Ahoy! Onboard Customers for Life

By Mary Ellen Georgas-Tellefsen

What if….

  • You could improve new customer retention rates 25% – 50%?
  • You could lift cross-sell campaign responses 1.5 – 2.0 times within the first 90 days of new account opening?
  • You could increase revenue from new customers 35% – 40%?

With benefits like these, why do nearly 45% of banks still not have an onboarding program, as estimated by the July 2016 Digital Banking Report? And, for banks with an onboarding program, why do only 20% rate the program as successful or very successful?

Simple changes and attention to detail during the onboarding process can make a world of difference for your bank’s bottom line.

Onboarding—how your bank welcomes, communicates with, and integrates new customers into the organization—sets the tone for the development of the customer relationship. Well thought out onboarding processes and communications plans not only leave customers feeling like they made the right decision when they opened their accounts, but sows the seeds for higher retention rates, profitability, and customer satisfaction. Poorly executed—or no—onboarding processes can leave new customers feeling unsure of their decisions, and plant the seeds of churn.

We are onboarded to new relationships every day.

Think of the last time you downloaded an app on your phone, or bought a new phone, car, or computer. Not only was it easy, but your purchase came with tutorials, FAQs, and service contracts. The benchmark for a great onboarding experience with a bank is no longer best-in-class processes at other financial institutions, but rather, how easy it is to do anything in the digital world. This is especially important to younger consumers who grew up in a digital world and are used to instant access to almost everything.

Sitting through a 30-minute account opening process at a bank branch isn’t an option with a millennial who can utilize online account opening at a competitor institution or an online-only financial institution and have a new account open and funded within several minutes.

Let’s back up here a minute, I just wrote about the sales process, but isn’t this an article about onboarding? Yes!

It’s important to recognize that onboarding begins with the sales process today.

Millennials in particular do their research online—meaning they check online reviews and app functionality previews—before making an actual purchase. And many times they know how an app or product works before purchase.

All the information you share with customers after purchase about how online banking and bill pay works is now being shared as part of the sales process. Potential customers aren’t just looking for a safe, secure, and convenient place to keep their money, they are also evaluating how easy it is to access, move, and manage their money in real time.


It is past time to realize that onboarding really begins during the sales process. Regardless of the channel a customer uses to begin the sales process, the bank needs to treat every potential customer and sales transaction as the beginning of the onboarding process. This sets the tone for the entire relationship. The second you begin to interact with a potential customer—in person, online chat, phone call—the onboarding process begins. Your potential customer has options and is judging you, your account options, pricing, value, and access against what they perceive they can get from your competitors.

Instead of treating a prospect as a non-customer, what if we began to think of them as the most special customers we have?

What if we roll out the proverbial red carpet to make them feel respected, welcome, and like they have a financial partner for life?

Susan Bergen, executive vice president of Corporate Marketing at Commerce Bank in St. Louis, Missouri, may have put it best when she said, “For a small investment of time and money, we have been able to improve our onboarding process, which will power improved customer satisfaction scores, better operational efficiencies in the branches, and, most importantly, higher balance new accounts resulting in improved profitability. Win! Win! Win!”

How do you make this happen? Of course, there are many different paths and approaches to improving processes. Here’s just one set of pragmatic tactics for addressing and improving onboarding:

1. Audit existing processes.

Before you can change anything, you have to know your starting point. Document the existing process. It’s astonishing what you learn when you go through the onboarding process as a customer. I highly recommend you open (or at least start to open) an account, in person and online, and sit with a colleague in a branch to experience going through the new customer/ account opening process.

2.  Define goal(s) for the new and improved process.

Some banks are focused on converting new customers into primary bank customers. Other banks are focused on improving their customer satisfaction scores. Still others want to streamline and improve the process in a bottom line, “save the bank money” approach. Regardless of your ultimate onboarding goals, it is imperative to define goals early so that you have a framework within which you can improve the process and prioritize any work ahead.

3.  Benchmark best-in-class industry onboarding practices.

Look at other financial institutions and understand how they onboard customers. More importantly, look outside the industry for examples of great customer onboarding in other industries. It’s only by looking outside your institution and industry that you’ll identify better, new, and hopefully innovative ways to welcome customers into your bank. Hold workshops with a diverse group within your bank to brainstorms ways to improve processes. Good ideas often come from an engaging dialogue between frontline, operational, and business analysis team members.

4.  Assess marketing technology solutions.

A myriad of marketing, martech, and fintech solutions are available to automate your onboarding processes. Fintech startups, marketing/ advertising/ PR agencies, and core systems providers are all diving into the onboarding space with compelling solutions related to marketing communications, predictive modelling, and campaign management. Figuring out what will work best within your institution, budget, and capabilities is critical.

5.  Create, recommend, and implement a new process appropriate to your financial institution.

Goals and facts in hand, it’s time to create, recommend, and implement a new onboarding program. The best path forward takes into account your specific resources, budgets, capabilities, and priorities—and integrates your strategic objectives with practical improvements in processes across channels and departments.

6.  Create an onboarding dashboard.

What’s the use going to all this effort if you can’t track your success? Identify benchmark performance metrics relevant to your bank and its goals, and create a mechanism to track said goals. If things aren’t working, you want to know right away so that you can address any issues. And if the metrics are looking great, you want to be sure to share them across the organization so that everyone can celebrate success.

Contrary to the thought that onboarding new customers is cumbersome and difficult, it is a process that should be celebrated. After all, financial institutions spend a lot of time and money attracting new customers. Why wouldn’t your bank want to welcome new customers as warmly as possible so that they stay and grow their relationships?

Mary Ellen Georgas-Tellefsen is managing director at Capital Performance Group, a management consulting firm that provides advisory, planning, analytic, and project management services to the financial services industry. Email: [email protected].