Long-Term Customer Loyalty Starts (or Ends) With Your Earliest Interactions

You've spent years growing your product. Why throw all of that away by ignoring customers once they step through the door?

learn more about Gayle Teskey

By Gayle Teskey

Thomas Barwick | Getty Images

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

There is an emerging truth in the business world: Companies that overlook onboarding will struggle to hold on to customers. The idea has grown and spread like a juicy rumor, and companies can no longer avoid it.

Consider the cable industry, in which onboarding is notoriously absent. Charter Communications Inc., a Connecticut-based cable company, now routinely loses hundreds of thousands of TV subscribers every quarter. This year, the cable provider experienced its worst stock plunge in almost a decade.

However, this disastrous downturn didn't occur out of the blue -- it follows cable's long history of ignoring customers once they've been acquired. It's clear that onboarding efforts should not be taken lightly.

Onboarding's prioritization woes.

It's not just cable that's making the onboarding mistake. Companies in all industries have a priority problem. They devote countless hours and investments to acquisition strategies, with little left to spend on delivering an experience to customers after they've signed up.

Companies assume that their marketing campaigns are enough and that customers know about their product because it's so great. Conversely, customers are more likely to forget about your product almost as soon as they've signed up. Life gets in the way -- they have to go pick up the kids from school and respond to 10 new emails.

To stay in your customers' lives, you have to go beyond acquisition and take them by the hand into your product, or else you'll end up like cable companies and lose them quickly.

The customer experience is mapped out in three chunks -- acquisition, onboarding and retention -- but onboarding should be prioritized above the others. Imagine you're a parent, for example. It's easy enough to create a child, but to safely nurture that child into adulthood? Super difficult. You have to give your child rules, guidance, love and care. You have to tell him or her why it's not safe to cross the street without looking both ways.

Customers are just like kids. You can't expect them to figure things out on their own, especially during the onboarding process.

Related: 5 Ways to Ease New-Client Onboarding

Here are five tips to help you prioritize onboarding optimization so you can nurture your customers, keep them coming back and eventually raise them to be loyal brand ambassadors:

1. Welcome consumers into your product like it's your home.

If friends knock on your door, you don't say, "Come in," and then leave them to it. You invite them in, hang up their coats and start brewing some tea. An authentic, friendly welcome is just as important with customers. Use the numerous communication tools at your disposal -- social media, email and even snail mail -- to greet customers who have recently joined. Contextly, a content recommendation platform, does this well by sending helpful, affirming tweets to customers who engage during its free trial offer.

Make sure one of your first outreach messages encourages consumers to connect with you on social media platforms, especially if you have a closed Facebook group. Let them know they are among like-minded friends in their new community. After all, the best engagement relationships are multidimensional and include your brand, consumers and peers all in one community.

Related: Why Your Customers Deserve Personalized Responses on Social Media

2. Learn about what makes your audience happy.

You're not a mind reader. So how can you tell whether your customers are happy if you don't ask them?

Optimize onboarding by plotting surveys into your workflow. Keep surveys short and sweet, but craft them to reveal the following: How does a customer's relationship with you change over time? How do the customer's values shift? How can you use that knowledge to guide a new customer toward happiness faster?

Netflix is an exemplary learner. The brand never assumes that its customers are happy. Instead, it monitors their satisfaction throughout touchpoints within the platform. This student mindset has contributed to the streaming service's impressive Net Promoter Score of 68 -- one of the most important growth metrics that identifies customer satisfaction and loyalty -- which blows its competitors out of the water.

3. Curb your preaching.

You love your product, and you know all of its features and benefits inside and out, so it's natural to want to impart this wisdom on new customers. But often, this good intention comes across as preaching.

Customers prefer to discover on their own. So instead of trying to teach them a lesson, start affirming their choices. For example, choose one of Robert Cialdini's "Weapons of Influence" to make your onboarding flow more memorable and valuable.

Cialdini's "commitment and consistency" weapon can easily apply to onboarding. You can affirm a customer's choice through messaging that shows others who found your product useful (commitment) or by highlighting happenings within the brand community that align with the consumer's values (consistency). With some focused effort, the power of curated influence can secure long-term customers.

4. Find your communication cadence.

Great messages turn sour if they're delivered too often or incorrectly. Customers respond to the frequency of communication almost as much as they respond to the content itself.

Avoid sending multiple or repetitive messages before the first has been fully absorbed. Even if your messages steer clear of the spam folder, your customers could still categorize them as nuisance mail -- in fact, according to a Pew Research Center study, a third of email users identify 60 percent or more of their inbox as spam.

There's really no perfect frequency. For example, my company starts with biweekly efforts and then adjusts accordingly. Your best guide is your own metrics. Watch open rates, test subject lines relentlessly, and keep taps on engagement activities, such as click-throughs. Don't be shy to shake things up. Changing the order of topics within communication can reveal the optimal messaging series.

5. Make sure consumers know you're listening.

As an entrepreneur or company leader, onboarding is not about you. Too many companies alienate customers by crafting their onboarding process without considering how customers feel about it.

Onboarding is your chance to take a breath, focus on one benefit or service at a time and gently teach your customers how to maximize the value of your product. It should be patient and fun, and it should transform according to customers' experiences.

Slack uses its onboarding process as a lab with iterative elements. By focusing on customer needs and addressing them one by one, the tool shows off what it's best at -- clear, helpful communication that helps you get stuff done.

You can follow Slack's success by using different voices in each onboarding effort and building your onboarding series with two-way conversation invitations. Access, insider information and a direct channel make consumers feel like they are part of the team, not just the audience. Then, make sure to use customers' responses in future efforts to show that you actually check your inbox.

Related: When Your Customers Are Talking, Quiet Your Brand Voice and Listen

You've spent years growing your product, crafting all of its interconnecting features and designing the way it fits into customers' lives. Why throw all of that away by ignoring customers once they step through the door? Instead, take them by the hand, provide a warm welcome and show them why your products are so great.

Gayle Teskey

CEO and founder of Membership Corporation of America

Gayle Teskey is the CEO and founder of Membership Corporation of America, a consultative and marketing services organization with a specialization in enthusiast membership organizations and affinity marketing.

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