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Effective client onboarding is a must for any growing agency.
Yes, you must know how to sell. But once you close the deal, the real work begins. Your best long-term clients are going to be the ones you onboarded effectively.
Remember, companies will outsource to an agency in hopes of a superior customer experience. Of course, they also expect perfectly managed projects and cutting-edge products.
Read on to learn what client onboarding is and what it will take to get your processes up to snuff.
What is Client Onboarding?
Client onboarding is a term that covers every introductory touchpoint you have with a new client. Everything from the proposal acceptance to contract signings to kick-off calls are encompassed by this.
If you look it up, you’ll find plenty of “guides for client onboarding” that give you varying degrees of useful advice. Don’t overcomplicate it.
The bottom line is that there’s a lot at stake in having a strong agency-client relationship right out of the gate.
Why is Client Onboarding Important?
Ultimately, client onboarding is important because you are setting a precedent for everything that comes next, ie, your entire client relationship. Making a great first impression is the way to grow a base of ideal and profitable clients.
You clean your house when company comes over because first impressions count. First impressions are foundational to the way websites are designed, dictate how stores are set up, and make or break you on first dates.
Client onboarding sets you up for success by creating real, articulated expectations that you can then meet (and exceed) throughout the course of work with a client.
The better the system, the less you have to think about it.
What Are The Client Onboarding Process Steps?
Client onboarding doesn’t have to be rocket science or needlessly complex. It does, however, always involve certain steps.
Even just sitting down with your agency team and fleshing these out will help you quickly identify gaps in your current process.
If you can, imagine client onboarding as an actual project that you spec out. Each step should have the right tools, content, and details so all stakeholders can execute it to perfection.
These steps are the must-haves for any client onboarding process. Adapt each step to fit your agency.
1. Project Proposal
This may feel a little cart-before-the-horse, but having a templated process for writing business proposals is in fact part of onboarding. At least for the clients who end up signing with your agency, this will be the first impression they have of you and your work.
Of course, a proposal should be one of the slickest things you ever make. It should be chock-full of your best work and truly represent the quality you’ll provide this client. A proposal that is action-oriented will market itself with clear next steps and “how to work with us” protocol.
2. New Client Contract
Depending on how official you insist on being, a contract or retainer agreement may precede any further communication. It’s important that your agency has contracts created by the right kind of lawyer and include defensible language and clear terms.
Even if you’re doing less formal freelance projects, a basic contract will make sure you and your client are clear on each party’s responsibilities.
Many new agencies especially make the mistake of nebulous terms or relying on a “gentleman’s agreement” for a trial period. This is a recipe for disaster.
Not only do you risk fighting for unpaid invoices, you look unprofessional. Get the contract. Get it signed. Keep onboarding.
3. Client Onboarding Questionnaire
Once a contract is signed by both parties, you are in a legally binding relationship. Then the fun can begin.
The next step is a client onboarding questionnaire. What is actually on it will vary depending on what your agency does.
It’s important to really think through every piece of data and information you want to gain through this part of client onboarding. Questionnaires can easily be delivered digitally using Google Forms, Survey Monkey, TypeForm or similar software programs.
4. Kick-Off Meeting
It’s ideal to have the questionnaire answers in hand before you sit down for your first kick-off meeting. That way you don’t spend too much time on minutiae and can really dig into objectives for the project or work.
A kick-off meeting should have all stakeholders in attendance. Even if your client is pretty authoritative, it’s vital that you have an agenda in hand and a plan for this meeting.
You want to make it clear from the outset that you are proactive and always know what you’re doing. This sets the tone for future communication.
5. Establish Communication Processes, Terms, and Agreements
Even though you have a legal agreement for things like scope of work, rates, and payment, it’s important that you also have some terms and agreements about communication and performance.
As an individual consultant or freelancer, you benefit from independence, but it can also be a risk. Even as a small or mid-sized agency, you don’t have a giant corporation backing you up.
Many agency owners compensate in one direction or the other: either being available 24/7 and giving clients their cell number, or working leisurely hours and being lax about communication.
Come to an agreement about how and when you or your team will be available, what the reasonable expectation is for benchmarking/delivering assignments, and what the workflow will be.
Communicate all of this to clients. Provide the information on who to contact, when, and how. Invite clients into project management or communication channels as needed, and provide simple training videos to get them started.
6. Check-in Calls and Regular Communication
Speaking of communication, it’s important that you get ahead of a client needing updates with regularly scheduled stand-ups and check-ins.
The early stages of a new client relationship involve a lot of behind-the-scenes work, before you can deliver the promised results. Tell your clients what you’ve been doing before they have to ask.
The goal here is to work hard but also work smart. Set the right number of meetings and keep them the right length.
Depending on how the project is managed, this may be facilitated by an agency owner or a project manager. Schedule out weekly emails, meetings, or calls, depending on how involved the client will be in the project.
At first, it’s always better to keep the client more in the loop (rather than less). This inspires confidence that you are busy getting the work done, even when it’s not visible.
It may taper off over time as you build trust and clients come to understand the workflow. Eventually, you will have deliverables and results to share, lessening the need for status updates.
7. First Reports
During the kick-off call and project planning, a date should be set for when a client will get a first report from you. Of course, what you report, and how, will vary depending on the industry you are in and the work you are doing.
It’s important that your team strategically collects data throughout the course of a project, so you aren’t scrambling to assemble this the night before it is due.
Consider in advance what is a reasonable time-frame, what the most compelling data will be, and how you will present it. Then, communicate that with the client so they have an expectation and calendar invite to the reporting session.
These last two steps are started at onboarding and continue on through the duration of your relationship with a client.
8. Ongoing Reporting
While it may be good to have the first report delivered and reviewed on a live call, ongoing reporting may be more casual. Again, there is a lot of variety in how agencies do this, depending on the kind of work they do.
At minimum, you should be providing clients with quarterly reports. These will show measurable progress and assure the client that they’re getting their money’s worth with your team.
9. Relationship Management
Just like data collection and reporting are an ongoing task, so is managing client relationships. Again, there is a distinct advantage to doing business as an agency. You have the chance to connect with clients in a totally unique way.
Take advantage of that by going above and beyond, being friendly and accessible, and accommodating requests as much as possible.
Much of the future work you get as an agency could depend on this client’s review or referrals. Keeping every client happy should be the ultimate goal.
Client Onboarding Checklist
As you can see, there are many identifiable steps to onboarding a new client. From the moment you shake their hand, sign a contract and get started, they should see clearly the value your agency brings.
This is accomplished by inspiring confidence from the earliest days.
Similar to anything else, the more this process can be rinse and repeat, the better it will go. Even if you’re just getting your first clients, it’s not too early to start developing repeatable systems and processes.
Start by developing the resources, materials and tools that will be a part of your client onboarding. Create templates for everything you create, so you don’t start from scratch for every client and project.
Here’s a client onboarding checklist to make sure you have everything you need:
The aforementioned contracts, while not as exciting as a business proposal, can literally make or break your agency. They ensure you get paid on time, every time, for the work you’ve done.
In this case, having a templated client contract that covers all the legal stuff is essential. You may need an attorney’s authorship and approval, depending on the industry and size of your contracts.
Depending on what kind of agency you run, it may be very important to detail aspects like Intellectual Property Rights, Copywriting, Trademarked terms, and Copyrighted Materials. Sharing rights, ghostwriting, media ownership, graphics and more should be covered.
Introductory Message and Welcome Packet
You can pre-write and design all of your introductory materials. From the email sequence to the welcome packet, it’s easy to get at least 90% of it done without client-specific information.
Remember, even though this company is now a client, you should always keep the best marketing strategy in mind.
That means the materials you provide should be as customer-centric as possible, continuously addressing pain points and affirming what a great choice they’ve made in hiring your agency.
Since you will most likely need some information and access from the client to really get started on the work, start the process of gathering it in this welcome email. Include links to the following:
- Client onboarding questionnaire: Use an online form or questionnaire to make this really simple.
- Scheduling a kick-off meeting: Use online scheduling software so you can send a link and let clients choose from your available times.
As far as communication goes, it’s important not only to communicate business hours and availability but to talk about specific platforms.
For example, you may want to use email, text, and phone. If you only have a personal phone, this could be problematic.
Think it through. A few tips:
- There should be a single point person for each client. That way, they’re not scratching their heads wondering what to ask to whom.
- If you use a messaging platform (Skype, WhatsApp, Slack, etc.), collect some reliable “how-to” docs/videos for the client. All of these platforms have them, so you don’t have to make them up yourself. However, if the platform is unfamiliar, a little guide or some directions will ease your client’s mind.
- Even if you don’t work specific hours, you need to communicate work hours with a client. When is it reasonable for them to reach you or your team? Even if you feel like giving your first few clients the moon, the bloom will come off the rose pretty quickly as you grow. Don’t set yourself up for that kind of headache. Put some boundaries in place and stick to them.
Project Management Templates
Articulating the scope of work (SOW), benchmarks, and timelines is of the utmost importance. If the tasks your agency does have predictable steps (such as website design), you can easily create a task in your project management software and simply clone it.
Of course, you’ll customize it for each client but it will save a ton of time to have this skeleton in place.
It’s important that you have a “front-end” and a “back-end” to your client communication. They don’t need to see the panic of a screw up. Just let clients see what’s ready for their eyes and approval.
Software like Asana, Trello, or Basecamp have features that allow you to invite clients in for collaboration, proofing, or approvals. You can schedule out the project and give them access to the right items when they need them.
But if you want to keep it really simple, have a client-facing version of your project plan, outlining dates they can expect each phase and deliverable to be completed.
Additional Forms and Questionnaires
Questionnaires aren’t just useful for initial onboarding, they’re relevant for projects as well. Many companies use these at many points and for many projects.
Here are some forms and questionnaires you may wish to develop:
- Client onboarding questionnaire
- Client branding questionnaire
- Work request form
- Client blog questionnaire
- Project scope questionnaire
- Design request form
You’ll create custom forms and questionnaires that address things you repeatedly ask new clients. This will save a ton of time and give you standard data sets to work from.
As your agency scales, the number of people you have on a given project will probably increase. It’s important that, at every stage of growth, you identify and name roles. If, in your agency, people wear many hats, it’s still important to make team assignments.
This will give everyone a clear area of jurisdiction and also keep things from falling through the cracks. Team assignments and roles are something you should have defined in advance of a new project with a new client.
These can be typed up, with names and contact info for team members your new client needs to be in touch with. If they have a dedicated project manager or support person, let them know how to best communicate with those teams.
If you are running a remote agency, with global clients and a distributed team, don’t forget to include hours of work and time zones!
As you implement best practices for managing projects, it’s important to incorporate client touchpoints. This way, your team is never scrambling to assemble reports or brush up the client-facing side of the work.
It also keeps everyone accountable for being on schedule.
Build touchpoints in.
If a project doesn’t lend itself to this cadence (with short-term, observable progress), figure out a way to get data or some other proof of progress in front of the client on a regular basis.
You’ll find this goes a long way in building buy-in and enthusiasm for the final results.
If you are going to grow your agency, you must have client reporting templated out. Whether this be a pitch-deck style PowerPoint, a Google Slides presentation, a PDF, or any other format: make it standard. It should be easy enough that you can drop data or comments in with ease.
Having report templates also forces you to be collecting the right information as the project goes on. If you set all of this up right and assign people to gather the right data, these could take almost no time at all.
Agendas for Meetings and Check-in Calls
You want to come to a kick-off client call with an agenda, and you should have standard agendas for other types of review calls and check-ins, too. While you want to be familiar and friendly with clients, everyone’s time is valuable.
It will not do to be ill-prepared (or seem unprepared) for a client meeting.
Get your ducks in a row. Have a standard agenda that you populate with client-specific information.
Here’s an example of a client call agenda:
- 5 minutes: high-level updates
- 10 minutes: team-level reporting
- 10 minutes: feedback, Q & A
- 5 minutes: next steps and next meeting’s schedule
It doesn’t have to be complicated and it shouldn’t be long. The idea is to keep it short, sweet and to the point.
Keep your client calls and meetings immensely relevant and concise.
Request for Review or Referral
Just like the final stage of lead nurturing is promotion, the goal is that agency clients become your biggest cheerleaders (and sources for referrals). Write out a review request, with links to where you wish them to publish it, or provide a simple way for clients to refer their friends.
When you think you’ve gained enough emotional collateral with a client, send it to them and let them know how they can help you grow.
What Are Best Practices for Client Onboarding?
Client onboarding can be a home run. It sets you up for a long and happy relationship with a long-term agency client. Of course, it doesn’t always go that way. If you fumble, you’ll be making up for that mistake for a long time.
Bottom line? It’s important that you get this right.
Here are some best practices for client onboarding that will help you out.
Set Clear and Practical Goals
Onboarding a new client not only sets the tone for your relationship, it also sets expectations. Expectations can be the best or worst thing to ever happen in a client relationship.
And here’s the reality: if you don’t set expectations, clients will make assumptions. We all know how assumptions turn out.
During onboarding, be sure that the client hears your clear and practical goals multiple times. Write them out. Email them. Follow up with reminders.
And then, when you check something off the list, be sure to communicate that the goal was met.
Personalize Client Relationships
As your agency grows, it may be tempting to start looking at it as a well-oiled machine. And, yes, the more removed you are from direct client relationships, the more you can tend to generalize and lump clients together.
But remember that the reason many companies hire consultants, freelancers, or boutique agencies is because they want a personal experience with highly talented professionals.
It’s important that you make things personal. Send your clients notes of appreciation, gift baskets, and just-because cards. Reward them for loyalty.
Be in their corner and be sure they know all you do to help them out.
Provide Client Education
Many businesses will outsource rather than hiring in-house staff. This may mean that no one at that company knows how to do what you are being hired to do. That’s great for your job security but also means there can be a wide communication gap.
If talking about “agile sprints” and coding languages is second-nature to you, it’s important to tone things down when you’re talking to the humans.
Rather than just talking over their heads, take time to educate your clients. You will not work yourself out of a job. They don’t know how to do what you do and, what’s more, they don’t want to do it.
But giving them a little more knowledge will help them see just how valuable you are and it will benefit them as an organization.
Be Prepared for Onboarding and Kick-Off Meeting
The more you grow, the busier you get. The more experienced you are, the easier it is to think you can wing things. And sometimes you can. But if you start blowing off important processes, like any step in your client onboarding process, you are going to make mistakes.
Don’t undervalue client relationships or your role in them. Always take ownership and do your best to be professional and prepared.
Even if your agency is seeing major success, we all know that markets fluctuate and tides change. Your attention to clients and to excellence in every task will set you apart.
Customize Reporting With Prioritized Metrics
During the client onboarding process, you should spend some time listening to what the client wants. Knowing what is important to a client will help you serve them the right proof of success.
Even if you have templated processes and reports, you want to be sure these are customized for each client. Prioritize the data you know they care most about at the beginning of the report. Serve up the things you know they’ll get excited about.
These kinds of reports will get read and shared within the company as evidence of the bang up job your agency is doing.
Earn Approval and Get Feedback
Getting great reviews from a client is gratifying. Of course, you need to earn this approval. But having a client leave a five-star review isn’t the only kind of feedback you should be asking for.
Client feedback is one of the most valuable commodities you have for improving performance. Ask what’s going well, what isn’t going well, what they would improve, how you can communicate better.
Even if you’re concerned this may garner criticism, knowing where you’re falling short is the kind of criticism you want.
Client onboarding is an essential process to get right. But it’s not the only process you need to nail down if you want to grow your business. Sign up below for more on how to transition from freelancer to thriving agency.
Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about onboarding a new client in your agency.
What Are the First Steps in the Client Onboarding Workflow?
First steps for client onboarding include the following:
- Business Proposal: Submission, review, acceptance
- Contracts signed
- Kick-off or introductory call
- Project planning
It’s important that you take client onboarding seriously and do your best to set great expectations right out of the gate.
What Does Onboarding Mean?
Onboarding, in the business world, is a term that refers to how a client or employee is introduced and acclimated to a new context. It often includes calls, training, expectations, protocol, and meeting team members.
How to Automate Client Onboarding
Here are some ways to automate client onboarding: Use digital contracts, have pre-written welcome packet materials, use online questionnaires, have a templated kick-off call agenda and notes, and streamline project management for quick onboarding.
What Do I Need For Client Onboarding?
For client onboarding, you will need:
- Introductory materials that help the client get to know you and help your agency get to know them.
- Resources to train a new client on any project management or communication software systems.
- A set of identifiable project goals, complete with a timeline and benchmarks for reporting.
- Protocol set for client communication, work hours, assigned team members, and regularly scheduled check-ins.
The process your agency team identifies will work best if it is as integrated as possible into systems you already use.
What Questions to Ask When Onboarding a Client?
You ask client onboarding questions to get answers for the following: contact information; marketing and branding information; info on past projects; additional team members who will be involved; details on the project itself, including timeline and objectives. Depending on the nature of your project, you will have additional clarifying questions.