Client Onboarding: How a One-Man Agency Qualifies Leads and Turns Them Into Clients

client onboarding

Unless you’re a star designer and have a plethora of big-name clients, awards, and speaking engagements under your belt, running an agency by yourself isn’t easy. Client prospecting can be especially challenging. Oftentimes, you get approached with requests to, “quickly fix this one thing,” or, “pick up the ball someone else dropped.” In the eyes of many clients, people who work for themselves are desperate for work, hungry for anything.

A lot of solo practitioners struggle with tasks that seem too tactical, or are placed into roles that feel too transactional. When I set out on my own, I opted to implement the onboarding rules developed during my time as agency co-owner, to ensure prospects perceive me as a strategic partner instead of just another hired gun.

Here are 7 techniques I use to do it.

You might also like: Five Steps to Successful Client Management.

1. Start with chemistry, not scope

When jumping on a call with a prospective client, it might seem like a good idea to immediately dive into their project and the associated needs. I recommend getting to know the prospect on a personal level first. Find out what you have in common with them, and ask questions about their company and broader premise.

Make sure you understand the culture and chain of command. Is the person you’re talking to a decision maker? Do they need to report to a manager to get approvals? How will you be interacting with the client team? These are great things to know before you take things further.

The goal is to make early conversations as non-transactional as possible, to lay the foundation for a partnership. It’s an integral step to establishing yourself as a strategic resource. In the end, it's mainly about building trust.

2. Don't be afraid to put up walls

Some clients approach projects with preconceived opinions regarding scope, timeline, and budget. In many cases, these don't match up with your reality. Instead of accommodating their initial requests, feel free to push back. You are the expert, and your job is to lead, not follow.

An important part of this is conveying the amount of work that is asked of the client. There is always a fair bit of collaboration required: questionnaires need to be filled out, in-depth feedback needs to be submitted, content needs to be created/provided, etc. As long as you set clear expectations early on and are able to justify your decisions, you'll find yourself building respect and winning more deals than you think. It's true what they say: playing hard to get is a real thing.

3. Put effort into your proposal

client onboarding: proposal
A multi-page proposal with a visualized timeline sets expectations, shows thoroughness, and makes the project come to life.

Proposals show not only that you can listen closely—they are also one of your first opportunities to demonstrate your abilities. How succinctly can you capture their needs? How clearly can you communicate your process? In many cases, it's also the first bit of consulting you'll perform. Instead of just recapping what the prospect is asking for, make a recommendation. I like to offer three packages in a good, better, best format.

Good: What the prospect is asking for

This is where you capture the exact requests—demonstrating your active listening abilities. Important here is that this package feels slightly incomplete compared to the other packages.

Better: What I think the prospect needs to succeed

This is your recommendation, where you add services, steps, or other types of scope items that lead to the best possible result. Sometimes it helps to add a ‘recommended’ badge to this package to guide your prospect.

Best: A plethora of deliverables that go above and beyond

This is a great opportunity to reveal other areas of expertise and spark your prospect’s imagination. Sometimes you’ll run into a client that only wants the best, no matter what. For this reason alone it’s a good idea to include relevant upsell opportunities.

You might also like: How to Avoid Messing Up That Crucial Pitch Meeting.

4. Account for client turnaround time

More often than not, I’ve seen project schedules that list out the scope milestones in direct succession, with no regard for review and feedback. I feel this doesn’t set the right expectation and isn’t in line with reality. I like to include flex areas in my schedules that come right after my presentations or submittals. The idea is that clients have a recommended amount of time to digest and work with me through revisions. Once an approval is reached, we move on to the next phase.

This also means that I don't include hard dates. I find that clients get fixated on these dates, and don’t necessarily see the relationship between their approvals and final delivery. To avoid this fixation, I use weeks (not days) as my unit of measure, intentionally keeping things at a manageable level of fidelity.

5. Be clear on pricing

client onboarding: pricing
A downward-stair-step pricing structure clearly conveys budget percentage, amount, and due date without tying to milestones or project deliverables.

Don’t just itemize your fees or show your overall budget. Be more specific. When conveying your process, be sure to have your complete payment schedule included. Listing out when you want to get paid what amount makes the project feel real to the client, and helps them forecast the financial implication (some might argue this is not a good thing).

When it comes to payment structure, I don’t like to split things up evenly. Instead, I like to use a downward-stair-step model: a series of payments that reduce in size over the duration of the project. An example for this would be a 40/30/20/10 percent split, or for smaller projects a 50/30/20 percent split.

I’ve experienced first hand that the motivation to pay goes down as you reach the end of the project, and there is nothing worse than having a sizable payment outstanding as you wrap things up. However, this doesn’t always work. Many clients tend to push back because they prefer payments evenly distributed. You can’t win ‘em all.

However, this one is crucial: I don’t tie project payments to deliverables. There have been situations in the past where clients have delayed approval on milestones to delay payment. In one specific instance, my second of three payments was contingent on getting the green light on the completed logo system. The client went dark, and I wasn’t able to invoice. You can avoid this by including the payments on your project timeline. On a project that encounters delays, the only ‘downside’ is that you might be fully paid before the project is over—and that’s a nice problem to have.

You might also like: 4 Crucial Steps to Building Strong Client Relationships.

6. Assemble a customized collection of work samples

client onboarding: collection
A tailored portfolio frames up past projects in a relevant way.

Instead of directing prospects to a general portfolio, I like to put together a curated collection of six to nine example projects that are relevant to the prospective client's project. In addition, I include a couple of descriptive paragraphs with each project to explain their pertinence.

Typically, I pick up on topics discussed during early chemistry calls. Sometimes it’s a project within a similar industry, or with a similar scope. In other cases, it’s an especially compelling project that fits the personal taste of my prospect.

Customizing a portfolio demonstrates that your process is not automated. It shows that you’re excited about the prospect of working with a potential client and gives them a glimpse into your high-touch experience.

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7. Put your cards on the table

Keeping things real has always worked best for me. For whatever reason, it seems like design professionals feel the need to make themselves bigger than they really are. Embellishing contributions in past projects is also all too common. I recommend staying as close to the truth as possible.

If a project was personal, don't make up a client. If your agency only consists of one person, use ‘I’ instead of ‘we’. If you only contributed to a portion of a project, make that clear and don't claim the entire project as your own. The world is a small place, people talk, and this type of stuff tends to come out sooner or later. Also, you'll be surprised how differentiating authenticity can be.

You might also like: Truth In Advertising: How to Differentiate Your Marketing Agency Through Radical Transparency.

You can only do so much

Convincing a company that you as an individual can solve their problems just as well as a fully staffed agency isn’t always possible. Some clients like to jump on weekly calls just to check in and get updates, others want on-site visits or need support presenting up the food chain. As a one-person agency, you’ll likely not be able to accommodate this level of demand.

From the get-go, I like to compare and contrast myself to larger design firms, and be clear about what they are not getting. For example, I can’t offer a dedicated project management resource, because I serve multiple clients at the same time. For that reason, all check-ins need to planned and all presentations need to be scheduled in advance.

I’m also not structured to deliver multiple design options. Instead, I go through a lengthy discovery process to design a single option that represents my recommended solution. This doesn't mean we can’t revisit, tweak, and in rare cases redo the design, it just means we don’t approach an engagement from an open-ended, exploratory mindset.

In my opinion, actively working against the hired gun stigma is a good approach. Addressing common concerns proactively is helpful when speaking with new clients. Some might say that you’re creating problems that didn’t exist before you mentioned them, but I disagree. To me, it shows that you’ve done this before, and that a good fit is more important to you than landing the job.

Demonstrating clear principles and the willingness to walk away from a deal conveys confidence. In the end, it’s all about making clients feel comfortable with their decision in selecting you as a partner.

What steps do you take to onboard clients? Let us know in the comments below!

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