Begin with a bang: 5 tips for unforgettable client onboarding

/ 12 min read
Kat Boogaard

What’s the most important part of the client relationship?

Okay, that’s sort of a trick question. If you want to run a successful business, then every part of the client journey—from the beginning all the way to the end—matters.

But let’s be honest: the beginning deserves a little bit of extra love and attention, and a solid client onboarding process is how you’ll kick off all of your client engagements on the right foot.

Despite its importance, client onboarding can feel like a big mystery for a lot of business owners. What even is it? Why does it matter? And what the heck are you supposed to be doing during those early days of working with a brand-new client?

You can stop your panicked Googling. We have your complete guide to client onboarding (with answers, tips, templates, and more) right here.

What is client onboarding and why does it matter?

Client onboarding is the process you use to get new clients up to speed with your business. In an ideal world, it’s a prescriptive set of steps you can use with all of your new clients to do two big things:

  1. Get the information you need to do your best work
  2. Give your client the details and resources they need to work with you most effectively

If you’ve ever brought on a new client before, then you know there’s quite a bit that happens before you actually onboard them. Usually, that looks like:

  • Initial inquiry or outreach: Whether you cold-called them or they found you, this is the point when the client learns about your business, what you have to offer, and if you’re a good fit for their needs.
  • Discovery call: If the client feels like you’re a good match (and vice versa), you’ll host a discovery call when you can both ask questions and learn more about each other. This could mean having a conversation directly with you as the business owner, getting a demo from the sales team, or chatting with your customer support staff.
  • Signed contract: When the client likes what they hear and are ready to sign on as a client, you’ll want them to…well, officially sign on. It’s your responsibility to send a client contract for them to review, sign, and formalize your agreement.

Once you have that signed contract in hand, that prospect has officially converted to a client—and that’s what should trigger your client onboarding process.

What are the benefits of solid client onboarding?

Your client onboarding process could take anywhere from a week to several months, depending on the complexity of your business, services, and agreements.

"I do all of my onboarding forms for clients and my community through Paperform," says freelance operations consultant, Sara Loreta. "It's great.

It used to take me six hours for client onboarding, costing about a thousand dollars of my time. Now, I've got it down to 15 minutes. It's honestly wild how much you can get done with a Paperform and conditional logic.

Read the full case study: How SYSTMS™ cut client onboarding from 6 hours to 15 minutes with Paperform

Regardless of whether your process is long and thorough or quick and simple, investing the time and elbow grease into effective client onboarding is important for a few compelling reasons.

1. Set the tone for a positive relationship

Your onboarding process isn’t the first impression of your business, but it is the first impression of what you’re actually like to work with.

When it’s managed well, your onboarding process demonstrates that you’re a reliable and organized professional who’s ready to steer the entire client engagement (and your work together) in the right direction.

Remember, most people hire you because they need your help—and well-run client onboarding is your way of not-so-subtly saying, “You’re in the right place and I’ve got this.”

2. Save hassles and headaches

Onboarding matters for your clients, but it’s important for your own business too. With a reliable process, you can streamline your operations by getting the resources you need upfront. No more chasing people down for a style guide or software access weeks later.

Your onboarding process is a chance to equip your clients with resources too. From reaffirming your own expectations to giving them information about how to best work with you, ironing out those details upfront can save a lot of stress and misunderstandings down the line.

3. Retain more clients and customers

Bringing on a brand new client is an exciting time, but it’s also a fragile one. There can still be a lot of doubt and hesitation on your client’s end, and even a seemingly small misstep could be the red flag that sends your shiny new client running for the hills. Consider this:

Take a deep breath—that’s not meant to scare you, but rather to illustrate just how much your onboarding process can help you keep the clients you worked so hard to land.

4. Boost customer loyalty

When your customers experience your top-notch onboarding, they aren’t just sticking around out of convenience. Your onboarding process fosters a deeper sense of loyalty and commitment.

In fact, one survey found that 86% of customers are more likely to stay loyal to a company that invests in onboarding content that welcomes and educates them after they’ve made a purchase.

5 client onboarding tips for small businesses

Alright, so you need to get your onboarding process right. But what does that mean? How do you do that? What does solid client onboarding actually look like?

Here are five tips (along with a few templates you can copy and paste) to knock your own client onboarding out of the park.

1. Act quickly with a welcome email

Your new client is ready to get moving. They signed your contract and sent it back to you. And now…crickets. Radio silence. Nothing. They haven’t heard a thing from you.

Where are you? Are you ghosting them? Did you take their deposit and run? What’s happening?

Remember that the early days of your client engagement can be shaky, and your client might still have a lot of reservations about your ability to follow through. That’s why it’s crucial that you don’t leave them hanging. Once you have the signed contract, you need to get in touch immediately with your welcome email.

Your welcome email should accomplish a few important things:

  • Acknowledge that you received what you need to sign them on as a client
  • Welcome them to your business and share enthusiasm for working together
  • Provide them with simple, actionable next steps

You’ll need to adjust your own welcome email based on your unique business and onboarding flow, but here’s a small business welcome email template to give you a sense of what this could look like:

Hi [Client],

Thanks so much for signing your contract! I’m thrilled to bring you onboard as a client of [Company] and am so excited to start working with you. _

Over the next few [timeframe], I’ll be in close contact to get us up and running effectively. That all starts with a couple of next steps I need from you:

  • Review this welcome packet [document link] to learn more about my business, expectations, and typical workflows
  • Complete this new client questionnaire [form link] to provide me with important information about your own goals, needs, and preferences
  • Once you’ve reviewed and completed the above resources, please schedule a kickoff call [calendar link] for us to chat through questions and next steps in more detail

Please set aside some time to complete the above by [deadline] so there aren’t any holdups in getting started together.

Of course, I’m here for any questions you have throughout the process.

Thanks so much, [Client]. I’m really looking forward to working with you!

All the best,

[Your Name]

If you’re worried about being able to jump right on next steps, automation can help you keep things moving. For example, with Papersign and Paperform, submitting a signed contract could automatically trigger your new client questionnaire.

"With Paperform and Papersign I went from six hours doing onboarding for a client down to 15 minutes, literally," says Sara Loretta, founder of SYSTMS, a full-service Creative Operations agency.

I don't need to sit here and write a custom contract every time because I have a template in Papersign that I click duplicate and I ship to the next person."

2. Spell out your boundaries and expectations in a welcome packet

We already briefly mentioned a new client welcome packet, but let’s dig into this resource in a little more detail. Your welcome packet is a document that shares any and all of the details you need a new client to know about your business.

Put simply, think of it as your chance to get you and your new client on the same page before you actually roll up your sleeves and start working together.

Exactly what you include in your packet will vary based on your business, but it’s smart to start your packet with another quick, friendly welcome message as well as an introduction to you and your business.

Spell out all of the little things your client should know about how to work with you effectively. Some questions to think through as you map out your own welcome packet information:

  • What are your hours of availability?
  • What response time can clients expect?
  • What communication methods do you use?
  • Who is their primary point of contact?
  • What software or tools will they need?
  • Will you provide access to those tools?
  • How will you provide reports or updates? When?
  • Will you meet regularly? How often? When?
  • What payment types do you accept?
  • When is payment due?

You’ll likely want to organize the above details into different sections (for example, create a section about communication and a separate section about payment) to make your welcome packet easy for your clients to read and reference in the future if they need to.

3. Create a new client questionnaire

The welcome message template also mentioned a new client questionnaire, which is your opportunity to collect all of the client information you need from the outset—rather than having to track things down as you start your work together.

You need your clients to complete this questionnaire, which means you need to make it as easy as possible for them to do so.

"My clients get this massive workbook from me that asks: what's your company culture? What is your off-boarding process? And a bunch more. It's important that it's really in-depth, because it kick-starts a business plan and what we need to put into SOPs and wikis.

My favorite thing that I uncovered that Paperform does is that you can turn on the ability to let people come back and finish it later, which a lot of form tools don't have.

I can put due dates on the questionnaire to say it needs to be submitted by this date, or we're not doing our strategy sessions."

Paperform makes it simple for you to build the questionnaire, and straightforward for your clients to complete when it’s ready. There are even a few templates you can use to avoid starting from scratch:

As far as the actual questions you include on your form, those will hinge upon what service you’re providing.

For example, if you’re offering marketing services, you’ll likely ask about their marketing goals or KPIs, ideal customers, and their brand guide. But if you’re a virtual assistant or operations support specialist, you might need to focus more on their challenges, what tasks they need help with, and getting the logins you need for various platforms and tools.

Remember that your new client questionnaire can evolve as you learn more about what information you really need to get in those early days. Don’t forget to revisit it often and add questions you previously missed.

4. Host a kickoff call

What you need to know about your client kickoff call is right there in the name—it’s the conversation you’ll use to officially kick off your work together.

While you might be eager to jump right into this discussion, it’s helpful to save your kickoff call for after you’ve sent the initial resources and after the client has completed your questionnaire. That means you can use your live conversation to get into the nitty-gritty and ask follow-up questions that dig even deeper into your work together.

For that reason, prior to the call, make sure you’ve taken adequate time to review their questionnaire responses, do some of your own independent research, and outline the questions you want to ask during your time together.

You could even share those questions with your client head of time so they can show up to your kickoff call feeling prepped and ready. Here’s a quick look at how you could do that:

Hey [Client],

_I’m looking forward to our upcoming kickoff call on [Date] at [time]!

I’ve been working on reviewing the resources you sent so that I can get prepared for a productive conversation. As I was doing so, I came up with a few initial questions:_

  • [Question #1]
  • [Question #2]
  • [Question #3]

No need to answer those now—we can absolutely talk through them during our call. I just wanted to share them with you ahead of time in case you need to do any related research or prepping on your end.

Talk soon!

[Your Name]

5. Learn, iterate, and improve

Much like your entire business, your client onboarding process is a work in progress. Some aspects of it will go really well, while others could feel clunky or unnecessary.

Fortunately, you have access to people who have the greatest insights into the good and bad of your onboarding process: your clients.

With Paperform, you can create a simple client feedback form to ask for their opinion on what they liked about their onboarding and what they didn’t like.

Send this form when they’ve made it all the way through your onboarding (don’t do it right at the beginning or in the middle) and are more settled with your business.

Completing the form should be completely optional, and you could even incentivize them if you’re really eager for their feedback.

One of the other big use cases that I use Paperform for is for feedback," says Sara. "I like using the Likert scale with a mad emoji on one end, and a happy heart emoji on the other.

"Of course, you can create a more traditional survey and be like, "hey, fill out this survey for me and let me know how we're doing," but I really like that people can just click an emoji, go on their way. It's really low friction."

Not sure how to ask them to offer their two cents? Here’s a template you can use:

Hi [Client],

I hope you’re doing well!

I’m always eager to improve my business processes and client relationships. With that in mind, I’d love to hear your thoughts about my client onboarding process.

If you’re willing, please complete this form [form link] to share your insights into your own client onboarding experience with my business.

I know your time is important and this form is completely optional. However, I’m happy to provide a 10% discount on your next month of service for taking the time to support my business.

As always, please let me know if you have any questions. Thanks so much for your consideration and continued partnership, [Client].

All the best,

[Your Name]

Solid onboarding equals happy clients

Any business owner will tell you that signing a new client is hard work, but it’s also only the beginning.

Once they’ve signed on the dotted line, your client onboarding process is when you’ll set the tone for your relationship, get the information you need, and reaffirm that they made the right decision when they chose to work with you.

That won’t happen with a process that’s hasty and haphazard. Use the above strategies and templates to build a client onboarding process that gets your clients started on the right foot—and inspires them to stick with you for the long haul.

Streamline your client onboarding process with Paperform. Get started for free today.

About the author
Kat Boogaard
Paperform Contributor
Kat is a freelance writer focused on our working world. When she’s not at her computer, you’ll find her spending time with her family—which includes two adorable sons and two rebellious rescue mutts.

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