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Client onboarding: How to set up the process for your freelance business

Whether on Reddit forums, Facebook groups, or even freelancers sliding into my DMs with questions, I see the same big issue popping up time and again. It’s evident in freelancer experiences like these:

client-onboarding-no-communication-limits-1

What do these have in common?

The freelancer hasn’t set the proper boundaries and expectations with their client — leading to disastrous results the longer the relationship goes on.

“But Mashon,” many of my readers say, “I just don’t understand how to set these boundaries. I mean, I need this work, so yeah I jump when the client says jump. What would you have me do?”

What you should do — I’d even go so far as to say MUST DO — is set up a client onboarding process. No matter how uncomfortable you are setting boundaries, a well-thought-out onboarding process will do the job for you — virtually painlessly!

In this post, we’ll be going through why you need a client onboarding process and how to set it up.

Want to get my client onboarding toolkit for the entire onboarding process? It includes my checklists, templates, and scripts for starting the client relationship off right! Click here to get access!

What is client onboarding?

At its most basic definition, client onboarding is the experience that a new client has after agreeing to work with you. It’s how you bring a client into your business (even as a solo freelancer, you are a business).

Every initial interaction you have with the new client is a part of your onboarding — whether you’re thinking of it that way or not.

It’s important because it is the first impression clients have of working with you and this will stick with them for the long-term.

How you begin a relationship is how things will typically go.

No systems, nor organization, or just winging it will pretty much always lead to a mess. In a proper client onboarding process, clients are brought to understand what working with you will look like and what they need to do as the client. You also get to understand what working with them will look like and what you need to do in order to deliver results.

Just like with anything in your freelancing career, the client onboarding process is something you will shape and refine over time. You’ll keep adding content as you go. The more clients you work with, the better idea you’ll have of what works really well, what is confusing and perhaps needs to be made more efficient, or what needs to be dropped altogether.

Why is client onboarding important

According to a U.S. News & World Report, 82% of clients leave one business and go to another because of client service issues.

You want to be sure that clients aren’t leaving you to go work with other freelancers because of something as simple as creating an effective onboarding process.

Many beginner freelancers may think that this is something to leave until they become more established but no way! An onboarding process is just as important if you’re just starting out. You’re probably nervous, wanting to do things well, but feeling all impostor-y like you shouldn’t even be there.

A client onboarding process helps you get all those jitters out of the way. You don’t need to think about things. Who cares if you’re nervous, all you have to do is move on to the next step, cross it off, move on to the next, and on and on.

Also, if you do client onboarding well it will positively impact your freelance business in a number of ways.

Client retention

Clients are much more likely to stay with you long-term if you have a professional (yet warm and friendly) onboarding experience.

You’re building value from day 1 and demonstrating your professionalism and responsibility. This is what the Live Work Travel blog is all about. Not the feast or famine cycle of many freelancers, but instead gaining long-term ongoing clients. Just a few.

Your goal from day 1 is to retain these clients — and approaching the client onboarding process in a way that virtually zero other freelancers do is going to make you stand out.

It’s estimated that it costs five times more to attract a client than to keep one you already have. While this number is used for big businesses more so than the average freelancer, it costs the freelancer something even more valuable. Time. The time you’re spending out there looking for new clients is unpaid. Zip, zero, you’re not getting a dime. It’s something you want to do only rarely. Keeping clients is simply much easier.

Setting expectations

Client onboarding keeps both parties on the same page in terms of expectations. This ranges from things like how you communicate, and how often, to the scope of what’s on your plate and what is not. (You’ll have to be a little more flexible with ongoing clients in terms of scope creep but you’re establishing a solid professional relationship that gives you the ability to put the brakes on when needed.)

There’s also a power play here. Sometimes unintentionally, clients will seek to dominate a party they see as weaker. (Think: the freelancer who is desperate enough for any job so they take the first thing that pops up and are too scared to establish boundaries.)

Presenting your boundaries upfront establishes you as a force to be reckoned with and you’re unlikely to encounter as many scope creep issues or general bad treatment from clients.

Increased confidence in yourself as a business

Increased confidence in yourself because you know that you have a repeatable process you can apply to any client that comes through the doors.

More clients down the road

I kid you guys not, freelancers virtually NEVER do this! I’ve hired hundreds of freelancers and I have NEVER been onboarded in the fashion I’m teaching you in these posts.

You’ll be setting yourself apart and your existing clients will refer you to other people. Business owners know other business owners and we talk! You will definitely be the topic of conversation the next time your client throws a 4th of July BBQ and has some of their friends over.

“Guys, I’m telling you, it was crazy. Jane started and … I mean from contract signing onward I didn’t have to ever think about her or check up on her! It was totally a done-for-you thing. She sent me over this questionnaire thingy to fill out and it was off to the races. She’d send me updates and ask for things here and there throughout and then delivered this beauty of a presentation at the end. It was nuts. I’m going to bring her in on an ongoing basis because I tell you, it just lets me do my thing. I didn’t even have to think about her… the work just got done.”

Client-side-secret: Because I’ve been a freelancer and I also hire tons of freelancers I can let you guys in on valuable information from the client-side. Here’s something you should know …

Every time I get done working with a freelancer, they have left me with one of two feelings.

1) “Wow, this guy or gal was great! Will definitely work with them again and recommend them to others…”

OR

2) “I won’t work with them again.”

It’s as simple as that. The second one can be “Meh” or it can be “Good grief this person was terrible, they did awful work, and I can’t stand them.” But see, “OK” freelancers go into the same pile as the terrible ones. There’s no room for gray. With millions of freelancers out there and eighteen million on Upwork alone, I’m not going to choose to repeat an experience with someone who was just alright. So you want to stand out and having a client onboarding process will help you do that.

What are the objectives of client onboarding?

As we’ve talked about before, client onboarding is basically a way of managing the client relationship and expectations from the beginning of an engagement.

It ensures that you GIVE all necessary information to the client, GET all necessary information from them in return and sets the tone for the entire client relationship.

An effective client onboarding process will accomplish a number of things:

  • Start the relationship off on the right foot.
  • Assure the client that they have made the right choice by working with you and create a confident feeling that you will achieve what they’ve hired you to do.
  • Ensure that you have introduced your client to the way that you do business and what it will be like to work with you (this includes addressing questions and concerns).
  • Allow you to gather all the information you need from them in order to successfully complete the project/ongoing engagement.
  • Clearly outline what you expect from the client.
  • Establish communication norms for the duration of the project.
  • Set boundaries firmly and professionally.

Overall one could say that the main objective is to set and manage expectations. Why is this so important? Remember this freelancer from the beginning of this post?

client-onboarding-no-communication-limits-1

This person clearly didn’t establish proper communication norms upfront and they’re paying for it now.

Why is managing client expectations so important?

Sometimes clients are new to the process of working with freelancers and don’t know what to expect, so you help to set them off on the right track. They’ll appreciate your onboarding because, let’s be honest, who likes feeling like they don’t know what they’re doing? Pretty much no one. They’ll be happy you’re taking them by hand and leading them through everything.

Other times clients have crazy unrealistic expectations. Again, with your onboarding process, you help to set them straight.

What I’ve found many times is that clients have only worked with shitty freelancers. This gives them a couple of really bad expectations that you want to set straight kindly but immediately!

  • “I own this person!” — This is a sign they worked with a freelancer who allowed scope creep and never set any boundaries.
  • “This person should answer at all hours of day, night, and weekends!” — They worked with a freelancer who never set time and communication boundaries.
  • “This person damn well better do what I say!”  — They worked with a freelancer who thought like an employee, not like a business.
  • “I have to watch this person like a hawk at all times and question everything.” — They worked with a freelancer who did shitty work and they felt taken advantage of AND/OR a freelancer who didn’t establish their own value.

These are just a few of the expectations a client can have coming into a freelance working relationship. These are all fixable. First and foremost, by making them understand that you are a business and that you respect yourself. This will take care of a lot of it. Having a smooth and professional client onboarding experience really drives home to the client that you are a business and a professional without you ever having to open your mouth.

Most freelancers don’t view themselves that way. They look at themselves as Jane Freelancer, not as Jane, INC.

Jane Freelancer is frazzled, treats every client as a one-off, is messy, and spends far more time than you will going back and forth trying to get information out of clients and to clients before the start of a project.

Jane, INC closes a deal with a client, opens her checklist, copy and pastes her templates and scripts, edits those, sends those off, closes her laptop, and is off to happy hour, confident in her processes that will get things rolling for her while she’s out having drinks with friends celebrating the new project!

Why onboarding works

A bad (or no) client onboarding experience can start the project off with the client already questioning their decision to hire you. This can and will lead to them looking more carefully at any work you do and looking for opportunities to end the relationship.

Let me put on my client hat for a moment and tell you what a bad client onboarding experience looks like from my perspective:

  • When I have to ask the freelancer, “What’s next?”
  • When they don’t clearly outline how things will move along during our project.
  • When they haphazardly send over 5 separate emails about things they need access to.
  • When I message them at the start and don’t hear back for days and I have no idea of when (or if I will ever) I will hear from them.

I could go on and on but basically, any and all feelings of, “What is this person doing? What comes next? What am I paying for? Are they even aware of me and my project? Are they working on MY shit?”

These feelings are dangerous and you don’t want the client to ever get to this point, let alone start off feeling this way. It undermines their perception of you and can derail your working relationship from the beginning.

While the client is not your only focus (you do have other clients and commitments after all), you do want to make it clear that their project is important to you and maintain this feeling throughout the entire engagement.

When does client onboarding start and how long does it take?

As a freelancer, client onboarding isn’t a long process, a matter of days really. This is why it’s important to handle it well.

Just a few hours of effort over a span of several days and you are solidified in the client’s mind as a real professional.

When client onboarding starts is a matter of preference and you’re certainly free to rearrange things around to suit your workflow. Some people consider it starting pre-contract, some post-contract signing.

I say figure out what works for you and do you.

I include the contract as a part of pre-onboarding BUT I don’t start anything else until I have a signed contract and paid invoice. This is so important! Never go putting in time and effort on something until you’ve got a signed agreement and money has changed hands. Things happen. Clients drop out. So get paid first.

Once you’ve got a signed contract, you’re good to move through the different steps on your client onboarding checklist. In my experience, onboarding only takes a few days. To be honest, though, it’s not about the time so much as simply moving through the steps and making sure you’ve gotten them all done.

Rather than thinking about client onboarding as a 5 day process or a 2 week process, think of it like this: Have I done all the necessary steps so that a client is fully up to speed and confident on what it’s like to work together?

If the answer to that is yes, well, your client is onboarded! Great job!

Client onboarding must be set up as a repeatable process

This may all be sounding like a lot of work but it’s really not. The client questionnaire, client onboarding document, and the email scripts you use to send them are pieces of content that should be templatized and used over and over. (Get my checklists, templates and scripts here.)

Just like Apple doesn’t handwrite you instructions for how to use your new iPhone 87 Plus, you shouldn’t be starting from scratch every time you work with a client.

Think of the ways that big businesses ensure that customers get the same experience each time they buy one of their products. You should be aiming for much the same in your business — it’s just that your time and services are your products.

Your client onboarding process will be a repeatable process that becomes faster and easier each time. (Do you need onboarding software? … absolutely not, but you do need processes!).

How do you onboard new clients?

OK, so you’re going to need 4 main things:

  • A client onboarding checklist
  • A client onboarding document
  • A client onboarding questionnaire
  • A welcome email

There are two parts to client  — external and internal

External is the part that the client sees. These include things like the finished onboarding document and questionnaire they receive along with the emails you use to send them over.

The internal part is everything that you do to run the onboarding process from start to finish. This includes things like editing and polishing the questionnaire the client receives, as well as things they’ll never see like you checking items off on your checklist.

Everything marries together in harmony to take you (and them) from A to Z.

How to create your client onboarding checklist

The onboarding checklist contains everything that you will need to do to successfully onboard the client. This is an internal piece of your onboarding process. The client will never see this. It’s up to you how granular you get. For me, I put everything into my checklist. That way, no matter how small, I can ensure it gets done.

When setting up yours, you’ll need to decide how granular you want to be. For some people get contract signed is good enough. I tend to break that down into separate elements.

  • Edit contract and finalize.
  • Send finalized contract.
  • Receive signed contract.
  • Store signed contract in client folder.

Sure, my onboarding checklist might be 87 points longer than yours. But it gets the job done. Make sure yours works for you.

The best way to create an onboarding checklist is to just start with mine and edit it to your liking. The second best way is to sit down with a blank page, grab a beer, and do a brainstorm. Write down anything and everything you can think of. Set it aside for a day, come back to it, and add in anything else you can think of. When you’re pretty sure you’ve got everything, start organizing it into a chronological list.

What needs to be done first? Then what? Then what comes next. Get everything in start to finish order.

Here’s a peek at part of mine to get you thinking…

Pre-onboarding

  • Create proposal
  • Send proposal
  • Receive approval on the proposal
  • Edit contract template and finalize (You can get my contract template here.)
  • Send finalized contract
  • Receive signed contract
  • Store signed copy of the contract in private client folder
  • Create invoice for (first 50%? first phase? add specific detail here)
  • Send invoice
  • Receive payment

Your checklist can be something as simple as a Google doc where you manually strikethrough bullet points as you go. I tend to use Trello or Asana as the entire client onboarding process can be put into a card as a checklist. You then just duplicate the card for each new client.

How to create your client onboarding document

The purpose of your onboarding document is to provide the client with everything they need to know in order to work with you.

Putting it in a document is a bit more professional than sending it over in an email. You can fancy it up with just a little bit of effort in Canva and it 10Xs your professional wow factor.

There aren’t any questions for the client here. It’s just a cheat sheet basically on who you are, and how you work.

You’ll start the same way as above, with a brainstorming session. What do clients need to know when working with you? No, nothing personal! Don’t bore them to death with lame details, instead, this is your chance to kindly and easily set up all those boundaries that you’d love to draw with clients.

Once you’ve got them all down, start putting them in a logical order that makes sense. It’s great to break the document up with headings.

Here are some quick ideas to get you thinking … (these are example blurbs only and not actually what I say! You’ll need to polish them before using them.)

Security

  • I use LastPass to share passwords easily and securely
  • Here is my username
  • This is what I use, if your team uses something else I’m happy to utilize your tool

Time zone communication

  • How much notice will you give the client when you’re going to be out of office (OOO)? — Notice that you’re not asking for time off here … you’re telling THEM how you operate.
  • Tell them what time zone you’ll communicate in
  • Make it clear that you are NOT on their schedule but you are happy to take meetings between X and Y time.

Communication

  • Tell them what communication with you is like e.g. When can they expect to hear from you and vice versa.
  • Lay out what happens if the client goes dark. If you don’t hear from them for 15 days? 30 days? What happens to the contract?
  • When will progress updates/check-ins happen — bi-weekly, monthly? — Note, here you’ll set your preferences but allow the client to change them by asking them how often they want to hear from you. Also set HOW you do check-ins. Some will want to have an actual meeting, others will just want a report.

Boundaries

  • Make it clear from the get-go that you are a business
  • Make it clear to the client that they are not your only client — they need to understand that they are paying for a portion of your time, a portion of your business’ services — not to own you
  • If they want all of your time, that will cost them. I did have a client do this. We got to a point where his business was booming and he straight out said: “I know you’ve got other clients and demands on your time, but I need you. I really want you all in on this, what do we have to do to make that happen?”  So we negotiated more money for more of my time and attention.

Project management tools

  • Lay out for them: “This is what I use, if your team uses something else I’m happy to utilize your tool.”
  • Give them access to their board (if using something like Trello or Asana)
  • Provide instructions for them on how to utilize their board and when updates will happen

You can include a business cheat sheet for quick reference

  • Summary of your business
  • Quick highlights of results achieved for other clients/projects
  • Business address (for tax purposes, etc.) — let them know if you do not receive mail there
  • Send them your W9 (you’ll need to do this for taxes)
  • Frequently asked questions — about the project or how you work

Homework

  • Are there any resources they should review before getting started? Other articles in the industry, case studies, etc. — Even better if they’re YOUR amazing case studies for clients!

How to create your client onboarding questionnaire

The client onboarding questionnaire differs from the onboarding doc in that you’re asking the client all about themselves. I’ve talked to some people who send this first, then follow up with the onboarding document after receiving this information and working it in. That way the onboarding doc serves more as a doc that clarifies the working arrangement on both sides.

I don’t like to do that and here’s why… I want the client to know MY side first, then we can work around any issues that pop up. Again, I’ll always hammer this home, I am a business!

Does Apple care if your birthday is in February and you’d like to start off each birthday with a shiny new just-released-days-ago iPhone? No, they most often release their new phones in September. They don’t cater to your needs, they do what works for them.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not saying you don’t bend to clients’ needs. I’m just saying that you put out what works for you and how you do business first and you then adapt to what they do on their side. It’s a compromise, not a one-side takes all.

So, the onboarding questionnaire focuses on how the client and their business works so you can get an understanding of any compromises you’ll need to make. It also gathers all of the information that you need to get started. This eliminates sending a bunch of emails back and forth.

I’ve found that a questionnaire helps to ensure clients do things quicker. Instead of sending action items back and forth in an email, it’s much easier to send them all a form questionnaire. There’s just something about not being able to “finish” until you’ve filled out everything and hit submit that lights a fire under the client to get moving. They know that you can’t get started until receiving it, so they either get it done, or have to acknowledge that they are the holdup.

You’ll also want to get a clear idea of what team members you’ll be working with and what projects you’ll be involved in. In smaller companies, you might just be working with the boss who hired you, but if there are other team members, you’ll want to identify them, which ones you’ll be working with closely, and what your relationship will be to them.

client-onboarding-office-people-working-together

This is also the place to ask the client in-depth questions about their business. You should have gotten a good deal of this during the pitch and proposal phase where you figured out how you can help them but here, you may want to go deeper depending on your specialty and what type of work you’re doing for them.

Some things to include:

  • What is their mailing address?
  • Who will be your main point of contact if you don’t already know
  • What are the logins to specific software you know you need — spell it out for them
  • Have them describe success in their own words
  • Have them describe the deliverable(s) in their own words
  • When are they typically online?
  • Any other questions you feel will be helpful in getting the process up and running

My process for creating a client onboarding questionnaire

I start with a base that I quickly adapt to new clients, but I also have a quick brainstorm session for each new client to think of specific questions that may make all the difference in your working relationship.

I like to ensure that I never send the questionnaire on the same day that I work on it. Instead, I’ll take a break overnight, and see if anything else has come to mind before sending.

My process is this:

  • Open and edit the existing template
  • Review the brainstorm library of questions I have for clients and add anything that jumps out from that from that
  • Do a walk-and-think-brainstorm for 15 minutes (this can be pacing in the yard or going for a walk around the block).
  • Add in anything else I think of during that 15 min brainstorm.
  • Move on to something else. Sleep on it.
  • Come back the next day, review, finalize, send.

How to set up your client onboarding questionnaire

You can use something as simple as Google forms for this. Dress up the top a bit with your branding/colors/logo/a professional header. This lets you keep it simple but still do a bit more than the average person would do.

You can also use Typeform which I love because it’s much prettier and more polished than Google Forms. I love clean, modern, and simple! The free plan does limit you to 10 questions which can deter you but you’re going to want to be as efficient as possible anyway for the client and you may be able to get away with that if you’re super streamlined and don’t need to give or get a lot of info.

Whatever you choose, you’ll want to be sure that clients can upload files so you can gather things you need all in one place!

Sending over the client onboarding information

You want to design the process for client ease of use, first and foremost. Make it easy for them to complete.

A quick email does the trick. You can send both the onboarding document and the client questionnaire in it, letting you know that you need them to review both in order to begin.

If you like, you can have space for them to sign or initial that they read the onboarding document. This can be handy in two ways. 1) People often slow down and actually read something before they sign it so it ensures they’re actually going over it and not just skipping it. 2) It’s useful if there is ever a disagreement over the way you do things. Think of a client getting upset because you took time off for vacation. But if you’ve already spelled out how you notify of time off and they signed the doc, what’s the problem? (You’d say it nicer than that of course but you get me right?)

The successful client onboarding process

Whew! Did you get all that!?

If so, you’re set up to successfully create proper boundaries and expectations with the client, which sets the relationship off on the right foot and leads to less stress and a happier working environment for the duration of your time together.

It can seem overwhelming but trust me you’re really only doing the work from scratch once and from then on it’s editing those templates as needed. Doing this lays down an excellent foundation for the future of your business so it’s well worth the time spent.

And remember, I can’t say this enough, your goal is to get just a few clients and keep them long-term so it’s not like you’ll be onboarding a lot of people. If you get my templates and scripts you’re not even doing the full work once. Check out this post for more. In it, I include ALL the client onboarding items you’ll need. Your client onboarding checklist, client onboarding document, client onboarding questionnaire, and even the email scripts to send it all over to the client!

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