for their functional area, but sometimes that causes a poor customer experience,” says Equifax’s Wing. “We need to get everyone to think like the customer.”

Challenges in Aligning Functional Groups

As mentioned earlier, more than half of survey respondents highlighted misalignments between a supplier’s functional groups as a major challenge during customer onboarding.

Rather than assigning holistic responsibility, respondents generally believe that customer satisfaction is driven by certain functional groups within their organization. They picked product and service delivery (70 percent), sales (67 percent), care and support (65 percent), operations (61 percent), and product and service development (50 percent) as the most important functional groups during onboarding. Finance, information technology, manufacturing, and marketing were generally not seen as instrumental in ensuring customer satisfaction during the onboarding period.

Corporate leaders caution, however, that all these functional groups should play critical roles in addressing customer needs, which may call for changes in team mindsets.

The lack of alignment among functional groups may in part stem from poorly aligned legacy IT systems and processes. These systems handle key tasks such as security or billing but are not well integrated toward common customer goals, Wing says, “which creates a lot of churn.”

About half of executives in the survey listed insufficient communications as a significant challenge during onboarding

The biggest showstopper in alignment of functional groups, however, is between sales and other groups, says Cespedes. The sales process dramatically affects onboarding because it sets customer expectations, he says. And although links between sales and other groups are increasingly important for successful customer experiences, the metric and incentives of these groups are not often aligned for a smooth and coordinated onboarding process.

“Most companies set themselves up for either a difficult or costly onboarding experience in the way they manage sales,” he says. “Most sales compensation plans ‘bonus’ salespeople purely in terms of sales volume. So the message to salespeople is that any customer is a good customer, irrespective of the post-sale costs and capabilities required to serve that customer. Hence, sales brings in customers with very different onboarding characteristics that must be managed by other functions in the company. This is one reason why ‘customer focus’ is a perennial slogan but not an organizational reality at many firms.”

“If you don’t align sales with implementation and operation, you have a big problem,” agrees Jochen Wirtz, professor of marketing at the National University of Singapore. “One group is overpromising everything to get the sale, and the other group cuts cost whenever possible.”

Overall, 69 percent of companies do put together a formal plan going into the onboarding period, and such a plan can offer a solid initial framework for alignment between functional groups. And 60 percent of survey respondents have mechanisms for ensuring that expectations set during the sales phase are met during the onboarding period.

Challenges in Communications

About half of executives in the survey listed insufficient communications as a significant challenge during onboarding. Only slightly more than half (54 percent) said that their clients have a solid understanding of what to expect during the onboarding period.

When asked an open-ended question about improving the onboarding experience for their clients, dozens of respondents said better communication was the single most impactful change their business could make. “We need to improve communication at every step of the process and keep stakeholders informed,” said one respondent, a vice president at a North American technology firm, in a typical comment.

Potential misunderstandings begin with the original contract. “What is agreed to in the meeting room or the board room is not exactly what ends up in the written agreement, and a different set of individuals will implement the agreement,” says Mark Eastham, senior vice president and general manager of McKesson Pharmacy Optimization.

“Additionally, communications can be very dysfunctional in any organization, and we find many times that what the customer thinks at one level is not what they need at another,” he says.

Like consumers, business customers are benefiting from a corporate trend toward greater transparency. Often they have more touch points with their suppliers than they did a few years ago, which can raise communications expectations significantly, Cespedes points out.

To view the entire white paper written in partnership with Harvard Business Review, click here

For more information, contact:

Rob Sherrell

Todd Nisbet

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