Effective Client Onboarding Strategies for Your Practice

Whether you are onboarding a new client or an employee, having a standardized process from start to finish saves time, keeps things moving, and builds confidence in your client/employee. While much of the information below would also apply to new hires, we will be focusing on how to best onboard new clients. For the purposes of this article, onboarding is defined as “the process of bringing a new client on board, incorporating training and orientation.” Keep in mind that you are onboarding these new clients into a partnership with your firm. Success is when the relationship between your firm and their business becomes routine.

The Pre-work

Much of the work required for a successful, efficient onboarding happens before you even speak to a potential client. In this pre-work phase, you first need to identify who your ideal clients are—and who they aren’t. Understanding what kinds of engagements you want to have will guide you to those clients you wish to serve. And understanding your ideal client will help you target them and better serve their needs. Once that is established, it is time to outline your process. What you’re looking for here is standardization. While there should be some room for a client’s unique requirements, every major step of the onboarding process should be laid out in a clear, logical manner. Having your process on paper for the client to see instills confidence in the fact that you know exactly what will happen and when. It also ensures that your team will deliver on what was promised, since they have a set plan to follow.

The next step in the pre-work phase is to select your critical few technologies for your practice. These are the programs, apps and systems that you are going to use to manage clients, get your work done and stay on top of it. Keeping it to only a few crucial technologies will allow your staff and clients to become more confident in their understanding of them. Next, you will need to develop your onboarding training. What are you going to do to educate your client? How are you going instill confidence? What will you do to help them understand their responsibilities and what they own? This all goes back to relationship-building. Unfortunately, not everyone will know how to interact and build a relationship. So you may also need to teach your client what that means. Be up-front that your engagement isn’t going to be one-sided, and that you are going to become an extension of each other’s teams.

“Make a list of the major services you provide for clients and the applications you use to conduct those services. Ask your team what the top three applications are that they couldn’t live without. From there, you will likely see several ‘float to the top’ that give you your critical few technologies. Be sure to include things like your accounting application and other tools you use to prepare your work for your clients, and don’t forget your internal communication system as well.” (Carla Caldwell, Owner of Caldwell Consulting & Training)

From first conversation to close

The next major phase of the onboarding process begins with the first conversation with the prospect and ends with closing the engagement. The first step is, of course, to get the prospective client talking. What you’re looking to do here is get to the root of their needs and wants. What has worked for them? What hasn’t? What are they using now and why did they choose it? Do they like it? Where do they want to take their business? What keeps them up at night? Once you know their problems, let them know how you are the solution. This is where you need to sell yourself. This is no time to be coy. Tell them what your services are and how you conduct your engagements. What are you really great at? What is it like to work with you, and why do they want to be a part of that? Reassure them that you understand the problems they are facing, and you can provide the services or assistance they need to get past them. It’s about differentiation and how you do business. Don’t forget to explain that you can help them grow their business. This may seem an obvious service that you provide, but they may not know that, so you should articulate it.

Next, you need to define the engagement. Establish the ownership and responsibilities on both sides of the relationship. Explain what you’re going to do and what your responsibilities are. Then give them their responsibilities and what they need to own. Remind them that you both need to work together for the partnership to be successful. Explain what they are paying for and what they’re going to get. You want to be clear and up-front about what they should expect so that there are no surprises. Finally, once they agree contractually to move forward on the engagement, schedule your first client meeting. Scheduling at the end of that first conversation shows that you are serious about the relationship and moving it along. Give a basic checklist of the items they should prep beforehand, and send the meeting invite.

It’s at this point, depending on the size of your firm, that the client may be transitioned to someone else in charge of onboarding. It is imperative that this transition be smooth. Think of a relay race. The previous runner does not stop dead in their tracks once they hand off the baton; they continue to run with the next runner for a distance, making sure that the baton is secure. This is how you should treat your transitions. No one wants to feel like they were just dumped onto someone. Let them know exactly what to expect from the next person they’re going to be working with. You want them to feel secure and confident going into the next step of onboarding. This applies to all transitions.

“Transitioning from a salesperson to an onboarding specialist begins with explaining this to the client. Let them know that there will be a transition, and then have the salesperson relay notes (behind the scenes) to the specialist. On the first call with the onboarding specialist, the salesperson should introduce the new staff member, then stay on the call for some time, and then politely say goodbye at a particular point and let the client know they will follow up later. Within a few days or a week, the salesperson should check in with the specialist, and then also follow up with the client to find out if their expectations are being met.” (Carla Caldwell, Owner of Caldwell Consulting & Training)

From kickoff to data capture

The next major phase goes from kickoff to data capture. First, present the onboarding checklist again (i.e., all the things you need, where to get them, and how to get them to you). Next, set a goal and a critical path to success. Show everything that you will need from the client, but ask for that information incrementally. This keeps the task from becoming daunting. Let the client know what is needed before you can begin working, and ask for just that. When they get that information to you, make that your first win. It’s important to have a win early and to continue having wins throughout the onboarding process. Set deadlines for the next pieces of information required, and celebrate when they are met. Be clear with what happens if they aren’t met in terms of delays, additional costs, etc. This cycle of asking for information and documentation in sections or chunks, explaining why you need them, and then celebrating when they are received makes the entire process fly by because the client is not being overwhelmed, and they consistently feel like they are progressing and having success. The key is to be proactive about asking for critical documentation and details.

“It is extremely important to break down your requests into little pieces. Clients get discouraged quickly if they can’t easily provide you with your first piece of information. Basic/tactical information like EIN numbers and previous-year revenue numbers can be gathered using a form that’s sent to the client’s administrative assistant. Bigger requests (such as bank and credit card access) are best gathered with quick 15-minute phone calls where you can power through issues like activation codes and authorizations from signers.” (W. Michael Hsu, CEO of DeepSky)

Lastly, make sure there is a dedicated resource for their information. This resource is both the person collecting their information and also a repository where it is kept, where everyone in the firm can access it. If a dedicated person is not possible due to firm size, set aside dedicated time for collecting the information yourself.

“Way back when, it could have taken up to 90 days to onboard certain clients, even simple ones. Now at HPC, we have set up two tracks for clients: Standard and Premier. The reason we did this is that each client is different in terms of what they need and what they signed up for. We used to do kickoff calls for every client. Once we got our process down and added a truly dedicated onboarding specialist, we realized that the smaller implementations didn’t need or want a kickoff call. So now, only all Premier clients have a kickoff call with sales, onboarding, implementation and tax.” (Bruce Phillips, CEO of HPC)

Training the client

The next phase of onboarding is training the client. As we’ve already said, training begins with the very first onboarding call and may continue through the entire engagement. During this phase, it is helpful to understand your client’s learning style. Do they prefer auditory instructions? Video? Written explanations? Perhaps they prefer to teach themselves by tinkering with something themselves. If possible, have a plan for each of these learning styles so that you are able to give your client a tailored experience. Either way, you should have a plan of how to teach your clients what they need to know about working with you, and how to interact with whatever critical few technologies you are using. Schedule dedicated training sessions with the client. They will be prepared to learn, and you will be prepared to teach with your plan in hand. There are a number of possible topics for training: How you work together, how the firm is structured, and who the point people are. How to work with the processes and systems you are using. How they should contact your firm when they need support. Remember, however, that training is not just for clients; everyone in your firm should always be training as well.

“The client is becoming part of your firm, so they need to know how to work within your processes. Letting them know how to upload files to you or process payments in the accounting system, or who to speak with about an issue, is critical to the success of the relationship. Training does not have to be a formal classroom course or even a webinar. Training should take place informally and often, with every communication and with every member of the firm. It can be a short video, step-by-step instructions sent in an email, a link to a web page, or a short document. Every interaction with the client—from the salesperson letting the client know the process your firm uses, to the transition from onboarding specialist to account manager—will train the client on best practices and how to work within your framework.” (Carla Caldwell, Owner of Caldwell Consulting & Training)

Getting the work done

The final phase of onboarding is getting the work done. You want to be realistic from day one about what is possible. Understand what is important to the client. Do they care that their books for the last seven years are pristine? Do they care more about migrating data from one system to another? Keep that in mind when prioritizing tasks, and get those things done. Keep on top of training the client to own their responsibilities and to be confident in the success of what they’re doing. Again, success is when all of the above is routine for both your firm and your clients. Weekly check-ins with the client and consistent status updates throughout the onboarding process help keep everything on schedule and on track.

“Prior to taking an active look into our onboarding, it felt like it took forever, for everyone. It was a terrible place to be in, because clients quickly fell into a buyer’s remorse mode and the entire project was dragged down. Today, we can onboard a new customer within two weeks’ time—we have a clear system that involves multiple team members working in the background to make things as easy possible.” (W. Michael Hsu, CEO of DeepSky)

The onboarding process, when executed with a plan, can be quick and painless. Some of the most progressive firms have their entire onboarding process down to fewer than 30 days. Through standardization and thoughtful prep work, there is no guesswork or time wasted. Every step is laid out before you. The structure will build the client’s confidence in your abilities, and the training will teach them how to better work with you. By the end of the onboarding process, your interactions with your client should be routine and your relationship rock-solid.