[Debate] Who’s Job is User Onboarding in SaaS?

[Debate] Who’s Job is User Onboarding in SaaS?

User onboarding is a task that lays in the middle of different roles. So whose responsibility is it to ensure those hard-won trial users and customers don’t abandon your product before they realize how awesome is it?

We’d like to open a discussion on the subject.

Naturally, the myTips team has a position on this. But before we let you know what that is, let’s look first at the evidence and look at what some major San Francisco SaaS company job descriptions say.

Because, on one side of things you have the product manager. That’s the person responsible for conceiving the product, innovating features based on feedback, implementing, testing, and making sure people actually want to use what you create.

Conversely, it’s the marketing manager’s responsibility to generate interest in the product and win more customers. Sure, that journey starts with visitors and trial signups, but somebody needs to ensure they convert to paying customers.

And then what about your customer success manager? Is this the answer to the puzzle? Maybe. But, it’s a relatively new profession, so it’s still difficult to say for sure right now. Not only that, but user onboarding is pretty new, too.

Ultimately, onboarding is a product issue and a funnel/activation issue. So let’s look first at the marketing manager’s role.

The marketing manager

If you’re a rock star marketing manager who generates all of the leads and traffic in the world, you’re doing your job properly.


All the leads and trial users in the world mean nothing if they’re not sticking around.

The ideal marketer is an accomplished data analyst Jedi with a growth hacking mentality; someone who seeks ways to break into marketing strategies to generate results faster than usual.

To put things to the test here, we did some research on job descriptions for marketing managers in the SaaS industry, purposely choosing established companies that had exhaustively listed tasks expected of applicants.

The results were much the same across all of the SaaS products we researched, but we have to pick one so here’s a good example.

Click here to see the full job description of a San Francisco-based SaaS called Quote Roller. Interestingly, the task of user onboarding was nowhere to be seen.

But, there are one or two bullet points that potentially come close to the mark. In particular:

  • Work on the executive team to guide all go-to-market strategies.
  • Manage multiple user acquisition channels and own the user funnel. (acquisition, activation, retention, revenue, referral)

Also, a little later on in the requirements it stated that the user must have proficiency in MixPanel, Intercom and KISSmetrics. All of these are very user onboarding-centric tools, even if they can be used for other things effectively, too.

Taking the above points into consideration, it’s not unreasonable to think some user onboarding might be on the cards for the successful applicant.

But it’s a tricky one. Because, if the sales funnel ends in precisely that (a sale) and user onboarding is what happens after a sale is made, is it really the marketing manager’s responsibility?

The product manager

A product manager is responsible not just for developing the product, but developing something people actually want to use.

Although it’s less of a problem these days, companies historically tended to invest less in user experience (UX) design and focused instead on creating something that just “worked”. It was a case of function over UX.

Perhaps a product manager must design the product in such a way that delivers a small win to create the elusive “Aha!” moment as soon as possible; an important step for onboarding a new user.

Without a friendly, addictive user experience facilitated by onboarding patterns, whether it’s on-screen tooltips, tutorials or anything else, people won’t use the product. And people using the product is product manager territory.

One Forrester researcher, Tom Grant, published an article about why product management is an essential part of any SaaS. He explains the role as being to “conceive, test, build, deliver, adopt and assess” the product. Adopt here is particularly interesting. Grant states:

Adopt. Once they receive the technology, will these people use it?”

The answer to this question might be found with a little user onboarding. They’re more likely to use if the onboarding pattern rocks.

If one thing’s for sure, it’s that a product manager doing user onboarding would offer a great opportunity to gather qualitative feedback on the product and help guide the kind of future decisions make better features and reduce churn.

But when we looked for the job description of product managers for other well-established San Francisco SaaS companies, again user onboarding was not mentioned in the job description.

However, like the marketing manager job descriptions, we found user onboarding was nowhere to be seen. Here’s a good example from another San Frasisco-based company called SeatGeek.

Again though, some aspects that did come close to the mark:

  • Making product decisions backed by quantitative data
  • Creating, maintaining, and monitoring product dashboards
  • Proposing & implementing A/B experiments

So, maybe it’s a job for the product manager? Or maybe, a customer success manager is the answer, after all.

Is a customer success manager the answer?

We recently looked at the simple mathematics of justifying a customer success manager, and in it, we assumed that it’s the job of the customer success manager to do user onboarding.

But that’s not necessarily the case.

In an article on customersuccessassociation.com, Mikael Blaisdell gives a definition of a customer success manager we really liked:

“The long-range vision of Customer Success Management is an integration of technology, Marketing, Sales, Professional Services, Training and Support into a relationship product for the SaaS/Cloud era.”

It’s a nice explanation, but you’ll notice that it also includes “tech” (potentially product management) and marketing.

So, if you don’t have a customer success manager or it’s not the right time to justify one, does that mean user boarding should perhaps be taken on by a combination of the product manager and marketing manager?

What’s the myTips team’s position?

So where do we stand? Here it is.

User onboarding can be divided into two parts, the first of which is user activation. That’s definitely a job for marketing managers. It’s all about how to convert users from trial signups to paying customers faster.

One the other hand, we have customer success. That’s when we convert users into power users, helping them use the product in a more complete way.

Although our example product manager job description came close to user onboarding gound, we think the product manager is off the hook here. While he will work closely with both teams, it’s not really his job.

She or he is more about features, product value and what you need to offer to complete your value proposition successfully. He creates the vision, the marketing guys sells that vision to potential users.

As a rule, all departments should work closely together. Product guys should work closely with dev’s, marketers and success managers to get qualitative feedback and inspiration on the direction to take things.

Once that direction’s been taken, it goes back to the marketing manager to complete circle.

Survey, please vote for the infographic

So, it’s a tricky one.

Who should be doing your user onboarding? Does it depend on the type of company you have, your business model or perhaps at what stage of growth you’re at currently?

Perhaps the answer is a lot more clear-cut than that?

We’ve put together a survey to find out, and the results will be put together in an infographic. Sign up to our newsletter to receive it once it’s published sometime in the next few weeks.