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Making the first days count: best practices in client onboarding

PostsProject management
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

September 15, 2023

That sinking feeling when you realize you’ve made a bad purchase? Buyer’s remorse. Hopefully, it’s over something small, like a pair of leather pants, and not something expensive, like closing a big deal. 

Buyer’s remorse isn’t just bad news for the purchaser: if you’re the product, a client getting cold feet could mean you lose their trust and potentially their business. All that hard work you put into cultivating a great relationship—up in smoke. 

Great client onboarding is a way to protect your client from experiencing that sinking feeling, but it’s not just about them: a happy client who can see the value in your service is more likely to both spend more and be nicer to work with. Here’s how to ace the process. 

What is client onboarding?

Think of client onboarding as welcoming a guest into your home. You want them to feel comfortable, understand where everything is, feel at ease to ask for things, and know that you’re there to make their visit as enjoyable as possible. 

In a professional context, client onboarding is the process of welcoming new clients to your business. It’s about getting them used to your products or services and making sure they have all the information and resources they need to start off on the right foot.

But the process doesn’t end after the initial welcome. It continues as you and your new client collaborate and grow together. This could be periodic check-ins, regular progress updates, or simply being on hand to offer support whenever they have questions or concerns. 

It’s like an extended ‘getting-to-know-you’ phase that helps both parties understand what to expect from each other. It’s about building trust and setting the foundation for a transparent and fruitful long-term relationship. 

Why is client onboarding important?

  • It sets a positive tone: Think about it: the first impression you make is a lasting one. A streamlined, thoughtful onboarding process shows you value your clients and their business.
  • It sets professional expectations: When you agree on deliverables and establish a communication rhythm, you prevent misunderstandings down the line.
  • It increases client retention: A warm welcome and clear guidance can turn a new client into a long-term partner. And remember, retaining clients is often much more cost-effective than constantly chasing new ones, since all those resources you put into pitching and lead gen? Not needed! They’re already on the books. 
  • It helps you provide better service: This is your golden opportunity to understand your client’s needs. The more you know your client, the better you can tailor your products or services to meet and exceed their expectations.
  • It’s a way to show value: Client onboarding is also an opportunity for you to demonstrate your value early. You get the chance to prove that the client made the right choice in choosing you, laying a foundation of trust that can strengthen your relationship.

Popular onboarding strategies

Different types of businesses, products, services, and clients require different onboarding strategies. Here are some different approaches: 

1. One-on-one onboarding

This one is highly personalized and interactive. It involves dedicated personnel guiding the client through each step of the onboarding process. This could be via face-to-face meetings, video calls, or telephone conversations. 

It allows for immediate feedback and clarification, deepens relationships, and typically leads to higher client satisfaction. The downside? It can be time-consuming and resource-intensive, especially for businesses with lots of clients.

2. Group onboarding

Multiple clients are onboarded simultaneously, often through a seminar, webinar, or group training session. It can be efficient and cost-effective, particularly when the product or service has standard features that require the same guidance for all. The group dynamic can also foster engagement, but this method won’t address the unique needs and queries of individual clients as effectively as a one-on-one session.

3. Self-service onboarding

Here, clients are given the resources they need to guide themselves through the onboarding process. These resources could include video tutorials, FAQs, user manuals, and online help centers. It’s cheap, clients can progress at their own pace, and it can be a good fit for tech-savvy clients or straightforward products and services. But it may lack the personal touch and immediate assistance that some clients prefer.

4. Hybrid onboarding

This strategy combines elements of the previous three to provide a flexible and client-centric onboarding experience. A client might begin with self-service onboarding using online resources, then have a one-on-one call with a team member for personalized guidance, and finally join a group webinar to learn more about specific features or best practices. This method allows businesses to reap the benefits of each approach.

A step-by-step guide to client onboarding 

So, what does a typical client onboarding process look like? Bear in mind that every company’s process will be different, but there are some common steps that most follow.

Step 1: Pre-onboarding

The pre-onboarding phase is essentially like preparing for a mission. You’ll need to map out the journey, gather all the necessary equipment, and make sure you understand the challenges ahead.

  • Gather details. Identify your customer’s biggest priorities. What are their problems? What keeps them up at night? The more you listen, the better you’ll understand their needs.
  • Define big-picture campaign goals. Where do your clients want to go? What’s their ultimate goal? Having a clear vision of what success looks like will help you create a roadmap for getting there.
  • Agree on mutual deliverables. This is about setting clear expectations on both sides. What will you deliver, and when? What do you need from your client in order to make it happen? Transparency is key here. And don’t neglect yourself: scope creep is a real drain on your resources.  

Step 2: After signing

Buyer’s remorse? Not on your watch! Now it’s time to roll out the red carpet and welcome your new client aboard. Mastering this stage shows your client they’ve made the right decision, which puts them in a good mood.

  • Send a welcome packet. This could include an overview of your services, key contact information, and any other resources they might find useful. Feel free to include playful things, too, like candy or vouchers. It’s a small gesture that goes a long way to making your client feel valued and informed.
  • Schedule a discovery call. This is your chance to dive deeper into your client’s business, their expectations, and how you can work together effectively. Get this date in the diary early on.

Step 3: The kick-off meeting/call

This is where the rubber meets the road. It’s time to get down to business and start the work you’ve been hired to do.

  • Collect information about their internal process. Understanding the technical side of how your client operates will align your services with their workflow
  • Ask for the client’s definition of success. What does success look like to them? How will they measure it? Finding this out allows you to tailor your approach to their specific goals.
  • Revisit the deliverables. Reiterate what you’ve agreed to deliver, and make sure everyone is on the same page.
  • Develop a strategic plan: With all the information you’ve gathered so far, create a plan that outlines how you’ll hit those goals. The plan should also indicate how you’ll provide the agreed deliverables.
  • Communicate the plan: Share this plan with your client. Make sure they understand it and agree with the proposed steps. Their buy-in is crucial for the plan’s success.
  • Set the cadence for communication: How often will you meet or update each other? Set this in stone so there’s no misunderstanding later on. 
  • Assign tasks: Divide the work amongst your team and set clear deadlines. Remember, effective delegation is key for smooth project execution.
  • Reinforce the value you’re providing. Remind the client of the unique benefits they will gain from working with you. But make sure you’re realistic here – be careful not to overpromise.
  • Outline action items for both parties. Be clear about next steps and who is responsible for what. 

Step 4: The post kick-off meeting 

This is an opportunity to digest the information you’ve gathered so far, and set things in stone. If you’ve had a thorough pre-kick-off meeting, you might not need this stage – but for highly technical, complex, or generally big projects, another meeting isn’t a bad idea. Here’s what you should do:

  • Compile and review information: Pull together all the details from the kick-off meeting. Review the client’s goals, their definition of success, the deliverables, and their internal processes. Make sure your understanding matches up with theirs. 
  • AOB: Ask the client if they have additional thoughts or concerns or need further clarification. This is also an opportunity for you to share the same. 

Step 5: The first 100 days

The first 100 days are about building momentum, cementing trust, and showing your client they made the right choice. 

  • Deliver early wins: Nothing builds confidence like results. If possible, aim for some quick, early wins to reinforce the value you’re providing. Nothing is too small to celebrate! 
  • Regular communication: Keep the lines of communication open. Regular updates help the client feel involved and valued. Remember the cadence you agreed upon during the kick-off call. If your client is time-poor, consider saving updates for your pre-agreed meetings. If they’re an anxious client, grant them access to your project management tool so they can check on progress ad-hoc (without pestering you).
  • Be proactive: Show your client that you’re on top of things. Anticipate potential issues and address them before they become problems. 
  • Be flexible: Use your regular check-in meetings to discuss progress, address concerns, and reevaluate goals if necessary. 
  • Request feedback: Don’t assume everything is fine! Ask your client for feedback about the process so far and make adjustments as necessary. 

Tips for onboarding new clients

Onboarding is about creating a great first impression and laying a strong foundation for a long-lasting relationship. Here are some top tips to help you achieve just that:

1. Practice a people-focused approach

Remember, business is about people – so show genuine interest in your clients and their business. Understand their challenges, aspirations, the culture, and their values. This will help build a strong, authentic relationship. And if you can’t muster this up, then perhaps they’re not the client for you. 

2. Wind up before the kick-off

Don’t rush into the kick-off meeting. Take time in the pre-onboarding phase to understand your client’s needs and expectations. Come prepared with ideas and potential solutions. This shows the client that you’re proactive and that you’ve done your homework.

3. Prove your value quickly

Early results go a long way in building confidence. Deliver quick wins whenever possible. This could be a project deliverable or a solution to a problem they’ve been grappling with (or even a problem they didn’t know they had). Surprise and delight your clients when you can. 

4. Organize your communication

Clear and regular communication is key. Hold regular meetings and share updates. And remember, it’s not just about keeping your client informed; it’s also about being available and responsive to their queries and concerns.

5. Exchange feedback

Feedback is a two-way street. Regularly ask for your client’s feedback on your work and the onboarding process. Likewise, don’t shy away from giving constructive feedback to your client if it will help improve the relationship and deliver better results.

6. Consider the tech

Use technology to streamline the onboarding process. This could be anything from a client portal where they can access all their documents to using project management software. With Backlog’s client workflow tool, clients can log in, create tasks, track requests, and generally see the progress of their project unfurl in real time. This gives them more control while reducing the need for email updates. Plus, because every task and deadline is tracked automatically in one central hub, the chances of something slipping through the cracks are very slim indeed. 



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