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Client Onboarding for Small Businesses: The Complete Guide

Client onboarding
Client onboarding

Client onboarding is a crucial step in each project. Though you’ve converted your lead into a paying client, how you onboard them can help ensure a successful project. Learn everything you need to know about client onboarding, including the steps, tools, and systems you need.

As independent business owners, we can spend considerable time and effort developing products or services that wow our customers. But having a great portfolio of services doesn’t always guarantee sales or close deals. For customers, the experience of buying a service can matter as much as the actual purchase, and that’s where client onboarding comes in. 

Client onboarding helps you create a great first impression with a prospective or new client. It’s also necessary for developing a long-term relationship with them. About 63% of respondents in a 2020 survey reported that the client onboarding process had a major impact on whether they decided to go ahead with a purchase. This means if you provide a great onboarding experience, you strengthen your chances of winning new clients, and retaining them over the long term.

Given that client onboarding is such a crucial part of developing a strong, mutually satisfying relationship with your client, you want to invest care and thought into building an effective process. Creating an onboarding process for your business isn’t as overwhelming as it sounds. In this guide, we’ll explain everything you need to know about onboarding your clients and how to set up an effective and successful client onboarding process.

Table of Contents

What is client onboarding?

Client onboarding is simply the way you welcome and integrate new customers into business and services. It’s what the client experiences in the time between purchasing your services and actually benefiting from them. 

It’s common for new clients to experience some level of anxiety as they piece together how they are supposed to work with you or the product. If it’s a process or a system, they’ll want some sort of guidelines or hand-holding in the initial phase of setting up. 

An effective client onboarding experience helps set tangible expectations for clients about project goals, timelines, and what to expect in terms of communication. 

Person starting a client onboarding workflow on their phone

Why is client onboarding essential for your business?

A seamless client onboarding experience for each project is crucial for several reasons.

Demonstrating your value

Client onboarding helps you establish value straight out of the gate. When you create that solid first impression and impact after a sale, your clients can feel reassured that they made the right choice. It can also put to bed any anxieties they may have about what’s next and what they’ll get out of the project..

Client onboarding helps you communicate what you will provide specific to each client. It can make your client excited about the project and feel confident about what’s to come. Lastly, through a carefully thought-out onboarding process, you’re proving to your client that you genuinely care about their experience and the results they want to achieve.

If you skip the onboarding process, it can be hard to establish that connection with the customer later. Starting strong and maintaining that engagement throughout is key to winning your customer and retaining them for the duration of your relationship.

Customer satisfaction

Having a process for easing your clients into your systems can make your customers feel like you get them and understand their needs. The alternative is clients feeling like they’ve been left in the dark to fend for themselves, which is never a comfortable place to be in. 

On average, depending on the industry, it can be 5 to 25 times more expensive to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing one. Even a small increase of just 5% in your customer retention rates can make your profitability jump anywhere from 25% to 95%.   

If your client is happy, there’s a good chance they’re going to tell more people about you. So, you can expect a steady stream of clients who’ve heard about you and are genuinely interested in working with you. In other words, satisfied clients can become your biggest brand advocates. 

Making sense of expectations

Unless you’re actively engaging with your client as part of the onboarding process, you can easily miss out on understanding their core expectations. Worse, there’s a good chance you’ll fail to meet those expectations because you haven’t taken the time to establish mutual goals. Use the process to get a sense of your onboarded clients, learn more about them, and understand how you can help them achieve their goals. 

Having a face-to-face project kick-off conversation outside of emails and phone calls early on in the process can also establish a sense of trust and credibility. It’s a good opportunity to:

  • Answer any questions your client has
  • Address any challenges
  • Reinforce the availability of support either in the form of a dedicated team resource or dedicated helpline (chat, phone call, email)
  • Refer them to educational resources online 
  • Set the foundation for a long-lasting, mutually satisfying relationship

Steps of an effective client onboarding process

Now that we’ve covered what client onboarding is and why it’s essential for your small business, let’s take a closer look at the steps involved in an effective client onboarding process.

Two clients working through a client onboarding checklist

1. Ask background questions

Asking questions is an excellent way for you to gather background intelligence on your client so you can determine whether you’re a good mutual fit. Client background questions can also help you simplify and customize your client onboarding process if you decide to move ahead. 

In the initial phase of evaluating whether a customer’s a good fit for your business, you’re looking to get a general sense of the customer, what they’re expecting from you and whether you can provide value to them. Use the opportunity to:

  • Learn what your customer’s business is about, their audience, and their business goals.
  • Understand your customer’s most significant pain points concerning their business and what they expect from you in terms of support.
  • Determine client budget and expected timelines. 
  • Find out if your customer has worked with another service provider before you. If they chose to opt out of the relationship, learn why, as that can help you iron out any unrealistic expectations ahead of time. 
  • Unrelated to the client experience but relevant for optimizing your marketing efforts, ask your client how they heard about you. For example, was it through a social media channel or through a direct referral from another client?
  • Cover how your products and services can meet the client’s specific requirements. Also, discuss your onboarding process and what they can expect going forward. Close with any requirements/documentation that you need to be completed from your customer to move forward.
  • Last but not least, emphasize that you’re available for any questions and concerns they have. 

You should be talking to your clients throughout the experience, not just at the onboarding stage. Touch base with your clients during the project to solicit feedback, get approvals at critical milestones, and confirm alignment. Also, connect with your clients after project completion to obtain feedback on overall satisfaction levels, what they liked best about working with you, and areas, if any, for improvement. 

Remember, the idea is not to overwhelm your clients with questioning but to source specific and relevant information that can help you understand your clients’ needs and ensure you deliver on those successfully. 

2. Use questionnaires and client intake forms

A much easier way to gather information is to make use of onboarding questionnaires and client intake forms. In a sense, it’s the same as the client information gathering session you would do in person, except that questionnaires and client intake forms can be completed virtually. 

Some clients may find virtual forms a lot more convenient, given they can work on the questions at a time and pace that works for them. If you also provide a face-to-face kickoff meeting, having their information and answers can make the meeting more efficient and successful.

Typically questionnaires and intake forms ask a series of questions to gather information about the client for:

  • Deciding if the client is a good fit for the service. In other words, identify whether your service can genuinely offer the results the client is looking for.
  • Devising a strategy (based on the unique responses) to address the client’s needs.

Creating a questionnaire or client intake form doesn’t have to be complicated. Use CRM software like HoneyBook to create online questionnaires and intake forms, and capture your client’s answers in one place.

3. Send your client a welcome packet

A welcome packet is a guidebook that features everything your client needs to know about working with you in one place. Welcome packets are typically sent after an initial inquiry or a booking as you enter the onboarding phase. For a client, it can be super-helpful to have everything organized in one place, so they don’t have to source basic information from different locations.  

A welcome packet can be a fantastic tool for independent businesses that deal with clients one-on-one:

  • It adds credibility and showcases your professionalism.
  • It can help you stand out from other competitors who don’t have this service.
  • It can help you make your client onboarding process efficient and seamless.
  • It’s an inexpensive way to impress your clients since it essentially documents information and shares links.
  • It can help clear up expectations early on, so both the business and the client are on the same page.

Within a welcome packet, you’re simply listing everything you’re already doing in one place. The good news is that once you’ve crafted a welcome packet, it serves as a customizable template you can rinse and repeat for future clients. So you don’t need to set one up from scratch every single time. You can simply modify select items, so the packet is specific to each client.

The specifics of a welcome packet provide detailed information about what the client can expect going forward. You’ve gone past the introductions, and your client has decided they want to work with you. At this stage, you’re pulling out all the stops to impress your client and ensure you’re both on the same page. 

Here’s a checklist of items you can include in your onboarding welcome packet:

  •  Welcome message — Even though you’re already talking to your client, you’ll still want to share a welcome message to acknowledge that your client has chosen to work with you. It’s a great way to start your working relationship on a positive note. Encourage your client to go through the rest of the email for the next steps and any activities they need to complete.  Also, talk about how and when you’ll be available for communication. How does a client get in touch with you if they want to talk to you? What times are you available? How soon can they expect to hear back from you?
  • Specific instructions on what to expect next on the project — Include the specific actions you’re going to take on the project, remind clients of any activities they need to complete (client homework), and discuss when and how you’ll update them on the project milestones.
  • Deliverables — List the agreed deliverables and timelines here. You can share the timelines in the form of a calendar or linear timeline diagram as that makes it easy for the client to get a quick bird’s eye view of the project’s progress. Make sure it’s easy to understand.
  • Access to systems — Discuss systems and application accesses that your client will need. For example, if you’re onboarding a client to your CRM portal, set up access for the client and share the user name and password. Alternatively, you can talk about when your client can expect to receive access to the system.
  • Communication — Talk about how a client can expect to communicate with you. Share your working hours and your email/phone contact numbers. Discuss how you can be reached in case of an emergency. Also, cover what the client can expect in terms of response times. In case it’s an email, can they expect a response within x hours or the same business day? If you’re reachable on WhatsApp or by text, also talk about the specific hours you’ll be available there.
  • Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) — Add an FAQ section. It’s not necessary to include one, but having an FAQ section helps you address questions that can commonly come up in client interactions that aren’t necessarily covered elsewhere in your welcome packet. If more than one person has asked you the same questions, it’s a good idea to include them in your FAQs.
  • Finalize payment schedules — Review your payment schedule with your client to ensure they’re clear about when they need to settle any remaining payments. Also, discuss penalties for missing deadlines.
  • Policies, terms, and conditions — You may have already listed them in your contract but it’s a good idea to cover them once again in your welcome packet or remind the client to refer to the contract for this information.  
  • Additional resources — If you have helpful content in the form of blog posts, training videos, or troubleshooting guides, list the links in this section.
  • Closing — Close by emphasizing how you’re available to answer any questions they have and reassuring them of your support.

 4. Automate your client onboarding workflow

Automation can work wonders for your business. You don’t need to be a large enterprise to benefit from automation. Independents and small businesses can benefit from automation too. 

Automation is simply using digital tools that take mundane and repetitive tasks off of your shoulders. So you’ll be spending less time on administrative tasks and focusing more of your attention on onboarding new clients and retaining your existing ones. Using client onboarding automation tools benefits your business in many ways. 

We talked earlier about how manually dealing with administrative processes can take up a lot of time. It’s also hard to keep track of everything when your systems are spread across different locations. You may miss critical information and find it challenging to stay on top of all the components of your client onboarding process. 

For example, you may be onboarding three clients at once, but they’re all at different stages of the process. Instead of having to track which step each one is at, automations will ensure everything is sent seamlessly.  

Automation helps you streamline your onboarding workflows, so you have more control over your business and don’t need to spend as much effort managing it. For example, using an automation tool like HoneyBook, you can:

  •  Create a workflow that sends your questionnaires and intake forms to your clients that enables them to schedule the kick-off call through a calendar link. You could then send your welcome packet at the right time.
  • Set up contracts that you can easily forward to your clients for digital signatures. Our smart files highlight where the client can sign. You also get an instant notification when the client completes the signing process.
  • Embed safe and secure digital payment methods so that you can send invoices out to your clients through the same system for easy online payment. Also, send automated reminders on payment schedules and so much more.

Automation can also significantly enhance the client experience. If you’re managing the experience manually, your customers may find the process tedious, slow, less convenient, and not as supportive. 

You can accomplish much when you have automation at your fingertips. You can feel better about taking on more clients when the process is taken care of without much of your oversight!

Practical takeaways for setting up a successful customer onboarding experience

Up next, we’ll go into specific action steps you can take to elevate your client onboarding experience. 

Start the onboarding process promptly

You’ll want to initiate the client onboarding process as soon as you’re done with information gathering and the booking of services. The idea is to keep the momentum going and sustain the rapport that you’ve built up during your initial meetings. 

Moving the client quickly into the onboarding process shows them that you mean business and are eager to help your client achieve results. Remember to sustain the momentum until you complete the delivery of your project or results. 

Make the roadmap clear

Your client should have a clear idea of the steps involved in the onboarding process. They should know what stage they’re at and what’s coming next. A client onboarding checklist can be super helpful for your client in this regard. 

Outlining the process as part of your welcome pack and mentioning the next step as they move through the process are other options to use to help make that roadmap clear. At the same time, be mindful that you’re not overwhelming your members with information overload.  

Keep it simple

Having a long-drawn-out and complicated onboarding process can be overwhelming and frustrating for your customers. Keep it as simple as possible with a minimal number of steps. Here’s a simple sequence that you can model your process after. Follow the sequence once you’ve decided to work together. Feel free to tweak it however it makes sense for your business:

Send welcome pack with onboarding documents > Complete financial/legal documentation> Client kick-off call > Add client to the project management tools and systems > Set up task lists with timelines.

Provide educational tools and resources

Around 86% of respondents in a recent survey said they’d be more likely to stay loyal to a business that invested in welcoming them and educating them about their purchase as part of their onboarding process. More than half (55%) of the people said they’ve returned a product because they didn’t fully understand how to use it.

There’s only so much information you can cover during your initial client calls and in your welcome packet. Think about supplemental resources in the form of video tutorials and blog posts to educate your clients. If you have the resources, you can even consider a dedicated support manager for a product-based business. 

Use systems

Using systems can simplify the management of your business and free up more time. Systems don’t have to be complicated. As an independent business, you can start with basic and simple systems like using an email service provider to automate your emails or a project management tool to automate online workflows. 

Have your team’s buy-in

As a business owner, you may rely on your employees or contractors to engage with clients in your place. Your team must understand what you expect from them in terms of the client experience. Also, allocate clearly defined responsibilities, so the team knows what you expect from each person. 

Openness to feedback

It’s essential to stay open to the process of client feedback. If your client raises a concern, address it promptly. If you can’t incorporate a change in the system immediately, inform your client and offer an alternative solution in the interim. 

Having a client onboarding process and system is all well and good, but it doesn’t replace the human element by any means. Constantly touching base without being intrusive, keeping up with your commitments, ensuring client satisfaction, and simply being available for your clients when they need you, all go a long way to ensuring a happy customer.

Using client onboarding software — what to know

Client onboarding software helps you pull together multiple tools into one. So, instead of creating a client welcome packet in one place, asking onboarding questions via email, then hopping over to Calendly to schedule meetings, the right system should let you combine everything to streamline your onboarding process. Plus, you get to manage everything from a centralized location.

Having software in place can also help you run the onboarding process like clockwork without getting involved at every step or stage. You get to determine how and when you will deal with clients. This gives you a lot more control over the long-term and helps you manage your processes without causing your clients unnecessary hiccups. 

Having software in place can also help free up time, labor, and resources so you can devote more energy to the more crucial aspects of the sales process- finding new clients and strengthening relationships with your existing ones. 

HoneyBook — the ideal client onboarding solution

At HoneyBook, our Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software can help you automate much of the tedious legwork involved with client onboarding while ensuring a smooth, effortless, and hassle-free customer experience. 

For example, using the software, you can:

  • Easily embed a HoneyBook contact form on your website to funnel new leads directly into your inbox. Never miss out on business again.
  • Track your project end-to-end without skipping a beat.
  • Automate which stages your customer will receive your welcome pack, contracts, pricing guides, follow-up emails, and more. 
  • Send invoices, contracts, and more to your clients from within HoneyBook without needing to toggle back and forth between multiple systems.

The sky is the limit in terms of how you can use HoneyBook to manage and even customize workflows for your needs. Plus, the software integrates with all of your favorite tools like Zoom, QuickBooks, Zapier, Gmail, and Google Calendar.

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