Data Onboarding: The Critical (Yet Difficult) First Step

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Click to learn more about author Eric Crane.

After the work of engaging a prospect, pitching the product, going through an evaluation process, and finally landing the business, the last thing you want is to stumble in those first critical interactions where you bring your new customer on board and start servicing the business.

As businesses have digitally transformed and data exchanges happen constantly, there’s an obstacle standing in the way for new customers: the challenge of data onboarding. Customer data onboarding involves importing the customers’ required data into a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) product.

Customers can’t use a new application or get any value from a new product if their data doesn’t migrate properly. They can’t set up marketing automation without their leads. They can’t sell e-commerce products without SKUs. They can’t run payroll without accurate employee profiles. The process of data onboarding has become increasingly important as the amount of new data continues to skyrocket. 

Pretty much every industry has a need for data onboarding. For example:

  • Shipping information for logistics companies
  • Digital assets for libraries and museums
  • Project data for construction and infrastructure initiatives
  • Financial data for investment evaluations

To determine the current state of data onboarding, our company surveyed more than 100 businesses to gain insight into how companies are addressing this problem. The results of the survey revealed that while more than 90% of respondents have the need to transfer data from one system to another, more than three-quarters of them “sometimes or often” run into problems in the data onboarding process. 

Why Data Onboarding Is Hard

Importing CSV files – one of the more popular formats for creating and maintaining data – is problematic. Messy data, edge cases, encoding formats, error resolution, and nontechnical users all present businesses with significant problems. 

Customers involved in uploading data are easily frustrated when companies provide spreadsheet templates and lengthy explainer articles. The frustration grows as the customer supplying the data struggles to prepare files that can be properly uploaded. 

Meanwhile, engineering and product teams are often taken away from valuable activities as they’re tasked with figuring out the best way to import data on behalf of customers. Instead of building a new feature for the product, a developer might end up cleaning messy files and creating a custom data importer to help migrate customer data. 

Frustrated customers and dissatisfied engineering teams demonstrate why it’s critical to continually optimize the data onboarding process and make it a key part of the overall customer onboarding strategy.

Common Data Onboarding Issues

A key discovery from the survey is that data onboarding is a frequent event. More than half of the respondents said they need to import data daily, with 21% saying they go through the process multiple times a day. Despite the frequency, the survey revealed that data onboarding can unfortunately be time-consuming. Half of the respondents said data onboarding took hours from start to finish. A quarter said it took days and one in four said the process required weeks or months. 

Respondents noted a wide range of issues they face when onboarding customer data. Data formatting and data validation problems led the way, mentioned by nearly seven out of 10 respondents. That finding makes sense given messy data issues plague companies and the need for clean, accurate data is necessary to have a successful import. Other common issues cited include column matching (46% of respondents), data access (28%), data sensitivity (28%), and data volume (27%). These findings reveal that companies struggle quite a bit with data wrangling and are spending far too much time on it – turning engineers on their teams into data janitors. 

Survey respondents reinforced that when data import is left to the customer, chances are, it won’t happen smoothly. When companies require customers to read tutorials, watch in-depth videos, and simply hope they figure it out, the door opens for potential churn. 

The challenge of data onboarding isn’t going away. As the sheer amount of data grows, businesses need to address how best to tackle the data onboarding process. The alternative means engineering and product teams are wasting precious time dedicated to building data importers, while customers struggle attempting to migrate their data. Is data onboarding part of your customer onboarding strategy? It’s time that it should be.  

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