What is Client Onboarding and Why Is It Important?
Client onboarding is a process in which you prepare a prospect to begin working with you and further develop a relationship with them. You are preparing them on the best way to use your product or service. It’s also their first introduction to the inner workings of your business after the initial inquiries about pricing and if you’re accepting new clients. Generally, onboarding begins when they agree to become your client but for those who take a bit longer to decide, onboarding can include that follow up period where you answer more questions and hopefully guide them toward making a purchase. Some argue that onboarding continues until they no longer need your services.
Preparing a thorough client onboarding system will save you time, money, and a bit of your sanity because any system resolves a problem and, in this case, that problem is getting all the client info you need, tracking all that paperwork, plus making them feel welcome. Always wondering if you sent out the most updated forms or not having a clear way of labeling and storing the returned paperwork will distract from your other clients or marketing tasks. Having all your documents written, proofread, edited, branded, stored in one document folder on your computer and with an easy labeling system will save you hours of time searching for the right components.
Of course, the dream is to have multiple prospects making inquiries at all times so it becomes even more imperative to be organized with an easy, yet thorough, system. Ultimately, you want to make it as easy as possible for your prospect to sign up for your workshops or coaching programs. If you keep sending incomplete packets or the wrong, outdated forms, that leaves a negative impression which may cause your prospect to find another coach.
Let’s also be clear that your onboarding process will differ based on what product your prospect wants to purchase as well as how long they have been your client. The paperwork and forms described above are generally for those new clients who want ongoing coaching for several weeks or months. In this case, a solid contract with length of time and billing stipulations is important to have before the first coaching call. But if your prospect wants to purchase a class or an eBook, you won’t need as much paperwork but you should certainly make that prospect feel welcome with personalized emails that answer all their questions and leave them with a positive experience overall.
For those loyal clients who have been with you a long time, you may have other products, events, or services that will be of interest to them. You will approach them much differently than you would a stranger or someone who’s new to your brand; therefore it’s a different type of onboarding. Their needs may be different based on what new product they are purchasing so it now becomes your job again to show them how to best use and get the best results from this new product or service.
Happy customers will refer others to you and will continue to buy from you. That’s the most important reason to create an onboarding system.
Step One :: Take Stock
How do you currently welcome a new client and get them set up in your coaching funnel? Do you just take their name and number and play phone tag to set up a convenient time to chat or do you have an onboarding process that answers all of their questions upfront and ends with a solid, mutually-beneficial first coaching date in the books?
Every process improvement begins with a good, hard look at what you currently have. From client agreements to membership sites, you need to know exactly how your systems work today, how your clients are fed through your sales funnel, and if there’s any room for improvement or automation.
Before you start turning things upside down and making changes to everything you’re doing, look at each process, or recruit a trusted friend to go through the process for you, and take note of how your current systems are working and what can be improved. An objective analysis is the only clear way you can work toward full automation.
For example, at the most basic level, are you making your prospects jump through hoops trying to find a way to contact you or ask questions about your services? Are you getting timely email notifications from prospects? Do you have a dedicated phone line for business calls? Are you responding to inquiries in a timely fashion? Are you asking enough questions of your potential client to have a full understanding of what they want to accomplish through coaching? Do you have all your client’s contact information and best times to call? Do you have a contract covering non-disclosure, billing details, length of coaching term, and specifics of what the client wants to accomplish?
Remember that the onboarding process also involves answering all of your clients’ questions, including questions about your skillset, your experience, and your coaching process. Be prepared for any type of question, much like a traditional job interview, because their impression of you will determine if they want to hire you.
Also remember that the onboarding process is exactly that: a process that may take days or weeks to complete. Expect the process to take longer with your more expensive coaching packages or products as people need more time after speaking with you to decide if they want to invest in your offerings.
Your goal with any onboarding process is to keep is simple yet thorough. You don’t want to overwhelm your client (or yourself) with too much paperwork but you also don’t want to enter your first coaching call clueless about what this client wants to achieve. Explore your currents systems and make steps to improve or automate.
Step Two :: Think Like a Business
When was the last time you saw a CEO of a business on the front lines, handling customer orders or complaints or even working on the factory floor? Have you ever seen the television show Undercover Boss? Those CEOs of big corporations hide their identities and are trained in the lower level jobs of their company. Many times these undercover bosses have no idea whatsoever how things get done; they are the “big picture” keepers and idea generators who know WHERE they want the company to go. These CEOs rely on their lower level managers and executives to figure out HOW things get accomplished to move the company in that direction.
Jeff Bezos doesn’t process Amazon refunds. Bill Gates doesn’t troubleshoot the Blue Screen of Death for computer users. Richard Branson isn’t serving drinks on any Virgin Airlines plane. So why exactly are you playing Jane of All Trades?
A common fear of all solopreneurs is spending money they don’t have. It stands to reason that you only want to spend money that you have in the bank rather than going into debt and that may certainly be true with personal finances. However, when you’re talking about investing in your business, very often you need to invest that money up front, before you make any real profit, so you can drive the company forward into the profit zone.
A virtual assistant will be your best bet to make the client onboarding process smoother. Remember, the onboarding process is all about starting a relationship with your prospect. It’s their first glance into the inner workings of your coaching business and, as with all first impressions, you want to wow them. Projecting a professional business image is paramount to them signing on the dotted line and spending their hard earned money with you.
Put yourself in the prospect’s position and think about who you would rather work with: a coach who is so involved in her business doing administrative tasks in addition to her coaching that she seems rushed or scattered; or a coach who can focus her efforts on her clients and is always willing to expand her knowledge base because she has an assistant?
If you’re worried about spending money on a virtual assistant, hire one who is willing to work within your budget. Word of warning: less expensive rates often indicate less experience and always remember the old adage, “You get what you pay for.” If she doesn’t have a package rate for monthly admin tasks that fits into your budget, then tell her to alert you when your hours are used up before you receive a surprise bill with more hours than you were expecting.
Now you have a team member who can send contracts and information to prospective clients; who can follow up on missing forms or paperwork; who can manage your calendar appointments; and who can answer your phone.
Hiring the right people for a job can make the onboarding process smoother.
Step Three :: Find the Holes
If you’re like most coaches, there are trouble spots in your current systems. There’s no shame in that unless you pretend they don’t exist. And let’s face it… who has a perfect system without flaws? Who isn’t always finding ways to tweak what works to make it better? Unlike the old adage, “Don’t fix what ain’t broke,” you’ll find there’s always a way to improve or automate your current onboarding system.
Step One was all about taking stock of your current systems and to test them to see how easily they work. What did your testing say about your current systems? Now we’re finding the holes and working to fix them so your onboarding process is smooth. A smooth process makes for happier clients.
Let’s examine some common onboarding problems and how they can easily be fixed:
Do you send a personalized welcome email or is it a generic template? Do you limit your clients to the ways they can communicate with you? Do you send emails that lack personalized subject lines?
Your prospects don’t want to feel like a number; they want to feel as though you really care about them and want to know them better. Personalizing a welcome email or subject line is the easiest way to portray your interest in them. Even if you’re not a great writer, certainly you can craft a couple of short paragraphs from the heart to serve as an introduction before delving into the nitty gritty business part of the letter.
2. Unrealistic Expectations
A lack of communication or not asking the right questions can lead to you and your prospect expecting different things from the relationship. You may not fully understand their ultimate goal or, in an effort to win their business, you over-promise what you can actually deliver, thus leading to a disappointed client who feels ripped off.
As part of the initial onboarding process, send them a questionnaire including questions about what they need help with and what they ultimately expect as a result of their coaching sessions. If you can realistically deliver all they expect, move forward; if not, then be honest and upfront with them about your limitations and don’t sign them. Your honesty and integrity will speak volumes as opposed to the bad reputation you’ll receive if you pretend you can help when you are really ill-equipped.
3. Customer Abandonment
In an effort to win new customers, some coaches enter into a “wooing” phase, where they’ll drop everything to care for the prospect’s needs but once they sign a contract, that special care disappears. Or there will still be a honeymoon phase early on but then things start to fall through the cracks or their calls aren’t answered quite so quickly.
Schedule follow up calls with your clients at regular intervals so no one feels lost or forgotten, even after their coaching package ends. In addition to being a nice gesture, these calls (or emails) will keep your name in their minds and you won’t have to sell quite so hard to them if you have future products or offers that would benefit them.
Step Four :: Invest in Solid Systems
Nothing makes automation more difficult than piecing together sub-par systems. If you’re still handing customer support with a Gmail address, relying on back-and-forth email to schedule appointments, or keeping client notes in a Word doc on your desktop, it’s time for an upgrade.
Systems are nothing more than routines that address specific problems or business issues. Sometimes the term “workflow” is also used to describe a system and it’s easy to picture a flowchart of what has to happen first before another task can start.
Let’s start from the very beginning when a client calls or emails to ask if you’re accepting new clients or about your pricing. First of all, do you have a dedicated business email that has your website name included? If you want to look professional, drop the freebie Gmail or Yahoo email accounts and invest in an email that includes your website domain.
What happens after you receive that email? Set up email notifications for your virtual assistant so she can send out a response to that inquiry quickly (within 24 business hours is ideal). As for the response, create a response template which your assistant can personalize and send out. Make sure the subject line is personalized, include a thank you for inquiring, and answer the specific details of the inquiry.
Pricing is a common question so spell out your coaching packages in the email template or include a link to your website where it’s all explained. Or, if your pricing is very specific to their niche or their needs, include a short questionnaire asking about what they need specifically in a coach, what their goals are, and create a customized price for them.
This is just the tip of the iceberg but do you see how some things can be automated? Instead of your virtual assistant writing the same information 20 times a day to different people, she can instead customize the first two paragraphs, add the attachments, and then send the response in a quicker time frame.
If you really want to maximize your productivity, invest in a platform that handles multiple tasks so you’re not opening multiple windows and trying to coordinate information between multiple sites. For example, 17hats.com allows you to read and answer emails, create templates and workflow systems, create to-do lists, create invoices, and organize your leads list for easy follow up. There’s also a calendar where you can schedule events, coaching sessions, or your own passion projects. Having all these features allows you to handle multiple tasks right inside one system, without jumping from email to invoicing to a project management system. With hundreds of similar systems on the market, do some research (or have your virtual assistant do it) and choose one that fits your budget and handles multiple needs.
One other system that is key to onboarding and keeping your clients happy is the ability for them to easily book their own appointments online. Put yourself in their shoes and think about how many times you’ve thought of making an appointment as you’re going to bed. It may too late to call the dentist office at that hour but your clients can simply open an app and schedule their next coaching call. Again, there are hundreds of apps and platforms to handle this so thorough research is important but a program that allows you to input your available hours and immediately allows a prospect to choose a time that suits them is golden. No more emails going back and forth. No more lost emails. No more double checking time zones as most of these programs have time zone conversion capabilities. Talk about making it easy for your prospect!
One other system that is vital for easy onboarding is having forms or questionnaires that are easy for them to fill out. If you have a multiple task system, there’s usually a way to create a simple Client Profile, which the client fills out and it then automatically loads into your contact database. In addition to the typical name and phone numbers, many coaches ask for full addresses and even birthdays or anniversaries. While this may seem strange at first – especially if your clients are virtual – having some of that personal information allows you to send special gifts to commemorate those important dates. Likewise, stay in tune with events or milestones of your clients on social media. If you see someone had a baby or graduated from college, send a congratulatory gift. While this is completely optional, caring enough about your client to send a birthday bouquet or other celebratory gift puts you above and beyond the cookie cutter coach.
While upgrading your systems will take time, the various platforms and software will also require a monetary investment. Always do research and take the time to read reviews or to call the platform’s sales rep to ask specific questions about their capabilities (much like your clients do with you before they decide to buy). Brand new coaches don’t necessarily need software or platforms with all the bells and whistles but be wary of the lowest price software, too. Just because it fits your budget doesn’t mean it’s easy to use or has all the features you need.
Always ask if there’s a free trial. Even if there is a nominal trial fee, if the functionality is impressive, it’s worth taking the system for a test drive. Of course, that actually requires you to take the time to fool with the system, play around with its features, and test if it’s user-friendly. Do your due diligence so you can make a purchase you know will benefit your business.
And even though it’s very tempting to stick with freebie services (don’t fix what ain’t broken, right?) really analyze if the service or software has the proper functionality. Do they offer support with questions or problems? What are the Terms of Service? Are your records/files truly private or does the provider now own your records?
If you’re worried about the financial investment, upgrade one thing at a time and make tweaks so that process or system is close to perfection. You’ll always see room for change and no one says you have to do it all at once or that you have to stay loyal to one provider or brand name.
Step Five :: Create a Policies + Procedures Manual
Consistency matters, not only when it comes to improving your efficiency (and adding cash to your bottom line) but for customer experience as well. A clear policy and procedures manual will ensure everyone on your team is on the same page and handling client cases the same way.
In terms of client onboarding, create an outline or a checklist of all the steps it takes to send out and receive a client’s completed paperwork. Is there a certain order this information needs to be completed? Write down the workflow for a typical client and stick to it. Remember to include the smaller things, too, like follow up phone calls, and sending a small gift when the contract is signed.
Create an Approved Vendor policy, including the requirements of becoming an approved vendor as well as an updated list of vendors you are happy to refer. An approved vendor could be a particular software company whose product has awesome support; it could be the awesome rep from your chosen gift company who goes the extra mile; or it could be the copywriter who reworked your website copy to make it more appealing to prospects. This list comes in handy if you’re looking for specific contact information or if someone asks you for a referral.
A Billing policy is vitally important to you bottom line. Decide early on if you will accept credit cards or if you’ll send invoices. How long does the client have to pay? Will you apply a late fee? Will you offer any kinds of discounts? Under what circumstances will you offer discounts for your products or services? Will you offer payment options? If someone doesn’t agree with or can’t abide by your billing policies, what’s the next step?
Return/Refund policies are tricky in this digital age and they can also be tricky if the product purchased is a package of coaching sessions. If you sell a digital product, will you offer refunds; even if there’s a chance the client will still use the digital information, essentially getting that product for free? What if your client is three sessions into their 12-session package; will you offer refunds if they are unhappy or not making progress? Will you offer a prorated refund for just those unused sessions or is there any circumstance that would warrant a full refund? Food for thought.
A Money-Back Guarantee is a nice touch to convince people to purchase your product or service but how long will you offer the guarantee? Does this apply to digital products? Would this apply to live event tickets or coaching sessions? Are there industry standards you want to follow or create your own guarantee?
Cancellation policies help to keep your calendar full and deter clients from cancelling their sessions at the last minute or just not showing up. Do you require a certain amount of notice for cancellations (similar to a doctor’s office that asks for 24 hour notice) so you can try to fill that time slot? If you don’t have client work to do then, do you have a pet project or marketing tasks you can do to fill that time? Will you charge a fee for late cancellations? What about a no-show fee for those who forget their appointments? Creating a policy manual will lessen stress when something goes wrong and keeps team members on the same page with how to handle problems.
Step Six :: Build a Library of Copy/Paste Documents
If you have to re-invent the wheel every time you send a proposal to a potential client, you’re wasting precious time and money. Instead, create your agreements, intake forms, and other documentation once, then simply customize it for each new client.
Commonly known as a “swipe file,” these documents serve as your templates. You will certainly save time by not having to write the whole document for each client and you will have all the pertinent information that the client needs included, every time. No doubt something important gets left out each time you write from scratch, which then impacts your professional image.
How much do you pay your virtual assistant? Do you want any portion of that fee going to writing the same documents over and over again? And if you haven’t hired an assistant yet, do you want any portion of your own hourly fee going toward writing all these documents multiple times over?
Just about every document you use in the onboarding process can be saved as a template, from the welcome letter to the billing agreement, so simply create your own template or customize templates you find online. You can purchase these files from me here. The entire kit contains 17 done-for-you forms that you can brand and customize any way you want. Label and save the new version and you have your own New Client Kit to send out.
Another time sucker where money is wasted is implementing a sloppy labeling system for all these documents. If you or your assistant doesn’t know where documents are located, you’re wasting money searching for them. Instead, use a simple and thorough labeling system so there’s no doubt where things are.
For instance, if you update your client agreement every year but have the different copies in one folder labeled Agreements, how on earth do you know which is the most recent one? And why do you need more than the most recent? Create one main, general folder for agreements but then label the updated agreements with the year and specific name (i.e. billing agreements are different from coaching agreements, etc.)
Another example is to create a New Client Welcome Packet, which includes everything you send your new clients. Keeping these blank forms all in one zip folder makes for easy use because it’s already packaged together. Simply open the files, personalize as needed, and then send via email. Easy.
Also, don’t be afraid to delete old documents that are outdated and not used any more. If that’s really tough for you, move those old documents to an external hard drive so you always have access but those old files aren’t hogging up space in your Dropbox or Google Drive.
In short, create a library that will save you time and money with templates of documents you use consistently. Your onboarding process will become much smoother when you know exactly what documents need to be sent and where they are located.
Step Seven :: Cross Train Your Team
If you don’t want your business to grind to a halt when a key staff member takes a vacation, then cross training is a must. Identify similar positions, and ask them to train one another on at least the basics of their jobs.
If you’re just starting out or only have a virtual assistant on your team, finding a replacement for her is very important or you’ll find yourself overwhelmed with completing her tasks along with yours. Ask your VA if she has someone she trusts who can fill in during her absence and then proceed through the same interview process you used to find your trusted assistant. Your fill-in assistant will have a learning curve and asking your current assistant to help answer questions would be most helpful. This is also a prime example of how a Document Library and a Policies + Procedures Manual would be most helpful because all her tasks are fully documented and easy to follow.
Another strategy would be to find a VA who has an overall different skillset that would be useful to your business but who can handle the other tasks for a week or two while your primary VA is away. Now you’re growing your team and also giving yourself a built-in substitute. Maybe you have a need for a VA to write and edit your content or to create your social media posts. She would be a prime person to ask to handle client onboarding. Again, give her the policies and checklists she needs and there should be few questions.
If both those strategies fail, try contacting a temporary employment agency and inquire about hiring a real life admin assistant. It may feel strange having another body in your home or office when you’re used to a virtual assistant, but she would have the ability to follow the procedures properly. The only downfall may be the fee since you’d be going through an agency but paying a higher fee is better than getting behind in your client onboarding.
If your customer service rep is going away, your VA should be able to step in.
If your bookkeeper is going away and has a documented system in place, your VA should be able to do the data entry and accept payments.
Some tasks, like graphic design, are very hard to teach. You either have innate talent or already know the basic tenets of good design. In this case, having projects planned out and completed prior to your designer’s vacation is crucial. However, if you need to swap out old graphics on your website, your VA should know the basics of how to add images on your WordPress site (or whatever platform you use).
While you can’t prepare every team member to cover every single job description perfectly, one way to ease the trepidation is to have them review the Policies Manual on a regular basis. Even if you give them a reminder every six months, they will know the company policies inside out and backwards as they relate to ALL the different departments. So when the need for a temporary fill-in arises, anyone should be able to step up with confidence because they know and understand how your company works and how to handle questions about these policies.
Step Eight :: Take a Cue From the Manufacturing Industry
Just because you’ve made improvements doesn’t mean you’re finished. In fact, whether they’re building cars or making candy bars, one thing all manufacturers have in common is a policy of continual improvement. Every process that can be automated or made more efficient saves them money… and it will for you, too.
Car manufacturers never stop looking for ways to improve their vehicles, especially where safety is concerned. Better safety features equals more sales, so research and development is an ongoing job. In the food industry, the research and development teams constantly research new ways to improve the flavor, reduce the price, or use new technology to make their products better or to launch brand new products.
Similar thinking can apply to your coaching business. While perfecting your client onboarding shouldn’t be your full time job, you should always be aware of new technology, new software, and new trends that help retain clients. You should perform checks of your systems and sales funnels every few months to analyze how they’re working and if there are any holes or room for improvement.
Many of the changes in the car and food industries aren’t noticeable (unless they’re new products, of course) and the changes in your coaching business that happen behind the scenes won’t be noticeable to your clients either. For instance, if you find less expensive bookkeeping software that has more features than your old one, you’ll increase your productivity while keeping your costs down and your clients probably won’t notice any difference.
They will, however, notice when you launch a new product. New products not only help increase your bottom line sales, they also help retain clients and can be considered a part of the onboarding experience. The biggest difference is they were already a part of your clientele and they love your coaching sessions, so it was a no-brainer decision to purchase your new product. Your current clients will often become your best customers and your best cheerleaders.
Successful onboarding has many benefits, which is why it behooves you to take onboarding seriously and not just adopt a “fly by the seat of your pants” approach to your business. When your customers are happy, they are happy to purchase from you again. They already know, like, and trust you so your next products should be easier to sell.
Happy customers also tell their friends all about you. So in addition to attracting more social media followers, new people are siphoned into your sales funnel and introduced to your awesomeness.
As a result of these happy customers, your company makes more money. They want your services and products and they want their friends to have those things, too. Creating a client onboarding system to keep them happy and develop a long relationship greatly improves your sales figures, which makes your initial investment worthwhile.