Do you remember the way you felt the first time you were in a new place? A new job? On a first date? Probably nervous, right? And nervous or not, you definitely had questions: how do I make the best first impression? How can I connect in the right way? When can I relax? How can I settle in quickly? And do I have to put my name on my lunch if I’m putting it in the office fridge?

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Onboarding new clients is just another first, and as such, it falls into the category of the unknown -- for both sides. The new client might be a little nervous, hoping they made the right decision and that you’re worth the investment. And you might be, too, hoping you can adjust to their working style fast enough, hoping that you can get the result or product they want quick enough, making sure you’re not missing anything. It’s a big game of testing the water, and the onboarding stage is truly where you discover whether you will sink or swim.

It’s easy to think far ahead of the onboarding stage as you plan on ways to prove your value with new clients (e.g., what goals can I meet now? How can I get this relationship up and running as quick as possible?). But before you start planning too far in advance, nailing the Onboarding stage takes a little bit of Zen -- that is, remaining in the present. The onboarding stage is a rarely-overlooked but often-underutilized part of the sales process. In it, you can hook clients, build trust, and create a strong foundation for a future relationship. Without that strong foundation, your relationship will crumble.

Okay, enough with the metaphors. Here are six best practices in the onboarding stage to get your client relationships rolling.

6 New Client Onboarding Best Practices

1. Practice a People-Focused Approach

One size does not fit all. One tenet of customer success is to customize your service or product -- if you’re approaching every new relationship the same way, your clients will feel it. Practicing a people-focused approach (that is, being attentive to each clients’ specific needs and goals) is a bottom line of good business practice. Why? Because people do business with people.

What does a people-focused approach look like? It means you acknowledge fears, concerns, and questions (like those listed above) from the get-go: this is integral to establishing trust early on. Revisit concerns that the client brought up in the sales process and reinforce how you will address those concerns, perhaps with a detailed quarterly plan, a list of quick wins, or setting expectations early on. And remember: organization throughout the engagement is key, but during the onboarding stage it is crucial.

2. Wind Up Before the Kick Off

The kick-off meeting is the perfect place to do those things included under the “people-focused approach” umbrella. The kick-off meeting is where you can really solidify your client’s ideas and needs and make a concrete plan. But the kick-off isn’t the official beginning, and this is where companies miss out. The relationship begins in the wind up.

What’s the wind up? It’s everything that comes before the kick-off -- every part of the sales process, which includes capturing the client’s concerns and setting expectations in relation to your roles in the engagement. It’s during this time that you begin to communicate (and you will do so immediately and with appropriate frequency). But don’t assume that because they have a contract in-hand (or even have a signed contract) that they are in any way completely on board.

When the wind up is strong, the kick-off meeting will be perfectly situated to set things in motion. That way, when you collect the data you need from them and ask them to define their goals, you’ll already have an idea of the direction you need to go. Ask specifically: What would make this a successful engagement for you?

3. Prove Your Value Quickly

Consider the onboarding stage as less a stage and more a process. Once you’ve established your foundation and you’ve made clear your client’s goals, it’s time to get moving. Don’t take your time. If your client wants to see results in the form of metrics, present those numbers to them at the next check-in (and make sure the data you’ve collected is accurate). If your client needs a product installation, get it done in the timeframe you set out. And maybe you won’t be able to reach the client’s end goal in a small amount of time -- that’s a given. So, set little checkpoints along the way to mark successes.

4. Organize Your Communication

This seems a little oxymoronic but setting a communication schedule (or at least simple expectations) will ensure that neither you nor your client fall off each other’s map. Is your client or user in the same time zone? Do they want a weekly, biweekly, or monthly check-in? Will you include them in your newsletter lists and company updates?

Most important is the direct question: how often do they want to hear from you? If your client relationships are simply tech-based, ask them this question on the form you ask them to fill out as part of signing up for your product. If not, ask the client directly -- for service-based firms, it might be necessary to front-load communication early on to make sure you’re not missing anything and slowly taper off from there.

5. Consider the Tech

Whatever your CMS is, create a plan to integrate analytics, the client’s own data, and their technologies into your engagement. Onboarding tools exist to help you automate the customer’s journey through the onboarding process -- many of them also contain pre-formatted checklists and check-in forms to help you expedite onboarding’s organizational component. But don’t forget to customize -- it’s easy to rely on these tools to the point that you’re performing the same onboarding process for everyone. It doesn’t have to -- and it shouldn’t -- be that way.

6. Exchange Feedback

And do it often. Don’t share just your own; listen to client feedback. When the time is right, ask them for it. Is this communication schedule working for you? Is there something that you feel like you’re missing? Does this goal schedule make sense in conjunction with your expectations?

Exchanging feedback works two-fold: you clarify expectations during the process and as time moves forward, and you make sure that the engagement is well-balanced -- that is, that you’re able to give to them while working your other accounts. We know that the key to good business is making the customer feel like they’re the only one you’re working with, but that applies to every other client, too!

Example Client Onboarding Process Flow

To put these best practices into action, here’s an example new client onboarding process flow you can run through with your next client.

1. Big-Picture Campaign Goals

First, discuss the client’s big-picture ideas for your first campaign or project together. What do they want to achieve? What numbers do they want to impact?

In this initial discussion, it’s important to gauge goals, expectations, and ideal outcomes for a project, and then discuss how you’ll work together to make them actionable and achievable. In many cases, you’ll have to find a happy medium between what the client wants to achieve, what resources they have available, and what your team’s time and efforts will allow for.

2. Details

Contact information. Budget. Timelines. These are all vital details to discuss and nail down early on in the collaboration process.

3. Mutual Deliverables & Metrics

Both you and the client will have to deliver content and collateral to make the campaign a success. Nail down everything needed for the project, who will be responsible for what, and firm deadlines for submitting collateral.

4. Mid and End-Points

Once you’ve set a final deadline, set regular check-ins over the course of the project duration to evaluate progress made and for both parties to offer feedback.

5. Wrap-Up

Once the project has been completed, make sure you have a meaningful wrap-up meeting to discuss outcomes and next steps, if any, that are needed. This is a great opportunity to end the relationship on a positive note by highlighting all that the collaboration accomplished, which you can use to ask for a referral or ask to work together on another project.

The onboarding process should span over the entirety of the beginning of your engagement. Following these best practices will help you build the trust that is so crucial in the beginning of client relationships -- and establish an excellent foundation that will benefit you both in the long run. Go forth and onboard! Your future sales numbers will thank you.

Next, use this welcome email template for best results getting new customers started online.

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Originally published May 15, 2018 8:00:00 AM, updated May 15 2018


Customer Onboarding