With online products, solid user onboarding is absolutely essential. It’s how you take a visitor from your home page through to signing up for your product, delivering a “wow” moment within minutes of trying it out and — done correctly — it can convince a new user to stick with your product long term as a paying customer.
But it’s not just online products that require user onboarding.
Think about where the term “onboarding” comes from; literally boarding an airplane. What does the process look like from the point at which you purchase a plane ticket through to when you’re sitting comfortably in your seat?
Or how about when your new MacBook arrives — what are all the little prompts that take you from opening the beautiful packaging to setting up your account?
Instead of onboarding we could just call it “first-time customer experience”.
But how often do you consider client onboarding at your agency? What does your process look like after a new client signs their contract?
What are the benefits of client onboarding?
Imagine this: you’re talking to a sales lead, you validate them, pitch a proposal, and then close a five figure deal. Now it’s time to begin the project so you send them an email:
Thanks for signing the proposal! Here’s Wendy, your account manager. She’ll take care of you from here and let you know when there’s something to see. Cheers”
How cold does this make you feel? Lana hasn’t ever worked on a project like this before, that’s why she’s outsourcing it, yet now she probably feels like she’s just been pawned off and has no idea what to expect from the person who sold her and no confidence in this new person who’s just been dropped on her.
Instead, a good client onboarding process does the following:
- Removes confusion or doubts. Being able to see at a bird’s-eye view what the end project looks like and how it will all come together manages the client’s expectations.
- Builds trust. The more a client trusts you, the more likely they are to defer to your team for their expertise instead of micromanaging every detail.
- Removes buyer’s remorse. They will feel cared for and appreciated, so they’ll be happier with their decision to hire your agency. This can only increase retention and referrals.
Now that we know why onboarding is important, let’s go through how to actually do it right.
Get the client to commit before onboarding
I once had a client who was eager to begin their branding and website re-design before the contract was signed and the deposit paid. I ignored my better judgement and agreed to move ahead, confident the business side would be wrapped up a day or two afterward.
We held the kick-off meeting and even began some first draft creative when the client called to say he was pulling out of the project and wanted to keep his existing website. That translated into over 10 hours we sunk into a project that we didn’t get paid for.
So learn from this story and don’t schedule the kick-off meeting until the client signs the contract/proposal and pays their deposit.
The client may try to persuade you to “just get it kicked off” because so and so needs to sign the cheque and the deadline is looming. You may think starting the project is a sign of goodwill and you don’t want to start the relationship off saying no.
Well, that’s your client’s problem, not yours. Your policy is you don’t start any work without a signed contract and paid deposit. Stick to your guns, this is business. The exchange is mutual, so if your client can’t commit resources on their end but they expect you to, it might be a red flag that there are going to be further problems down the road with them.
With that bit of nastiness out of the way, let’s say they’ve signed the contract, paid deposit, and you’ve scheduled the kick-off meeting. How do you start the onboarding process?
Prepare for the kick-off meeting
As in most things in life, preparation is key.
1. Call the client right away. Whoever sold the deal should call to thank them for their business. A phone call adds a nice personal touch.
2. Ensure the client brings everyone on their team who will be involved in the project to the kick-off meeting. This is important. Try to get the final decision maker, (CMO, CEO, etc) in the room. If you need to know about the client’s tech stack, bring in the head of IT.
3. Schedule the kick-off meeting and send out the calendar invite.
4. Create an agenda for the kick-off meeting ahead of time and send it out to get the client thinking about what you’re going to talk about so they come prepared with answers.
5. Have the client attend the meeting in-person at your office if at all possible. Have a good meeting space (or rent one) with a quiet, comfortable room where everyone can talk freely without other staff members walking through.
6. Have a whiteboard on the wall with markers, and provide pens and notepads for everyone. Everyone should feel free to sketch out ideas. I once had a client bring along an assistant with a clunky Windows laptop that she loudly typed notes on during the meeting. It was annoying.
7. Be hospitable. Your client won’t remember what was said at this meeting months down the road, but they will remember how they felt. Have sandwiches or sweets on the table with coffee, cream, and a big pitcher of ice water. Take them out to lunch or dinner after the kick-off meeting and pay for it. Make them feel like they are your only client.
The kick-off meeting
The project kick-off meeting is the most important part of client onboarding for three reasons:
- As mentioned already, it starts things off on the right foot and makes the client feel confident about their choice in hiring your agency.
- It clarifies and reinforces for the client what is and isn’t included in the project scope and what they can expect. Clients may forget what they signed off on a few weeks ago or maybe their needs changed in the meantime. Some clients get in a kick-off meeting and start talking about new features they want that were never discussed before. Prepare for that possibility and have a process to deal with it.
- It gets your team members up to speed on what was discussed during the sales process, although everyone should have read the proposal before the meeting. It also introduces key team members to the client, so they know who’s working on the project.
Who from your agency should be present at the kick-off meeting?
The person who sold the project. Whoever closed the deal and built the first stage of the relationship with the client should be there for at least 10 minutes at the beginning of the kick-off meeting. This could be the agency owner or account manager. Even if they aren’t involved in the project going forward, coming in to say hi, introduce the team, and welcome the client goes a long way in not making them feel pawned off.
The account manager or project manager. This could be two separate roles depending on how your agency operates.
The lead strategist. The expert in your agency who is responsible for the work itself. This could be the creative director, lead programmer, or head of marketing, depending on what service you’re performing.
That’s it. Keep it small with only a few people on your side. Even if others are working on the project, having a large crowd of strangers could make the client shy away from real talk — the kind of raw, authentic dialog you need to make their project successful. You also don’t want to appear bloated as the client might start to worry about where all their fees are going.
Now let’s look at some basic questions you should be asking at the kick-off:
Kick-off meeting agenda
Here’s a loose structure for your kick-off meeting:
Establish the vision and goals
The lead strategist should lead the kick-off. Prepare a short introduction so everyone is on the same page in terms of big picture vision and goals, and the client can rest assured knowing that you understand what they’re trying to do at a basic level.
Ask your client, “Tell me in one sentence, what does success look like?”
Often kick-off meetings get hijacked by one person who drones on and on about their company or product and wastes valuable time when you could be talking about something else. So ask them to keep it to one sentence so you can move on!
Review the current state for benchmarking
If the client doesn’t know where they are now, it will be impossible to know if what you do for them ends up making an impact.
If at all possible, get access to the client’s Google Analytics account before the kick-off meeting so you can discuss key metrics you want to move the needle on.
Understand the target persona
You aren’t building something for your client; you’re building something for their client. Ask as many details as you can about their target persona. You may end up developing personas for the client unless they already have them.
What are the user’s goals? Often user goals and client goals differ. A Facebook user may want to communicate with friends easier, whereas Facebook wants to generate more revenue from ads.
Your job is to somehow link the two together so that when the user succeeds, the client succeeds.
Who is preparing the content for the project? Hopefully not your client. Discuss the key pages that need to be written, and what the tone and style should be. Use the whiteboard to wireframe the main pages and their sub pages.
Ask the questions you need to inform design or creative concepts. Smashing Magazine wrote a good article for design-related kick-off meetings.
What are you building for the client in terms of feature requirements? Here’s where you talk about exactly what you’re building from a functionality standpoint, the technology you plan to use, and how to deal with any unknowns or potential issues that may arise.
Assign one person to be the single point of contact on both the agency and client side. Discuss who in the meeting is responsible for each part of the project.
Process and tools
Your agency should have a solid process for replicating successful projects. Here’s where you walk your client through your process and demonstrate the dangers if the process isn't followed.
For example, we would tell people that if they didn’t get their copy finalized by X date, it would delay the final launch. The client comes first, but not at the expense of profitability.
Next introduce them to the tools they’ll be using as part of the project.
Show the client how to leave messages and comments in the tool and review the progress of the project.
You may also want to give them a glimpse into the other tools you’ll be using in the project.
You don’t want to overwhelm the client or turn the kick-off into a training session; you just want to give them a complete picture of what the project will look like from beginning to end and what they expect later. Think of it as a 60-second trailer, not a feature presentation.
You’ve wrapped up the kick-off meeting, broken bread together, and everyone is pumped to start the project.
For me, the final stage of client onboarding is the first deliverable you produce. In general, they are:
Project Brief/strategy. Regardless of what kind of project you’re performing, it needs to start with a written brief or strategy. This document is the by-product of the kick-off meeting and outlines what was discussed, and what the big idea or strategy is that will accomplish the goals set out at the meeting.
Detailed workback schedule. Coupled with the strategy/brief, the workback schedule visually shows all the moving pieces, who is responsible for what, and when. Gantt charts work nicely for this.
I recommend a conference call or video chat to present these as opposed to just emailing them. It allows you to explain the strategy, receive feedback, and make sure everything is understood.
Make sure to set expectations and follow through on them. If the account manager says he will call them every Monday to report the status, then he needs to do it. Managing expectations is an important part of client onboarding so when the project is finished they feel like they got what they were promised.
Client projects typically begin rosy, with everyone pumped for the final product and excited to get to work.
The end of a project is typically when everything falls apart. Feedback was late. Your team got busy and missed a couple of deadlines. The client went on vacation just before launch time and now your schedule is a mess. Maybe you had a couple heated conversations with the client.
This is where the follow through at the end is so important, even though it’s the most difficult part.
Businesses like restaurants, software, and even massage therapy clinics have exit surveys, where they gather feedback after the service was performed to see what they did well and where they need improvement.
After a project launches, you or the person who sold the project should book a call with the client to see how everything went.
Simply listen and apply what you learn so you can get better on the next project. Some of it may not be your fault, but don’t get defensive. Yes, some clients are crazy, but if you remove your emotions you may still be able to find ways to improve.
This goes a long way in making the client feel heard and cared for. The client may have had challenges along the way, but the simple act of following up can make them want to do business with you again, and recommend you to their colleagues.
Most project launches are just that, a starting point. It’s impossible to know if they’ll be successful after the first couple of days.
When a project successfully launches, few companies ever reach back out to their clients to see how successful it remains after the 3, 6, or 9-month mark.
Immediately after launching a project, put it on your checklist to leave a note in your CRM or calendar to call the client and ask how (whatever your team delivered) is performing. This can give you great fodder and tangible data for case studies.
It’s also not a bad time to ask for a referral, which if you delivered a great client experience, they’ll have no problem giving.
Assess how your agency onboard clients, and think about ways you can make that first experience a stellar one.