Skip to content
Thoughtfarmer intranet blog
Processes and Productivity

How we remotely onboard customers during the pandemic

We were all set to meet our newest customer, Operation Smile. But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Overnight we were forced to rethink our entire onboarding strategy. Here is what we learned:

7 minute read
remote onboarding
You might also like…
Intranet use cases Thumbnail
Intranet use cases

Our customers mean the world to us, so when a new one is announced we all get a little excited. 

But we have to admit, we were all just a little more enthusiastic to meet one of our newest customers: Operation Smile

The nonprofit medical organization captured our hearts with their mission of providing safe surgeries for those born with cleft lip and cleft palate. We couldn’t wait to meet them. 

Even though Operation Smile is headquartered on the opposite end of the continent from our own HQ, we had a small team eager to onboard them and assist them with their brand new intranet. Flights were booked, workshops were scheduled—we were all set to go. 

And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

Overnight we were forced to rethink our entire onboarding strategy. 

Since we build our customer’s intranet around their specific requirements, a typical onboarding can be a detailed process requiring participation from both parties. 

How would we transition every onboarding activity to one in a virtual world? How could we ensure we offered the same level of service and support that our customers had grown to expect? Also, many of our professional services workshops were designed to be conducted in person, so how would/could/should we change that? 

If you like this blog, 

you’ll love our newsletter

From workbooks and whitepapers, to blog content and best practices, our monthly newsletter is full of great content, advice, and expert insight.

Our remote onboarding strategy

After the initial shock wore off, we quickly got to work on a plan. Our team met virtually to discuss what a potential remote onboarding scenario could look like. While we hoped a remote strategy would be temporary, we planned as though this was our new normal. 

We then examined any activities we typically conduct exclusively on site (workshops with post-it notes, as well as some personalized hands-on training), and discussed how these could be transformed into remote workshops. 

For example, as part of our Professional Services, we typically host a content migration session for each new customer. This session is useful for content migrators who benefit from having the ThoughtFarmer team alongside them to answer any questions. We were a little nervous about this session for Operation Smile because of the size of the group, the geographical disbursement/time zone challenges, and the fact that we had never conducted this session remotely before. We addressed this by splitting the session into five, one hour sessions, and with limited attendees. This allowed us to create a more intimate environment, and to answer any content migration questions. 

Additionally, we determined the technology we would need to run any virtual sessions. Our first instinct was to conduct this through the online conferencing tool Zoom. However, we also needed a contingency plan just in case anything went sideways, or anyone suffered connectivity issues.

In spite of the last minute scrambling, the remote onboarding was a huge success. Operation Smile was happy with how well everything went and impressed at how quickly we pivoted from a planned onsite to a remote one.

Lessons learned  

As with any new endeavor, we figured out a lot as we went along, and look forward to incorporating lessons learned into future onboarding sessions. Here are a few things we learned along the way: 

Technology isn’t 100% reliable 

Some attendees ran into challenges logging into Zoom, which stalled some of the sessions. 

Staying organized helps

We set goals and desired outcomes for each remote session. We then used a dedicated Operation Smile project section on our ThoughtFarmer Community site to share outcomes of each session, presentation decks/materials, and links to recorded meetings in case anyone missed a session. 

Technology can’t replace in-person rapport 

We are thrilled to have onboarded Operation Smile successfully, but, we still are a little sad we missed out on little things like lunches and general pre-session conversation. Onsite meetings provide a superior opportunity to build rapport and long lasting relationships with customers.  

Having our own dispersed employees helps

Our location on the west coast (in Vancouver) of North America can create time zone challenges when trying to arrange calls on the east coast. Fortunately we already had a teammate based out of Montreal who assisted with anything Operation Smile required during their work day. This also allowed more flexibility when planning training sessions. 

Remote sessions can have lower attendance

Our content migration sessions had lower engagement than other sessions. We can’t help but wonder if these sessions would have had a higher attendance if they were conducted in person. We also realized that we need to make remote sessions as interactive and engaging as possible, as well as spacing these sessions out, to avoid video fatigue. 

It’s important to know your customer

Prior to any onboarding activities we spoke with Operation Smile to learn things like how familiar they were with working remotely, whether they had previously used video conferencing technology, and if they had any unique learning styles. Understanding this allowed us to better tailor the presentations. We also held weekly status calls leading up to the remote engagement to review and update the schedule and answer any questions/concerns. We additionally followed up after each session and iterated throughout the week using an approach of: try-test-iterate-improve.  

Remote onboarding has some distinct advantages

Because onsite visits are typically only a few days, it usually means a very hectic and full schedule of meetings and learnings. Now that we are operating remotely, we can actually take our time and space out our workshops. This allows all participants more time to prepare and practice what they have learned. Our follow up calls therefore become more focused. 

Having a great customer makes a huge difference

Finally, we could not have achieved what we did without the amazing participation of the Operation Smile team. They were all so well organized, adaptable and an absolute pleasure to engage with, which naturally made all our work so much easier. 

If you’re interested in finding out more about our professional services, please feel free to reach out