It is an accepted fact in SaaS that on-boarding is pivotal to successful scale. However one of the things yet to be clearly defined is whether the on-boarding process should be charged for or not, and it is a common question I get asked.
The first thing to consider is your target customer. If you're selling your SaaS product to the big guys in the field (and therefore pursuing a purely Enterprise sales model) then charging for on-boarding or implementation is a commonly accepted practice and you have the green light to continue to do so.
However if you are selling to the SMB market it's a very different story. Here are some of the key considerations I have come across so far:
No upfront cost - customers love SaaS because there are no upfront costs, and businesses of any size can obtain high value software (which until the cloud era was simply out of reach due to large upfront costs). Requiring an upfront fee for on-boarding or implementation can quickly turn customers off, and completely undermine your competitive pricing strategy.
Cleaner implementations - often a SaaS business will start taking on implementations internally, due to a high number of poorly undertaken client implementations resulting in a heavy support load. These services are often charged for to ensure resource cost is recovered, however this can quickly become a huge resource sink which doesn't actually address the underlying issue. Bad client on-boarding is simply a symptom of a poor on-boarding process. Bite the bullet and focus on bettering your automated on-boarding process, as you will need this to scale.
Extra revenue - with revenues starting so low in a cash hungry SaaS business model it is very tempting to draw extra revenue from additional services like on-boarding and implementation. It is important to consider just how much time and resource maintaining a services division of the business will take, as services will never be as automated as your key product should be, and cannot scale to the same level. Focusing time and effort on services can delay scaling your SaaS business model faster.
Personal touch - a popular concept in SaaS right now is 'Concierge On-boarding', focusing on high level human interaction as part of the on-boarding process to make the user experience more personal and memorable. In some cases this is a brilliant tactic, but it pays to think carefully about your target market before jumping on the bandwagon here. If you are targeting tech savvy users then a high human touch (which slows down the on-boarding process) would likely result in lower customer adoption.
Customer choice - If you do decide that charging for on-boarding is the right fit for your target market, the key to ensuring your potential customers don't get turned off is to make the on-boarding fee optional. Make your 'Premium On-boarding Service' delightful and attractive, and make it their choice. Always allow your SMB customers to self-implement if they want to, giving your customer control over the choice makes it a positive decision as opposed to a forced upfront fee.
In summary there is no right or wrong here, but there is also no quick win solution. You really need to understand your target market and provide the right on-boarding user experience (be it free, charged, automated or personal) for your customer.
Amy Walker - Specialist in SaaS Strategy & Business Execution
I work with SaaS companies to develop their key strategies, and assist them to get the right tools in place to be able to execute seamlessly in market. I believe that the only thing preventing a great idea from scaling globally is a clear strategy supported by strong execution.