New client onboarding for agencies needs to be smooth sailing. Its no exaggeration: if your client isn’t riding a wave of confidence during your entire onboarding process, you risk the relationship falling overboard from dangerous lingering doubts in their minds.

Humans have a negativity bias. We ruminate on negative experiences more than positive ones, so its natural that they tend to stick more.

Teresa M. Amabile, director of research at Harvard Business School, had business professionals keep confidential mood diaries of their day with mood scores attached to events. Her findings show that the power of a setback to increase frustration is over three times as strong as the power of progress to decrease frustration.

The trap many agencies fall into is becoming relatively complacent after they’ve nailed the contract. Even if you’re confident that your kickoff is going to be amazing, any issues due to missed or poor communication during the onboarding process will create an uphill battle to gain client confidence.

However, if you have a refined onboarding plan and ensure a pleasant onboarding experience, you’ll establish a benchmark of confidence that will launch their opinion of you through the roof when you start winning for them.

Learn from these tips gathered from agency pros such as Jennifer Bourn of Bourn Creative and Eric Pratt of Revenue River to ensure you come out on top:

Have a Standard, Documented Onboarding Plan

We all know that building relationships with clients is more complex than following a checklist. Having an onboarding plan in no way replaces the other aspects of relationship-building tailored to your specific client.

However, by standardizing your onboarding process with a series of steps to follow and document, you can easily refine that process. Your teams will stay on track with onboarding while continuing to manage multiple clients.

Before you can create or refine your onboarding process, establish what already works. Ensure that the onboarding process will address all the clients questions. Jennifer Bourn of Bourn Creative suggests agencies work through those questions to help build a better plan:

Review your process:

  • What is working great right now?
  • Where are you or your clients getting stuck or encountering a bumpy road?
  • What type of experience are clients having now and how and where can you improve it?

Then you need to outline and understand:

  • What do new clients need to know?
  • What do new clients need to learn?
  • What do you need from them?
  • What do they need from you?
  • How can you add value and create a stellar experience?

Assign a Team and Start Communicating

Before you can do anything else, assign a team to the account and ensure communication with the client begins yesterday.

Assemble a dream team to work with the new client. Assign roles and responsibilities early and clearly, so there is no confusion later as to who is meant to deal with what.

From an onboarding perspective, the account manager will be your client’s main point of contact, and you need to ensure that they’re a good fit. Eric Pratt of Revenue River describes how he chooses a team for industry knowledge and personality over everything else:

“I try to assign the team with the most relevant industry experience and cultural fit first; everything else second. If I’m confident that they’ll hit it off on a personal note, I’m confident that the onboarding process will go smoothly.”

Depending on your client’s needs, other roles that could be a part of your dream team include strategists, graphic designers, creative directors, content marketing specialists, and community managers. If your agency is small, your team members will likely be wearing several hats; make sure everyone can confidently manage the roles they are assigned while providing the level of client care that is critical for small agencies to retain clients.

If you have a fun welcome kit, nows the time to send it! While the team lead does the initial client outreach to make introductions, there are lots of little yet meaningful ways the entire team can engage with the client to keep them excited for your new relationship.

Handwritten cards still go a long way: let the client know how excited you are to work with them and set the expectations for the days and months ahead.

Interacting with their brand on social media is another way to get the ball rolling. If social media is a part of your roadmap with that client, it’s also a great way to show off your personality and expertise.

Don’t underestimate the impact of the little touches: they show your client that you’re attentive and make the biggest impact.

Research the Client and Set Expectations

If you’re really going to make a big splash with your new client, you must know them and their business inside and out before you can set goals and expectations. This is where having a team that is already experienced in that clients industry comes in handy.

Regardless of whether the team has that experience or not, you need to learn everything you can about your client’s successes, pain points, audience personas, and current marketing efforts. Also, be sure you’re up to date with their competition and whats hot in their field. If you go into the relationship blind, you will look unprofessional and unprepared to deal with the concerns of your new client.

As social media manager Jess O’Brien from Overdrive Interactive puts it: “You don’t want to go to a hand sanitizer company with ideas that would work better for a food company.”

Do as much research as you can before you even get in touch with the client. Have them fill in the gaps when you first contact them. Some agencies prefer to do this on the phone. Others design questionnaires to send to all stakeholders to ensure all responses are well thought out and written so they can be easily shared with the team. Moz has a terrific example of a questionnaire they use for onboarding.

Asking the right questions can itself instill a high level of confidence in your client, particularly if they don’t know exactly what their definition of success in your relationship will look like. As Bourn puts it:

“Many of our clients when they return out initial questionnaire share with us that just filling out the questionnaire alone is a tremendously valuable exercise. Many tell us that this is the first time they have thought about their business this deeply and in this way and that the process has given them so much clarity, that it alone was worth the investment.”

With all the intel you’ve gathered, you’re in a better position to help define the campaign goals going forward. This is a good time to add your client to your CRM. Then make sure your whole team is up to speed on the client’s feedback and is prepared to address any questions and concerns during the kickoff meeting.

At this point, you also need to establish expectations with the client. While often defined in the sales contract, this is a good way to ensure there is no ambiguity before you move forward with tactical planning. You need to address:

  • Who will be associated with their account and what their roles will be
  • The commitment your client can expect from you and vice versa
  • The method for campaign and project planning and execution
  • The tools you will be using and get any logins you will need
  • Availability, project turnaround time, revisions, and scope creep management

With everybody on the same page, it’s kickoff time.

Kick Off the Relationship

Its time to introduce your team to your client stakeholders, set up initial goals, and start planning. Every part of the onboarding up to this point laid the groundwork for trust – this meeting is paramount to solidifying it.

Make sure you send out the agenda for your meeting to the client well in advance so they come prepared. Also, ensure that you have a pre-kickoff meeting with your team so you are prepared to speak intelligently about your clients brand and market, as well as the strategies and tactics you want to bring to the table.

This kickoff is just a beginning for your campaign planning; you don’t need to have concrete answers right away. This meeting is a discussion, and first and foremost be sure you are listening to the client. The outcome of this meeting is to establish a basic benchmark for success and show off your ideation process to get your client excited for whats to come!

Heres one example of a kickoff meeting structure:

1. Introductions (10min)

This is your first chance for your team and the client to get to know each other. You want to introduce not just your expertise and team roles but also your personalities. You’ll be working a lot together, so don’t be afraid to show your human side!

2. Client Marketing Introduction (15min)

This is a chance for the client to go over their buyer personas, how their business stacks up against their competitors, and their previous marketing efforts with any relevant metrics. All of this information will help frame the conversation ahead and provide additional insight into how you can differentiate your messaging to stand out from the competition.

3. Goal Setting (10min)

There is a good chance that goals were touched on during the sales cycle, but now is the time to refine them as a team. All of your goals need to be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. HubSpot has a great breakdown of how to create SMART goals during a kickoff meeting, offering these examples:

  • Attract X unique visitors per month
  • Increase visitor-to-lead conversion rate by X
  • Convert X visitors into leads
  • Increase lead-to-customer conversion rate by X
  • Obtain X customers from inbound marketing

You also need to ensure you prioritize goals based on your clients most immediate needs.

4. Beginning of Tactical Planning (15min)

This is where you will start coming up with ways to achieve the clients goals. At this point, you dont need to spend hours with your client strategizing; instead, come up with high-level ideas based on your assessment of their current situation.

Brainstorm several tactics and creative ideas beforehand, and you’ll really have a chance to shine!

For example, if you’re focusing on a goal to attract more visitors to the website, some tactics may include:

  • Blog revitalization: Choose creative content ideas that would help SEO and would be useful or entertaining to the target audiences.
  • Social marketing: Boost effective content and promote paid creative ads (image or video) designed by your agency.
  • Influencer marketing: Present the client with a researched list of who to target and ideas to get them on board.
  • Backlink strategy: Get more sites linking back to the clients website.

5. Challenges (5min)

Of course, all tactical execution is going to face challenges. You need to make sure you take time to address all the foreseeable challenges in running your client’s account and how you plan to circumvent them. Be honest about any hurdles the brand will face in terms of gaining recognition and popularity and be sure you use case studies to demonstrate that similar brands have been able to push the needle despite those challenges.

6. Responsibilities and timelines (5min)

Last but not least, make sure you spend time delegating responsibilities to execute on the account and set realistic but fast timelines to establish a fully written marketing plan and begin to generate success via your various tactics.

Win Early and Establish Regular Communication

With the kickoff done, you’re basically done your onboarding! Well, except for the whole execution part.

While not strictly part of onboarding, you need to rack up some early wins for your client to reinforce the confidence in you they felt as a part of your stellar onboarding.

With the notes taken during kickoff, you’ll develop a comprehensive, concrete marketing plan to cover the next few months and possibly beyond. Whatever your client’s priority key performance indicators are, focus hard on them and make progress in the first few weeks. If you can do this after a successful kickoff, you’ll truly be in your client’s good books.

You also need to ensure you maintain a regular communication and reporting schedule with your client to ensure they are never left in the dark. Whatever frequency you agree on for reporting and communication with your client, add it to your calendar and don’t miss it! Highlight successes but don’t shy away from challenges when they arise – and always have a plan in place to overcome them.

Depending on your client’s requirements, they may also need the chance to approve any messaging and creative before you publish it. To make this easier, use content management tools such as HeyOrca to ensure they can review content with minimal time and effort.

Never Stop Refining Your Onboarding Plan

There is no one right answer to creating a successful onboarding plan: what works for one agency won’t work for another. That said, no matter what that process is, it must be documented. By noting any choppy seas you or your clients face during the process, you can continue to refine until its smooth sailing. Even then, always be thinking of ways you can make it even smoother and more engaging.

Get your onboarding process down, and you’ll have a checklist to gaining your clients trust and admiration.

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