September 7, 2018

5 Mistakes You’re Making in Your Client Onboarding Process

Written by
Jeff Sullivan

If you’re running an agency, you probably know the importance of onboarding new clients. As the first formal step in the relationship, this phase sets expectations and conventions. How clients see you will often depend on the first impressions you make during onboarding.

Despite its importance, agencies frequently ignore or rush through the onboarding process. They neglect to ask the right questions, build rapport, or establish best practices. The result is confused clients and strained relationships.

Read on to make sure that you’re setting your best foot forward in every client relationship. Below, I’ve shared 5 common client onboarding mistakes, and how to solve them.

1. Not Sharing Your Process

As the agency owner, you know your processes inside out. You know exactly what steps you follow to take a project from the creative brief to final deliverables.

But what’s clear to you might be completely unclear to your clients. Unless they’ve worked extensively with agencies before, clients often don’t know what you’re doing or what’s expected of them. They have no visibility into your schedule, processes, or practices.

This lack of visibility creates two problems:

  • Unrealistic expectations: It gives clients unrealistic expectations since they don’t know how much effort a deliverable takes to create. This is particularly true for creative deliverables (such as a logo) where the end-product looks much simpler than the process to create it.
  • Scope creep: If clients don’t understand the effort involved in producing a deliverable, they might ask for changes and additions without realizing that it will take the project out of scope.

Solve this problem by being transparent about your processes and timelines. Tell clients exactly how much effort (in hours and raw materials) will be necessary to produce a deliverable.

For instance, share (informally) the brainstorming and creative iteration process that goes into designing a logo. This will help clients understand your results better.

2. Not Communicating Clearly (and Often) Enough

Your clients are apprehensive in the first few weeks of the relationship. They’ve just signed a big contract and handed over the reins of their business to you. How can they be sure that you’ll actually deliver on your promises?

This is why it is always better to over-communicate in the initial stages of any client relationship. Reassure them of your practices, results, and availability. Show them that you prioritize their business. The onboarding phase is the honeymoon period of the relationship; shower them with attention to make them feel welcome and wanted.

It’s not enough to simply over-communicate, of course. You also have to do it clearly and consistently. At the start of the onboarding process, establish the following:

  • How often you’ll send them recurring messages (such as status updates and project reports)
  • Your preferred communication channels (email, chat, phone calls)
  • Who you’ll share each message with (client project team, internal team, project sponsor, etc.)
  • What’s the best way to reach you in case of an emergency

I recommend creating templates for any messages you send more than once (such as weekly reports). This will ensure that there is consistency in your communication.

communication process for client onboarding

Creating a stakeholder communication plan can help in the onboarding process (Source:

3. Not Establishing Boundaries

At the start of the relationship, the client might come in with a request that’s clearly out of scope. But you’re eager to please, so you agree. That one request turns into another, then another, and before you know it, you’ve stretched your budget beyond profitability.

This is one of the hardest things to do as an agency: to say ‘no’. It is only natural to concur with clients in any service industry. But when you fail to establish boundaries clearly, projects can quickly go out of scope.

Setting boundaries should be a core part of the onboarding process. Tell clients exactly what is and what is not within scope. Make reasonable concessions where necessary but have clear guidelines for what they should expect from the relationship.

It’s important to set boundaries in a friendly, calm manner. Instead of simply telling clients that you can’t do something, explain to them why you can’t do it. Focus on the following in your explanations:

  • The process and effort required to fulfill the request
  • The effect of the new request on dependent tasks

Your objective in setting these boundaries is to minimize scope creep. The more you can say ‘no’ to out-of-scope requests, the easier it will be to run profitable, on-time projects.

4. Not Setting Clear Goals

You’ll be surprised to know that projects often fail simply because they don’t have a clear goal.

Projects often fail because of a lack of clear vision or goal (Image source: PMI Pulse of the Profession)

This is particularly true for projects with multiple stakeholders. Different stakeholders, sponsors, and even the agency itself might have different ideas of what the project should accomplish. The less agreement there is between all parties, the higher the chances of the project falling into disarray.

One of the biggest onboarding mistakes you can make is not clarifying goals upfront. You can’t simply assume that you and your clients are on the same page. You have to build consensus on your goals and the metrics to measure them.

Solve this problem by asking clients to identify their top three priorities for the following:

  • The business, i.e. what the project should help the company accomplish (such as “increase revenue of flagship product”)
  • The individual, i.e. what the stakeholder expects to accomplish with the project (such as “launch new product division”)
  • The end-user, i.e. what the client expects the project will do for end-users or customers (such as “lower product cost”)

The overlap between these priorities would be your project’s primary goal.

5. Not Developing an Onboarding Process

One of the more common client onboarding mistakes is to not follow an onboarding process at all. In such cases, agencies rely on ad-hoc processes and fragmented tactics to onboard new clients instead of relying on a well-developed system.

While this haphazard approach can work for smaller agencies, it will end up creating inconsistencies and data gaps as your agency grows. You might miss capturing crucial information you need to get the project off the ground. Or you might forget to create an important project document.

Solve this problem by creating an organized onboarding process. List out the following:

  • All the information you need for project kickoff (logins, data access, etc.)
  • Documents and templates necessary for the project (status reports, project plans, etc.)
  • Project stakeholders and your communication priorities for them

Map out the exact steps involved in onboarding. You can even create a flowchart depicting these steps as in this example:

Over to You

Client onboarding is a critical, but often ignored part of any successful project. This is the phase where you capture necessary information, establish expectations, build rapport, and set the tone for the rest of the project. Smooth onboarding will leave a good impression on the client and help you get the most out of the relationship. Follow the tips above to make sure that you’re not making any mistakes in your client onboarding process.

Jeff Sullivan is a content marketer at Workamajig, a leading creative project management software. Follow him on the Workamajig blog to read more such articles on project management best practices, tips, tactics, and approaches. Jeff enjoys playing the guitar and fiddling with his DJ gear in his free time.