Client onboarding process – The ultimate guide

The success of projects is largely determined by the first steps you take.

Have I scared you yet? You should be scared.

The better-aligned everyone is at the start of a project, the smoother and more successful it will be. This is especially the case when it comes to client projects.

In this article we’ll discuss:

  1. Why you should have a dedicated onboarding process
  2. The frequency and methods of communicating during the process
  3. What to communicate and discuss
  4. What tools you can use to make onboarding easier

Let’s dig in.

Why having an onboarding process?

Clients don’t understand the process or what you do at the level that you do. This means they’re going into the project with a big grey cloud between project start and project finish. If they don’t understand how the project will unfold and their responsibilities, they’ll have a higher level of stress, concern, and you can be sure the project will be negatively impacted as a result.

Furthermore, if you don’t clearly define the process the client won’t know how to follow it. In these situations, you’ll find yourself using their process instead of yours.

On-boarding also gives you an opportunity to be proactive about common challenges. You can warn clients about where things might be difficult, or where delays often occur. Web design projects are often delayed when content isn’t delivered on time.

In short, a little bit of upfront work will ensure you have smoother projects, and happier clients.

Communication Frequency and Methods

The start and end of projects should have the most communication, but this often is not the case. The moment a client agrees to work with you they’ll be wondering what to expect next. After each initial step, the client will wonder what happens next.

Towards the middle of the project, they’ll be more accustomed to your communication style and cadence and feel more at ease, but at the beginning, they’re very much in the dark.

So early and often is the key. Here’s an example of the communication schedule you might have for a website design project:

  1. Welcome email immediately after contract signing, describes onboarding call and asking for dates
  2. Email with a link to an intake form, gathering important information
  3. Week of the on-boarding call – reminder email with agenda and what to expect
  4. Day of the on-boarding call – a reminder of the call, asking if there any items to add to the agenda
  5. On-boarding call
  6. Follow up email documenting decisions, action item, and next steps in the process

I often see people scheduling and having the on-boarding call, with no communication before or after. This means the client is going into the call unsure about what will be discussed (thus being unprepared) and is likely to forget what was discussed because the results were not documented.

While frequency is important, the way you communicate plays an important role as well.

Methods of Communication

It’s important to communicate through a mix of media, meaning don’t rely on a single medium, e,g, email, written word, or voice. You want to use a mix of different communication methods, the reason is threefold.

First, everyone has different communication preferences. By using a mix of communication methods you can be sure one of them has aligned with your client’s preference. This means they’ll be happier and they’re more likely to absorb and retain the information you’re conveying to them.

Second, the “dual coding theory” stipulates that people retain information better when it’s presented in multiple formats. This means words and imagery will be retained better than words alone.

Combining visuals, text, and spoken explanation will increase the retention of key concepts

Finally, it gives you an opportunity to repeat critical information. Repetition is critical for learning and retention. The last thing you want is to go through the efforts of onboarding only to have the client forget everything discussed during the process.

Here is a sample media mix to give you some ideas:

  • Welcome message (email/text)
  • On-boarding agenda with “what to expect” video
  • On-boarding meeting – spoken with presentation (visuals)
  • Follow up message (email/text with process diagram of next steps)

What to Cover During On-Boarding

Onboarding is not the same as a project kick-off. Onboarding is the work required before the kick-off. Let me explain.

A project kick-off typically covers the project-specific details required to actually start the work. The on-boarding process discusses how you will work together. Onboarding is higher level than a kick-off.

As for discussion items, think of this as a design problem and start by examining the goal.

The goal of onboarding is to ensure you and the client are on the same page about:

  • Important industry or project knowledge
  • What’s going to happen
  • How it’s going to happen
  • When it’s going to happen
  • Who’s responsible for what
  • What could go wrong, how to prevent it, and how to address it

This can be the start of an agenda outline.

On a more detailed level, there are common topics you could consider:

  • A general overview of what was agreed upon (ensure everyone is on the same page)
  • A brief overview of the process and steps so the client can see how the project will unfold
  • The communication strategy, e.g. who will be communicating, how often, and through what channels
  • Scheduling and major milestones (billing, deliverables, etc…)
  • Responsibilities and expectations
  • Conflict resolution
  • Common challenges and how to avoid them
  • Important vocabulary or concepts
  • Project management process
  • Team members and introductions

Start by creating a boilerplate agenda for your next onboarding meeting. Save it somewhere you can easily update and reuse it.

As your navigating and completing projects, pay attention to hiccups in the process. Assess if they could have been avoided during the onboarding process, and if so, update your boilerplate agenda accordingly.

Over time your on-boarding process will become incredibly more effective and your projects will run smoother.

Tools for Efficient On-Boarding

Creating and utilizing existing tools is an incredible way to save time and create a more consistent process. As on-boarding aims to generate consistent results, the more consistent you are in execution the better everything will be (fix.)

This means you shouldn’t be writing your welcome emails from scratch every time. You should have a collection of communication templates (which is a set of tools) that you can reuse and adapt slightly for each client.

Here are the tools I recommend using:

Intake form

Just about every project requires some basic yet critical information from the client. Official business name, various contact information, where to send invoices, etc…

If you’re manually asking or emailing about these items with every project you’re wasting time and will have a high likelihood of forgetting a critical question.

Creating an intake form ensures nothing is forgotten and saves time on your end. We use Gravity Forms so our clients can easily fill out required information and even upload files. Some of the questions we’ll typically ask include:

  • Primary contact information
  • Primary billing contact
  • Social media profiles
  • Hosting information
  • Domain registrar
  • Upload a logo file
  • Upload a brand guidebook

Video conferencing

In an increasingly connected world, the need to have face to face meetings is being reduced. It’s cheaper and easier to meet virtually. This means having some sort of video conferencing solution.

While there are tons of solutions available, we’re huge fans of Zoom.

Combine video conferencing with an online white boarding solution like Stormboard and you have everything you need to run meetings without having to leave the home or office (or home office.)

Calend.ly

“Please send me three dates and times you’re available next week…” not a very effective way to schedule meetings.

Ample time and energy is wasted trying to find when everyone’s schedule aligns. Using an appointment booking service like Calend.ly can cut out a half dozen unnecessary emails.

Checklists

As you’ve probably noticed, effective on-boarding requires a significant number of steps. To ensure you don’t miss one, and to prevent unnecessary energy wasted on remembering what to do next, create a checklist that you can reference with every project.

If you’re using Project Panorama, create an onboarding phase with a link to your intake form and the necessary steps in one of your project templates.

Slide decks

As recommended earlier, during your onboarding call it’s valuable to have a presentation that everyone can reference during discussion. You can send them the presentation afterward and by delivering the information in visuals, written words, and spoken language you’ll increase retention significantly.

We recommend using Google Slides for the collaboration and easy of use.

Email/communication templates

Each time you on-board you’re going to have similar if not identical conversations and emails. Rather than type the message from scratch each time, create a template that you can reference and adapt to specific project details.

This also gives you an opportunity to review and iterate on your communication. Over time your messages will become more polished and cover more of the critical details as you’ll have improved them using insights gained throughout your projects.

Summary

Effective onboarding is one of the most significant factors in having a smooth, successful project. It’s hard to exaggerate just how important this phase is, as the more successful your projects are the more successful your business will become.

It all comes down to communication.

  • Communicating early and often.
  • Cover all of the critical details.
  • Communicating in a mix of media for improved retention
  • Using the right communication tools

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