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Updated May 30, 2020. Originally published on ErinFlynn.com

You need a map for your client onboarding!

Getting lost is frustrating. When you don’t know which way to go or what happens next, you get anxious and angry.

Think about the last time you were trying to find a location, and your GPS wasn’t working.

It was stressful, right?

That’s how your clients feel if your onboarding process is rough or confusing.

And when they feel frustrated and anxious before the project even begins, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle to make them happy.

Each business is unique, but every business needs a client onboarding process. While the steps may vary from business to business, it’s important to take the time to map out your client onboarding process so that you are able to weed out problem clients before they become problems, and set expectations for the project. This lets potential clients know that you’re the right fit for them, and helps them know what to expect.

For most creative entrepreneurs, the following steps in this order will work well. But don’t be afraid to mix things up if you prefer to work differently. I know creatives who do a 15-minute intro call right away and that works well for them. I know others who avoid calls altogether and make it work (though I don’t recommend this). But if you don’t have a client onboarding process in place, start here and tweak as needed.

A potential client lands on your website

Your website is part of your client screening and onboarding process. As soon as a potential client lands on your website she should immediately know what you do. If you’re a web designer for nutritionists, that should be obvious as soon as the page loads.

Don’t make potential clients click around to find out what you do and who you work with. You want them to know immediately, so that if they are not the right fit, they go somewhere else, and if they are the right fit, they get excited about working with you.

Your portfolio should reinforce who you work with and what types of projects you work on. This is another self-qualifying step for your potential clients. If the work you do doesn’t excite them, they can go somewhere else, but if it impresses them, they get more and more interested in working with you.

Think of your website as a carefully curated collection designed to attract a very specific client, and dissuade anyone else. You can’t appeal to everyone, choose your focus, and stick with it. Niching down will help you attract clients you want to work with, and be a turn-off to those who are not a good fit.

Initial inquiry

When a potential client makes it here, it’s likely that she’s seriously considering working with you. But mistake that a lot of creatives make is asking TOO much on the initial inquiry form which results in very few people filling it out.

You don’t want to scare potential clients off with a contact form that takes an hour to fill out. But you do want to collect enough information that you are able to judge whether the project is potentially a good fit. This form should take no more than 3-5 minutes for a potential client to fill out, so narrow down your contact form questions to what you really need to know.

Put your most important qualifying questions on your contact form. For many of us, this would include: the type of service the client wants, a rough budget for the project, 1-2 examples of what the client is looking for, and a short description of what the client wants. Failure to fill out this form correctly could signal a problem with communication throughout the project, so pay attention to how well the client describes what she is looking for.

Intro Packet

So you’ve just got your initial inquiry from a potential client, and it all looks pretty good. Hooray! (If it doesn’t, you can pass the client on to someone else.)

But your client onboarding has only just really begun.

Use an intro packet to let clients know what working with you would be like. An intro packet helps set client expectations and keeps them from getting that “lost” feeling which understandably makes them anxious.

An intro packet does the following:

  • Gives potential clients an rough overview of the project and what to expect throughout the project
  • Lets potential clients know what you need from them and when
  • Lets potential clients know when and how they can contact you
  • Gives potential clients a rough timeline of the project—so they’re not surprised when their website isn’t ready the next day
  • Informs potential clients of your major policies (because you can never tell someone the big stuff too many times)
  • Keeps you from having to answer the same questions over and over and over

If a potential client agrees to what is outlined in your intro packet, they are likely a good fit for working with you, and will be pleased with how organized you are, and how you’ve explained everything. They know what will happen during the project, and they feel at ease, instead of anxious.

Discovery Call

Any type of call, preferably a video call where you can actually see your potential client, is an important part of the client onboarding process. While you may choose to communicate primarily via email or a project management system, a video call lets you really get a feel for the other person in a way that written communication just can’t.

If you don’t click on the video call, something may be wrong. When a client doesn’t seem as excited or interested as you do, that’s a red flag. While it’s not necessary for you to be besties, you do need to get along. You may be working with this person for the next several months, so if you don’t click at this point, problems may surface.

Use your discovery call to clarify what you’ll be doing, and to reiterate your process and answer any questions your potential client has about working with you. Also go over the client’s project again, to ensure that you’re both on the same page about what she’s asking for. You can share screens if something is unclear, and  make sure that you’re both on the same page with what the client is looking for.

You can, and should, have an outline of questions to ask to keep the call on track and ensure that you and the client are going to be a great fit. This also helps reduce the stress-factor of hopping on a call with someone you don’t know if you’re an introvert like me!

You and the potential client should both leave the discovery call feeling good about working together, and that all your questions were answered.

Proposal

It’s time to send a proposal! At this point you should have a pretty firm grasp on what your potential client is looking for, so it’s time to send an official quote or proposal.

There are a lot of ways to make a proposal, and the exact format you use is up to you. But all proposals should include the following:

  • An overview of the goal of the project and how you’ll help your client achieve this goal
  • A rough timeline for the project
  • A scope of work outlining what you’ll do
  • An estimated price based on the scope of work

Remember, the proposal is an estimate. If the client changes her mind or adds something, you can adjust the price accordingly. But the proposal lets the client know what you’ll be doing specifically for her project, and roughly how long her project will take, and what it will cost her. This again helps with the antsy feeling that clients understandably get when they don’t know what’s going on.

A proposal also gives you a document to fall back to if the client drastically changes her mind about what she wants, giving you the option of re-quoting, or backing out of the project if it’s no longer something you are able/want to take on.

Contract

Time to make this legal! A contract protects both you and the client, so don’t work without one. I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not going to give you legal advice, but I do recommend checking out Your Legal BFFContract Killer and Small Business Bodyguard for  help creating your own contracts.

The project is not officially a project, and the client is not officially a client until a contract is signed. So do not skip this step of the client onboarding process!

Get help with your contracts here!

Payment

You shouldn’t start work until you’ve gotten an initial payment. How you choose to split this up is up to you, or may depend on the size of the project.

Many creative entrepreneurs do a 50/50 split with 50% due at contract signing, and 50% due at project completion, but you could also charge the remaining 50% after a certain time period, like 30 days, which I find to be FAR better because it prevents clients from delaying projects.

For projects over $10,000 I typically split the payment into four payments of 25%.

The important part is to get payment to secure the project and ensure you get paid, then make sure you get paid regularly during the project.

Welcome packet

Wait, didn’t we already send this?

Nope.

And intro packet and a welcome packet are two different things. The intro packet helped potential clients know what to expect, and helped you weed out people who didn’t agree with how you work or your policies. A welcome packet is for people who are paying clients, and it goes into the details of what they need to do.

Again, we don’t want our clients feeling lost during the project.

Your welcome packet should include the nitty-gritty details that your client needs to know throughout the project.

A welcome packet may include the following:

  • How to use your project management system (like Asana or Freedcamp)
  • How to give feedback during the project
  • How to schedule a call with you
  • How to send text, image, or any other files
  • A reminder about your office hours and response times
  • Expected response times from them during the project

Giving your clients a welcome packet lets them feel in control, informs them about the proper way to send you things or get in touch, and alleviates their concern when they don’t hear from you over the weekend.

Project Management System

You should use a project management system (PMS) with your clients. It will make your life approximately 10,437,843,835 times easier.

Seriously though, it will help you keep all your projects organized, remind clients when they have tasks due (like giving feedback or supplying content), and keep you both from digging through your inboxes for hours trying to find that missing file or discussion.

Inside a PMS you can:

  • Have threaded discussions
  • Assign tasks with due dates
  • Upload project files
  • Track time
  • Keep track of what is being worked on/whether things are on schedule
  • And a lot more!

If you’re not using one already, you need to! A few popular project management systems to check out are Freedcamp (my favorite), and Asana.

In-depth questionnaire (aka “client homework”)

This is the part where your client sits down and goes DEEP into what they want. It may take several hours for them to complete this, which is why we leave the homework until after they’re a client, instead of making them do it in the beginning and then turning them down because something else made them a bad fit.

This is also a great time to give them a little gift, like a Starbucks giftcard or something to make the homework more enjoyable!

Depending on the project, and what you do, the homework questions may vary. But for most creative entrepreneurs you’ll include something like the following (and possibly a whole lot more):

  • What is the main goal of this project?
  • Create a Pinterest inspiration board with images that represent your brand and the feeling you want to create on your website
  • What is the primary feeling you want visitors to have when they are on your website?
  • Share 3-5 websites/copy examples/photoshoots/etc. that you love, and explain what you like and what you don’t like about each
  • Who do you consider your biggest competition, and why?
  • Who do you wish was your competition–who is at the level you want to be at?

The point of the in-depth questionnaire or client homework is so that you can strategically create the best project possible for your client, and know exactly where she wants to be positioned in her market. Your job as a creative entrepreneur is to help your client achieve her goals.

You can create the in-depth questionnaire in a number of ways, depending on what works best for you and your clients. Online questionnaires can be created with an online form system like a WordPress plugin or Typeform. If the homework is very long, it may work better as a fill-able PDF or Google Doc that your client can easily save and come back to, so that she doesn’t feel as if she has to fill everything in all at once.

And that’s it! It’s time to dive in and get the project started!

Wrap-up

Whew, that seemed like a lot! And it is, but creating a great client onboarding process is an important part of your creative business. And most of this can be done once, and then automated or simply tweaked for each new client.

You only have to make the intake form, intro packet, welcome packet, and client homework once. Then each client receives the same documents and questions, which cuts down on your active participation in asking questions or answering them. You’ll end up saving a ton of time.

And proposals and contracts simply need to be adjusted for each project. Once you have the base, you just need to tweak to make them work for individual clients.

The only thing you can’t really automate is the video call, but you can create a template with questions, and that call is what gives you a real feel for the client and project. Don’t skip it.

The point of creating a streamlined client onboarding process is to help clients determine if you are the right fit for them, as much as help you decide if they are the right fit for you. Clients self-screen through viewing your website, and reviewing your intro packet. Then you screen them through the video call. Potential clients who are not a good fit are weeded out, and potential clients who are a good fit know what to expect, and get excited about working with you.

You end up with great clients, and your clients end up with a creative entrepreneur who is excited to work with them.

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