5 steps to successful client onboarding

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In agency life, there’s no better feeling than the buzz of winning a new client. Did someone say “open bar”?

But with it now being 16 times more expensive to build a long-term relationship with a brand-new client than an existing one, there’s never been so much pressure on agencies to get client onboarding right.

That’s why more and more agencies are choosing project management software to track projects and centralize communication between stakeholders and your team.

The alternative? A lot of time is wasted chasing details, which puts a strain on deadlines and client relationships.

Clients won’t pick up your project management software on their own, however. If you don’t take the time to carefully onboard them, you could put your client relationship in jeopardy. 

That’s why we’re going to show you how to create an amazing client onboarding experience so that both you and your clients come out on top.

What is client onboarding?

“Onboarding is your opportunity to differentiate yourself from the competition and show your clients that you are invested in their success.” 

~Tyler Garns, CEO and Founder of Box Out Marketing

In broad terms, customer onboarding includes everything between signing the contract and the start of the project itself. 

This process usually goes way beyond a simple welcome email. New client signed, job done, right?

This isn’t true for most agencies, thankfully. Those that do engage in onboarding generally do a mix of things. It starts with welcoming the client, of course, but the process is mostly about setting expectations

This means informing clients when to expect deliverables, establishing lines of communication, setting a precedent for how often communications and meetings should be, discussing the client’s goals, and so on. If you’re using project management software, it also means creating a new client account on the platform, and showing your client how it all works.

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Why the client onboarding process is important

Client onboarding is crucial to streamline the projects you’ll be working on, build trust, strengthen relationships, and promote customer success

Check out some of the top reasons why onboarding is important below.

Sets expectations early

Setting expectations early helps you build a strong working relationship from the start by preventing potential misunderstandings. It ensures everyone is clear on things like points of contact, milestones, deliverables, approvals, deadlines, communication frequency, preferred communication types, and more.

And one of the biggest reasons to set expectations early? It helps prevent scope creep.

Scope creep happens when clients unexpectedly add new project requirements or more work to the project — and it can result in a lot of headaches, both in terms of your budget and your project timeline. Make deliverables clear at the outset, and be sure to discuss provisions should unexpected project additions crop up.

Increases client retention

Experience-driven businesses (businesses that deliver personalized experiences to their clients) see 1.7 times the customer retention rates compared to peers who don’t offer personalized experiences.

That’s almost double the client retention — and it begs the question: What does it take to create a personalized customer experience?

A solid customer onboarding process is part of it. Onboarding is the first time you and your client will have a chance to really get to know one another — and it’s your best chance to create a personalized experience that accounts for individual client needs while increasing client satisfaction. The things you and your clients will learn during onboarding will help cement a great working relationship.

Builds strong business relationships

Building familiarity, learning how to navigate tools you’ll be using, setting expectations, preventing misunderstandings right from the get-go — these things all work together to help you build strong business relationships with your clients. 

Not only does this keep good clients coming back for more, but it also helps bolster your agency’s reputation. Word will spread among professional colleagues that your agency fosters fantastic customer relationships, which will help bring in additional clients.

How to onboard new clients effectively

Ready to learn the tips and tricks you’ll need to onboard clients? Follow the five steps below to create an onboarding template that gets your client relationships off on the right foot.

1. Establish the ground rules and expectations

Maintaining excellent client relationships comes down to reliability, according to the expert consultants and authors of the book The Trusted Advisor. Consistency and ability to meet agreed-upon deadlines play a huge part in creating trust, but meeting your client’s anticipated needs is even more important. This is how they put it:

“The more a provider can do to understand and relate to the usually unconscious norms of the client, the more the client will feel at ease and experience a sense of reliability.”

To work well with your clients, you need to know how they work — in other words, their “unconscious norms.”

To do this, outline the desired outcomes of your project together. Lincoln Murphy at Sixteen Ventures calls this “defining success,” which means you determine what qualifies as success for you and your clients before the project launches. Everyone needs to know upfront what the final product should look like before they start working on it.

Email your clients a questionnaire

Before you start planning a project for a client, dig for specific information about their needs and expectations. Don’t assume what your clients want to accomplish. Ask them.

Pull together a client onboarding questionnaire for them to answer via email. This gives them a chance to articulate their definitions of success in their own words, and you’ll have a reference guide for both the project and future conversations. Use these questions to get started:

  • What results do they want to see? How will they measure these results?

  • What does successful execution look like to them? What does it look like for their boss?

  • What customers are they looking to engage with this project? Who is their ideal customer?

  • What platforms or channels will they use to disseminate the project once it's finished?

Their answers will give you a clear idea of what they expect to receive from you. With these answers in hand, you can show your clients what you need from them in return.

Pick up the phone and talk it through

As you get a better sense of performance and expectations from the client, you can provide a clear picture of the project scope and responsibilities from your side. In addition, you can make it clear what they shouldn’t expect from you. 

Feel free to set boundaries on issues like too-frequent update requests, last-minute revisions, or other tasks that could jam up your workflow. Whether you talk to clients over the phone or discuss it in a document, make sure you explain these issues:

  • The type of project management software you use and why.

  • How tasks get completed in the software.

  • How new products and features get shipped and when.

  • Resolve any questions they have about the process.

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Also send your clients guides, outlines, and examples showing how your software has been effective for past projects. Short videos can often simplify onboarding and provide an excellent troubleshooting tool that doesn’t require a staffed help desk.

Make it clear how you will deliver on their project goals and how your software will track project landmarks. Project management templates are great for that.

And if you need to build a template for marketing project management? Be sure to refer to our ultimate guide to marketing project management, which will show you all the ins and outs of managing marketing projects. With this info, you’ll be able to create a great template.

2. Have a client kickoff meeting

Client kickoff meetings are an essential part of onboarding. It’s a great opportunity to establish trust, build a rapport with the people you’ll be working with, and set the stage for the rest of your relationship.

Remember that first impressions make a huge difference. Nothing makes a worse impression than technical issues during a Zoom call, so before the kickoff call, ensure your tech is up and running flawlessly.

You should also prepare some notes beforehand and create an agenda for the meeting. While you don’t need to strictly direct the flow of conversation throughout the meeting, make sure that you refer back to the agenda so that you can touch on all of the following:

  • Facilitate introductions between your team and the client.

  • Gather information about the client’s business goals.

  • Discuss major roles, responsibilities, and deliverables.

  • Detail the project timeline (and make any needed changes).

  • Talk about scope creep and what to expect in the event of changes.

  • Wrap up by outlining the next steps for everyone to take.

  • Leave time at the end of the meeting for a final Q&A.

If you hit on each of these topics, you’ll have a very productive kickoff meeting — one that gets everyone involved on the same page and provides great detail about project expectations.

3. Train your clients on your software

If you want to support your clients, your team, your goals and your deadline, then help your clients get comfortable with your project management software right away. If you just toss clients straight into the software without making certain that they are secure in the basic functions, those confused clients will create more work for you.

Worse, if new clients find the software intimidating, they’ll design their own avenues outside your workflow to get the answers they need. They’ll badger you with emails asking for updates or phone calls that waste time and can’t be tracked later. Invest in training from day one: If they don’t trust the software you use, they might not trust you.

To onboard your clients to your project management software:

  • Set up their personal account within the software.

  • Make it clear what areas they need to be active in (the comments section, where they’re tagged, etc.).

  • Show them what the value of each action within the software is (moving a card shows that the task is completed, check-ins mean these team members are working on it, etc.)

  • Demonstrate how the team works to complete a task within the software.

  • Show them where they can get an overview of the project.

  • Introduce them to the in-house language your team uses in the software.

Note: If you have a client who is difficult to onboard, use the Rule of Three. Show them how to do three tasks they need to know, and once they’ve mastered those, show them another three, and so on. Breaking down the walkthrough into manageable steps makes it a lot less overwhelming.

And speaking of software, if you’re looking for project management software designed with agencies in mind, Teamwork is for you. We let you manage multiple projects easily and offer unlimited free access for your clients. Learn more about what we can do for your agency.

4. Determine a cadence for communication

Many client relationships end up fouled because of misunderstandings about how frequently various communications happen. Either the client starts worrying because they feel they haven’t received any updates in a while, or you waste time fielding too-frequent emails, calls, and meetings.

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Fortunately, you can nip these problems in the bud right from the start. Again, it’s all about managing expectations — and that means setting a cadence for communications so that clients know when to expect to hear from you.

Go over all of the following:

  • When clients should expect updates.

  • How often you’ll hold meetings, and how you’ll host them.

  • How soon to expect email responses. 

  • How much time you’re willing to spend on phone calls.

Addressing each of those concerns will help you prevent future misunderstandings — and make it less likely that clients will feel left in the dark. By establishing things like response times and phone policies, you’ll save a ton of your time by preemptively limiting excessive communications.

5. Accommodate your clients in your workflow

After the initial training is over, remember that your clients may still need help integrating the project management software into their daily routine. It may take some time before they understand how useful its tools can be for day-to-day communication, organizing key documents, and monitoring progress.

Here’s how to maintain a seamless workflow for you and your clients:

  • Have short regular, scheduled progress check-ins. This quick, simple meeting leaves the door open so you can address uncomfortable questions or issues before they become full-blown problems.

  • Look for patterns. Do your clients seem confused about a certain process or notification in the software? Are you assuming that they understand your workflow? Are they ignoring your requests for important information? Find these patterns and solve the underlying problem.

  • Find places within your workflow to accommodate their comfort level. This may mean providing more training or using Google Calendar instead of Microsoft Outlook temporarily until they gain more confidence with your platform.

This may sound like a lot of work, but keeping tabs on client preferences and work style is part of building a healthy, valuable relationship.

Onboard new clients efficiently with Teamwork

If you want a friction-free start with new clients, onboarding is a must. It’ll save both you and your clients a lot of time, more than a few headaches, and it’ll better equip you to focus on delivering on-time projects. 

This is doubly true when it comes to showing clients how to use your project management software. Familiarize them with it to alleviate questions and confusion.

Fortunately, if you’re using Teamwork for project management, it’s a simple platform to use — and the client onboarding process is easy. If you’re ready to see for yourself, sign up here.

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