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From Prospect To Client: Onboarding Tips For Building And Retaining Relationships

Written by: Hillary Feder


Don’t waste your only chance to make a first impression with a new client. Onboarding them the right way is key to product/service adoption, appreciation, and becoming a raving fan.

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Stakeholder engagement is as challenging as it is critical. But considering the often lengthy and costly process of converting a prospect to a client, how you onboard new clients can create the right platform for the successful, long-term relationship you want after all that hard work. In other words, the new client onboarding process speaks volumes about nurturing, retention and opportunities to grow the client’s business with your company.

Start with a client onboarding process and a leader

Onboarding is not a one-and-done action. It’s a process that leads to a greater understanding between your client’s desired outcomes and your company’s role in driving them, with the intent to keep them and increase their lifetime value. Lack of a well-documented client onboarding process can sabotage the relationship from day one, as described in the following situation.

When we began working with a SaaS company, the principals expressed dissatisfaction with how much time it took to close a sale and then collect the necessary data to work with their new client, adding up to months longer than expected. In some cases, new clients did not even complete the transfer of their business, leading to exasperation. After reviewing their current process to engage and create the client experience, we easily identified lack of integrated communication as the culprit.

Prior to a sale, all conversations with prospects were limited to a principal responsible for growth through sales. As soon as a prospect converted to a client, the principal moved out of the picture, transferring the new client to their internal client services team to gather necessary data and documents for laying the foundation for future work. Our audit revealed gaps in their current practices, pointing to insufficient thought and TLC in making the shift, which made new clients feel they had all but been abandoned by their key contact, who had been the face of the company.

We recommended additional communication and other touch points that forged a robust 6-month high-touch process. Clients felt supported, and data collection and business transfers happened more efficiently. Bottom line: new clients were integrated faster, sparing all parties from frustration.

Defining client onboarding

Client onboarding is a crucial yet sometimes overlooked component of the client experience. Without a documented client onboarding process, there are often gaps in the transition of a new client from the sales team to the inside client services team. Closing this gap should be assigned to every member of the sales and service teams – as well as other department teams who may be tangential to the client and yet can be as important to the eventual success of the client.

As a leader, your single most important role is to make the transition for your new client to your organization smooth, creating the conditions for your company to drive to the client’s desired outcome and for the client to understand their new partner’s systems and process to get work completed. A well-thought-out client onboarding process enables your new client to gain a deeper understanding of the information they need to provide as well as the tools you provide them for success. At the same time, your team gains data insights for effectively providing products and/or services to the new client.

Client onboarding may take as little as a few weeks to as many as many months, depending on the complexity of the product or service provided. When done well, this time builds a positive tone for a long and enduring relationship. The key is not to take new client for granted – and not to think the sale is the end of the road; the sale is another step on a journey that needs to be thoughtfully nourished for long-term success.

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Nourishing clients means closing internal service gaps. These gaps can include:

  • The transfer of information from your sales team to client services, such as: -- Hard and soft information about the client; hard information includes basic business information, contact information, and information on the sale. Soft information includes the expectations of the client, the feelings generated from the client and your understanding of the client’s objectives.

  • The transfer from client services to all other internal departments, including legal, compliance, regulatory and others, such as: -- Potential legal or regulatory risks if not known or addressed; regulatory issues to be aware of to ensure proper alignment with client services.

  • The transfer of the ‘soft’ information about the client from the sales team to client services, such as: -- The client’s objectives for the products or services they’ve bought, the client company’s goals and how the client company’s needs are met in the short- and long-term.

  • The clarity of information transfer inside your client’s organization. From the team that negotiated the agreement to the team who will implement the project. Are they all on the “same page” for the project objective(s).

This list (above) isn’t meant to be all-inclusive, but rather to provide a glimpse into all the areas needed to close the gaps in the transfer of knowledge from sales to service.

Timing is sensitive

In the time between a client signing an agreement to the time the product or service they have purchased is ready for use buyer’s remorse can creep in. Therefore, it’s important to quickly extend their excitement about having found the right partner after investing a significant amount of time and effort vetting the field. A robust onboarding process will squelch negative emotions, capitalizing on the positive nucleus of the relationship to build an even closer “attachment”.

An onboarding misfire will likely preclude your new client from quickly learning how to use your product or service, creating lower adoption inside their company. When that happens, the value of the relationship (and your product or service) is greatly diminished and risks abandonment altogether. On the other hand, a well-paced onboarding process will promptly lead your new client to an aha moment where they see exactly how your product/service is going to meet their objectives.

Develop a repeatable onboarding process

You don’t have to reinvent the onboarding process every time you take on a new client. Creating a well-documented process that’s tailored for your company and industry and offers some flexibility to meet different situational needs efficiently will create repeat success. New clients will get up and running faster through what could otherwise be an overwhelming process.

There are two important components—technical and human--to balance and incorporate into your client onboarding process. Using a technology platform, to guide a new client through some of the technical aspects and data collection processes will create some efficiencies. However, ensure that you have ample human gestures and personal contact – this works best to forge a more authentic connection and a better understanding of their business’s nuances. Too much technology and not enough human touch can lead to waning client interest and energy.

Four-step onboarding process and best practices: roadmap to success

1. Internal transfer:

  • Launch your internal onboarding checklist. Download our onboarding checklist to help build your own. Download now!

  • Sales team works personally and closely with the client services team to define the implementation team

  • Sales team transfers all key information to client services implementation team including:

    • Details of client objectives, barriers, and timelines

    • Nuances of how this new client thinks/works that was learned during the sales process.

  • Sales team introduces the client services team to the new client. The client services team shares their knowledge of the client’s objectives and reinforces the onboarding process.

2. Official welcome:

  • Welcome kit delivered about five days prior to an in-person meeting:

    • Welcome letter

    • Key contact information

    • FAQ

    • Onboarding questionnaire

    • Small tangible welcome token

  • In-person meet and greet:

  • In-person meeting with all of the key players from your new client’s team and yours

  • Introductions of roles and responsibilities for each party

  • Review of client objectives

  • Review of the work the client needs to provide, most often data collection

  • Discussion of roadblocks/barriers to success

  • Timeline with milestones

3. Define communication and the feedback loop. Identify all touchpoints that add value:

  • Identify communication leaders

  • Determine communication frequency

  • Follow up and follow through

4. Create a progress report cadence that recognizes and celebrates small wins. This can be as simple as:

  • Phone call

  • Sweet and salty treats delivered to your client’s office with just the right note

  • A happy hour shared together

Sounds simple in theory, but implementation requires focus and time to coordinate client objectives, timeline to launch, and documentation. What’s more, the process needs to move at the right cadence. Too much, too fast, and your client will be overwhelmed; too little too slow, and you risk your client’s trust and continued interest.

If you’re ready to create your new client onboarding process, enlist a cross-functional team to ensure a well-rounded approach. And if you want all the details buttoned up, consider enlisting professional assistance. Let’s start a conversation. Call 800-742-6800 or email today. For more information and tips for engaging and onboarding stakeholders, sign up for our monthly newsletter. You can find our newsletter sign-up at at the bottom right corner of the page.

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Photo: Hillary Feder


About the author:

Hillary Feder is an expert in creating people-centric practices to make the people that matter, feel like they matter. With deep expertise in employee engagement and the client experience and all of the details that come with leading people and nurturing relationships. Learn more about Hillary!


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