Landing a new client can be very exciting, but it can also be very daunting.
Will the project work out? Will the client understand your process? How do you discover your common goals? How do you manage to trust each other? What if the client isn’t receptive to your input?
This is where client onboarding comes in, the process for welcoming new clients into your business. For this article we talked to a range of designers, freelancers, and agency founders to find out how they approach client work to ensure both sides are happy, and carry on working with each other even after completion of the initial project.
Follow their advice and you, too, will start your projects on the right foot.
The very beginning of every client relationship is crucial. If you want it to succeed and evolve into a long, fruitful partnership, you should pay special attention to this phase.
“The way clients behave at the beginning of the project is the best they will ever behave,” points out Mike Monteiro, co-founder and design director of Mule Design and author of You’re My Favourite Client. “So if you're getting red flags before you sign on, trust your gut and get the hell out. It will not get better.”
The way clients behave at the beginning of the project is the best they will ever behave.
Haraldur Thorleifsson, founder and design director of Ueno, agrees and adds that first impressions are critical in every human interaction.
“Fixing things after they go off course takes a lot more effort than putting in the time early on.”
At the start of the project, you either smooth the way for it, or set traps you’ll stumble over later. User experience designer and strategist Gail Swanson explains that there’s a critical balance to strike while you get acquainted with the client.
“You want to agree to a plan and set expectations, all while having minimal insight about the people and environment you're dealing with,” she says. “Many projects go sideways because the team over-indexed on impressing the client rather than asking critical questions. The fear of appearing unskilled leads folks to fake their way through knowledge gaps. The trick is that asking questions and listening usually demonstrates your expertise better and that you care about what they need.”
How you interact with someone — from the very first reply to an inquiry — sets the tone of a future relationship, stresses Susan Snipes, founder and president of Q Digital Studio.
“Even before someone signs on as a client, I want them to understand my communication style and methodology,” she says. “At the beginning of a project or relationship, I aim to deliver the ideal way a project is run.”
This could mean explaining that the best way to get in touch with questions is via email. Or, it might be discussing the fact the wireframes for a client’s website are only in black and white, so that Susan and her team can focus on the website’s structure — and not the design — at that phase of the project.
“Inevitably, some kind of challenge will come up during the project, and starting off the best way possible means the project is more prepared to move past the hard stuff, and stay on track.”
And the more experienced you are, the more you can identify red flags and trouble spots early on.
“If there are no red flags or concerns on either end, I deliver a contract — which features an in-progress scope of work — and schedule an onboarding meeting with the client,” explains Bryce Bladon, a communications and branding consultant, as well as editor-in-chief of Clients from Hell.
“From there, we go over the contract and scope to make sure it’s understood, and to make sure the partnership will work for both of us. Things like payment, feedback processes, and timelines are addressed. If there are no red flags, we move forward.”
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Once you’ve agreed to work with each other, you may want to educate the client. For a lot of agencies it’s a vital aspect of client onboarding.
“It’s the difference between a client assuming you’re a con artist, and a client recognizing the time, expertise, and value of your work,” Bladon points out.
It’s the difference between a client assuming you’re a con artist, and a client recognizing the time, expertise, and value of your work.
To help your client get the most out of your work and to manage expectations, you can educate them about a mix of things: from process, to the value of design, to how to give the best feedback. Don’t just assume the client knows how you work, and remember that every client is different.
“When assumptions are being made, it introduces the opportunity for a misunderstanding. This disconnect can lead to frustration, resentment, and a failed project,” Bladon warns.
Here are a six different areas, which your new client could likely use a little context and some education on to help ensure they get started on the right foot.
Educating clients on maintaining process and limiting scope is becoming increasingly important to Shopify Plus Experts, SwankyApple.
“These may be quite vague concepts to someone who just wants to get a great website built, so we essentially need to link these aspects to the success of their project,” director Dan McIvor explains. “We try to find concrete examples of how, without clear scope and process, one is less likely to have a good project and may only reach suboptimal results.”
2. Design and user experience
To convince a client that a particular design decision is the correct solution, and to steer them towards it, Shopify agency WeMakeWebsites uses existing research and user testing, and leans on best-in-class websites that follow the design decisions they’ve used.
Q Digital Studio educates every client in one or more areas of user experience, information architecture, and website requirements.
“Some clients are already familiar with these processes, but many aren’t,” highlights Susan Snipes, founder and president. “For those that are familiar with them, it’s most likely that my team does things differently than the client’s previous web team. We adapt our deliverables and processes a little bit to each client, as well.”
For example, some clients get highly detailed sitemap and wireframe documents, while others may only get a site outline in a Google Doc. Susan explains that these deliverables are determined at the beginning of a project or feature. During that time, she walks the client through what her team plans to produce, what each piece is for, and the steps of the process to produce various deliverables. In addition, Susan shows clients some examples of what to expect, gives them questions to think about, and defines milestones they’ll reach together.
“I’ll always educate a client on some part of user experience because there is so much to learn,” she adds.
For web design shop Paravel, this aspect is crucial. Founder Trent Walton explains.
“We’ve learned to be flexible with process and tooling, as long as project momentum or quality aren’t sacrificed, so that we can be more adamant about things that users experience first hand – like performance, accessibility, and polished, simple experiences.”
According to Susan Snipes, the most important, but sometimes overlooked area, of client education is constructive feedback and discussions.
“It’s tempting for a client to propose solutions to what they consider their primary problems,” she admits. “But instead, I guide them to talk about the problems themselves and what they’re trying to solve. Identifying the true challenge, and figuring out the best way to solve that problem is my job. I want to teach them to think strategically about their website’s purpose and goals.”
Identifying the true challenge, and figuring out the best way to solve that problem is my job.
Evgenia Grinblo, UX lead at Future Workshops, agrees, and explains that it’s vital to educate clients on the value of not knowing the right solutions straight away.
“Not having to make affirmative decisions at every step of the way,” Evgenia adds. “I've found that clients who are experts in traditional industries, such as banking, can often interpret helpfulness as the ability to make top-down decisions quickly.”
4. Time frames
It’s also important to help the client understand that good things take time, and that rushing things too much to get fast wins can result in long-term losses.
“People often want to get going as quickly as possible, so when you tell them it takes six to eight weeks before commencing the actual design, it can sometimes be a painful realization,” SwankyApple’s Dan McIvor explains.
“To tackle this, we usually spend time explaining the workload, and what needs to happen when, to ensure the clients are educated on our process.”
5. Growth vs. cost
WeMakeWebsites convinces clients to value growth over cost, i.e. to invest more in their website to grow their company faster.
“This one is tricky to achieve,” admits co-founder Piers Thorogood. “We typically manage it by showing examples of how other clients of a similar scale have invested in our services, and achieved X% growth.”
“We want to be strategic partners and not simply take an ask and deliver on it,” explains Nikki Shum-Harden, SVP of client partnerships, at RED Interactive Agency. “Often times, we will shape the engagement into what we think is the most strategically sound, and what will most effectively address a client’s objectives and goals, even if it’s not exactly what they asked for.”
For Nikki, this often means educating clients on a more more effective way to allocate their funds, surfacing opportunities that are more strategically aligned with their business objectives, or recommending a technology or platform that will make a client more efficient and effective in achieving their goals.
“While there can be some push back initially, ultimately clients are always grateful for us going the extra mile, and challenging both teams to be better.”
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If you include the client in the early days of a project, it can create a powerful partnership that leads to the best solutions.
“Clients are your best resource when it comes to domain knowledge and goal-setting within their field,” Evgenia Grinblo explains. “Failing to include them can turn into a transactional relationship, where your role is to pitch ideas, and their role turns to approving or criticizing your solutions. This can become unproductive, and even toxic, very quickly.”
The degree at which you involve the client differs from client-to-client, and from agency-to-agency.
“Every client is different,” confirms Susan Snipes. “I prefer to adapt our standard process to each client, instead of being too rigid and making sure everything is precisely the same.”
Because her firm is smaller, this strategy works well and is a key part in how Susan does business. But, she adds that there are aspects that stay consistent, like business hours, a client’s primary point of contact, the project management tools her team uses, and the fact that they provide a development website for feature review.
“Every client is coming from a different place — their goals, existing knowledge about creating websites, previous work with other designers or developers — and I want to respect that. The main challenge of client onboarding is taking the time to identify their goals and measures of success, so I can make sure my focus is on their true needs, not anyone's predefined idea of what a website project should look like.”
WeMakeWebsites, meanwhile, invites new clients into the office for a kick-off meeting to meet the team, make sure they’re all on the same page, and discuss key objectives of the project and the client’s business as a whole.
“One of our main challenges is convincing clients that working within our systems and processes is going to be the most effective way to communicate on a project,” co-founder Piers Thorogood explains. “Some clients love big emails, others prefer calling five times a day with five separate queries.”
WeMakeWebsites has a very structured approach to projects and ongoing retainer work, so the first step is getting the client to buy into that approach. Typically, this means demonstrating their project management system Asana— which is where all their tasks and associated comms reside — and taking clients through the value of regular weekly status calls, instead of sporadic, unplanned calls.
“It's never perfect,” Piers says. “And clients still send massive emails and call at unusual hours — but by setting expectations at the start, we have something to push back on when communication is getting out of control.”
For their part, SwankyApple uses an agile development process with two-week sprints. This helps keep projects moving forward and within scope, giving clients a clear understanding on what’s going to happen when.
Freelance designer and creator of Client Portal, Laura Elizabeth, has put a lot of effort into refining an onboarding process.
“It not only makes me look good, but makes the project itself more efficient and my clients happy that they’re working with a professional who knows what she’s doing.”
Client onboarding success
In the end, whatever approach you take to client onboarding, the key is to tailor your approach to each client, and let it evolve. The beginning stages of any project are crucial, and there may be challenges on the way, but once you get over them, the partnership can truly blossom.
Also, try to avoid launching a project quickly and never thinking about the client again. Susan Snipes believes in continuous improvement.
“Truly wanting clients to succeed and truly caring about the websites I produce means there’s a high likelihood of creating an enduring partnership.”
For some additional resources, check out Laura Elizabeth’s freelancers guide to client onboarding, or read about the secrets to keeping clients on side, by Tom Dougherty, UX director of Delete.
How do you work to onboard your clients? What approaches and strategies do you use? Tell us in the comments section below!