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7 essential steps to your client onboarding process

Jan 24, 2024
  • 13 min read
  • Omid G

    Two years ago when I quit my full-time job to start freelancing, I didn’t realize how important the client onboarding process was.

    I looked online for guides on how to onboard clients and all I got was a bunch of generic info like, “send a welcome email,” “set expectations,” or “host a kickoff meeting.”

    Don’t get me wrong, those are important aspects when onboarding a new client. But it’s not the full picture. When you’re onboarding a client, there are two things that matter:

    1. Do I have everything I need to successfully provide my services?
    2. Does my client feel comfortable and confident in my abilities to do so?

    The first part is really about making sure I’m good: From a legal, financial, and resources standpoint.

    The second part is about making sure my client is good: From an expectations, workflow visibility, and reporting standpoint.

    In this article, I’ll walk you through my client onboarding process and how I retain my clients for months at a time. Let’s get into it.

    What is client onboarding?

    Client onboarding is the process of welcoming new clients and getting them started with your product or service. A good onboarding experience sets your client relationship up for long-term success.

    It's five times more expensive to acquire new clients than it is to retain existing ones. For this reason, making a great first impression at each client interaction is critical — starting with the client onboarding process.

    A thorough client onboarding process:

    • Introduces your business processes
    • Reveals your client needs and your proposed strategy
    • Set expectations for contracts, payments, and communication
    • Aligns on work processes and ongoing engagement

    How long your client onboarding process is depends on your business and the complexity of your services. As you onboard more clients, you'll begin to gauge better how long the process is and what works best.

    Now, I'm going to pull back the curtain on my client onboarding workflow.

    7 steps to a successful client onboarding process

    Here is my seven-step process for new client onboarding:

    1. Set the stage
    2. Align on legal and payments
    3. Set up your client portal
    4. Align on workflows and processes
    5. Prepare teams involved
    6. Plan ongoing engagement
    7. Complete the onboarding process

    Alright, let’s dive deeper into each step.

    1. Set the stage

    Onboarding starts by confirming alignment on core expectations — making sure you and your client share the same understanding of project scope, pricing, and timeline before diving into the details.

    In this stage of the onboarding process, you want to cover these core areas:

    • Schedule a kickoff call: Frame this as an opportunity to discuss goals, define parameters of engagement, outline key milestones, and open dialogue around budget or other constraints. Consider this your pre-client onboarding meeting that will help you in stage two.
    • Send preliminary service overview: Provide a high-level document summarizing scope of work, projected cost, timeline, etc. to anchor the kickoff discussion. Note these are initial estimates to be finalized.
    • Confirm next steps: Close the call by recapping deliverables for both parties to solidify moving forward with contracted agreements and other formalities. If your client is ready to start, the ball is now in your court. You’ll want to take all the feedback and information and get ready to create a contract and payment terms for stage two.

    Pro tip: Set the expectation upfront that this is just an initial alignment call. This prevents getting bogged down in specifics prematurely but rather focuses on big-picture synergy.

    The Set the Stage step gives a human touch to your client and customer onboarding process and gets both sides grounded in shared expectations. Even if high-level for now, providing the right clarity and confidence to move into more binding onboarding elements ahead.

    So far, stage one was for both you and your client to align on your working relationship with each other. In stage two, you want to make sure you align on the scope of work, legal terms, and finances before you dive head first into the actual work.

    Basically, you want to get all paperwork and finances formally squared away up front so that business operations can flow smoothly later on.

    In this stage, you want to cover these areas:

    • Review the proposal and send a contract: Create a contract from a template explaining scope, timeline, payment amount and frequency. Have a lawyer review if needed.
    • Finalize specific terms: Be transparent about late fees, unlimited revisions, etc. Define mutual responsibilities and project assumptions.
    • Set up invoicing and payments: Select your invoicing platform and confirm the client's remittance process and schedule. Capture key contacts and approval protocols. I’ll get into exactly what tools I use for this is stage three.

    Pro tip: Don't make legal terms overly rigid initially if certain details remain TBD. Focus on good faith elements you can define now. Addendums can evolve specifics later. Because this article is not intended to provide legal advice, you’ll want to seek help from a financial advisor on this part.

    Getting aligned legally sets all operations with clients on firm ground before activating work so that expectations are clear and you can focus on delivery.

    3. Set up your client portal

    A centralized client portal creates a smooth, professional single point of access between you and clients. Rather than juggling emails and multiple platforms, portals like Copilot consolidate task management, file sharing, messaging, contracts, invoices, and more.

    I wrote an in-depth guide on how to create a client portal, but I’ll give you a general rundown here.

    The first step is to sign up for a free account on Copilot. If you aren’t ready to sign up for your own account just yet, you can play around with the demo client portal to get a feel for how things work in Copilot. Once you make an account, your dashboard will look like this:

    Copilot admin dashboard

    I won’t get into too much detail on how to customize your client portal in this article. Just know that you can customize the client-facing portal for each type of client you work with. This way, each client has their own portal that matches their brand and feels personalized to them. If you want to learn how to do this, check out this video:

    Once you find your way around Copilot, you want to set up your billing information so you can easily get paid as you’re onboarding your clients. Copilot has “apps” for different features you need to run a service-based business.

    I wrote a guide on how to bill clients for the first time, but I’ll give you a quick overview here.

    When onboarding a new client with Copilot, you can either have them sign up directly with their own email or Google account, or you can manually add them yourself and it will send them an email notification for them to make their account.

    The great thing about Copilot is that it acts as a client database platform as well. In the ‘Clients’ section of your admin portal, you can easily add clients like this:

    Adding clients in your client portal

    Once a client is added, you can go to the “Billing” app and create a branded invoice.

    Sending an invoice in Copilot

    Depending on the terms you discussed during your kickoff meeting in stage one, you can either send individual invoices to clients or you can create recurring subscriptions.

    Branded invoices in Copilot

    The latter is great for productized service businesses that bill daily, weekly, monthly, or annually. This way, you can “set it and forget it” and not worry about chasing down clients to get paid.

    You’ll also want to set up your banking details so you can get paid. Here’s a video to show you how to do that:

    Now that we have the invitation and payment part of your client portal set up, it’s time to optimize things for a good onboarding process.

    Automating client onboarding

    Copilot automations for client onboarding

    Copilot recently released Automations for their users. This now allows you to create automated tasks each time a client signs up for their portal. One of the great use cases is around automating your client onboarding.

    Be sure to check out the guide I just linked to above — it will help you understand all of the areas of your onboarding process you can automate. From welcome emails to client intake forms, and messages in Slack (or any messaging platform your clients may use).

    If you have any contracts that need to be signed, you’ll also want to upload those into the Files app in your client portal so your client can easily access them and sign them. Check out this video on how to do that:

    Project management in Copilot

    The great thing about Copilot, that many users love, is the ability to integrate and embed third-party apps — like project management tools. We’ll get more into this in the next section, but for now know that you can embed almost any task manager and have Kanban boards and reporting dashboards to make your work visible.

    Alright, let’s look at a recap for this section:

    • Sign up for Copilot: Set up a secure portal for your client in Copilot using their name and brand images. Customize the portal layout and permissions based on your clients’ needs.
    • Set up billing: Create a branded invoice or a recurring subscription based on the payment terms you discussed with your client.
    • Look into automations: Explore Copilot’s automation features to automatically send welcome emails and client intake forms to kickstart your onboarding process without human error.
    • Upload key documents: Use Copilot's Files App to establish a document repository for the client with established folder structures and access controls.
    • Configure communication streams: Set up Copilot's messaging to sync email into portals. Enable notifications so conversations with clients happen transparently in one place.
    • Build digital workflows: Use Copilot tools like forms, calendars, checklists and Kanban boards to create standardized systems for intake processes, work submissions, approvals etc.

    Pro tip: Set up Copilot's help desk knowledge base with company guidelines, FAQs, and key information clients may need to self-serve questions that arise.

    Consolidating client interactions into a reliable portal solution like Copilot creates transparency on work progress and requests while protecting sensitive data in one secure location.

    4. Align on workflows and processes

    Remember the two main things we want to get out of our client onboarding process that I mentioned right at the start of this article? It was:

    1. Make sure you have everything you need to successfully provide your services.
    2. Make sure your client feels comfortable and confident in your abilities.

    This section is a hybrid of both of these — but we will index a little more on the second part. The second part is your client experience — arguably the most important thing as a service provider.

    If you have clients paying you hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars for you to solve a problem they have, chances are they want a little visibility into the “how” and “why” of what you’re doing.

    This is where workflow visibility and effective project management comes into play. Get this part wrong and it will not only be very stressful for you as you’re doing the work, but it will also hurt your credibility and increase the chances of your client churning.

    I’m not going to go into full detail on how to set up your workflow as a freelancer or agency because this is going to depend on the services you provide. I personally provide SEO and marketing services, so I can speak to those. But there’s a good chance you may be providing other types of services.

    When it comes to workflow visibility, you want to think about two things:

    1. Project management
    2. Reporting

    The project management part is fairly straightforward. Depending on the service, you might use a tool like Notion, Airtable, Asana, or ClickUp to track projects and tasks. While this is mainly for you and your internal team to look at, you can integrate these tools directly into your client’s Copilot portal.

    Here’s a video of integrating ClickUp, a popular task management tool, into your Copilot client portal:

    Besides just integrating your task manager into your client portal, you can also set up reporting dashboards for your clients. In my case, I use Google’s Looker Studio to show my clients how their SEO traffic is doing.

    Here’s what that looks like in my portal:

    SEO dashboard in Copilot

    This not only shows clients how their doing, but it also shows all the work is visible and there’s nothing to hide — giving clients peace of mind.

    Alright, let’s go over a recap of this stage:

    • Outline your typical process: Walk through your standard development cycles, review cadences, and flow for receiving and implementing feedback.
    • Learn client methodologies: Have your client share workflows their team follows including internal checkpoints, decision trees, and steps prior to final sign-off.
    • Finalize aligned approach: Compare processes to identify gaps and ultimately agree on consistent rhythms that accommodate both sides’ needs, constraints, and policies.
    • Build out project management and reporting into your portal: Use your favorite task manager, or your client’s favorite, and integrate it in your Copilot client portal.
    • Provide accessibility: Grant access to real-time work-in-progress so clients have full visibility into review cycles without needing to ask for constant updates.

    Pro tip: Overcommunicate during alignment activities to head off workflow roadblocks before they emerge. Get ultra clear on all protocols.

    Getting perfectly aligned and on the same page on detailed creative and operational processes gives both parties confidence that reviews and approvals will happen smoothly.

    5. Prepare teams involved

    At this stage, you’ve pretty much started to successfully onboarded your client. However, depending on the size of your firm, or the size of your client, you may need to get more people involved.

    If you’re an agency owner, you want to make sure your account managers and anyone else doing the work for your clients are all aligned. You also need to make sure your client knows what each person is doing.

    On the same token, your client may have multiple points of contact with you. So you also want to know everyone you need to get involved with on your client’s side.

    Overall, this stage is about making sure all stakeholders and personnel who interact with your client relationship are briefed on responsibilities, priorities, and protocols.

    Here are some action items for this stage:

    • Introduce key contacts: Provide names, roles, responsibilities, and bios of each team member the client can expect to work with. Have kickoff call.
    • Set up internal communication: Establish channels like Slack, Teams, Email, or Copilot for your team to collaborate, monitor work queues, and route requests.
    • Capture institutional knowledge: Document any historical context, best practices, terminology, or sensitivities your team has related to that client for reference.
    • Train on work standards: If you have style guides, quality guidelines, or process playbooks, distribute to client-facing staff to ensure consistent delivery.
    • Outline organizational structure: Review internal hierarchy, decision authority, and escalation management the client can leverage to get needs addressed efficiently.

    Pro tip: Over-communicate with internal teams early on to confirm all client information is centralized and understood by right staff before launch.

    Getting teams aligned with shared understanding of your client early on makes sure there’s cohesive, polished experiences as engagements ramp up.

    6. Plan ongoing engagement

    At first glance, this stage seems like it shouldn’t be involved with traditional client onboarding. But onboarding is all about setting you and your client up for success, from day one.

    This means, once the relationship is established, proactively planning periodic touchpoints to continue growing the partnership and strengthening strategic alignment over time is key.

    Here you can agree on weekly or biweekly (or whatever time frequency makes the most sense for you) meetings to discuss project status, timelines, and results. Frequently meeting with your clients will put a human element to your interaction and help you retain clients for longer.

    For this stage, you’ll want to:

    • Schedule business reviews: Lock in a meeting cadence to discuss metrics, results, and evolving needs.
    • Institutionalize key meetings: Beyond regular check-ins, calendar annual (or quarterly) planning sessions, budget reviews, or training sessions.
    • Identify growth opportunities: Explore ideas for expanding the scope of work over the long term to provide more value.
    • Formalize feedback loops: Set up pulse surveys, net promoter scoring, or reviews to capture regular client input for continuous improvement.
    • Maintain executive sponsorship: Nurture relationships with key decision-makers and champions to retain influential advocates.

    Pro tip: Stay perpetually curious, ask smart questions, and keep the relationship fresh. Ongoing planning prevents stagnation.

    Planning recurring engagement touchpoints provides built-in mechanisms to uncover the next wave of transformational impact beyond early phase quick wins.

    7. Complete the onboarding process

    By stage six, you are pretty much have a good client onboarding process. But, how do you know if it went well? How do you know that the next client you onboard will have a good first impression about you?

    This is where the last stage comes in — getting feedback. Here, you want to wrap up loose ends and commemorate the conclusion of the initial onboarding phase before shifting gears to broader business-as-usual activities.

    You’ll also want to simply ask your client how their experience has been so far. Listen to your main point of contact or anyone else working with you on your client’s behalf. Find ways you can improve next time and limit any confusions your client may have experienced during their initial onboarding phase.

    For the last stage of your client onboarding process, you want to:

    • Confirm delivery: Review scoping documents to validate all onboarding milestones and deliverables have been met. Note any remnants requiring follow-up.
    • Send a closing survey: Capture client feedback on the onboarding experience itself through a structured questionnaire. Identify process improvements. You can do this using the forms feature in Copilot.
    • Transition to account manager: If you’re an agency with employees, you can formally shift primary oversight from onboarding owner to ongoing account leadership.
    • Gift client swag: Send small token of appreciation like branded item to celebrate the onboarding graduation.
    • Schedule kickoff call with additional team members: Set expectations for first introductory call between client and newly assigned account manager post-onboarding.

    Pro tip: Be forthright if certain gaps remain before releasing clients to business-as-usual account management. Delay if still instability.

    Carefully closing out onboarding activities cements early accomplishments while structuring handoff to long-term partnership management. And that’s it! You just completed your client onboarding process.

    Conclusion

    Following a comprehensive client onboarding checklist and workflow is crucial for setting your engagements up for long-term success. Doing so enables you to proactively align on processes, capabilities, and strategic priorities on both sides.

    While every client onboarding questionnaire and set of requirements will differ based on your services, utilizing the structured seven-step methodology outlined serves as an adaptable process map for virtually any agency, freelancer, or independent consultant.

    Configuring streamlined systems for legal paperwork, centralized communication streams, transparent work-tracking, and billing early on leads to smoother operations from the outset. And preparing internal teams, planning future engagements, and capturing feedback fosters positive client satisfaction.

    Carefully and completely onboarding clients demonstrates your commitment to the relationship and gives you built-in mechanisms for continuously expanding your impact. Following these best practices for your new client onboarding process means your hard work acquiring a client pays dividends for months and years to come.

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