How to execute a strong client onboarding process — and why you must

Start on the right foot

As a professional web developer, there’s a chasm you need to traverse between converting a client and starting their new project: that mysterious phase known as “client onboarding.” This process is crucial to ensuring you’ve got everything you need before starting the project, as well as making the client comfortable with how the project will progress.

Client onboarding: A guide for web designers & developers

Here’s what we’re going to cover in this guide:

Let’s get started.

Why formalize client onboarding?

An established process relieves you from the stress of remembering every single question you need to ask, and helps you gather all of your resources in an organized way, enabling you to deliver the project smoothly.

This key series of steps provides the opportunity to build a strong relationship with your client, address early concerns, get everyone up to speed, and start on a positive note.

Related: Finding your first client as a freelance web professional

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Why you need an onboarding process

As with just about everything in web design, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. The process that’s right for you might not work for others, but it’s critical in helping you:

  • Create a great first impression that paves the way for a trusted, long-term relationship.
  • Build efficiency via clear communication.
  • Reduce scope creep by confirming details and setting expectations.
  • Make sure you’ve got everything you need before starting the project.
  • Anticipate exceptions, misconceptions, and potential obstacles.
  • Breed loyalty, fostering better retention and reducing churn.

Related: How to set expectations with your clients

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Why your clients need an onboarding process

Clients also have additional needs addressing the many aspects they may be unsure of, and their need to just “know” what’s going on. In addition, the process can:

  • Assure them you have a plan, which should relieve anxiety.
  • Increase their comfort level about how the project will progress.
  • Allow them to understand expectations so they can collaborate with you more efficiently.
  • Reassure they are being listened to.
  • Reinforce they have hired a pro who takes their business seriously.

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Attributes of a successful onboarding process

A thoughtful and deliberate onboarding process lets clients know that you consider them a partner in defining the success of the project. To ensure successful onboarding:

Know what questions need answering

Essentially, the onboarding process boils down to two critical questions:

  1. What do you need in order to deliver a successful project that runs smoothly?
  2. What must the client do to make sure you get what you need?

Of course, nested under these are many more questions. For example, once you know which deliverables you need, there will be additional questions about timeline, format and ownership.

Craft an effective onboarding checklist

Client Onboarding Checklist

A checklist lets you focus on discipline and structure — and following it with each project brings peace of mind. Referencing your checklist ensures you don’t forget crucial steps or take actions out of order.

At the same time, build in flexibility and scalability.

Both factors are key to every single process you undertake as a web designer — it’s important to know when you can bend or break your own rules, and you’ll want to make sure that it’s efficient to execute the process multiple times, perhaps simultaneously.

You’ll want the ability to skip steps if warranted, and at the same time, anticipate the trade-offs in doing so.

Make supporting materials available to clients pre-sale

The onboarding process starts well before a proposal is accepted, with your very first contact with a potential client.

For example, your website could offer details on how you work on projects. This could be a paragraph, a dedicated Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) section, or even well-written case studies describing how you deliver a project.

Treat each client as a special case

We already know that each client is different, each project is different, and even your approach may be different. Use good judgment to customize the onboarding process as needed, taking the client’s unique goals and situation into account.

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7 steps to execute a strong client onboarding process

A significant challenge we experience with any client is their lack of knowledge about what they need or why they need it. But if we are being fair to our future clients, should we expect them to?

As a website professional, you must be the facilitator, drawing out goals that even they might not realize.

1. Collect information with a comprehensive new client intake questionnaire

Start with a finely tuned and comprehensive client questionnaire that asks the right questions, so you have information even before there’s a project in place. It’s your first true opportunity to gather what you need, and asking the right questions will save both time and money.

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The paid discovery workshop nails down the information you need to create the proposal and contract for the full project.

Sell this workshop as a true strategy session to work through the client’s needs, goals, and how they anticipate achieving those goals.

Through this engagement, you can walk your client through the steps to create a clear, defined vision for their website and what it’s supposed to achieve.

Offering the discovery workshop before website creation is critical in terms of building a website that works.

 

It also serves as a great way to be first in line for the job, before even offering a proposal. In the end, discovery will be helpful for the organization that needs the project built, not just for the ones doing the building. Still not quite sure what a discovery workshop is?

Digging into the discovery session

A discovery strategy session is a standalone paid service that clarifies what the project is all about before you even write a proposal. It covers information grouped into three sections:

Why, what, and who?

  • What is the Why behind what the client is trying to achieve, in terms of goals and impact they hope to make online?
  • What products and services do they bring to the market?
  • Who is the group of people that will most benefit from their What?

SMART goals

With answers to these questions, it’s time to define three to five SMART goals, where SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound.

Most importantly, each goal should focus on something they are trying to achieve online, and something the website can make happen.

In guiding clients to articulate SMART goals, use these guidelines:

  • Specific — Does it target a specific area for improvement?
  • Measurable — How are you measuring your success?
  • Achievable — Is it reachable?
  • Relevant — Is it realistic to achieve?
  • Time-bound — When would you achieve it by?

The buyer’s journey

Client Onboarding Footprints In Snow

What steps will website visitors employ to eventually take advantage of what is being offered? This can be broken down into five areas:

  • Attract: How will your client attract leads? Will you need to replicate the experience provided by current tools?
  • Capture: How does your client capture leads? What can be given away in exchange for their email address?
  • Nurture: Is your client set up to currently nurture these leads via email marketing?
  • Convert: Most importantly, does your client know what steps they want people to take to convert and make a purchase?
  • Measure: Lastly, how do we measure all this? This is where your client determines the metric that matters the most, based on their SMART goals. It might be site visitors, email signups or something as simple as phone call requests.

In addition, you may have the opportunity for additional discovery work such as:

  • Competitor research: Working with the client to evaluate their competition and what they do well. If clients are having trouble articulating what they want their website to achieve, or which market they are trying to reach, this could be key.
  • Design research: Working with the client to further clarify what they want the site to look and feel like. Style and design can be part of the discovery workshop if this helps determine how to attract the “who” identified earlier in the strategy session.

After the discovery session, follow up by delivering a consolidated document summarizing the findings.

Yes, from here any other web designer could take the project away from you — but you’ll have been paid for the strategy work.

Doing that work for free to create a proposal is selling yourself short.

 

The client gets their money’s worth — and while they could very well go off and use this deliverable with another web designer, chances are they will see the value of working with you.

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3. Follow your formal administrative process

Once you have that clear vision, you can proceed to a formal proposal for the project.

Invest effort in further research on your client, their history, and their competitors. Spend time reviewing the questionnaire responses, drafting the timeline, and identifying deliverables needed.

Make sure the proposal, contract and first invoice are addressed promptly, before proceeding to any additional tasks.

Related: How to close a deal successfully with a better proposal process

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4. Do the admin pre-work to get the project started

Whether you use a project management tool or rely on a shared folder via Dropbox or Google Docs, set up everything you’ll need for this client, and invite them to collaborate as appropriate.

Add them to your mailing list.

Invite them to follow your social media accounts.

Relax knowing you can efficiently and effectively manage your client’s new website with the free tools and resources available through GoDaddy Pro.

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5. Hold a project kick-off meeting

If you’ve already conducted the discovery workshop, you’ve begun the process of building trust and setting the tone. Now the project work begins in earnest so it’s time to reinforce the seeds already planted.

Conduct the kick-off meeting face-to-face if possible (or via video chat if not). Plan to cover the following topics:

  • Schedule, with a focus on next steps
  • Additional homework needed to proceed with the project
  • Major deliverables
  • How you’ll handle future scope changes
  • Details about your work hours and availability via email or phone during specific office hours, including typical response times
  • How meetings are scheduled and take place — be sure they understand the platforms you use, such as Zoom or Skype, and how you schedule appointments, such as via Appointlet or Calendly
  • Preferences around how you want to receive deliverables
  • Q&A

If you have any swag you like to share with clients, be prepared to distribute at the meeting, or mail to arrive in time for the meeting.

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6. Follow up with your welcome package

A welcome package is a set of files that welcomes your new client and includes key information that is necessary for the project to finish successfully.

Think of it as a roadmap that will guide your client through the process of working with you, helping them to stay on track with their tasks and commitments, and answering questions.

Your welcome package should:

  • reiterate your policies
  • prepare them to do their part
  • position you as a professional
  • eliminate confusion on what happens when
  • set the foundation to ask for referrals and testimonials

Related: How to create a welcome package for your web design clients

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7. Present plans for further follow-up

While the kick-off meeting included an explanation of your follow-up methods — especially on initial tasks to gather information — you’ll also want to follow up with specific next steps in terms of schedule and deliverables.

Related: How to follow up with clients — 8 tips for success

Possible exceptions

Even with the best intentions to strictly follow your process, the occasional exception could make sense.

  • What if the project requires a very compressed schedule? Can any steps be skipped or combined? What trade-offs might be associated with those changes?
  • What if this is a new project for an existing or former client? Can any one-time setup steps be skipped or combined?

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Common onboarding errors

Looking for ways to blow it? The following lapses may be the sure-fire path to failure — or at the very least, time and/or money lost to re-work.

  • Not doing your pre-work from the start, in terms of really understanding your client, their current situation, their needs and their competitors.
  • Skipping steps without considering the trade-offs or consequences.
  • Making assumptions instead of asking questions.

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Onboarding checklist outline

Start with this basic onboarding checklist to develop your own customized version that best covers everything you need to start the project off successfully.

Client Onboarding Man Working On Laptop

Gather basic information

  • Confirm names, roles and contact information of each participant

Process intake questionnaire

  • Send questionnaire and instructions
  • Receive completed questionnaire
  • Check for missing information and request if needed

Execute paid discovery workshop

  • Confirm if being conducted for this project
  • Schedule discovery workshop
  • Hold discovery workshop
  • Send follow-up materials

Manage project proposal

  • Prepare and send proposal
  • Revise if necessary based on feedback or questions

Manage contract

  • Prepare and send contract
  • Receive signed copy of contract

Handle invoicing

  • Generate and send the first invoice
  • Confirm payment receipt

Wrangle project management

  • Set up internal project management systems and tools
  • Invite client to access any systems where information will be shared

Welcome

  • Introduce client to any additional team members
  • Add client to communication and project management channels and tools

Plan and hold a kick-off meeting

  • Schedule meeting
  • Prepare meeting materials including agenda, to-do list with items needed from client, draft timeline including future check-in dates and milestones
  • Hold meeting: review agenda, review to-do list, review/adjust/agree on timeline, milestones, goals

Follow-up from the kick-off meeting

  • Update project management system
  • Send welcome package, summary and any follow-up information
  • Plan schedule for next follow-up conversations and/or reports

Gather and use feedback

  • Request feedback on onboarding process
  • Incorporate process revisions based on feedback

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Best practices in onboarding

Now that you’ve got a strong client onboarding process in place, stick to some general guidelines to ensure a smooth experience for all involved.

Educate clients around expectations early and often

Explicitly set expectations around how you run your business — whether it’s payments, communication methods, or delivery of information. By including this information in your kick-off meeting, proposal, welcome package, and on your website, you optimize collaboration with clients to get your work done most efficiently.

Stay accessible and responsive

Be ready to address questions or confusion quickly and thoroughly. Reassure clients that you know what’s up, and that you’re there to guide them along the way. Encourage them to ask questions if they don’t understand — it’s preferable to answer early on, and nip potential issues in the bud.

Related: Communicating with clients — 5 tactics for success

Keep information flowing

Do your best to keep everyone in the loop regarding status, deliverables, timeline, budget and potential issues — and do all in your power to avoid surprises. It’s almost impossible to over-communicate about these topics.

Improve the process

Every new (or departing) client provides input to improve your onboarding process, which translates to improved client satisfaction, and more opportunity to differentiate yourself from the competition.

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Closing thoughts

Of course, it’s up to you to determine the detailed onboarding process that will work best for your clients — based on understanding the success factors of your own established working environment, and their goals and expectations for the project.

Your ultimate objective is to have the right tools and processes in place, keep the workflow moving in the right direction, and deliver a final outcome that aligns with your client’s vision of success.

Use these suggestions and best practices to get a head start on defining the process that works best for you.

This article includes content originally published on the GoDaddy blog by the following authors: Aaron Reimann, Cody Landefeld, Kristina Romero and Tom Rankin.

Image by: You X Ventures on Unsplash