A Guide to Client Onboarding: 7 Steps to Happier Clients and Less Churn

November 13th, 2017 by Christian Sculthorp 20 minute read

You're going to be defined by your first 90 days. You've got to act.

Jack Welch, former GE CEO

Jack was talking about your first three months for an employee but it also applies to new client onboarding. In fact, clients are three times more likely to churn during the first 90 days.

It doesn't matter whether you're an accounting practice, business consultancy, digital agency, wealth management firm, or any other client-focused business—your client onboarding process is incredibly important. 

Today I'm going to show you everything you need to know about client onboarding and provide actionable advice to improve your process.

What is client onboarding?

Client onboarding is the process of bringing on a new client to your business. It's your opportunity to build a relationship, address concerns, get the client up to speed and start the project on the right foot.

Welcome Aboard
Welcome aboard

By the end of your client onboarding process you want the client to feel confident that their desired outcome will be achieved. 

Keep in mind that client onboarding is not lead generation. It starts when a lead has agreed to become a client for your business. 

The importance of client onboarding

A poor client onboarding experience will have clients feel like they made the wrong decision and may ultimately cause them to leave. 

On the flip side, an outstanding client onboarding experience can have a profound impact on your business:

  • Less churn: Like I mentioned above, clients are at high risk of churning in the first 90 days. If you can build a relationship and demonstrate value early on, they're more likely to stick.
  • More efficiency: When you create a solid repeatable process for client onboarding, you'll create efficiencies and be able to scale your business.
  • Reduces scope creep: If you can set expectations and discuss scope creep during your onboarding, you'll run in to less situations where scope creep arises.
  • Happier clients: When you get your working relationship off on the right foot and have a clear plan of action your clients will be happier, which also means a better NPS.
  • More clients: If you can delight your clients early on you have a much better chance at a good relationships, upsells and referrals down the track. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, 84% of B2B decision makers begin their buying process with a referral
  • Ensures compliance: This varies by industry but when you have a repeatable onboarding process you can ensure that the legal side of signing a new client is taken care of.

If you want to achieve everything above, you need to systemize and improve your client onboarding process. 

Client onboarding process (7 steps to success)

To get to this point you need a lead who's ready to move to the next stage of the relationship. Client onboarding begins once you have buy-in from your client that they'd like to go ahead with your services. 

Here's the deal:

This process may change depending on your business. I've included these steps as a guideline to follow, but they aren't written in stone. Use it to get ideas to automate and improve your client onboarding process:

Onboarding Process 2
7 step client onboarding process

1. Proposal, contract and payment

In general, you shouldn't start doing any work until you have a signed contract from the client. Otherwise your client is not legally bound to anything, which means you could put hours and money in to a project with no return. 

If your business runs on a fixed-fee pricing model, Practice Ignition is the best way to tackle this.

Want to know the best part?

Your contract and terms of service are attached to the proposal so you only have to send one document, instead of sending a proposal, contract and invoice separately. You can also accept payments on your proposal for one-off or recurring payments.

Practice Ignition Accept Proposal
One signature to rule them all

If you're not using Practice Ignition, you can piece together everything manually which breaks it down in to four steps:

  1. Build the proposal agreement and sent it over (from Microsoft Word or your preferred proposal software)
  2. Build the contract and send it over (get it signed via esignature software or have them print & sign it)
  3. Send invoice (via your preferred invoicing software) 
  4. Follow up with your client and collect the two signed documents and payment

If your business runs on a time-based pricing model, it's the same process but you'll invoice your clients after the work is done.

Once you're notified that the client has paid and signed the proposal and contract, you can move on to the next step.

2. Client onboarding questionnaire

An onboarding questionnaire is the best way to get client information. This is your chance to get everything you need to get the project off the ground. 

You don't need to limit your client's answers to text either. With a solution like Typeform you can have the client upload files to your questions

Typeform Welcome Client Onboarding Questionnaire
Typeform client onboarding questionnaire

If your services are reliant on this information to get started (ex. bookkeeping) you can make this a mandatory step before you move forward in the onboarding process. 

Here are some things to include in your client onboarding questionnaire:

  • What is your business information? (address, phone number, etc.)
  • Who will be our main point of contact?
  • What would make this a successful project to your business? (use real metrics if possible ex. 50 more leads)
  • Have you worked with a similar company in the past?
  • Can you supply logins and passwords to applicable software?
  • Bonus: ask for referrals at the bottom of the questionnaire, maybe your new client has a friend or colleague who could use your services too

You can also automate your client questionnaire to be sent out with Practice Ignition. Just include a link to the survey in the proposal acceptance email. 

3. Assign the client and get the project rolling

Once you have this information you can now assign the client to the team taking over. Make sure the lead point of contact has some commonalities with the client so they build a strong relationship.

Have a meeting with the team taking on the client and debrief them with all of this information:

  • Project summary
  • What would make this a successful project for the client 
  • A rough timeline of the project
  • Any research you have on the client
  • What is needed from the client to complete the project

All previous communication with the client should also be shared with the team. Ideally all of this information will be in your CRM or client management software.

Now:

Once the meeting is over, the project should be launched in your preferred PMS (project management system) or workflow software: Basecamp, Asana, Workflow Max, Karbon, or whatever software you prefer. If you usually invite clients to collaborate in the project, now is the time to do it. 

4. Have a client kickoff meeting

This is the meeting that gets it all started. Everybody (including the client) should be excited and ready to get this project off the ground. Client kickoff meetings are a key place to build trust with clients and set the tone for the rest of the engagement. 

Have a face-to-face meeting if possible. It's easier to build personal relationships in person and ensures that your client is paying attention. You can do this at your office or book a room through something like Breather.

What if you cant?

If you run a virtual business, or don't have the ability to meet in person, get the client to find a time that works through your calendar software (we use Calendly) to book a video conference. Make sure your video conferencing software works flawlessly—it's embarrassing to have technical issues when you're having your first meeting. I've found Zoom to be the best option but it may vary depending on your location.

Conference Call
Have a video kickoff call

These are some of the things you should go over in the client kickoff meeting:

  • Introductions between the client and the team
  • Business goals for the client
  • Cover major deliverables and responsibilities including a timeline of action
  • What happens in case of scope creep?
  • What's are the next steps?
  • Q&A at the end

By the end of the meeting you should have built a strong rapport between the client and team, eased any doubts from the client and have clear action items to take the project forward.

If you need some more guidance on having an awesome kickoff meeting, read this article by Maria Mora.

5. Provide a welcome package

After your kickoff meeting make sure the client gets some sort of welcome package. This is an opportunity to educate the client and reinforce their purchase decision. Make them feel special—a little effort goes a long way!

It can be a mix of both digital assets and physical products. Your package of digital assets can include:

  • Your 'business cheat sheet': A document that your client print and reference for any information they need on your business. This can include regular business hours, location(s), contact information, emergency contact number, typical response times and FAQs. 
  • Homework: Are there any resources that your client has to read in order to get the most out of this project? It could be a series of articles that will help them understand what's going on.
  • Case studies: Have you delivered great results for similar companies in the past? Share their stories with your client.
  • Welcome video: Creating a welcome video can be a great way to get your clients excited about working with you (see example below). This isn't limited to digital agencies! It's even better if you're in a 'boring' industry and find a way to get your clients fired up. 

Also be sure to send your client something physical as well. You don't even need to be in the same country to send your clients something meaningful.

With a service like Handwrytten you can type out the message to send a hand written welcome letter to your client. You can even trigger it in Zapier to automatically be sent out the minute they've paid your business. 

It gets better:

The same applies for swag (branded merchandise). You can automatically send out hats or shirts to your clients with your brand on it from a service like Printfection. Not only will they love it, but it's a fantastic branding opportunity for your business. 

6. Checkup call

You should have a checkup call with your client 30 days in to make sure everything is running smoothly with your team and client. This is your opportunity to make sure that nobody has dropped the ball during the onboarding process.

Remember that customers are far more likely to churn in the fist 90 days. If you can catch mistakes early, you'll be able to keep more clients.

The checkup call is also a great time to nudge clients for more information or documents that they may be slow to give you. Sometimes an email just doesn't cut it. 

7. Refine and improve the process

After the client is fully onboarded set a date to check back with everyone and make sure everything went as planned: 

Were there any unanswered questions in the onboarding questionnaire? Did a client really like the swag you provided? Are you still waiting on the client for anything?

You can collect an NPS survey with a tool like Promoter.io to from the client to gauge how they're feeling and collect feedback.

Promoters
Collect feedback on your process

Your onboarding process is a constant work in progress that can be improved. By collecting data you can improve the process based on fact and not feeling. 

Client onboarding checklist (12 point sample)

Atul Gawande, MD, is a skilled surgeon and the author of the The Checklist Manifesto. His message throughout the book is that no matter how much of an expert you are, check lists can improve outcomes.

Systemizing your client onboarding through a checklist reduces error and gives your team a clear list of tasks to follow.  Use the above steps as a guide to break down your process in to repeatable steps and build a checklist out of them.

Checklist Gif
Build checklists

You can create a checklist in your project management software, in a workflow automation tool (like Process.st), or even just a Google Sheet. 

Here's a sample client onboarding checklist I put together:

  1. Welcome email: Send a welcome email along with the proposal with Practice Ignition (with contract included and client payments enabled).
  2. Onboarding questionnaire: Get the client to fill out the onboarding questionnaire.
  3. Compliance and payment: Wait until the contract is signed and client has paid. 
  4. Pick your team: Based on available resources, pick the best team to take on the new client.
  5. Set up project: Set up the project in your preferred project management system/workflow software and assign it to the team.
  6. Internal meeting: Have an internal meeting and share all information you have on the client.
  7. Introductions: Get your team to introduce themselves via email and include a link to book a kick off meeting.
  8. Kick off meeting: Have the kick off meeting (preferrably in person) and clearly communicate your next steps with the client. This is also your chance to set expectations and boundries on communication. 
  9. Follow up: Have your team follow up with a 'thank you' email, along with your digital welcome package. 
  10. Welcome package: Send your physical welcome package (swag, hand written letter, etc.).
  11. Checkup call: 30 days later, have a checkup call with your team and the client.
  12. Finished: You're done client onboarding!

It seems like a lot of work for a single client but once you have a repeatable checklist in place it'll be a breeze. 

Client onboarding best practices (from the experts)

I've also gone ahead and asked experts from a variety of industries how they onboard clients and what their best practices are. Learn from their experience to improve your onboarding process.

A Guide to Client Onboarding: 7 Steps to Happier Clients and Less Churn

Set clear, quantifiable goals

Dave Robinson is the founder of Driven Insights

Clear, concise, quantifiable goals allow you and your client to start the engagement on the same page. With goals in hand, we can identify the key milestones required to achieve them. Only then can we determine the data required to inform the decisions needed to hit those milestones. 

That provides us with the information we need to design the reporting which, in turn, allows us to architect chart of accounts and the underlying systems. Skip this step and your engagement will be governed by the adage, 'Without a plan, all activity looks like progress.' Successful entrepreneurs are goal-oriented, your onboarding process should be as well.

A Guide to Client Onboarding: 7 Steps to Happier Clients and Less Churn

A good client onboarding survey is key!

Karl Sakas is the president of Sakas & Company

For smoother client onboarding, ask key stakeholders to complete a pre-kickoff survey. In the survey, you'll ask questions about how they define success, what deliverables they expect, and how much time they're dedicating to work with you each month. You can also ask about their experience previously hiring firms like yours, including what they did and didn't like before. 

Some of the pre-kickoff survey responses will raise red flags; that's good, because now you have an opportunity to reset things and manage client expectations. Getting surveys from everyone also means your firm now knows more about the client than any individual stakeholder, which helps position you as a trusted advisor. 

Sample questions include:

  • Let’s pretend we’ve just launched the <project/campaign/program>. What does success look like?
  • Let’s look even further into the future. It’s ayear after <launch>. What does success look like? What are the numbers?
  •  What is your <boss/board> expecting from this engagement?

A Guide to Client Onboarding: 7 Steps to Happier Clients and Less Churn

Get a good picture of what the client wants

Bec Purczel is an accountant at Adelaide Accounting

The most important part of onboarding a new client we find, is making sure that you have a good understanding of the clients current situation and the direction they would like to go. Only after understanding their needs is it really possible to give accurate suggestions to move forward with their accounting and/or bookkeeping needs. 

With the use of Xero we are able to do many things for a lot of new clients just from this information gathering, such as bringing in bank feeds for reconciling accounts, and in some cases suggesting integrations that may be suitable for their specific industry, to streamline many processes. We find that using this process gives the client confidence that we understand their situation and helps to build long term business relationships. It also allows the client to get an awareness of the range of services that we provide.

A Guide to Client Onboarding: 7 Steps to Happier Clients and Less Churn

Set expectations early

Dylan Kelley is the founder of Wavebreak

Make sure that your clients know what they're getting and what results to expect. One of the best and easiest ways to do this is with a welcome packet. Just create a PDF and fill it with answers to frequently asked questions as well as next steps. You're also saving yourself time by answering client questions before they even ask. And here's a pro tip for you. 

If the next step is a kickoff call, put your calendar link to book the call at the end of the welcome packet. Now your client has to read the welcome packet or they won't know how to book the kickoff call. Welcome packets have made my life so much easier as a consultancy owner.

I firmly believe a smooth client onboarding process lays the foundation for a successful long-term customer relationship. 

In our case, our projects may involve massive server migrations or custom private cloud build-outs. It all starts with establishing realistic expectations, in our case almost always based on time frames. We never kick off the project until our team is 100% ready. 

Setting clear expectations reinforces the fact they are working with a professional organization with policies and procedures. It also displays to the client that you take their project and business seriously. In the end, this is a necessity to deliver the highest quality service possible.

Conclusion

The goal of this guide is not for you to follow word for word, but to help you get ideas to automate and improve. Hopefully you picked up a few tidbits along the way that will help delight your clients. 

Do you have any client onboarding tricks that I missed? Share them below!

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