Freelancing Fundamentals: New Client Onboarding

New Client Onboarding

If you’re a newcomer to freelancing, you might find one aspect of it frustrating or intimidating: The terminology. I mean, what the heck is “client onboarding,” anyway?

New client onboarding is simply the act of welcoming new customers to your business, answering their initial questions, and communicating what services you offer. A well-thought-out onboarding strategy helps set your customers (and you!) up for a successful project.

Lately, I’ve been talking about what it takes to take a freelance project from start to finish. I’m hitting all the basics from terms to tactics in a series of posts I’m calling Freelancing Fundamentals: How to Take a Project from Cradle to Launch. I’ve covered lead generation and CRM so far. Today’s post deals with onboarding.

New Client Onboarding for Freelancers

Why should you have an onboarding process?

Onboarding preps a new client to work with you. It gives incoming customers all the necessary information about you and your processes so they can get a feel for the way you do business and tackle projects.

A side benefit is that your onboarding process helps interested prospects self-screen and decide that you are (or you’re not) the freelancer for them. One ill-fitting client saying no is easily worth three great clients saying yes.

In short: A good onboarding process saves you time, effort, and — ultimately — money.

All systems go!

Mapping out an onboarding process helps get rid of any freelancer-client confusion at the beginning of the relationship. Systematizing that process reduces the time you invest getting a client situated and up to speed on how you work.

At the heart of onboarding is education: You’re learning the basics about a client, but also giving them the opportunity to learn about you. You’re simply communicating.

The heart of onboarding is education: You learn about a client and give them the opportunity to learn about you. Click To Tweet

The act of creating an official customer onboarding workflow can also educate you by forcing you to get clarity on what your processes are and in what order you approach them. Inspecting how you work in a deep, focused way magnifies areas of improvement you should make to make your own job easier. Win-win!

It All Starts with Your Website

Where does onboarding a new client begin?

It actually starts before a prospect has agreed to be your client. Ground zero for onboarding sits at the intersection of what your site communicates and how you capture basic information about a potential customer.

This is not a new concept, but it’s as relevant now as the first time I heard it: Your website should be consistent with the way you want to work and the clients you want to attract.

There are three things your website needs to say to potential clients:

  1. What your niche is
  2. Who you work with
  3. What you do for them

A solid system of onboarding new business starting at your homepage means that incoming prospects have a clear picture of who you are, what you do, and how you do it, right from the start.

That works to your benefit because when you reduce client confusion, you strengthen the relationship, build trust, and establish authority.

Present yourself as welcoming and approachable

When it comes to client interactions, a little hand-holding builds trust. Trust is a huge factor in retention. From the beginning, make yourself clear.

More often than not you may be dealing with people who don’t have any experience in your realm of expertise, so part of your job is client education. Nobody likes to feel stupid. Make it understood that if there are knowledge gaps, you are happy to answer questions.

Here are some things that prospects will find comforting:

  • If applicable, make your portfolio easy to find and simple to navigate.
  • Don’t make people go on a scavenger hunt: Present information on your site in a simple, jargon-free way.
  • Provide client testimonials that give details about why someone should work with you. (“Carrie is great!” is something I like to hear, but “Carrie is great because she helped me accomplish X-Y-Z.” is something potential clients like to hear.)
  • Put links to your inquiry form in key areas on your site, like in close proximity to testimonials or work samples; nothing’s more frustrating than a hard-to-find contact form when you think you’ve found your ideal solution.

Collect the goods

You’ll also want to keep your inquiry form fairly direct and simple. Take a broad view stance when asking for information, and ask “deal breaker” type questions. Questions like:

  • What is your budget for this project?
  • What are your goals for this project?
  • How can I help you meet those goals?
  • What kind of timeline do you have in mind?

The point here is to allow you both to figure out if you should take this thing further.

For instance, a prospect may not have even considered things like budget and timeline. This may prompt them to abandon your contact form until they have. This helps weed out tire kickers and saves you the time of answering inquiries that aren’t a good fit from the get-go. It also provides an education point for potential new clients – they now know they need to consider those questions before engaging your services.

Streamline Your Onboarding Process

Okay, we’ve already discussed how your website is the first stage in the onboarding process. What’s next?

Well, you’ll respond to the initial inquiry (possibly using a canned response), which is your opportunity to deepen a client’s interest in working with you OR help them decide you’re not right for them (I really can’t stomp on that point enough).

New client onboarding templates

A smart way to do this is to have a set of documents already in place to send over to the client. This further screens them and preps them to work with you. You’ll want to have a customizable boilerplate email ready to go, as well as an introduction packet (which doesn’t necessarily need customization).

Some things you’ll want to cover in this introduction packet are:

  • A rough overview of the project with an expected start date
  • What is needed from the client to do the job
    • Design elements (logos, product photography, etc.)
    • Site copy
    • Credentials to any accounts needed for the project
    • Additional contractors required for the work
  • Your specific work style
    • Do you prefer phone calls to email?
    • Do you use a specific project management tool, like Asana or Basecamp?
    • What are your “office hours”?
    • What kind of response time can they expect when they reach out to you?
  • Basic policies and practices
    • “My payment terms are Net 15.”
    • “I require a 50% deposit up front.”

When the client responds positively to this, then you can schedule a call to further learn about the project and refine the details. This is known as the discovery process, and I’ll be discussing that in the next post in this series.

Erin Flynn and I talked about her onboarding process on a recent episode of the OfficeHours podcast. Something I particularly liked is how she nestles her ‘schedule a call’ link into her onboarding documentation. This way, a potential client has to read — or at least skim — her processes and what they can expect before they can even discuss their project in any depth with her.

Hammering out the details

The last bit of onboarding your client is to create a proposal and get a contract signed.

A proposal — which I’ll be talking about in more depth in the coming weeks — fully outlines the job, how you’ll carry it out, and how much it will cost. This is a valuable formality that sets expectations and limitations. (On future projects, though, it’s not unusual to do away with formality and use a deposit along with a “handshake proposal” to get the ball rolling when dealing with smaller jobs or return customers.)

A proposal is also the basis for the contract you’ll draw up, which is the last formal piece of the onboarding process.

It’s a good idea at this point to send your client a document outlining the details of the project, include milestones and deliverables. Channel your inner kindergarten teacher here and tell them, in very specific language, what you’ll need, when you’ll need it, and how they can get it to you. Explain how and when to schedule calls and request updates or ask questions. Set expectations as to when they will hear back from you, both during the project and after the project wraps.

This is great, but I’m strapped for time. Do you have a cheat sheet?

The process of creating, streamline, and refining a solid onboarding system for clients takes years. It’s like a fine wine – your onboarding process will only improve with time.

The only way to short-cut the process is to learn from the experts who’ve gone before you and are willing to share those processes with you.

There’s Erin Flynn, who I mentioned earlier. She shares a lot of great info on her blog. There’s also Jason Resnick (who I’ve also interviewed on my podcast) – he’s got a ton of helpful articles and resources for freelancers looking to go pro.

When it comes specifically to the topic of onboarding, my favorite resource is from Jennifer Bourn of Bourn Creative and it’s called the Profitable Project Plan.

It’s actually a full client management system, but the onboarding part includes:

  • Everything needed to communicate with clients, educate clients, and gather information from clients.
  • Scripts and outlines for key phone calls, like the project kick-off call and the design strategy call
  • Prewritten emails and a carefully curated automated onboarding sequence to set expectations, communicate process, provide tips, tools, and homework, and set up the project for success

All of those resources are editable, customizable, and brandable. Jennifer’s run a successful web services and branding agency for a dozen years and she definitely knows what she’s talking about. If you go this route, the investment you make could easily be recouped in a single project.

For the sake of transparency, I am an affiliate for the Profitable Project Plan, which means I get to buy a yacht if you buy through my affiliate link. No pressure, but my maritime happiness is in your hands.

Is Outboarding a “Thing”?

Lots of people have a client onboarding system in place. What about an outboarding process?

It enhances your client’s experience

Successful freelancing, like any business, relies on your reputation preceding you. As a freelancer, your reputation is a little more weighted because you are the literal face of your business.

The little things you go out of your way to do for clients — both incoming and outgoing — will speak louder than any website copy ever could, because they’ll be communicated via word of mouth. Referrals are the lifeblood of most freelance careers. Treating your clients warmly and professionally will earn you those referrals.

This includes out-the-door interactions.

What it entails

What can you do to make things easier on your client (and ultimately yourself) as your project or relationship winds down?

Prepare a customizable document that includes things like:

  • A gracious thank you for the opportunity to help solve their problem
  • A project summary
  • Basic tutorials for ongoing management of the project
  • Applicable links and passwords
  • Branding info like logos, color palette, fonts used
  • How any ongoing services are handled after project handoff

If you have had a particularly good experience with a client, this is also a good time to ask for their testimonial. (Be sure to ask them for permission to share it.)

By the way, Jennifer’s Profitable Project Plan also includes an outboarding sequence.

There’s more where this came from

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that my focus would be on freelancers for a little bit.

That’s not only true here on the blog, but also on the OfficeHours podcast, as well: I’m devoting this entire season to discussing the fundamental building blocks of a freelance project with successful freelancers and thought leaders in the digital space.

In those chats, we’re exploring specific tactics surrounding each topic I’m writing about here on the blog. Have questions or comments? I’d love to discuss them in the comment section below.