I was in the second year of running my client service business and found myself asking this question, over and over again:
“Why was this happening?”
Our clients seemed to be so excited to start their engagement with us. They seemed in it for the long-haul.
But time after time, we saw our clients end their retainer with us, much sooner than expected. Even worse—my team was expending a lot of time and energy trying to make things right. Too often I, as the founder, would be pulled into the weeds to try and settle our new clients' nerves. All to no avail.
Until we did something about it.
We took a hard look at how we onboard new clients at Audience Ops, the blog content service that I started a few years earlier. What seemed to work for our earliest clients simply wasn't scaling as the business started maturing.
It was obvious: the client onboarding process was a major bottleneck.
It clogged up our operation. It ate up time and energy for me and my team. Even worse—it was preventing our business' growth in a major way.
Once we implemented a few key improvements to our client onboarding process, everything changed. Our work became more predictable. Our clients' lifetime value more than doubled. Best of all, I had the confidence and bandwidth to push on sales, unlocking a wave of growth that continues today.
Client onboarding is critical to the growth of my business. I'll share what I learned, including simple wins you can implement right now—and some handy no-code workflows with Zapier.
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Why is client onboarding linked to growth?
It might not seem obvious at first. Most agencies treat client onboarding as an afterthought. An administrative detail that comes with the territory of client services.
It's so much more.
Here are 3 reasons why your client onboarding process plays a major role in your ability to scale your business:
Without a solid process and method for tracking it, client onboarding eats up at least five times more of your team's time—not to mention all of the extra questions and bottlenecks that pull you, the founder or manager, down into the weeds.
That means less time and energy is spent focused on marketing, sales, and new business.
Your client's first experience with your service is mission-critical. Think about it from your client's perspective.
They just paid an up-front deposit and signed a contract with you. They put their trust in you. They have high hopes, but how could they be sure?
Your client onboarding experience needs to make them feel reassured, excited, and confident that they've made the right decision to hire your service. When you achieve this, you can expect a very long-term, fruitful client relationship.
Early on is when your client is most likely to want to recommend your service to others—but only if they've had a stellar, confidence-building experience!
For a client to feel confident enough to recommend your service to others, they have to be sure they won't make a fool of themselves. They want to come across as smart and resourceful for having discovered your amazing solution. Give your client that win.
It starts with an exceptional, better-than-expected onboarding experience.
Common growth-blocking pitfalls in client onboarding (and how to fix them)
So we know client onboarding has a direct impact on your ability to grow your business. (I certainly felt that impact myself.)
Now let's zero in on a few critical areas where common pitfalls can cause client onboarding to fall flat.
I'll share how to fix these and implement the same improvements we did that led to years of growth. The same has been true for client onboarding at agencies I've worked with.
Lack of a predictable, repeatable client onboarding process
The most common pitfall that's a major blocker for many agencies is a lack of predictability in their processes.
The key is to standardize the way you do things. You need to build your standard operating procedures into a system that your team can (and will!) actually use.
That means making your processes adaptable to variations. Twists and turns are inevitable in client services. When your processes can handle them predictably, your team is far more likely to use them consistently.
Building your agency's client onboarding process into a repeatable and adaptable system is essential.
Here are 3 tips to make this easier:
Design sensible "defaults". These form your standard way of doing things. Standard timelines. Go-to tools and methods. If things need to deviate, plan for the most common types of deviations. Predictability is the name of the game here.
Provide an amazing "day one" experience. Remember—Your client just paid a bunch of money and took a bet on hiring your service. You need to reassure them that they've made a smart decision. Direct your client to a welcoming experience, like a helpful video, a booking flow for their kickoff call, or get them started on their new client intake form.
Gather assets in one place. Rather than asking your client for information and assets in piecemeal over several weeks, it's much better to collect as much of this stuff up front as possible. Most importantly, that's easier on your client since it's one touchpoint. And of course, your team can stay organized and prevent bits and pieces from falling through the cracks.
Missed opportunities in integrating and automating your client onboarding
Chances are many parts of your onboarding workflow can be easily automated. But for one reason or another, you've left them in "manual mode".
Guess what? You have a leaky bucket.
All those manual tasks, post-it notes, and loose ends—You know, those things that you hope your team remembers every time—are at risk. When (not if) those balls get dropped, what happens? All the work you put into designing the perfect onboarding process flies out the window. Your clients are left hanging. Your team is frustrated. You're left scrambling to pick up the pieces.
Button it all up with automation.
ProcessKit is my preferred system for automating our client onboarding process. And of course, we use a few key Zapier integrations to automate our workflows into and out of ProcessKit.
Here are two of our favorite Zaps:
Notify a Slack Channel when a task in ProcessKit has been completed
ProcessKit is great as a central source of truth, to track how your process-oriented workflows are progressing, or to audit the task history for a project or a client. And we use Slack to make sure everyone on the team is informed about what’s happening right now. This Zap makes easy to surface the latest task completions in ProcessKit over in my team’s Slack channel.
Completed task in ProcessKit notifies a Slack channel
Kick off a project & process when an appointment has been booked in Calendly
Most new client onboarding processes include an initial kickoff call with the client. This Zap integrates the booking of that kickoff call with your onboarding process. When a new client has booked their kickoff call via Calendly, this Zap finds our “Kickoff call” task in ProcessKit, and updates its start and due dates to match the date and time that the kickoff call appointment was scheduled for. ProcessKit’s post-kickoff-call followup tasks then adjust their dates accordingly.
A Calendly appointment booking creates a new project in ProcessKit
Don't use ProcessKit? Zapier works with many project management systems. See if yours is listed in our App Directory.
Failure to improve your client onboarding process over time
Sometimes processes are unused because they've become out of date with the way your team works today.
But doing things any which way is a recipe for an unpredictable, messy, and error-prone operation that's impossible to scale.
That's why a continuous cycle of revising and improving your client onboarding process is essential.
It seems counterintuitive, but I like it when a mishap happens, or a ball gets dropped. Why? It's another opportunity to fix our process and prevent this from happening again.
Having your processes live in the same place as your repeatable tasks—most importantly, those onboarding tasks—is the best way to keep your process in sync with how your team executes those repeatable tasks. I find it incredibly important to regularly review and maintain processes and make improvements to make them more efficient. This requires collaboration between you, your management team, and the technicians who execute the tasks each day.
Changing a process can be tedious and disruptive, especially when you're relying on those processes for active projects. We use ProcessKit to help us propagate process changes without hassling the team.
Building a system for continuous process improvement is essential for consistent growth and scalability in your agency. Keeping tasks simple and fluid can help you adjust on the fly, no matter what system you use to manage things.
You can do this automatically with a tool like ProcessKit. But if you’re using a different tool for managing your processes and tasks, then it’s best to keep your tasks simple and fluid so they can be easily adjusted on the fly.
Escaping the client treadmill
To wrap up, what we're aiming for here is your escape from the agency-client treadmill. You know what I mean: The constant churn of clients ending relationships early. We want to eliminate all the time you and your team get bogged down in putting out fires. This is what hampers your ability to grow your client business.
Optimizing your client onboarding process is the key to un-blocking that growth engine. Once you do, you can expect every client to look for reasons to extend their engagement and rave about you to everyone they know.
Plus, you as the business owner, have the space to focus on growth, with full confidence that if you doubled sales next quarter, your team is ready to onboard those clients.
This was a guest article by Brian Casel, who has a long history of scaling client service. He's the founder of ProcessKit, a software for scaling repeatable client tasks. He also founded Audience Ops, a productized blog content service. Connect with Brian on Twitter @casjam. Want to see your work on the Zapier blog? Check out our guidelines, and get in touch.