Yesterday I spoke at the East Bay WordPress Meetup about onboarding new clients, setting clear expectations, and creating systems.
When I published a post announcing the talk, I received inquiries — through Twitter, Facebook, direct email, and our website contact form — asking if the session would be recorded or if I would be sharing the information.
Clearly this is a topic that many in our community are interested in!
As I shared during my session with Chris Lema in the 2014 WordCamp LA business track, we have spent countless hours creating, refining, testing, and tweaking our own multi-step processes for several different service offerings.
This talk, recapped in detail below, was an overview of the new client onboarding process we use for our custom WordPress web design projects, including:
- What new client onboarding is and why it is critical to the success of the project
- How to create added-value for clients before even getting started
- What components are encompassed in a successful onboarding campaign
- Why setting clear expectations early and often will improve your client relationships
- What most service providers overlook when creating an onboarding process
- How to create your own process and strategies for implementation
My Talk Slides & Some Food For Thought
For those of you who asked, here are my slides and more in-depth thoughts on creating a successful new client onboarding campaign:
You’ve closed the sale, landed a new client, and received the signed contract — but then what?
You may be wondering:
- How do you ensure new clients understand what is happening and that you’re all on the same page?
- How do you make sure you have all the information you need and they have all the information they need?
- How do you help clients understand and feel the value in your services before even getting started?
Or, you may be wondering, “What is onboarding?” Or questioning what an onboarding process for new clients even looks like and whether you really need a formal process?
I’ll answer each of these questions — I promise! So let’s get started…
Before we even start talking about creating an onboarding process for new clients, it’s important that we first discuss how important systems and processes are to the overall success of your business.
Systems and processes allow you to create consistent experiences for you, your team, your vendors, and your clients — and when you have consistency, you are able to track effectiveness, efficiency, profitability, and quality.
You can create systems and processes for any repetitive task or action in your business. The key is getting your systems out of your head and onto paper. Without proper documentation, you rely on memory to get things done, which is how things begin to fall through the cracks — especially when you get really busy.
When systems are documented:
- Benchmarks for quality control are created
- Clients have consistent experiences and greater confidence in you
- The process can be taught and delegated
- Tasks, actions, and more can be automated
What Client Onboarding Is:
- New clients acquire the necessary knowledge, understanding, and tools needed to be a good client
- A service provider or team acquires the necessary knowledge, understanding, and tools needed to be a good service provider
Really, it’s just a more professional name for the process of “getting started” and completing all project kick-off tasks. It is the process of welcoming new clients, making them feel comfortable, and getting them up to speed so you can work together effectively. It’s also about getting all of the information you need, setting the tone for a successful project, and growing a great relationship with your clients.
A clear onboarding process is proven to increase confidence and satisfaction, improve productivity and performance, and reduce stress and confusion — and not just for clients, but for service providers too — because it prepares the clients for your work together. Some of the tactics used in this process include meetings, hangouts, or calls, videos, printed materials, digital communications, training documentation, tasks and reminders, forms and questionnaires, research and more.
What Client Onboarding Is Not:
Many people confuse onboarding with positioning and lead generation — with converting a lead into a client. Let me be clear: That is not onboarding.
Creating a killer portfolio, displaying testimonials, making information easy to find on your website, directing people to an inquiry form, and getting people to fill out your inquiry form are part of the prospecting and lead generation process. These are all actions that are part of your sales and marketing efforts and your conversion funnel. These items are not part of your client onboarding process because the target for this content is not yet a client. Again, this is part of the sales process.
Onboarding deals with your actual paying clients. It begins when the contract is signed and the deposit is paid and ends when design begins.
It’s important to note that creating systems and processes or automating repetitive tasks isn’t meant to replace or eliminate your interactions with your clients, but to supplement and enhance them. Business is human. People want to do business with people. Hopefully your clients chose you because they like you and are excited to learn from and work with you, and you accepted their project because you’re excited to work with them too.
Having an onboarding system in place gives you confidence because you know that there is a strong foundation of valuable educational materials, tools, and resources supporting you. It also puts your clients at ease and makes them more comfortable because they know you’re not flying by the seat of your pants and things won’t accidentally slip through the cracks.
How your clients feel about the way the project starts will set the tone for the entire project — and if doesn’t go smoothly, overcoming any uneasy or negative feelings can be very difficult to overcome.
Clients want to feel good about their decision to invest with you. Starting out with a clear process and communication will help solidify their confidence in you, reaffirm that they made the right choice to hire you, and eliminate any confusion over scope of work, terms, availability, and what happens next.
In addition to the typical new client tasks, scheduling a quick 10-15 minute kick-off phone call to touch base and review critical items can help break the ice and officially start the project off on in a positive way.
Providing training tools and educational resources up front, helps your clients get the most out of their relationship with you, improves communication, reduces confusion, and adds extra value. Likewise, providing easy-to-use forms and questionnaires helps you gather all the information you need and reduce the back and forth communication that can become a time suck. And, when you automate the process, it saves you time, effort, and energy.
The primary thing to remember about onboarding is that it’s is about client care, support, and education. It is used to position the tools, resources, and questionnaires as added benefits and differentiators for your clients that they are thrilled to have.
For example, many of our clients when they return out initial questionnaire share with us that just filling out the questionnaire alone is a tremendously valuable exercise. Many tell us that this is the first time they have thought about their business this deeply and in this way and that the process has given them so much clarity, that it alone was worth the investment.
There’s no time like the beginning of the project to make sure all stakeholders are on the same page. By setting crystal clear expectations up front — and agreeing on them — you and your clients can reduce or even eliminate potential future conflicts and avoid potentially “sticky” situations.
Even though these items may be outlined in your contract, they are important factors to reinforce and communicate with your clients again when setting expectations:
- Your role / team members’ roles
- What clients can expect from you — your commitment to them
- What is expected of your client — their commitment to you
- The process your project will follow and what comes next
- Your availability, boundaries, and expected turnarounds
- Revision process
- Scope creep and contract enforcement
While you may not always find the discussion of these topics comfortable or fun, the key is to be firm, fair, and friendly. Your clients will appreciate your professionalism and clarity — trust me!
There are two parts to a successful new client onboarding campaign:
- External Onboarding Process — the part of the process your clients see and experience
- Internal Onboarding Process — the part of the process you experience
The external onboarding process includes the tasks and actions your client receives and is involved with and is triggered by their initial payment or deposit. A basic external onboarding process for new clients may include items like:
- Welcome — Send a welcome email and a handwritten welcome card by snail mail. Let them know that they’ll receive additional information from you over the next few days to help ensure they get the most out of your time together and the best results from the project.
- Kick-Off Call — Schedule a quick 10 minute project kick-off call to connect personally with your client and communicate key project information. This will help reaffirm that hiring you was a smart decision and help get your provider/client relationship off to a great start.
- Expectations — Be upfront and crystal clear about exactly what your clients can expect from you and what you expect of them. Be sure to discuss major milestones and deadlines, as well as what happens if they miss any agreed upon deadlines.
- Process — Remind them of the process you’ll be taking them through for the project and communicate major milestones and what’s critical to understand at each point.
- Education — Now is the perfect time to also provide your client educational and training materials focused on enhancing the project, helping them get clarity and gain focus, and learn the terminology you’ll be using throughout the process.
- Questionnaire — Along with your own research, it is imperative to gather information from you client about their business, site, and objectives. Using a questionnaire they can complete helps make sure you get all the information you need (and don’t forget anything). Remember, for a project with multiple stakeholders, you may choose to have each stakeholder complete the questionnaire separately as they may not all feel the same way or have the same vision of the business and what a “win” looks like. The answers you receive from the questionnaire(s) will provide a valuable foundation for your future planning and strategy conversations.
- Reminder/Check-In — Don’t just sent a questionnaire and leave your clients hanging! Check-in to see if they have any questions, need help, or want to talk through any aspect of the questionnaire.
Remember, in all of your communications, be sure to remind your clients that you’re here to support them and answer any questions they have along the way. Often clients have questions and get stuck, but never ask for help because they think they are bugging you. It’s part of your job to empower them and help them feel confident asking for help, or asking you to jump on the phone for a quick question.
The internal part of the onboarding process includes all of the things that happen behind the scenes that your clients don’t see. Just as with the external elements, these are triggered by the initial payment/deposit:
- CMR Documentation And Tagging — Make sure your client is added to your CRM system with complete information. If your software supports it, tag your client with any appropriate tags to make future communication easier. For example, you may tag them with common keywords such as client, WordPress, and holiday gift, as well as more specific tags such as the name of a plugin used on the project.
- Welcome — Send your client a welcome message and a handwritten welcome card via snail mail. If your software supports it, setup a welcome card reminder to be sent to you automatically when their payment processes that includes their mailing address.
- Kick-Off — Schedule the kick-off call to personally connect with your client and help them feel comfortable and at ease with your new relationship. If your software supports this, you can automate the scheduling of this call by sending them a link to a scheduler.
- Setup Basecamp Project — We use Basecamp for our project management, so a new project means setting up a new Basecamp project. With a clear process defined, you can also leverage project templates that include to-do lists and checklists common to all projects of that type.
- Project List Update — We keep a company-wide project list detailing all current clients, open projects, deliverables, and the status of each item. Keeping this list updated is critical to our workflow schedule and planning.
- Development Environment — With every new WordPress project, a new development account needs to be created. While we have a lot of work to do before we reach development, creating the environment now creates the space for testing and saves us valuable time later.
- Reminders — Five days after a client receives our questionnaire, an automated reminder is sent to the appropriate team member with their contact information to follow up and check-in.
As you can see, creating systems and processes in your business can be invaluable. Not only does it empower you to delegate and automate, but it will give you greater confidence in your service quality and you’ll enjoy less stress knowing that things are being taken care of and not slipping through the cracks.
The goal of a successful onboarding process is to help reduce ambiguity and increase clarity so it is easier for clients to get you what you need and for you to serve them with confidence.
To create your own client onboarding process, you first need to review your current process:
- What is working great right now?
- Where are you or your clients getting stuck or encountering a bumpy road?
- What tasks are you repeating for every project you take on?
- What type of experience are clients having now and how/where can you improve it?
Then you need to outline and understand:
- What new clients need to know
- What new clients need to learn
- What you need them to do
- What they need from you
- What you need to do
- How can you add value and create a stellar experience
Once you have clarity about your current process’ successes and shortcomings, and you know what you need to communicate and do, then it’s time to get started creating your process.
- Outline Each Step — Outline your process from start to finish, creating clear steps, tasks, actions, and key messages
- Create The Content — you can deliver your content in several different ways, but remember, not everyone likes videos. Many clients like to be able to print and share content with their team, or read it quietly when they have time, which is not always when they are at a computer. We deliver our client communication by email and phone/Skype/hangouts.
- Proof And Test — I can’t stress how important this is! Your onboarding content is the first exposure your clients will have to your materials and glaring typos or design mistakes leave a less than stellar impression. When we initially created our process, I had 6 different friends/business owners (with varying levels of technical savvy) go through the process, reading and evaluating every competent to make sure our communication was clear, easy to understand, and firm, fair, and friendly.
- Start Using Immediately — Your whole process doesn’t have to be complete to start using key pieces. Start using them immediately and continue to tweak and revise as you go.
- Ask For Feedback — Let your clients know you’re implementing new processes to better serve them and that you’d like their feedback on the materials you provide them. Simply asking shows clients you care about their thoughts and feedback and demonstrates your commitment to quality and constantly improving your level of service.
Once you have your process outlines and the content for it created, the next step is to decide how you will deliver the content and materials to your clients. We leverage software to automate the process, which saves us valuable time.
Now before you jump in and blast me for taking out the human element of working with clients, as I said before, that couldn’t be farther from the truth! Automating the process saves us time normally spent on administrative and low-level tasks — time that now can be refocused and directed to our clients. If you use flat-rate contracts, this can be a very positive shift.
Flat-rate contracts trade a specific scope of work for a set investment amount. Included in that predetermined scope of work is a certain number of hours of project management and consulting time. By automating the administrative tasks, you can reduce the project management hours and shift those hours to client consulting. This means you’re spending more time with your clients on the things that really matter most — and they receive more value.
While we use software to automate our processes, you could also deliver the content manually using pre-written messages. You could spin up a membership site your clients get access to, you can drip out portions of content, or send them an actual spiral bound workbook via snail mail.
They key is to choose a delivery method that is EASY for you. If it’s not easy, you’ll be less likely to use it.
Creating systems and processes isn’t a set it and forget it task. Over time as your business grows, the type of projects you take on shift, and you use your processes, it is inevitable that they will need to be refined and edited over time. Especially with anything that is technical, as that information tends to change quickly and often.
As you use your new onboarding process, evaluate each piece:
- Do clients still have basic questions or are confused in any area? Is one piece or part of the project tripping them up? If so, what could you create or provide to help them?
- Is there a section that can be improved? Have you learned something new or received some great insights into how you could improve part of your process? Are there any places that could be streamlined or simplified?
- If you identify small changes or fixes that need to be made, handle them them immediately. Otherwise, set aside time annually to review in full every part of your processes and edit/refine it as necessary.
I challenge you to never believe that you are done or that your process is perfect. Alway be on the lookout for opportunities to see how other people do things and what their systems look like. Get to know other service providers, ask questions, and talk shop, attend conferences, WordCamps, and other events, and talk to your clients — find out what would help them more and improve their experience. Then, take action.
Remember, by setting aside time to work ON your business and create documented systems and processes, you are not only improving your business, but you are growing and improving as a service provider.
With a tested process supporting your projects, you can feel more confident in the delivery and management of your services, as well as the communication with prospects during the sales process.