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How to layer sales on top of self-serve user onboarding with Wes Bush

Q&A with Wes Bush, bestselling author and Founder of the ProductLed community
Sandy Mangat
May 31, 2022
How to layer sales on top of self-serve user onboarding with Wes Bush

This piece originally appeared in Pocus’ Product-Led Sales playbook , download your copy here.

There is one crucial feature almost every great product-led company needs to do exceptionally well: user onboarding. 

When done well, user onboarding has the power to turn prospects into believers and users into lifelong customers. 

No one understands this better than Wes Bush, Founder of ProductLed and best-selling author of Product-Led Growth: How to Build a Product That Sells Itself. Wes has coached and consulted with hundreds of SaaS businesses trying to create their product-led growth (PLG) flywheels — of which onboarding is always an essential module. 

In this Q&A session, Sandy Mangat, Head of Marketing at Pocus, talks with Wes about the importance of self-serve onboarding and how to effectively layer sales into the experience. 

The Biggest Myth About User Onboarding

Sandy: Let’s start with the basics — how do you teach SaaS businesses to think about user onboarding? What are the core principles?

Wes: Although it’s counterintuitive to what many people think, the goal of user onboarding is not to help people become better at using your product. The goal of user onboarding is to help people become better at what your product enables people to do.
For example, if you’re Slack, the goal isn’t to teach users how to use channels or create workspaces. The goal is to make users better at internal communication. At Canva, the goal of onboarding users isn’t to teach them how to use the GIF feature, it's to seamlessly create beautiful graphics.

To be great at user onboarding, you need to understand the big context behind why people would even consider using your tool.

Sandy: How do you figure out the bigger context of what users are trying to achieve?

Wes: Look back at your user research to uncover what outcomes users are trying to achieve. 

Then, break these out into jobs to be done (JTBD). The JTBD is a framework by Clayton Christensen, an innovation expert and bestselling author of The Innovator’s Dilemma. JTBD is the process consumers go through whenever they aim to transform their existing life situation. To enable a life transformation, customers “hire” products to solve a problem or to satisfy a need. This is known as a customer job.

Avoid These Common Mistakes to Create a Better User Onboarding Experience

Sandy: For companies making the switch from product-led to sales-led, or perhaps taking a hybrid approach, what are some common pitfalls they should avoid when designing their user onboarding experience?

Wes: The first one ties back into thinking about that bigger context of why someone is signing up and using your product in the first place. Your onboarding experience should not have any unnecessary steps that don’t drive the user closer to solving their problem or achieving the outcome you outlined as the bigger context. 

An example of an unnecessary step is the activation email. Requiring users to activate their email is common practice for many SaaS businesses.

Let’s look at this example in action. I was having a conversation with the founder of Snappa who, at that time, required every new signup to activate their email address before logging into the product. However, what Christopher didn’t realize was that 27% of his signups never ended up activating their email address.

User Onboarding Starts Before Users Ever Sign Up for Your Product

Sandy: What about a company that is considering a product-led but sales-assisted onboarding experience? What do they need to think about?

Wes: A lot of times when companies are moving from a sales-led model, their organizational structure and culture might lead them down the wrong path. In the context of user onboarding, that means the company may think user onboarding is only about the product. 

But not considering acquisition as a part of the user onboarding is a big mistake. With product-led growth, it's critical that the sales, marketing, and product teams work cross-functionally on the entire user journey — including user onboarding. 

How to Craft a Product-Led and Sales-Assisted User Onboarding Experience

Sandy: What do you think the role of sales should be in a user onboarding process? For products with more complex use cases, how have you seen human touchpoints used to improve conversion?

Wes: In general, there are three primary reasons to add salespeople during the onboarding process: 

  1. Direct users to experience the value of the product. You can think of salespeople more like coaches; they identify where users run into limitations and find solutions to overcome those challenges.

  2. Facilitate product expansion. This could look something like a land and expand strategy. After you’ve landed a few users within a large company, you expand by selling more seats and additional features. Many times this requires a sales team to reach out to high-level decision-makers and make consistent connections. In this instance, salespeople don’t work at the user level, they work at the account level. 
  1. Guide users in the buying process. For many companies, users simply want to talk to someone within the organization. You could wait for them to reach out via email, or you could add various calls-to-action across the site to help them book a sales call. 

40% of Slack’s revenue in 2019 came from sales closing deals with larger organizations*

*companies with over $100,000 ARR

Sandy: We often see sales teams at PLG companies add a sales-assist team. They guide users through a free trial or help when users get stuck. What are your thoughts on this role?

Wes: It’s an important role to fill. 

As mentioned above, salespeople shift from chasing leads to coaching users. The user has already experienced the value of the product. For a salesperson in a PLG model, the goal is to anticipate a user’s needs, and show them different features so they don’t run into any barriers.


Another important part is that the salesperson has to leverage product engagement data during the sales process. This means they need to keep careful watch on users who receive meaningful value from a product, which we call a product-qualified lead (PQL).

But not all PQLs need to be chased after by sales. It takes a salesperson to do a bit of digging to understand the customer fit. It’s important to look at your ideal customer profile to find out whether or not a PQL is worth reaching out to for a sales call.

Putting It All Together With PQLs

Sandy: How do you advise companies to use PQLs in their user onboarding process?

Wes: Design your user onboarding process to start as soon as someone experiences a quick win, and end when someone becomes a PQL. 

As you know, ​​PQLs help us identify users who have experienced the product's core value and are most likely to convert as customers. I like to think about the user onboarding process as helping to create more PQLs.

A helpful framework for how to create more PQLs is Nir Eyal’s hook framework. What I love about Nir’s model is that there are only four actions you need people to take to create a habit-forming product.

As you can see, you start with a trigger, get people to take an action, which (ideally) results in a reward and an additional investment in the product. This cycle, if repeated, builds long-time users.

Sandy: What happens once the user becomes a PQL? What tactics can you layer into the user onboarding experience to move them from user to customer?

Wes: Moving from activating the user to monetizing them needs to be done carefully. 

Where most people mess up in user onboarding is trying to monetize too quickly. One of the biggest mistakes I see happen over and over again is skipping the first two onboarding tracks and focusing on converting users. If you have a high LTV, you can afford a higher CAC and a more manual sales approach. Or, if you're like many SaaS businesses that fit somewhere in the middle, you'll want to deploy a low-touch sales model as soon as someone becomes a PQL.

The Perfect User Onboarding Experience Focuses on Value 

Whatever the model — PLG, sales-led, or hybrid — focus on getting users to value during user onboarding. Obsessively remove obstacles until you can get users there.

Based on Wes’ advice, there are some pitfalls to watch out for as you build out your Product-Led Sales user onboarding, but if you remember to focus on value first, you’ll be in good shape.

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Sandy Mangat
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