5 Mistakes to Avoid in Self-Service Customer Onboarding

I hadn’t intended to write on self-service this week, but Becca Shaw’s recent guest lecture brought so many flashbacks of my recent customer onboarding project, that I needed an excuse to re-examine my lessons-learned within the context of her presentation and expertise.

Self-Service Matters

When I asked our class the question “who would rather self-service than talk to a sales rep,” every single person’s hand raised. We are likely a self-selecting audience, considering we voluntarily registered and paid for a course on Digital Transformation. However, our consensus does echo the data on customer preference: self-service matters.

Below are my top lessons-learned, supplemented with some of Becca’s content, to hopefully speed up your learning curve on creating or transforming a self-service customer onboarding experience.  


Lesson #1: Approach with a beginner’s mind

Becca stressed the importance of going through your journey from various customer perspectives, or “persona planning.” Similarly, a key takeaway for me was knowing your audience and designing for them. This can feel scary at times and like you’re going rouge against company norms.

One senior exec taught me to think “dumb as a rock.” He was being facetious and wanted to make his point memorable, and it was. He was right too. Simple is best. Leaders in digital acquisition don’t rely on info icons or pop-ups with helper text. They ask clear and intuitive questions and offer clear and intuitive response options.

Lesson #2: Decide if you’re designing for mobile or desktop – and understand the difference.

Based on Becca’s presentation, I am convinced there is both an art and a science to mobile. I am a generalist and learned some of the basics through trial-and-error.

If you’re opting for a mobile-optimized experience, stop staring at the application exclusively on your laptop or desktop computer. On desktop, you can get away with fewer screens and more questions per screen.

When it comes to mobile, however, that approach could overwhelm the user. You’ll need to break up the questions over more screens. And if you demo the mobile experience on a computer, be prepared for feedback that there are too many screens!

Lesson #3: Less is more in self-service

Becca made a similar comment that I wish I had recorded verbatim. The gist was that every field you add to your intake form can impact your abandonment rates. Challenge accepted.

There are some obvious foul poles here in terms of risk and compliance, but the focus should be on minimizing data from the user and augmenting with technology. For example, we opted to use Google Maps to speed up address entry and various banking and KYC validations. There is a balance to strike between protecting the user experience and protecting your business.

You can also use logic and design to streamline for your user. As examples, see where you can pre-populate responses and let users select from pre-defined options instead of entering in free form (AKA: “the death of self-service”).

Lesson #4: Assume abandonment and have a Plan B for sales

There’s no way you’re going to convert every lead that hits your site. For us, it is still more likely that a user abandons on their first attempt rather than completing end-to-end. And the leads that don’t finish cannot just fall on the floor. This is critical for revenue assurance and ROI on your marketing and development.

We did a good job of consulting with sales and marketing to ensure we put essential fields early in the user experience. Where we failed was extending our customer journey mapping to see it all the way through abandonment campaigns and sales engagement. This created manual processes for sales and hurt closing rates, in line with the adage “time kills all deals.”

A key question Becca raised that resonated with me was “what are the key things that people really need to do, and what is the simplest way to do that?” We asked this of our customers, but not of our internal teams.

Lesson #5: Take an MVP approach

While Silicon Valley mantras such as “fail fast, fail cheap, fail often” are pervasive, I much prefer a “learn fast and learn cheap” approach. Expect to take an agile, MVP approach.

Becca mentioned there are essentially 3 levers you can pull in MVP, and that management will often opt for #3:

  1. Resources (money or staffing)
  2. Time (launch date)
  3. Scope (reduce or modify your requirements)

I got exactly one chance to pull levers 1 and 2, securing a little more funding and a little more time. The rest of MVP was all about #3, and the scope got increasingly (and necessarily) more narrow the closer we were to launch. Be prepared for some tough calls towards the end. And remember: imperfection is not failure. You will never launch if your overarching goal is to launch a perfect product.

And keep monitoring after your launch! Get user feedback and leverage data and analytics. These tools are inexpensive and widely available so you can see larger user trends, and act on the insight.

In conclusion, your customer acquisition experience is one of the earliest impressions you make on your customer. There’s proof of concept and a competitive need for an easy, intuitive onboarding experience. Hopefully you can learn even faster and cheaper with these tips.


  1. alexcarey94 · ·

    Great post- thanks for following up on Becca’s presentation. I didn’t realize before the different roles a product manager runs incorporating Business, Tech & The CX experience. I like how in this post you went more into depth on the MVP approach because this was something I was confused on in the presentation.

  2. williammooremba · ·

    Excellent post. One thing that really resonated me was related to Lesson #2. While I am still definitely very much learning about product development, one thing that struck me was the importance of experiencing and testing a product prototype or early beta. During my product management internship last summer, my first experience with the at the time secret project was reading documentation related to it. This gave me a notion on what I thought the product was and how I would interact with it. Then I experienced using the product through its private beta and my perspective on it shifted. I felt like before using it I didn’t really “get” it. Also, once I learned my feelings on the product then came the even greater challenge of figuring out what others would want and how they would experience the product. This is also related to your Lesson #1 of designing with your audience in mind. Some great lessons in the post and a great compliment to Becca Shaw’s presentation.

  3. Great post! These takeaways are so much useful when designing an MVP self-service onboarding product. I totally agree with lesson 1, which assumes customers are beginners who don’t understand the product at all. Do not ever overestimate customers’ technical skills is one of the lessons I learned from developing the products. Customers are easy to turn away if they can not figure something out, and they don’t have the patience to learn something not intuitive. Besides, iterations and customer feedbacks are crucial in the initial product development phases since it determines how well the product will evolve in the future.

  4. lourdessanfeliu · ·

    Excellent post!! I am bookmarking this blog for future reference! I liked the way you broke down all the tips shared by Becca during her presentation and showed how you used them in the implementation of a project at work. The “dumb as a rock/
    think like a rock” comment really resonates with me, this is something our VP constantly tells us in staff meetings when thinking about UI.

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