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?
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 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 quickly 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. It’s time to think about how to get your client relationships rolling.
As you navigate your brand-new relationship with your customer, here are some things to keep in mind:
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. 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 time frame you set out. And maybe you won’t be able to reach all the client’s goals right away — 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 they 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, you make sure that the engagement is well-balanced, 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.
Your sales reps should be setting expectations and performing tasks with onboarding in mind. Here are a few steps to ensure success with the post-sale hand-off:
Identify Customer Pains and Solutions
During the course of the sales qualification, your rep is determining if the prospect is a good fit for you and has need of your services. They should also be getting crystal clear about the prospect’s pains and conveying to them how your product or service solves it. The last thing you want is to have miscommunication or lack of transparency after work commences.
Define Big-Picture Campaign Goals
Your rep should also 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.
Agree on Mutual Deliverables
When crafting a proposal or service contract, the terms of the agreement should be clearly defined. The scope and the deliverables should be based on the client’s goals and what your company can realistically achieve. They should be spelled out for the client before work begins.
Point of contact. Budget. Timelines. These are all vital details to discuss and nail down early on in the collaboration process.
The proposal was sent, they signed on the dotted line, and perhaps they even made their first payment. Now, the hand-off has happened, and you don’t want to lose any momentum built during the sales process. You’ll also have to eliminate uncertainty where possible to prevent buyer’s remorse.
Send a Welcome Packet
One thing you can do to support this goal is to immediately send a welcome packet or email after the proposal is submitted. The point of this is two-fold:
Reinforce that they did the right thing by making them feel like part of the family
Set expectations for onboarding
Consider including a timeline for next steps, and inform them that your team is excited to have them on board.
Schedule a Discovery Call
Even if you send a packet or email, your new customer will still need a personal touch. In the discovery call, one of your team members will welcome the client and ask if they have any questions or concerns. It’s also good to take this time to organize the kick-off call and set expectations for it.
The kick-off call is the formal introduction between the client and your team members who will be handling/working the account. It sets the tone for the rest of the engagement, so here’s what you’ll want to accomplish:
Collect Information About Their Internal Process
If you’re in some way picking up where your client’s team left off, find out what the existing process looks like and what their preferences are. Otherwise, ask about how they want to manage the relationship and what they expect process-wise.
Ask for the Client’s Definition of Success
Whether your sales rep debriefed your team or not, they’ll want to hear about the client’s goals from the horse’s mouth. This helps align the team and the customer on expected outcomes.
Revisit the Deliverables
The team likely has better context about the work being performed, so once they understand the client’s expected outcomes, now is the time to confirm that the agreed-upon deliverables are appropriate and achievable.
Reinforce the Value You’re Providing
Be sure to handle any last-minute objections by sharing information that will banish buyer’s remorse (such as introducing your team’s specialties or any strategies you have for their success).
Set the Cadence for Communication
Just as the welcome packet/email sets expectations for the rest of onboarding, you’ll want to set expectations for the rest of the engagement during the kick-off call. This extends to how often the customer should expect updates, meetings, and other communication. Without this step, you may find that if the client expects more communication, your team might feel taxed. If your staff expects less communication, your client might feel as if they’re in the dark.
Outline Action Items for Both Parties
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.
Post Kick-Off Meeting
Once the kick-off call is complete, set your first regular check-in to evaluate progress made and for both parties to offer feedback. Here’s some best practices for the call:
Revisit Your Client’s Definition of Success
Your account manager can’t control what the customer is thinking between meetings when they may not have visibility into all the work being performed. Think of this meeting as a course correction. Especially at the beginning of an engagement when there may not yet be tangible results or deliverables, it’s important to remind the client of what they still stand to gain and why they entered into the engagement.
Create an SLA
A service-level agreement (SLA) is a contract that establishes a set of deliverables between one party and another. This will be more specific than the proposal and may be adjusted as goals or needs change. It’s important to establish not just what they need from you but also what you need from them to accomplish it.
Agree on Smaller Milestones
You know that Rome wasn’t built in a day, but when your customer continues writing checks, they may lose perspective and get antsy. Smaller milestone goals on the way to a larger goal serve to show progress along the way and get buy-in. If you miss a milestone, it also gives you room to manage expectations and adjust the plan.
First 60-90 Days
At this point, the honeymoon is over, your client is used to your systems, and they are expecting results. The official onboarding is likely concluded, but it’s not time to let off the gas with your client management. Your account manager should stick to the communication cadence and do these things for each meeting:
Find ways to continue establishing trust
Notify the client of milestones achieved and tasks completed
Ask for feedback to identify small issues before they become engagement-ending problems
Complete a health check report post-call to notify the rep and team of customer sentiment
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.
Originally published May 19, 2020 8:48:00 AM, updated May 19 2020