Client onboarding is a double-edged sword for agencies, studios, and freelancers. While your clients supply the work and pay the bills, they also require back-and-forth email conversations and time-intensive education on your work process that ultimately distract from the best part of your job — being creative.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way.
With the right client onboarding processes in place, you can create longer-lasting, more successful relationships, spend more time on creative work, and recover time previously spent managing communications. It’s a win-win situation for both you and your clients.
Getting started is the hardest part, but you don’t have to figure it out all on your own — you have us to help point you in the right direction. Below, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about client onboarding to create your own checklist, client welcome emails, and software workflows to keep your customers coming back for more.
What Is Client Onboarding?
Client onboarding is the process of kickstarting your relationship with a brand-new client. It includes setting expectations, getting them set up on your collaboration software and communication tools, outlining next steps, establishing milestones, and cementing the working relationship.
Basically, you want to make working with you as smooth, easy, and productive as possible — that’s the point of client onboarding.
Why Client Onboarding Should Be Your First Priority
Don’t let client onboarding become an afterthought—this critical stage of your business should take top priority. Finding new clients and performing stellar work won’t do much good if your client onboarding process is causing high churn, excessive scope creep, and painful inefficiencies.
Here are a few reasons you should take client onboarding seriously from the get-go:
- Reduce Client Churn: Become easy to work with, and clients will never want to leave you.
- Avoid Scope Creep: Establish expectations from the beginning to keep everyone on the same page.
- Improve Efficiency: Get more done in less time (for you and the client). Bonus points if you use these tips to create your own client onboarding template, and you can semi-automate the process.
- Increase Your Client Base: Less time managing nitty-gritty “work about work” means extra time for more clients.
- Make More Money: Improved efficiency plus more clients equals additional income. By having a smooth client onboarding process that runs like clockwork, you can increase budgets and take on more projects.
- Focus on Creative Work: Get out of the management weeds and back to what you love — creating eye-catching work.
6 Ways to Improve Your Client Onboarding Process
Follow these client onboarding best practices below to kickstart a productive and profitable partnership with every brand-new client.
1. Finalize the Details With a Contract
If you haven’t already before this point, put the deadlines, deliverables, and payments down in writing and seal the deal with a signature. Contracts help keep both parties on track and prevent scope creep.
Months from now, you won’t have to dig through your Slack messages or emails to find the agreed-upon billing rate or Scope of Work — you’ll have it nice and tidy in a signed document.
Make the contract negotiation process seamless — nobody likes reading through pages and pages of legalese. For example, you might use DocuSign to make trading electronic signatures quick and easy, and integrate DocuSign with Stripe for simplifying the online payment process.
Another budget-friendly app for freelancers to manage client contracts and invoicing is AND.CO (acquired by Fiverr).
The added bonus of streamlining your contract + payment process across all your clients is that you won’t need to chase down your client at the end of a project, ever again.
2. Send a Welcome Email Series to New Clients
Kickoff your partnership with a welcome email to new clients. Create a templated email that provides everything your new clients needs to know:
- Welcome Your Client: Roll out the red carpet and get them excited. This client welcome email sets the tone for your conversations moving forward.
- Reaffirm Their Decision: Remind them how working with you will help them achieve their end goals. Think of this as a way to remove post-purchase dissonance.
- Set Expectations: Confirm the deliverables, timeline, and budget. Lay out what they should expect to see in the coming days and weeks.
- Meet Your Team: Let them know everyone they’ll be working with. For example, “meet your dedicated team — Krystal (Graphic Designer) and Luke (Video Producer) will be doing the creative work and Jen (Account Director) is your main point of contact, but you can reach any of the team members using the following email addresses…”
- Documents: Send over the documents that need to be confirmed and signed, such as NDAs, contracts, and approved budgets.
- Communication Preferences: Decide which tools you’ll use for feedback and communication, such as inviting them to your Slack or showing them how to comment in Punchlist.
- Software: Let your client know what tools you use to coordinate projects and decide who should own the accounts. In some cases, it’s better that the client owns and manages the account, like in Github. For other projects, you may be able to export and share final files from your own account, like in Figma. Try not to overload clients with too many logins — decide what’s most important and start there.
- Next Steps: Outline what’s next in the process, and detail what steps they need to take (sign contracts, schedule a kickoff call, etc.) and what your team will be working on in the meantime (e.g. market research, customer discovery).
Include a Typeform questionnaire to collect all the details you need from their side:
- Contact information
- Logins and access (e.g. Google Analytics, social media accounts)
- Logo files and brand guidelines
- Competitor research
- Anything that will help you serve them better and do great work
Don’t waste time manually typing this email from scratch to every new client. Instead, create a template and semi-automate the onboarding process.
For example, you might set up an automated email to send a follow-up Calendly link once your client completes the questionnaire. Typeform outlines exactly how to setup automated respondent notifications in their step-by-step documentation, so you can personalize each touchpoint but still have it work on autopilot.
3. Use the Right Software to Streamline Processes
The right software can set your relationship up for success. Don’t make your clients jump through hoops and download a ton of whozits and whatzits to work with you.
For example, use an application like Punchlist to collect design and content feedback in one place. Just send your clients a Share link (no download necessary) to provide input and comment on design mockups, websites, and PDF files in real-time. Point, click, comment, done — it’s that easy.
For conversations, you might want to use a messaging application like Slack. While email is a tried-and-true communication tool, it’s not the best when you need quick answers and back-and-forth threads. These days it’s easy to include a client in your Slack workspace through guest accounts or shared channels.
As for video conferencing, while Zoom is a professional industry leader, it’s an additional application your clients will need to download. Instead, you might consider video conferencing solutions that don’t require installation, such as Dialpad or Google Meet.
By listing out all the tools you use for creative feedback and collaboration early on, like in your client welcome email series, your clients know what to expect and can spend time up front procuring budget, determining who needs an account, and getting familiar with the tool.
4. Earn Your Client’s Trust
The saying that you only get one chance to make a first impression is true. By establishing a smooth and streamlined onboarding process, you’re signaling to your client that you’re communicative, organized, and excited about the work.
Clients have a lot on their mind on a daily basis. They may be juggling multiple vendors, leading a variety of projects, and updating stakeholders about upcoming deadlines.
Creative work may be the most exciting part of their day — a break from the monotony of reports and internal politics. They selected you as their freelancer, consultant, or agency because they love your work, but there’s always stress (especially at the beginning of a project) about whether you can meet their expectations.
Providing clear communication and detailed documentation on day one will put their minds at ease. As you start to deliver on some of the work outlined in the SOW, that trust will grow. Ideally, your client will become your biggest cheerleader, championing your work with internal stakeholders and recommending that friends or colleagues use your business.
5. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Did we say it enough times? When in doubt, say it again. It’s better to overcommunicate with your clients than under-communicate. You’ll eventually find a sweet spot the longer you work with them.
Provide regular check-ins and updates proactively. Don’t wait to be asked. Set a schedule for recurring meetings (weekly or biweekly) to provide progress updates, deliverables, answer questions, and get everyone up to speed on the next steps.
This should be one of the main action steps in your first client onboarding email: Book in a recurring meeting. Again, Calendly is a great tool for doing this without all the back-and-forth.
Respond to client emails and messages promptly. The better you execute your client onboarding process, the fewer interruptions you’ll have in your work, but never leave your client hanging. We live in a world where people expect responses almost immediately. Regardless of whether that’s right or wrong (that’s a topic for a whole ‘nother blog post), stay on your client’s good side by responding quickly, even if it’s just to say “I saw your message and I’ll respond to you by today at 4:00.”
Using a tool like Punchlist can help eliminate needless email threads. Add your client as a collaborator to your Punchlist Team, and you’ll get a notification any time they add feedback on creative work — no more digging through emails or asking your client to send you a message when they have suggestions.
6. Create Your New Client Onboarding Checklist
Make your own client onboarding checklist to ensure you don’t miss anything. Yours could include things like:
- Get documents signed
- Send NDA for signature
- Send contract for signature
- Finalize proposal and scope of work (SOW)
- Send scope of work (SOW) for signature
- Inform client of project start date
- Send a welcome email (or email series)
- Brief introduction to your company
- Proof / case studies / reaffirm their decision
- Set expectations
- Software tools / share links
- Communication preferences
- “Meet your team” / your contact info
- Next steps
- Get client to complete questionnaire
- Gather client team’s contact info
- Book onboarding call
- Get logins and access (e.g. Google Analytics, social accounts)
- Get logo + media kit + brand guidelines
- Schedule recurring check-ins
- Write agenda for recurring check-ins
- Get to work
The nuts and bolts of your client onboarding checklist might include other aspects, too — or you may choose to mix and match some of these and customize it to your business. Just go ahead and document them all in an easy-to-follow template.
Then you can repurpose this template each time you welcome a new client, and not reinvent the wheel or spend all day crafting lengthy emails.
Make Client Onboarding Quick and Simple
Client onboarding shouldn’t be a painful part of running your business. Establish it right from the beginning, and it should be a set-it-and-forget experience for you — and a delightful experience for them.
Once client onboarding is taken care of, you can focus on providing your clients with the wow factor — and Punchlist helps with both.
Punchlist empowers you to collaborate on creative projects in real-time with your clients — no more time-wasting Zoom calls, back-and-forth emails, or confusing Google Docs full of screenshots. Simply provide your client with a link to the project URL, and they can annotate directly on top of the work.
Easy as that. No downloads or installation. Your client will love the seamless process, and you’ll get to spend more time getting creative work done.