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The definitive guide to effective client onboarding

The definitive guide to effective client onboarding

First impressions count. Regardless of your industry, your client’s perception of your business will be created and cemented in the first 90 days. This 90-day period, often called “onboarding,” is perhaps the most critical time in the client-business life cycle.

An excellent onboarding experience builds trust, addresses concerns, and sets expectations for both the client and your project team. A high-performing company has well-defined yet flexible client onboarding processes.

In this guide, we’ll look at how to create effective client onboarding processes. Read on to learn the steps that will help you create a good impression and can help lead your project to success. 

1. Sign the Contract

Ensuring you have a contract in place before you start work sounds like such an obvious first step to successful onboarding that it’s not worth highlighting. However, you’d be amazed at how many companies rush to get started without waiting for a signed copy of the contract.

This is a mistake. It can be a costly oversight!

A contract is an agreement giving rise to obligations which are enforced or recognized by law. You might consider a verbal commitment to be sufficient. Many businesses do. However, unless you’re in the habit of recording your verbal agreements, it’s hard to refer back to them.

A written contract helps you sidestep this problem:

  • You can refer to the original contract when discussing the agreement and expectations
  • A third party can use the contract as a reference point during arbitration

Clearly, a contract is important.

I don’t start any project tasks until I receive a signed copy of the contract from my clients. No contract = no work. Having a contract in place keeps me from wasting time, money, and energy on a project. Once you and your client are both happy, the paperwork is signed, you can proceed to the next step.

2. Send a client onboarding questionnaire

At the start of the client onboarding process, it’s good practice to collect necessary information about your client. An onboarding questionnaire will help you gather this data.

Here are some points you might want to include in a client onboarding questionnaire:

  • Who is the point person for this project
  • Their contact information and preferred channel of communication
  • What Key Performance Indicators do they use
  • Have they undertaken a similar project before or worked with a company like yours
  • Do you want us to use any specific tools or software

The questionnaire should be as concise as possible while still gathering all the essential information. Ask your client to return it to you at their earliest convenience.

3. Get things organized for the project

Unless you are launching your first project, you will probably have some internal processes in place for kicking off the work. For example, at my business where we offer SEO and lead generation services, our internal system for setting up a new project looks like this:

  1. Create a new Google Folder for client assets
  2. Launch a new project management board on Trello
  3. Create relevant templates for invoicing, etc.
  4. Make a couple of assets specific to our niche (for example, email outreach templates, etc.)
  5. Centralize all of the information we gathered through the client onboarding questionnaire
  6. Provide access information to tools like landing page builders, SEO tools, etc.

That’s it.

Having a clear internally agreed process in place helps ensure our side of the client onboarding process is smooth. My staff know where to access relevant information about a client, even if they are not working on the project.

This has been a big timesaver for us. On projects that span a couple of months or longer, you will deal with staff turnover, and sometimes people get sick. In both instances, you need someone to jump in and provide support in the shortest amount of time possible and with the least learning curve. Putting replicable systems in place helps you achieve this.

4. Define the scope of work

I’ve managed a lot of projects over the past decade. One thing I’ve noticed in my professional career is that there is often a disconnect between what you agree on within the contract and the initial project proposal, and an understanding of how you will achieve these goals. Generally, this is because in a sales meeting you sell your framework for success.

You need to bridge this gap at the start of your project. Generally, I recommend that you have a conversation between one or two key decision makers in your company, and the same number of people in the client organization. The purpose of this meeting is to agree on the deliverables, and the Key Performance Indicators that will be used to measure the success of the project. The output of this meeting, the framework for project deliverables and a timeline, should be turned into a document that both parties sign off on.

5. Have a Kick Off Meeting

The kick-off meeting is usually the first time the client will meet the whole project team. This is an opportunity to get to know each other. I recommend a face-to-face meeting where possible.

During the meeting, you should discuss the project goals and your timeline. This is something that you’ll have agreed upon previously with key decision-makers. Having that agreement in place ensures that the key decision-makers are in agreement. This is important because, in a big meeting, people like to look clever – which often involves picking holes in other people’s ideas.

You can also discuss the next steps during this meeting, alongside dividing responsibilities. I also recommend a Q&A session where the client and team members can clarify any points of uncertainty.

By the end of the meeting, the client and team should have established a good working relationship and know what to expect. Just as importantly, for the client, there is the appearance of action. When you pay a company money to do something, you will feel reassured by the appearance of activity. It puts your mind at ease.

7. Arrange regular check-in calls

Checking in often is vital to maintaining a strong relationship with the client and ensuring the project is on track. Regular conversations will help you identify and deal with any issues, heading off problems before they become too big. 

I suggest you do check-in calls during the first 90 days. Regular and ongoing communication is the best way to prevent customer churn. 

You might be asking, why not just send an email instead? A telephone call feels more personal and is more likely to yield useful information. You also get answers right away, instead of having to wait for the client’s reply. It’s a good idea to follow up a telephone check-in with an email summarizing the main points – I like to have things in writing – but you can’t beat the relationship-building power of a phone call. 

6. Make them feel welcome 

Successful client onboarding involves effective account management. I recommend you try to bridge the gap between a professional and personal relationship. You can do things like arranging meals at a restaurant, invite people to evenings out, or whatever else happens to be appropriate to your business and the type of client you are dealing with.

The underlying principle here is simple – if you can make the client a friend, you will build trust. That trust underpins your business relationship. You want to have a reservoir of trust, which will help you overcome any hiccups or problems.

Keep improving the process

Even if you have robust onboarding procedures already established, no two clients or projects are the same. Therefore, each client will need a bespoke approach. Consider your onboarding processes as continuous lessons in ensuring client satisfaction. There will be something you can learn from every project, which will help you to do even better next time. 

Before you consider the onboarding process complete, you can arrange another meeting between the client and the project team. Solicit their feedback on the process to check whether things went as expected, or if there were aspects of the process, you could have improved. You can even use lost clients as a source of information using an offboarding campaign

As with almost every element of your business, client boarding is a dynamic and continually changing process. Try to do better and better with each new client, and learn from your experiences to improve. 

Ensuring client satisfaction through effective onboarding

The first few days of your brand’s engagement with a new client can make or break the relationship, and the first 90 days are critical in ensuring the success of the project. Starting with a cohesive onboarding process will set the tone for the customer and the project team and ensure that the client feels valued and respected. 

Before you start work, lay the groundwork by preparing the proposal, contract, and initial invoice. Then use an onboarding questionnaire to gather all the information you need to build and brief the best team for the project. 

A warm welcome via your welcome kit and the kick-off meeting will build trust and cement the relationship. After that, you need to monitor the progress of the project and the working relationship through regular communication and actively seeking feedback. As your business grows and evolves, your client onboarding experience will also change.

With a robust process, a flexible approach, and the support of your team, you can onboard your clients and leave them wanting to recommend your company to everyone they know. 

Nico Prins

Nico Prins

Nico is an online marketer and the founder of Launch Space. He helps companies develop their digital marketing strategies and runs an SEO certification course. He’s worked with everyone from Fortune 500 companies to startups helping them develop content marketing strategies that align with their business goals.

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