Management

Client Onboarding Process: How to Successfully Onboard a New Client

Looking to create a high-quality onboarding experience for your clients? In this guide, 28 experts share their best tips for doing just that.

Lily Ugbaja Lily Ugbaja on April 26, 2021 (last modified on August 5, 2021) • 21 minute read

Did you know that more than half (55%) of people say they’ve returned a product because they couldn’t figure exactly how to use it?

That’s a potential 55% loss in revenue and just one of the many reasons why you need to create a solid client onboarding process. 

A high-quality client onboarding process is a smart way to not only reduce scope creep but shorten the customer’s time to value and increase profit margins at a lower cost as well.

But what defines a good client onboarding process and how do you successfully onboard a new client? In this report, 58 agencies who went through trial and error share their best customer onboarding tips.

So, if you want to create an airtight client onboarding process that sets you up for customer satisfaction and better retention like the experts we surveyed, read on to learn:

Stripe (MRR & Churn) Dashboard Template

Let’s dig in.

What is Client Onboarding?

Client onboarding is the process of introducing a new customer to your services and exposing them to every resource they’ll need to achieve their desired outcome. 

This means that during the onboarding process, you’ll be familiarizing clients with your processes, addressing their concerns or questions, sharing guides and resources to help them make the best of your services, and building essential customer relationships.

It’s almost like handing new customers a tour map to guide them from where they currently are, to where they want to be using your services.

The Importance of High-Quality Client Onboarding Experience

Customer onboarding exists to improve satisfaction and reduce churn rate.

Without a good onboarding experience, clients are less likely to understand and use your services which means they’ll fail to get the promised value out of it.

If instead, you optimize your client onboarding process to leave customers feeling confident in their choice, you’ll experience:

Less churn, more retention

It’s no surprise that the leading PR agencies have very high retention rates

graph showing the client retention rates of leading PR agencies

After all, the more clients you can retain, the more profits for your agency.

Poor client onboarding leads to poor client retention. In fact, it’s one of the top reasons why customers churn.

That’s why a good onboarding process that focuses on getting the client to use your service means better retention and more profits down the road. 

Related: 26 Effective Ways for Improving Your Customer Retention Rate

High customer lifetime value (CLTV)

With better retention comes more opportunities to get clients on board for additional services and increase the customer lifetime value (CLTV). 

CLTV is calculated by dividing the average customer value by the average customer lifespan.

CLTV = Average customer value / Average customer lifespan

The higher the CLTV, the more the profit per client. That’s why a good onboarding experience that educates and hand-holds your new client is so important.

With this, you can easily increase your customer acquisition budget without fearing loss.

Eliminate scope creep

Scope creep happens when you don’t set and manage expectations. A good onboarding experience will leave clients with an understanding of exactly what to expect from your agency. 

That way, they aren’t left feeling dissatisfied with your services when you’ve already met their needs just because they don’t recognize them, or they expect something that’s not within the scope of your contract.

This ultimately leads to happier clients.

More referrals

Another by-product of a good onboarding experience is referrals. In a survey, we found that referrals are one of the top ways to grow an agency, but they don’t come until your client has gotten some results. 

A good onboarding process is what guides clients to take action, get results and become word-of-mouth evangelists for your brand.

The 6-Step Client Onboarding Process 

So how do you onboard new clients while giving them the best experience possible? 

And what are the first steps in the client onboarding workflow?

If you are asking yourself what you should or shouldn’t prioritize, here are some essential steps your new client onboarding process should include:

  1. Contracts and payments
  2. Client welcome package
  3. Kickoff call
  4. Onboarding questionnaire
  5. Project launch stage
  6. Checkup call

Let’s explore each one.

1. Sign Contracts and Receive Payment

Verbal agreements won’t protect the time and money you pour into a project if anything goes wrong. That’s why it’s best practice to sign a contract with a new client before you get started. 

Contracts don’t just protect your resources, they help you define expectations on paper and avoid scope creep. 

Some of the things your contract should state:

  • The contract duration
  • Scope of work to be carried out
  • Deliverables expected on your end
  • A defined payment schedule
  • Rights to work delivered

2. Welcome Clients

Once clients sign your contract, they should receive a welcome package that familiarizes them with your agency and inspires confidence in your services.

Whether that’s a welcome email (or series), or physical assets, the job of the welcome package is to assure them that they made the right choice in choosing you. This step is very important especially since research has shown that expectations shape perceptions of reality.

If you leave anything to chance here, you run the risk of setting them up for a negative expectation, which will, in turn, lead to a negative perception of the onboarding experience when your onboarding process is stellar in reality. 

Things you may include:

  • A welcome email sharing your excitement and next steps.
  • Customer support info –like phone numbers for example– and learning resources.
  • Gifts in the mailbag like branded Tees, or even a simple handwritten note to make them feel special.

These small steps help you reinforce your branding while helping clients fall in love with your company. 

3. Client Kickoff

At this point, the goal is to get started with the project on the right footing. 

Use video conferencing software like Zoom if you can’t meet in person.

Some important things to go over on the client kickoff call:

  • Introductions – Get the client up to speed with who they’ll be working with at every stage.
  • Goals – You should discuss what the client wants to achieve and how you’ll help them achieve this.
  • Deliverables and deadlines – What are you expected to deliver and when?
  • Add-on services – Discuss what is to be considered add-on services and how you’ll be charging for any extras to avoid scope creep.

Doing this will give you the opportunity to understand your client better, answer their questions, build rapport and ensure everyone is on the same page about the project.

Related: Working Backwards: How to Set Client Goals & Expectations

4. Onboarding Questionnaire

This is your opportunity to catch anything you may have missed during the kickoff call. 

Get clients to fill in:

  • Their goals.
  • Important KPIs
  • Customer personas

And don’t forget to ask for brand creatives, logins and passwords to resources, or anything else you need in order to get the job done.

5. Launch Project

Now is the time to start and manage the project using your preferred project management software.

Share the info you’ve collected from your client with members of your team so they can get to work.

You may also choose to invite your client to collaborate with your team at this stage as you get the actual work done. 

Not an Asana user? No problem. You can download templates to track project performance in Jira, and Harvest too.

Related: 12 Marketing Agency Project Management Tools That Create Efficiency

6. Checkup

The majority of our experts, 70.7%, take between one to three weeks to fully onboard a new client. 

chart showing how long it takes to onboard a new client

This is a smart way to shorten the time to value. It’s also why early checkups are necessary.

After guiding them this far, you want to make sure that everything is going as planned.

First, check in with your client around the 30-day mark and encourage them to get on a call with you to discuss any challenges, thoughts on pivots, and feedback. Continue to routinely check in from time to time too.

Top 9 Client Onboarding Best Practices

Wondering how to make the most out of your client onboarding process? We asked 28 experts to share their best tips for onboarding new clients, and here’s what they said.

  1. Seek to understand what they want
  2. Create a flexible process that inspires confidence
  3. Build deep client relationships
  4. Provide learning materials for busy clients
  5. Build trust
  6. Be proactive
  7. Set expectations with the kick-off call
  8. Use an intake form
  9. Assign a dedicated account manager

1. Seek to understand what they want

If happy clients are your goal, then there should be no room for guesswork. Ask, drill, and confirm until you are 100% clear on what your client wants.

Nathan Murphy of QuizBreaker says that “It’s important that you’re aware of your potential client’s expectations, as well as what they hope to get from you.” 

Murphy thinks this is crucial, which is why he advises “If at any point you deviate, it’s essential that you clear it (expectations) up before you decide to work with them. Otherwise, you’ll end up having to make corrections while business is being done, which is never ideal.” 

“Always ensure you have the same goals, expectations, and end viewpoint in mind before starting – that way, working together will be seamless,” adds Murphy.

And it’s not just Murphy who feels this way. When asked to share a top tip, Emily Lutz of Perfect Search Media voted “Gaining a true understanding of the client’s products, target audience, and goals to create the best marketing strategy for their needs.”

Similarly, Visitor Queue’s Nick Hollinger thinks understanding your clients should be the first step for a successful client onboarding. “You need to understand the problem they are trying to solve. This is how you should start every onboarding,” says Hollinger.

Hollinger also shared that understanding your clients’ needs will reveal the right way to onboard them for a great experience; “Once you know this, you’ll know the best path to take when onboarding them.”

2. Inspire confidence

How do you inspire confidence during the client onboarding process?

LiveHelpNow’s Jason O’Neill advises agencies to incorporate flexibility. “Clients want to feel like you’ve done the onboarding a million times before and you’re taking them through a process that works. They also want to feel like the process is flexible enough to meet their specific business needs.” O’Neill says.

O’Neill adds that “If it’s too structured, they feel like they’re being pushed through a process, not made for them. So be personal, flexible, comfortable, and confident in your onboarding efforts.”

3. Build deep client relationships

Improving customer relationships increases retention rate and drives growth.

It’s no wonder then that building relationships is Devin Johnson of Kennected’s top tip. 

“Onboarding is where you set and manage expectations on both sides of the relationship. Done right, it will set you up for success, but if expectations are misaligned, you’re doomed to fail. Setting up potential clients for a one-on-one demo with one of our consultants has helped build valuable B2B client relationships.”

About how Kennected fosters better relationships during its client onboarding process, Johnson shared “We chat with the client, tailor the demo to their needs, and take signed clients through a 3-week onboarding with training videos, emails, and 1-on-1 chats. It requires quite a bit of time, but in certain types of business, building deeper client relationships is the only way to long-lasting success.”

Related: 3 Ways to Establish Trusting Relationships with Your Clients by Being More Transparent

4. Provide learning materials for busy clients

There’ll always be those clients who can’t attend your live demo, why not make it possible for them to access everything they need without hopping on live?

Best Company’s Rochelle Burnside says, “Create instructional materials that clients can reference.” 

Expanding on why you need to do so, Burnside adds “Your onboarding meetings may not include everyone who will use your product, so it’s important that you provide learning materials for people who can’t catch your in-person demo.”

Burnside went further to share what learning materials they provide clients during the onboarding process; “My company created a customer success playbook with step-by-step instructions on each feature of our product. We’re also adding how-to videos soon so new clients can see exactly what they need to do for success, whether they can make the onboarding meeting or not. We send these out after our meetings for attendees to review and send to any members of their team that couldn’t make it.”

5. Build trust

Mark Des Cotes of Podcast Branding emphasizes trust as one of the key aspects of a successful onboarding experience. Cotes said “The most important part of the client onboarding process is building a relationship foundation that starts with trust, especially if you run a service-based business. Most clients prefer to work with a good service provider they like, then with an amazing service provider they don’t like.”

And he’s not alone on this, Spitfire Inbound‘s Shiran Sugerman says that “…Onboarding is also all about trust, if the client doesn’t trust you they will have a hard time adopting your tool/strategy, so building a good rapport is key.”

But how do you build trust with clients?

Show confidence and listen

Cotes shared that “You can build trust by showing confidence in what you offer, listening intently to the client’s needs, and showing them you understand their pain points. The more they feel like you get them, the better they’ll feel about working with you.”

Similarly, Serendipit Consulting’s Eric Bergman says one of the most important tips for successful client onboarding is to actively listen. “Don’t just hear the client but listen to their needs, wants and pains. Understand everything from their shoes and not from a marketer’s shoes,” says Bergman.

Be sincere and respond quickly

Zoewebs’ YY Lee says sincerity, fast response, and sharing your portfolio with clients are some good ways to build trust; “Customer must believe we can do a good job for them and can be relied upon for the long term service. So, trust is a very important element. So, we have to show them our sincerity, respond fast and show our past portfolio to our prospect.”

Communicate frequently.

For RevenueZen’s Jake Moffett, keeping clients in the loop is the most important thing. “It’s critical to us that we map out exactly what a client should expect in the first 30-45 days of working with us because they need peace of mind that we’re always working behind the scenes for them… make sure to ping clients at least once a week with a “behind the scenes” update,” says Moffett.

Ashley Cummings of Ashley R. Cummings does something similar. “When onboarding, I communicate processes and expectations from the very first email, in the proposal, and on the kick-off call,” says Cummings. 

Be honest and transparent

“Be honest. A lot of times, a new client wants/expects the world. They want to go from 0 to 100 overnight, and they hope to see the leads falling in from day 1. Be honest with expected time frames. Let them know how long the build-out will take, how long the ramp time is for their ads and when they can expect to see a full-running campaign, and be honest about things you can not control or achieve for them. Too often, agencies will promise the moon to get the business and then can not figure out why they lose business quickly.” Bergman further shares.

Adding to that still, Bergman says that agencies should “Be transparent… Let the clients view your ads before they go live, give them insight into the internal steps to get everything going, and most importantly, be transparent about any foreseeable issues, limitations, or things you know you won’t be able to provide.”

Related: IMPACT Reveals the Specific Processes They Use to Build Trust and Retain Clients

6. Be proactive

Sometimes, customers get so excited about your services that they get ahead of themselves, and maybe cause some damage in the process.

That’s why Nana Korsgaard of Louis Rinaldo advises that you take proactive measures with clients to keep things jolly; “We have seen that sometimes our clients get very excited about using our products, so instead of taking the time to read the manual or ask questions, they go straight to using it. This is why we have started sending easy example experiments to test out; that way, they can get to know the machine and how to use it.”

Addition’s Liesa Stecher is always one step ahead of clients and says “Make sure that the new client has all necessary information before the call so things can be set up quickly.”

But proactivity is not left for avoiding damages alone. Kristaps Brencans shares that at On The Map, they proactively try to nudge the client to take action once the deal’s been signed; “The most important part of the onboarding process is sending a simple message once you’ve struck a deal to let them know it’s official. Traditionally, this was sending them something in the mail; now, it’s typically a message over social media that seems to set in stone in the client’s mind that it’s happening – it’s time to get to work. I find this is a great way to get the client out of the halfway limbo between not quite knowing whether they’re past the point of purchase or not.”

7. Set expectations with the kick-off call

High on the list of best practices our experts share is the importance of making good use of the kick-off call.

Jennifer Bennett of Law Office of Jennifer L. Bennett says “The most important part of client onboarding begins with the first onboarding meeting with the team. We need to understand the client’s expectations and let them know everything transparently. Remember, the key to long-term satisfied clients is through transparency/honesty.”

When asked to share her one tip, Sagefrog Marketing Group’s Joliene Ford says “The Kick-Off call. This is where Account Managers meet each other’s key personnel and set expectations in order to properly align our objectives, processes, timelines, and how to best communicate, ensuring we’re all prepped and ready for an optimal engagement.”

Like Ford, Adam Bockler of ONEFIRE also thinks setting expectations is crucial for success; “The most important part of the client onboarding process for me is communicating and setting expectations.” Describing ONEFIRE’s onboarding process, Bockler says “With each new client, we schedule a kickoff meeting where we review our agreement to make sure we’re working on common ground, set deadlines for what we’re delivering to them, ask them to provide information and assets to us that we need to do our job, and give them a reasonable expectation for when they should see results and what those results should look like.”

For Shaun Price of MitoQ it’s about “having a mutual understanding of the client’s expectations and desired outcomes,”

Price advises discussing roadblocks and responsibilities during the kick-off call “…how they’d like to respond to common roadblocks on the way to their goals, and a clear outline of the responsibilities on both sides. This entails at least one longer meeting where a representative from your company and the client discuss all of the above points and refine details, usually alongside some sort of follow-up questionnaire to clear up any lingering questions. Above all, don’t forget to take notes so you can refer back to your client’s specific talking points and goals months, or even years, down the road.”

8. Use an intake form

Intake forms help you collect all the essential information you need to get started with the client project which is why Anthony Blatner of Speedwork Social says that the new client intake form is one of the two most useful tools in their client onboarding process; “For us, the two most useful tools have been our New Client Intake Form and Introduction Video Series.”

Why? Because “…a new client can watch the videos to learn how the process works, and then they can submit the intake form to answer all of the inputs that we need to create a great campaign. The form helps them to get their ideas down on paper and organized so that we can understand it all.

That saves us a lot of time and makes for a consistent onboarding process for every client.” says Blatner.

Austin Cooper of Stodzy also uses forms to collect answers to key questions as well as login information; “The most important part of the onboarding process is creating a mandatory onboarding questionnaire sheet for the client to fill out. This is because oftentimes, clients will overlook certain questions you have for them after closing the deal and due to their busy schedule, may cause answers to be delayed which will cause problems in the future. In our case, we must have ALL login information from our clients immediately”.

Collecting this info immediately will save time on project kickoff just like Cooper says “…so we can start auditing their websites and GMB pages. The longer it takes to get an answer for a login credential, the longer it will take us to do our work for them.

9. Assign a dedicated account manager

“The most crucial aspect of the new client onboarding process is to centralize customer management,” says Brian Stewart of ProsperoWeb, LLC

Explaining further, Stewart says “This entails appointing a single point of contact with your new client that adds a personal touch and helps to provide a solid basis for the partnership. It’s a little gesture that can have a big impact on the client.”

Sample Client Onboarding Checklist

To make sure you don’t skip anything important in the onboarding stage, it’s essential to create a client onboarding checklist or template you can use to onboard new clients.

An onboarding template will help you save time and resources, improve client satisfaction, decrease churn rate, and best position your agency for client referrals down the road. 

Here’s a good sample you can use:

  1. Request client details – With a simple form, collect basic details like the client’s first and last names, and the company name.
  2. Prepare and send a client contract – Check this point when the client has signed your contract or any documents that need signing.
  3. Send welcome email – Keep the client informed and excited about choosing your agency.
  4. Schedule a kick-off call – This is the call that discusses the direction things should take.
  5. Send onboarding questionnaires – Ask questions that give you insight into what the client wants.
  6. Request marketing materials – Use an intake form to collect brand creatives like logos, color hex codes, style guides, etc
  7. Research ideas – This step lets you research campaign ideas and brainstorm with your team.
  8. Create a plan – Create a plan of action based on your ideas for client approval.
  9. Get approval – Time to get feedback on your plan of action and finetune for stronger results.
  10. Assign work – Once you’ve decided with the client on the plan, it’s time to assign work to members of your team.
  11. Follow up – At a determined date, check in with your client to give updates and get feedback.
Stripe (MRR & Churn) Dashboard Template

As we’ve seen, a premium client onboarding process is key to reducing churn, boosting retention, and increasing profits overall.

If you have higher customer acquisition costs, optimizing your onboarding process is a smart way to not only reduce scope creep but increase profit margins at a lower cost as well.

By following the steps we’ve laid out in this guide, you’ll begin to experience better customer satisfaction, better retention rates, and as a result, a higher customer lifetime value.

Want to track the effectiveness of your new user onboarding? Use this template to keep an eye on changes to your customer churn rate.

About the author
Lily Ugbaja
Lily Ugbaja Lily Ugbaja is a B2B SaaS and Marketing Writer for hire. She's passionate about creating data-driven SEO content that ranks, inspires brand trust, and drives conversions. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter @lilyugbaja or on her website lilyugbaja.com

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