Client onboarding: an easy step-by-step guide

Sofie Couwenbergh
Author Sofie Couwenbergh
Written in December 20, 2021

They said yes! Now what?

There are quite a few things you need to get sorted before you can start working for a new client. That's where client onboarding comes in. It entails all the things you need to do from the moment a new client agrees to hire you until you actually get started on their project.

Having been self-employed since 2012, I've done my fair share of client onboarding. In this post, I'll share my process for onboarding clients as well as some best practices. But first, let's get crystal clear on what client onboarding is.

What is client onboarding?

Client onboarding is the process of welcoming a new client and setting them up to successfully get started using your product or service. It includes account creation, offering help documentation, answering questions, setting expectations for ongoing communication, and explaining what they can expect going forward.

Your new client onboarding process sets the tone for your client relationships and aims to start things off on the right foot.

Why client onboarding is important

New clients are often excited to start working with you, but that excitement is fragile. You've yet to earn their trust and deliver on the promises you've made during the sales process. Having a good client onboarding process is the first step to building that trust. It helps you:

  • Eliminate unnecessary back-and-forths, by getting all the information you need at the start of the collaboration.
  • Work more efficiently, by having a time-tested process you can follow for every new client.
  • Reduce scope creep (the client expecting you to do more than agreed upon), by clearly outlining your deliverables and availability.
  • Assure the client by showing them a clear plan of action.
  • Reduce client churn (losing clients), by providing new clients with all they need to turn working with you into a success.
  • Get referrals, by impressing clients so much they'll want to recommend you to others.

Sounds good? Below, you can find the different steps that are crucial to making onboarding new clients a success.

Client onboarding checklist

Your client onboarding process starts the moment the client agreed to work with you and doesn't end until you have everything set up get started on your first assignment for them. While it's best to follow the steps below in chronological order, you might want to switch some things around or group some steps together depending on the services you offer.

1. Have your client sign a contract

Once a client has agreed to hire you, it's time to make things official with a contract or agreement. The contract should clearly state both your and the client's name, address, and any other relevant business details such as your VAT number.

It should also include a quick summary of the project the contract is about, as well as a list of both your and the client's responsibilities in regard to the project. A few other things your contract should include are:

  • How, when, and by whom the agreement can be terminated
  • Matters of confidentiality
  • Who owns which materials and intellectual property
  • Who is liable for what
  • How disputes will be resolved
  • Project goals
  • Project strategy
  • Project scope
  • Deliverables
  • Timeline
  • Price

You can find plenty of contract templates online, so look for one for your industry or the type of business that you run and adapt it to your needs.

If the client has a contract of their own they want to use, make sure you read it thoroughly and check whether it includes all the necessary information before you sign on the dotted line.

2. Send them your client onboarding questionnaire

Once the client has signed the contract, send over your client onboarding form as part of your welcome email. The goal of this form or questionnaire is to get all the client data you need to execute the project successfully. 

What this entails will depend largely on the type of business you run, but a few general things you'll always want to ask are:

  • What is your business invoicing information?
  • Who is the point of contact for this project? You might also want to add that there should be one main point of contact.
  • What is your goal for this project? What would make it a success?
  • Have you hired someone else for the same type of project in the past? What went well? What didn't go so well?
  • Can I include my work for you in my portfolio?

Something practical you won't want to forget to ask for is the access information for any type of software and documentation you'll need to use.

If it's your first time using a client onboarding questionnaire, it's safer to ask a few questions too many rather than having to go back to the client multiple times during the project because you forgot things.

That being said, avoid asking for things they already told you during the discovery call or at any other point before they signed the contract. It's your responsibility to diligently take notes of any important information potential clients share with you.

Note that this doesn't mean you need to create a new onboarding form for every client depending on the information they already gave you. You can simply fill in the questions you already have the answers to and at the same time score brownie points when the client sees you've done some of the work for them.

This is much easier when you're using a PDF or Google Doc than when you're using something like Typeform.

Make sure to thoroughly check your client's answers when you receive them so you can get back to them with clarifying questions if necessary. Do this via email if it only concerns a few quick things, but don't be afraid to schedule a call for questions that require a bit more context. You want to make sure you understand your client's needs, goals, and business as well as possible before you start working on their project.

3. Prepare the project workflow

Once you know exactly what the client is looking for and you have all the access and documentation that you need, you can map out your workflow for their project.

While you can do this in a simple Google Doc, I highly recommend using a project management tool such as Asana, Trello, or Gmelius as these allow you to easily check off tasks, track your progress, and get a visual representation of what still needs to be done. Most of these tools have a free version.

If it's your first time working on a certain type of project, you might want to create an SOP or Standard Operating Procedure. This is basically a checklist of who does what when using which tools. Not only can you use it as a template when creating project workflows, it's also something you can share with team members or, if you're just working by yourself, with freelance help you might hire at a later point.

If you do have other people who'll be working on a project with you, make sure to discuss the project with them, assign them their tasks, and make it easy for them to ask questions.

4. Optional: offer the client a welcome package

Once everything has been set up, you could just get started on the project. However, if you really want to "wow" your new client, consider sending them something of value and relevant to the project for free.

That could be:

  • a summary of the latest news around your project topic.
  • a resource on how to get the most out of the work you'll deliver to them.
  • a fun welcome video to build rapport.

5. Schedule a check-in moment

Strictly speaking, a successful client onboarding process ends when the client is, well, onboarded, but being the professional that you are, you want to go beyond what's strictly necessary, right?

Here's the thing: it's a marketing fact that it's both easier and cheaper to retain existing clients than it is to find new ones. That means you want to keep your clients happy regardless of how long they've been working with you.

One of the simplest ways to do that is by simultaneously ending your onboarding process and starting your client retention process (a fancy word for saying "process to keep the client") with a check-in moment. Schedule a call during which the client and you discuss how things have been going and whether any adjustments need to be made. 

More importantly, it offers the client the opportunity to ask questions, give feedback, and communicate anything they're not super happy with, so you can nip that discontent in the bud before it becomes a real issue.

Whenever you schedule this first check-in moment will depend on the kind of project you're working on, the milestones you may have set, and the duration of the whole project. In general, however, it's a good idea to plan a call like this after the first 30 days of working together.

When the client's happy and wants to continue working together, you could leave more time between these check-in moments, doing them, for example, on a quarterly basis.

Top tip 1: Analyze and refine

You can use the checklist above to create your own client onboarding template. Creating a template is a good idea for any type of business process, as it allows you to save the original somewhere and use it as a basis for experimentation.

Perhaps you spot an opportunity to improve your onboarding process for new clients after having onboarded a few new clients. Don't impulsively change your process, but create a new one based on your template and try it out for a while. If it works better, you can adjust your template and again use that as a base for further testing. But if it doesn't work as well as you'd hoped, you can always go back to your original process.

Not sure how to start improving your onboarding process? Here are a few questions you can ask yourself:

  • Are there any questions clients keep having after I've onboarded them?
  • Is there a type of access or documentation I always forget to ask for?
  • What does my onboarding timeline look like? Is there any point where I could speed things up?
  • Do clients fill in the entire onboarding questionnaire? If they skip questions, should I reconsider or rewrite those?

Top tip 2: Save your client onboarding process somewhere shareable

This may seem obvious, but you'll want to save your client onboarding process in a format that's easily shareable and editable. It could be somewhere as simple as a Google Doc, a Kanban Board in your preferred project management tool, or an outline in Notion.

The reason being that you want your team to be able to access the process as well in case anyone needs to take over. Even if you're a freelancer working by yourself, there may come a point where you want to hire help and in that case, you'll save yourself a lot of time if you don't need to transfer your business processes to shareable formats.

A note on invoicing and payments

In an ideal world, a new client signs their contract, you invoice them for a deposit (yes, ask for a deposit), the client pays, and you get to work all within the span of a week or two. Unfortunately, that's usually not how it works. 

While you can ask for the deposit to be paid within a week, many larger companies pay invoices only once or twice a month and won't change their accounting procedures for just one partner. That means that if you invoice them right after a payday, it can be a while before you receive your deposit.

Does that mean you shouldn't start work until you do?

It's really up to you, but if it's a bigger (and thus more expensive) project, I wouldn't recommend starting until you've received your deposit. Even when you have a contract in place, that's only worth as much as you're willing to pay a lawyer to have the contract followed in case a client bails on you.

That being said, I have started client projects before having received the deposit when I already had some sort of connection to them. We may have talked in the past, or they were referred to me by another client. In reality, it's simply easier to plan your work week when you don't let it depend on who will pay what when. If a payment is late, you can always withhold the work you've done until the payment comes through.

3 client onboarding best practices

1. Assume nothing

When onboarding a new client, it's crucial that you don't assume anything about their business or understanding of your services. Yes, that means you'll have to spend more time upfront asking questions and explaining exactly what you can do for them and how you'll do it, but it will save you time once you get started because:

  • You'll know exactly what the client needs
  • The client will know exactly what they can expect of you

There's no risk that you spend hours working on something that is not in line with what your new client is looking for - and that you'll have to do it all over again.

2. Keep it simple

While you want to ask all the necessary questions, you don't want to overwhelm the new client and make them feel like hiring you costs them time, rather than that it saves them time. 

Group all of your questions together in your client onboarding questionnaire and avoid sending an email each time something comes to mind. Make notes of clarifying questions you have or extra information you need, and send them all together in one email.

You can also avoid overwhelming your client by sharing exactly what they need to know about how you work, but not more than that. If you're a writer like me, they'll want to know when you'll send in the first draft, what format you'll send it in, how they should leave comments, and when you'll finalize the article. They don't need to know how you organize your client work in Google Drive or which tools you use while you're writing.

3. Stick to your timeline

Pride yourself on making your deadlines. Can you beat them? Even better. Unexpected things can happen so plan accordingly. If you need to move a deadline when you've been working with a client for a year and they love you, it's usually not a big deal, but if you're on your first project for them, it may also turn out to be your last.

Don't just wing your client onboarding

Your client onboarding process is crucial in starting the relationship with your clients off right. It can help you build trust, set the right expectations, and ensure everything goes smoothly. Don't leave it up to chance. Follow the steps in this article to onboard clients with success time and time again.

 

About Sofie

Sofie Couwenbergh is an SEO-savvy content strategist, writer, and optimizer. She helps brands generate more qualified leads and keep customers engaged with engaging articles like the one you’ve just read. On top of that, Sofie happily uses Xolo to run her solo business remotely. 

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