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How to walk a new client through the onboarding process (in 7 steps)

By Hachem Ramki · June 24, 2024
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Welcoming a new client is exciting. It's like adding a fresh face (and hopefully a cool project) to your team. But that initial burst of enthusiasm can quickly die out if you get bogged down in the onboarding process. 

We've all been there, stuck explaining login details for the third time while your brain simultaneously tries remembering what you ate for breakfast. This guide will break down how to onboard a new client in seven easy steps, so you can get back to doing the work that will show your client what you can do.

Table of contents:

  • What is client onboarding?

  • The phases of client onboarding

  • How to take a new client through the onboarding process

  • Client onboarding process examples

  • Why is the onboarding process important?

  • Tips for onboarding new clients

  • Automate the process with Zapier

  • Client onboarding process FAQ

What is client onboarding?

Client onboarding is your instruction manual for new clients. It's the process of guiding them through the initial steps of working with you, from introductions and paperwork to setting expectations and diving into the project itself. A smooth onboarding process ensures everyone's on the same page, reduces confusion later on, and sets the stage for a successful collaboration.

It's kind of like that fancy new coffee maker you just bought. You can figure it out eventually by mashing random buttons and hoping for a latte. But with an instruction manual (and maybe a YouTube tutorial or two), you'll be well on your way to barista-worthy brews in no time.

The phases of client onboarding

I like to break the onboarding process down into three distinct phases, each with its own key steps (which I'll go into in detail about in the next section).

1. Pre-onboarding

This phase focuses on getting everything in order before diving into the project. This is your intro to the process, and it gives you the chance to set its pace. During this pre-onboarding stage, you'll take essential steps to ensure a smooth and efficient onboarding experience for your new client. Here's what you'll want to accomplish:

  • Finalize legal documents: Get contracts, NDAs, and any other legalese out of the way.

  • Plan for the financial element: Ensure everyone's on the same page financially by collecting necessary information and outlining payment terms.

  • Welcome the client: Set a positive tone from the beginning with a warm welcome email or phone call.

2. Kickoff meeting

The kickoff meeting is where you officially welcome your client and begin actioning your strategy. It involves setting clear expectations, establishing communication channels, and outlining the project roadmap. Here are the key steps:

  • Establish communication channels and expectations: Establish clear communication channels and preferred methods for staying connected throughout the project.

  • Share your project management strategy: Introduce your preferred project management tools and explain how you use them to keep everyone organized.

  • Prioritize file sharing: Choose a user-friendly platform for sharing project files, and establish clear protocols for easy access and collaboration.

3. Post-kickoff 

With the groundwork laid, this phase dives into the heart of the project. At this point, it's a matter of leveraging everything you've built in previous phases, ensuring communication is always transparent.

  • Schedule routine follow-ups: In order to keep communication flowing and make sure your process is working, schedule routine follow-up calls or emails with your new client so they have a platform to raise concerns, discuss the project, and generally make collaboration a little easier.

How to take a new client through the onboarding process in 7 steps

Now let's dive into the actual how-to. These are seven easy-to-follow stages that'll have your new clients feeling prepped (and pumped) to tackle their projects with you.

Illustration showcasing the importance of a solid client onboarding process

1. Finalize legal documents

I've rarely been giddy about contracts and NDAs—they're about as exciting as watching paint dry. But this step doesn't have to be a total buzzkill. Here are some tips for streamlining the legal stuff and getting on with the good part (the actual project):

  • Pre-built templates: Don't waste time reinventing the wheel. Use pre-built contract and NDA templates you can customize for each client. There are plenty of free and paid options available online.

  • Digital signature tools: Ditch the printer. Many eSignature tools allow you and your client to electronically sign documents.

  • Streamlined workflow: Consider using a project management tool that integrates with eSignature tools. This allows you to send contracts and NDAs directly within your workflow and track their completion status.

By following these tips, you can transform the legal document step from a paper-cut nightmare into a smooth and efficient process. 

2. Plan for the financial element

Transparency and clear communication about money upfront can help avoid confusion and frustration later on. Here's what you need to know to navigate the financial aspects of onboarding:

  • Financial forms: There's a chance you'll need to collect some financial forms from your client, like a W-9 tax form. This is usually necessary if they'll be paying you more than a certain amount throughout the year. Make it easy for them by providing them with a digital copy of the form and clear instructions on how to fill it out.

  • Accounting software: Using accounting software can save you a ton of headaches when it comes to managing invoices and payments. It allows you to create and send professional invoices, track payments, and stay on top of your finances.

  • Initial invoice: Once you've ironed out the financial details with your client, it's time to send the initial invoice. Your accounting software should help you generate a professional invoice that outlines the project scope, fees, and payment terms.

Consider offering multiple payment options to your clients, such as credit card, bank transfer, or ACH. This gives them the flexibility to choose the method that works best for them.

3. Welcome the client

First impressions are everything, and client onboarding is your chance to make a stellar one. Here's how to craft a warm welcome that sets the tone for a positive collaboration.

  • Friendly greeting: Start with a personalized email that goes beyond "Dear [Client Name]." Mention something specific about the project or how you're excited to work together. A little personalization goes a long way. Wrap it all up with a clear and concise section outlining the next steps. This could be scheduling a kickoff call, filling out a brief questionnaire, or simply letting them know what to expect from you in the coming days.

  • Welcome packet: This is your client's onboarding bible, and it's a crucial part of your welcome email. It should include things like your contact information, an overview of your process, and any key project details they need to know upfront.

  • Onboarding docs: Don't overwhelm your client with a mountain of paperwork. Streamline this step by providing them with digital access to contracts, NDAs, and any other essential documents they need to sign. Make sure you only send relevant documents and information, as jargon and irrelevant details can turn your onboarding docs into onboarding novels—and no one wants that.

Remember, the goal is to make your new client feel welcome, informed, and excited to get started. Keep it friendly, professional, and focused on setting the stage for a successful project.

 Illustration depicting how to welcome a new client during onboarding

4. Establish communication channels and expectations

This step is all about establishing clear communication channels and setting expectations for how you'll stay connected with your client. Here's how to keep the conversation flowing.

  • Team chat tools: Consider using a team chat app like Slack or Discord to facilitate communication between you, your client, and any team members involved in the project. This allows for quick questions, real-time updates, and a more collaborative feel.

  • Organized inboxes: Stay on top of your email communication by creating dedicated labels or folders for each client. This will help you keep track of conversations and keep any important messages from getting lost in the shuffle.

  • Kickoff call: Schedule a kickoff call early on in the onboarding process. This is a great opportunity to introduce your team, answer any initial questions your client might have, and discuss preferred communication methods moving forward.

By setting clear communication expectations from the beginning, you can ensure everyone is on the same page and that information flows freely throughout the project.

5. Share your project management strategy 

Now that you've welcomed your client, tackled the legalities, and established communication channels, it's finally time to dive into the project itself. This step is all about creating a roadmap for success using project management tools. Here's how to get your client on board with your project management strategy.

  • Introduce your tools: Do you swear by Trello boards or prefer the in-depth functionality of Asana? This is where you introduce your client to your preferred project management tool and explain how you'll use it to keep everyone organized.

  • Join the client's party: In some cases, your client might already have a project management system they use. Be flexible and willing to collaborate within their existing tools if needed.

  • Schedule assignments and due dates: Break down the project into manageable tasks and assign them to the appropriate team members (including your client if applicable). Setting clear due dates for each task helps keep everyone accountable and ensures the project stays on track.

  • Embrace transparency: Give your clients access to the project management tool so they can see the progress being made and stay informed. This fosters trust and keeps them engaged in the process.

The goal of this step is to create a clear and collaborative project plan that everyone understands. By working together with your client, you can develop a strategy that sets the stage you want to act on.

6. Prioritize file sharing

The moment we've all been waiting for: finishing the project. This step focuses on establishing a system for sharing your deliverables. It's best to have the process, tools, and software for file sharing set up and ready to go early on. Here's what you can do.

  • File-sharing software: There are plenty of file-sharing platforms available, such as Dropbox and Google Drive. Choose a platform that's user-friendly, secure, and allows for easy collaboration.

  • Shared folders: Create dedicated folders within your chosen platform to organize your project files. This helps keep everything tidy and makes it easy for your clients to find what they need.

  • Version control: Use version control features in Docs to avoid any confusion over which file version is the most recent. This is especially important for projects with multiple revisions.

  • Clear communication: Always let your client know when you've uploaded new files (you can automate this process) and provide a brief overview of what they'll find in the folder. This keeps them informed and avoids any unnecessary back-and-forth communication.

7. Schedule routine follow-ups

Establish a regular communication schedule to keep your client informed and address any concerns. Monitor projects to make sure everything is on track. Here are some tips for planning effective follow-ups.

  • Set a follow-up frequency: Determine how often you should schedule a meeting or call. For example, you can start with bi-weekly calls and transition to monthly calls over time.

  • Choose a channel: Discuss with your client what form of communication works best for both of you. Some may prefer a video chat, while others prefer receiving detailed emails or a combination of both.

  • Set a clear agenda: Create an agenda document or use emails to plan for the conversation. This is a platform for you and your team as well, so be ready to ask questions if you have any and answer questions the client might have.

  • Document key decisions: After every call, follow up with an email recapping the conversation and noting key decisions that were made. This creates a paper trail for reference and gives both parties the chance to correct any miscommunication.

Types of client onboarding

There are all sorts of approaches to client onboarding, and the ideal method will depend on your specific business, your clients' needs, and your budget. Here's a breakdown of the most common onboarding styles.

In-person onboarding

While handling everything in person is the classic and original method that preceded the internet, businesses that take this route often miss out on the efficiencies of online work and require more intricate scheduling.

Pros:

  • Stronger relationships: Building rapport in person can lead to better communication and trust throughout the project.

  • Personalized experience: Tailoring the onboarding process to your client's specific questions and needs is easier in a face-to-face setting.

  • Collaborative brainstorming: In-person meetings can foster a more creative and collaborative environment for kicking off a project.

Cons:

  • Limited reach: In-person onboarding can be geographically restrictive, making it challenging for clients in remote locations.

  • Time commitment: Scheduling in-person meetings requires time from both you and your client.

  • Cost considerations: Travel and meeting space rentals can add up, impacting your budget.

Virtual onboarding

As the name suggests, virtual onboarding is the process of covering the entirety of your client onboarding process online, be it through conference calls and emails or collaboration software and task boards.

In fact, some companies employ a "self-service onboarding" experience, which allows clients to interact with pre-set portals, videos, and automated messages. This generally lacks the personal touch that new clients are after and might be trickier to manage.

Pros:

  • Scalability: Virtual onboarding allows you to work with clients anywhere in the world, expanding your reach.

  • Flexibility: Virtual meetings can be easily scheduled and often require less time commitment compared to in-person meetings.

  • Cost-effective: Virtual onboarding eliminates travel and venue costs, making it a budget-friendly option.

  • Self-service options: Consider creating a self-service onboarding portal with video tutorials and FAQs to empower clients to learn at their own pace.

Cons:

  • Building rapport: It can be more challenging to establish a personal connection with clients solely through virtual interactions.

  • Technical difficulties: Unreliable internet connections or software glitches can disrupt the onboarding process.

  • Limited engagement: Clients might feel less engaged in a virtual setting compared to an in-person meeting.

Hybrid onboarding

Some companies might find a mix of in-person and virtual onboarding more successful than either on their own. It can be done in such a manner that specific processes are handled in person and other ones (which might be more digital-friendly) over the internet.

Pros:

  • Flexibility: Tailor the onboarding process to individual client needs. Offer an initial in-person meeting for relationship building, followed by virtual check-ins for efficiency.

  • Personalized touch: Combine the benefits of face-to-face interaction with the convenience and scalability of virtual communication.

  • Engagement: A hybrid approach can keep clients engaged throughout the onboarding process.

Cons:

  • Logistical complexity: Scheduling both in-person and virtual elements can require more planning and coordination.

  • Not always feasible: In-person meetings may not be possible for all clients due to location or budget constraints.

By carefully considering your options and your clients' needs, you can choose the onboarding style that sets you and your clients up for a successful and collaborative working relationship.

Why is the onboarding process important?

A well-defined client onboarding process isn't just about ticking boxes: it's the foundation for a successful working relationship. By setting clear expectations and fostering open communication from the very beginning, you can avoid confusion, build trust, and ensure your project runs smoothly.

Illustration showcasing the importance of a solid client onboarding process
  • Increased client satisfaction: A good onboarding experience sets a positive tone for the entire project. Clients who feel informed, valued, and prepared are more likely to be happy with the final outcome.

  • Reduced project friction: Clear communication and defined expectations during onboarding help avoid misunderstandings and roadblocks later on in the project.

  • Improved efficiency: Onboarding helps streamline the initial project setup. By collecting necessary information upfront and establishing workflows, you can avoid wasting time later on and get down to business faster.

  • Boosted team productivity: A well-onboarded client understands your process and communication style. This allows your team to focus on delivering high-quality work instead of spending time clarifying expectations.

  • Stronger client relationships: The onboarding process is a chance to build rapport and trust with your clients. By taking the time to understand their needs and goals, you can foster a more collaborative and productive working relationship.

Tips for onboarding new clients

With these different onboarding approaches in mind, let's get down to brass tacks. Here are some actionable tips to help you onboard your new clients like a pro:

  • Personalize the experience: A one-size-fits-all approach doesn't cut it. Take the time to understand your client's specific needs and tailor the onboarding process accordingly.

  • Showcase your value early on: Don't wait until the project is complete to impress your client. Deliver a quick win or a small project sample early in the onboarding process to showcase your expertise and build confidence.

  • Listen to feedback and be flexible: Be open to client feedback throughout the onboarding process. This demonstrates your willingness to adapt and ensures the process meets their needs.

  • Keep communication clear and consistent: Regular communication is key. Establish clear communication channels and stick to them. Provide timely updates, and address any questions or concerns promptly.

  • Set expectations and define success: Don't leave your client guessing. Clearly define project goals, timelines, and deliverables during onboarding. This sets expectations and ensures everyone is on the same page about what success looks like.

  • Embrace technology: There are plenty of project management tools and communication platforms available to streamline the onboarding process. Leverage technology to keep everyone organized and informed.

  • Celebrate milestones: Don't forget to acknowledge achievements along the way. Celebrating milestones, big or small, helps keep your client engaged and motivated throughout the project.

Automate the client onboarding process with Zapier

Manually onboarding clients can be a time-consuming and repetitive task. To save some time for practicing your smile in the mirror ahead of your kickoff call, Zapier can be your secret weapon for streamlining the onboarding process and freeing up valuable time to focus on what you do best.

You can create automated workflows (called Zaps) that trigger specific actions when something happens in one app. This can be a game-changer for client onboarding. Imagine automatically sending a welcome email with login credentials when a new client signs up or generating a contract for them to eSign, all without lifting a finger.

Check out this client onboarding checklist for more insights into how you can refine your onboarding process with automation.

Client onboarding examples

Here are a just a few examples of client onboarding processes that use automation to speed things up:

  • Agency Rocket Fuel automated their client onboarding process, so it takes just five minutes for each client.

  • Audience Ops created an onboarding process with automation that doubled their customers' lifetime value.

  • Shweta Dawar streamlined her freelance business's client onboarding with automation, so she could focus on the important work.

  • Judith Meyer focused on differentiating her client onboarding process so it would create a memorable experience and loyal customers.

Client onboarding process FAQ

Still curious about the nitty-gritty of client onboarding? Here are some answers for you.

What should a client onboarding process look like?

The ideal client onboarding process is a well-defined roadmap that guides your new client through the initial steps of working with you. It typically involves steps like introductions, paperwork, communication setup, project planning, and establishing file-sharing protocols.

What are the stages of customer onboarding?

While the specific stages might vary slightly depending on your industry, common onboarding stages include:

Pre-onboarding:

  • Gathering information and legal documents: Collecting necessary details and handling contracts and NDAs

  • Financial planning: Preparing documentation for the financial aspects like invoicing, billing, and accounting software

  • Welcome message and introductions: Setting the tone and building rapport with your new client

Onboarding/kick-off:

  • Project planning and communication: Establishing workflows, communication channels, and project expectations

  • Kickoff and deliverables: Launching the project and outlining the delivery process

  • Training and support: Providing any necessary training or resources for the client

Post kick-off:

  • Schedule routine follow-ups: Schedule a routine meeting with your client to address concerns and ideas

What is KYC client onboarding?

KYC stands for "know your customer" and refers to identity verification procedures used in financial institutions and other regulated industries. KYC client onboarding involves collecting and verifying a client's identity to comply with anti-money laundering (AML) and other regulations.

Who manages client onboarding?

The responsibility for client onboarding can vary depending on the size and structure of your organization. In some cases, dedicated onboarding specialists might handle the process. For smaller businesses, account managers or even HR staff might take on onboarding tasks.

Related reading:

  • How to onboard clients in 5 minutes using Zapier

  • Follow through on your marketing with a unique onboarding process

  • Increase customer loyalty with a seamless onboarding experience

  • Why client onboarding may be blocking business growth (and how to un-block it)

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