Onboarding is Your Company’s First Impression

Cassie Marketos | March 24, 2016

So, you’ve found the right person. Check! It feels great to pull in an exciting new hire, but it’s not time to sit back and relax quite yet.

What comes next — the onboarding and training process — will be crucial in enabling your new support rep to take flight and thus meaningfully contribute to your company’s customer support in the long term.

While getting a new person up to speed can take some time, the effort will pay off tenfold. You’ll end up with a happy, capable new support rep who will be confident enough to enjoy the work, who will contribute to a positive team culture, and who you can fully trust to be the voice of your company. A thorough onboarding process will also infuse a new hire with a well-rounded sense of both the product and overall culture, allowing them to engage users with an ease and sincerity that reflect your company’s mission and voice.

Let’s walk through some well-tested onboarding basics.

1. Be ready to take your time

Although startups have made famous the “sink-or-swim” brand of onboarding, there’s nothing more disastrous for a brand new support rep. These guys and gals are the go-to for answering questions and solving problems for your community, so if they’re confused, the customer is confused, which can translate directly to lost users.

Ideally, a support rep should be an expert at your company.

They need to comprehensively understand the ins and outs of your product, and that kind of mastery can only be achieved with a lot of patience and hands-on time “in the field.”

For Trello’s remotely located team, that can sometimes mean actually flying folks out to sit with new hires and work one-on-one with them. “If we hire you and we start the onboarding process,” says Ben McCormack, who heads their support team, “what we do first is spend one week with you in person. We either go to you or — a lot of the time! — the candidate will want to get out of their own town, so we’ll take ’em to New York.”

It may sound like an extravagant step to take for a new employee, but it’s worth it. That kind of valuable one-on-one time is instrumental in quickly making a new support hire into an actionable, independent contributor to the team. They’ll be able to carry their weight, work confidently without oversight, and think above and beyond the status quo of their day-to-day. It’s also key for a remote team, where the initial effort to create an in-person connection will help make your community tangible to a new hire.

2. Establish a mentor

Tackling a brand new work environment can be intimidating, to say the least. So many new faces, rules, and ideas to juggle! In order to streamline the adjustment period for a newbie, it’s helpful — nay, essential! — to establish a point person for questions. Asking questions can be tough for a new person who’s eager to impress, but connecting them one-on-one with a person who is dedicated to answering their queries sets an important precedent for dialogue and interaction. Not only does this establish that asking questions is okay, you’re communicating that it’s preferred. That makes a huge difference. (Plus, consider the alternative: a customer gets a wrong answer because a recent hire was unsure where to double-check their reply.)

This is a valuable, go-to strategy for teams both large and small. When it comes to onboarding via mentorship, Basecamp’s Chase Clemons breaks it down smartly:

“A training buddy/point person is valuable for a few reasons: it lets that mentor fully focus on onboarding the new hire instead of juggling tickets, chats, calls, etc. at the same time. It gives you one person that’s fully responsible for ensuring the new hire is trained. If you have multiple folks doing the training, it’s easy for things to get missed. It also gives that mentor the full picture on how the training is going. With multiple folks, no one person has a cohesive view of how things are progressing.”

The most important quality of mentorship, though, is that it means no new hire ever works alone, which helps set the bar on the level of work they should be doing and makes them feel integrated into a team full of friends.

3. Make sure to mix it up a little

It’s easy to form “social ruts” in any workplace. You know, the people you work alongside are the people whose names you know, who you default to for questions, who you ask to back you up in a tough situation. This can be great, but also a little too easy to slip into for a new person. Instead, you want to help a new hire feel comfortable interfacing with the entire team, right out the gate. Not only is that pleasant for a new person, it will also help familiarize them with the nooks and crannies of your community, product, and culture, not to mention provide them with an important variety of perspectives and thought processes.

The best way to do this? Rotate a new person’s mentor so they’re interacting with (and understanding the workflow) of a few different people, at least once. That goes a long way toward helping them develop their own approach and tone, so they won’t establish any single person’s approach as the rule. Katherine Pan, Kickstarter’s director of community support, explains how they do it:

“Each day during this time there is a point person on the customer service team who trains the new hire — this way the new hire gets a chance to work with most people on the team right away, and gets to experience the various perspectives we have with regards to support.”

4. Check in way more than seems necessary

An employee’s first few weeks are also a critical development period.

The habits they build during this time are likely to last, so you want to make sure they’re good ones.

The simplest way to do that? Take frequent pulse checks. An end of the week wrap-up is a must, but a devoted 10-15 minutes at the end of every day, for at least their first week, will help keep them on course and make them feel good about their progress. This is what it looks like at Basecamp:

“The team lead checks in at the end of every single day for the first week, with both the new agent and their support buddy. She’ll want to know if everything went okay and if there are any questions. Then, at the end of week one, we do an end of week review. We say what we liked, what we want to see improved, and set the game plan for the following week.”

This two-pronged approach helps make sure that a new employee isn’t tasked entirely with self-diagnosis, and it guarantees a well-rounded perspective on how they’re stacking up, which will help you establish what they’ll need to continue thriving.

5. Give homework, and keep it fresh

Pan attributes the success of Kickstarter’s onboarding process to the creation of comprehensive and constantly updated internal documentation:

“We spent almost half a year in 2013 documenting everything about the work we do, from the very basics of using the must-use tools to company policies and how the site works. Everything that a backer or creator could possibly encounter and write in about. Every day there is also a ‘culture/significant historical events about the company’ (like notable projects, events, etc.) email that is sent in the morning to the new hire.”

Chronicling everything your support team does is an essential step in enabling new hires to follow in your footsteps, and it also enables their independence. It means they’ll have reading to bring home with them, solid resources on hand to reference, and the opportunity to work on building their knowledge base without having to depend entirely on real-time feedback. Pan agrees:

“I think the most important thing is to keep documentation fresh. It can be tedious, I know, to constantly have to revise, especially when it's easy to just think about the existing team and how things have become second nature to them, but the key thing is to do revisions of documentation consistently so it doesn't become a huge pile of work suddenly.”

To keep documentation actionable (versus overwhelming), Kickstarter breaks it down into chapters, one for each day of a new hire’s first week. Then, they split the day into two parts: the first half is spent reading and the second is spent working through a set of applicable tickets. This helps ensure that the finer points stick and that the general principles become cemented immediately as workable habits.

The result should be a workable, ever-evolving resource that will help newcomers learn, thrive, and eventually come full circle on, as contributors of their own knowledge.

First impressions go a long way

Hiring and onboarding will cost you plenty of time and attention. Getting them right will cost you even more. If there’s any area worth going the extra mile, however, it’s in building the best team you’re able. You already get this, and have probably agonized over your hiring process, interviews, and final decisions. Are you giving the same weight to your onboarding? You should be.


About the author: Cassie Marketos runs the show at Dollar A Day, hosts an annual co-working event called LadyParts, and works with WNYC and Longform.