Prevent client blowups by creating a Client Onboarding Process for your agency

Written by: Karl Sakas

Want to avoid client service blowups at your digital marketing agency? Tired of having to step in to smooth things over with unhappy clients? It doesn’t have to be that painful.

Some client service problems are unavoidable, but in my experience, most can be prevented or minimized if you do a good job managing expectations up front.

Do this through a formal Client Onboarding Process—it will help you provide better client results while reducing your own stress as an agency owner or manager.

Why is client onboarding important?

  1. Fewer client misunderstandings (plus, you can address them early)
  2. Less [unpaid] scope creep
  3. Get insights into the players on the client side
  4. Reduce feelings of “buyer’s remorse.”

What should client onboarding include?

Client onboarding doesn’t have to be super-complicated. It’s really about covering three basic pieces—sending your client copies of what they need, holding an effective kickoff meeting to manage expectations, and checking back to monitor your progress.

A) Send ‘em stuff

  1. Executed copies of contracts
  2. Logins to a project management system and anything else they’ll need to access
  3. Recap of policies (e.g., your response-time guarantees, etc.)
  4. Thank-you note (either with your logo, or something nice from a stationery store)

B) Do a kickoff meeting/call.

IMPORTANT: Do NOT schedule the kickoff ‘til after you’ve received the contract (and deposit, if applicable). I’ve done that before and gotten burned. Never again. If the client is pressing the issue, see my advice for gracefully pushing back against unreasonable client requests.

Set an agenda in advance, so everyone knows what to expect (and so you don’t miss any topics). I’ll write more about kickoff meeting agendas in a future post.

Include the right attendees. This likely is you (as the senior person at the agency), the sales person (if you have a business development person), your project manager (PM), the client, and (if applicable) their PM.

The goal is for everyone to be on the same page now, so they’re less likely to be surprised later.

C) Check in with them a couple weeks or a month later, to see how it’s going.

Even with a great kickoff meeting, clients will still have questions or concerns later. Ideally, they’re sharing these with their day-to-day contact (the PM you’ve assigned to the project) but sometimes they’re reluctant to share their concerns with their day-to-day contact.

That’s where you come in, as the agency owner. Note that if you have a separate sales person, they can do it, too. The goal is to head off problems before they get worse.

I can help with this, too. As a value-add for my business coaching clients, I’ll email their clients with a brief survey (with permission), to ask how their agency is doing. I share the results at the next week’s coaching call.

What should you task out to your PM to handle?

If you’re not a details person, that’s fine—your project manager is a details person (or at least, they better be!). Let your PM run the client onboarding process, including figuring out the process in the first place.

Here are some things you can have your PM do for you:

  1. Anything I’ve mentioned here that you don’t want to do yourself! (Other than the post-kickoff “how’s it going” calls.)
  2. Draft any policies listed above that don’t exist yet, like policies around client service response time.
  3. Put this list into Google Docs or another shared place, so you/(s)he can maintain it as a master document.
  4. Get his/her feedback on any additions/changes (this process should evolve over time).

Will this advice work for my agency, too?

Yes, this “best practices” advice will work for most marketing agencies. These basic items will work regardless of whether you’re doing project-based work (like web design, digital branding, or video production) or ongoing retainer-based work (like marketing automation, whitehat SEO, PPC campaigns, or other search engine marketing).

Feel free to customize this according to your needs and your culture. This overview assumes you’re at the point that you have at least one PM to help you. If you’re handling PM on top of running the agency, consider hiring a freelance PM to help get the process started.

Next Steps: Add this to your to-do list for next week

If you don’t have a formal client onboarding process yet, add creating one to your to-do list for next week. Remember, if you’re not a details person, delegate this to your project manager. Your PM can outline the process, you can review it, and they can move forward executing (and tracking) it.

Got an existing client that could use some onboarding but the project or retainer’s already running? Set up an onboarding meeting, with the premise that you’re doing something new to help them out. Even if you don’t bill the time to their project, it’s going to be well worth the investment. And you can use that as a test run to customize the process for your agency.

Need help figuring out how to customize this to your agency? I’m glad to help as a consultant or coach—let me know what challenges you’re facing.

Question: What’s your favorite client onboarding tip?

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