Setting the right tone: how a solid client onboarding process strategy can avoid potential issues down the road and pave your way to success
The key to a smooth customer relationship starts well before any contract is signed or any work begins. Both you and your potential clients have ways of working that you prefer, and they may not precisely align, which is exactly why it’s so important to nail down your client onboarding process before you ever even meet them.
In fact, done properly, your initial meeting with a client should be an integral part of your onboarding process. A well-crafted and watertight onboarding process should:
- Set up objectives and expectations from the very beginning
- Set your professional boundaries
- Set up a seamless workflow that will position you and your client for success
- Grant access to client’s specific platforms and systems
What should be included in your onboarding process?
Once a client has clicked on that CTA and reached out to you, the next step is usually a discovery call. If you’re just starting out, it’s typically a free consultation that should last no more than 15-30 minutes, max.
Anything beyond that and you should be charging. Additionally–as your client list grows, you’ll likely start charging for that discovery call as well. Often this is rolled into their retainer or package price.
They may want to see some of your past work, so be prepared to show your portfolio or testimonials, or at least point them to where they can see it (your website, etc).
The discovery call is your first chance to get a feel for the potential client and to get a very basic, big-picture overview of what you are being hired for. There may be times when what you’re being asked to do is outside of the scope of what you offer or are willing to do. You may just find that the potential client is a jerk that you want nothing to do with. It happens. Better to shut it down early than have to deal with a nightmare client who owes you a bunch of money later on. (*Side note—this is another argument for a rock-solid contract. Read more about that here)
Create a “Welcome Packet”
There are a few documents that you’ll need a potential client to review in the onboarding process. You can collect them into a Welcome Packet to hand over all at once. This allows the client to have an overview of the onboarding process and gives them a chance to form/ask any additional questions before signing the contract. Things included in a welcome packet are typically:
- Onboarding questionnaire
- A “How I work document”
- Your business contract
Building an onboarding process questionnaire will help you keep all of the things you need to ask your client in one place. It should go much more into specifics than the discovery call. It can be difficult to impossible to remember all of the things you may want to ask a client—building it into a form keeps them all right there for you in a convenient package.
Eventually, after a contract is signed you’ll want to have a “Deep Dive” conversation to really dig into the nuts and bolts of the project, but the questionnaire should come first so that you can identify the needs of the client and organize a plan for consultation.
There are a number of companies that offer pre-built forms for the client onboarding process. You just plug in the questions you want answered on the questionnaire and away you go (read more about that here). Most will collate information however you decide, and you can custom build them for each client if you choose.
How I Work document
As the name suggests, this is where you’ll delineate the specifics of a number of different facets.
- Outline your processes
- Let them know what tools you use—timekeeping and communication apps, etc
- How you prefer to be contacted—phone, email, video call
- What hours they can expect to reach you (or maybe more importantly NOT reach you)
- What your response time is
- Discuss your workflow; steps in the process and how you’ll communicate progress
- Any pertinent information on your business insurance, if you have it
- (Read more on business insurance here)
Setting these boundaries up and clearly communicating them is essential during the onset of the onboarding process.
Perhaps the most important part of the welcome pack is the contract. This is where you commit to everything you and your potential client have agreed to, and I cannot stress enough that everything needs to be in there or it legally does not exist. WRITE IT DOWN IN THE CONTRACT. It’s the only document the court will care about should things go south, and functions as leverage if a client starts asking for things previously undiscussed. (We cover contracts extensively here)
There are a couple of document signing apps that are worth checking into if you want to avoid sending paper contracts through snail mail such as Docusign and Hellosign (now known as Dropbox Sign). Both serve as an electronic alternative to a paper contract and are recognized as legally binding.
(A note on eSignatures—it’s odd to think that a virtual signature can be considered legally binding, but courts have ruled that if there is evidence a signer has taken affirmative action [such as typing their name or signing with a mouse], that attempt constitutes their consent to the contract.)
You can have clients sign directly on your website if your website provides that functionality. Hint- Virtualcopia websites provide that functionality.
Deep Dive (paid consultation)
Here’s the part of the onboarding process where you and the client develop a custom plan on how you’ll actually accomplish what you’ve been hired for. It’s a good time for the client to suggest sites/accounts/branding/content etc for inspiration, if applicable.
It’s also the time to cover the results of the questionnaire and address the problems and/or needs identified therein. You should have a decent idea at this point on a roadmap or basic plan of attack you can present to the client. Be careful not to be overly detailed on how you’ll implement deliverables at this point if you are not yet under contract.
This should definitely be a paid consultation, whether or not the contract has been signed. If a contract has not yet been signed, you should secure payment in advance of the meeting.
Again, this meeting can happen in person, online, or by phone—however you have decided you want to communicate.
One super handy tool for scheduling meetings is an app called Calendly. It syncs with your calendar and lets you know about conflicts immediately. There is a free plan available, though the Professional Plan ($12/month) allows you to take payment at the time of scheduling…which is really slick.
The project roadmap
After the deep dive, generally once the contract is signed, it’s time to send a project roadmap to the client. It should include:
- An outline/timeline of the project
- What you need from the client to begin work
- The contract (if not already included in the welcome packet) and invoice
It’s extremely important to keep yourself and your client files organized. This is as true during the onboarding process as it is years down the road. It’s one of the reasons we encourage our clients to stay within the email realm as much as possible—to retain an electronic paper trail. Easily searchable for reference while still being basically instantaneous.
Imagine how hard it would be if they texted you about a problem, left you a voicemail an hour later, sent you an email, and then blew up your Instagram inbox with more comments. Keeping all of that straight would be a total nightmare. During the onboarding process establish your preferred communication channel and hold them to it.
Now, where do you store it all? There’s a handful of really good apps that help you keep your client files well-organized:
Dropbox is a simple online storage option for someone starting out. It’s free for up to 2GB, which is enough for a lot of virtual assistants. As your business grows you can get into the paid plans which exponentially expand storage and options.
It’s simple to use and has a nifty file request option, where you can request a specific file from a client if they’re dragging their feet, making it super easy for them to get you what you need.
Another easy one that you may already be using. Same initial options and paid platforms, but also syncs seamlessly with all other Google products: Docs, Sheets, Calendar, Gmail, Meetings, etc.
Other helpful onboarding process tools
CRMs (Customer Relationship Management)
A CRM is an app that manages your client communications, proposals, contracts, signatures, pricing, hours, and pretty much anything else related to a project. They keep everything nice and tidy and all in one place, allowing automation of some of the most mundane tasks to free you up from the smothering minutiae of everyday business.
Dubsado might be the best known and most reputable of the bunch, though there are quite a few other ones as well. Read our post for a review of the best of the best.
Did you drift off a little as the client was going on about….whatever they were going on about? Never miss a thing with Otter.ai.
Otter.ai is a really cool app that will live transcribe your virtual meetings for you. It captures everything so you can go back after the fact and peruse at your leisure to make sure you didn’t miss anything important.
Content Snare is an app that automatically gathers all attachments and assembles them for you. Instead of a client adding bits and pieces over time (as you remind them again and again and again…) it asks them to have everything ready before uploading. It will even auto-remind them so you don’t have to.
Asana and Slack are both apps that are widely used for communication. Everything is kept in tidy project files that everyone who needs to can access and explore.
Freshbooks has a reasonably priced version that is extremely powerful, even for the most basic users. It will integrate with your bank accounts, PayPal, Square, Stripe—just about any payment platform.
Often as a virtual assistant, you will need access to clients’ accounts, be they social media or email accounts. It’s a terrible idea to put your passwords into an email or text where they could be easily compromised, and you want to establish this at the outset of the onboarding process..
That’s why apps like LastPass, 1Password, and Keeper exist. Passwords are encrypted at the device level, and you can even see who logged in and when, giving each user accountability. This protects both you and the client.
The first step is the hardest, but you’ve got this!
While getting your onboarding process together at first can seem like a massive and daunting project, you are really setting yourself up for success in the long run. The first one will take a lot of work, but it will get easier and easier with every client.
Soon your onboarding process will be automatic and you can spend your time on the other aspects of your business. Or your life. Don’t forget about that. After all, we work to live, not the other way around, no?
Matthew Ogden is a Minneapolis-based copywriter and content writer and editor. He’s written for national retailers and lobster roll companies alike. When not writing he can be found nose deep in a book, writing and performing music, or nerding out about guitar tone.