How to Build Long-Term Partnerships with Client Onboarding

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Kate Cygan on July 26, 2022

Picture this: You go to a car dealership and a salesperson puts you in your dream car. He tells you if there are any problems, the service team at the dealership will help you diagnose and repair the issue.

A week later, there’s a terrible rattling noise in your engine. You bring your car to the service team, but no one knows who you are, when you bought the car or how they’re supposed to help you. Now you have to spend an hour tracking down the salesperson, finding your bill of sale and wondering if you’re actually going to get the help you need.

This metaphor might seem like a stretch, but it’s what can happen if your business doesn’t have a proven client onboarding process. A lack of coordination between the sales and service teams can lead to miscommunication, low retention rates and unhappy clients.

“The onboarding process is the biggest place where buyers’ remorse can creep in,” says Kate Cygan, our Director of Client Services. “It’s important that onboarding is organized both internally and externally to set up the team and the client for success.”

And that’s exactly what Kate will teach us in this blog. We’ll talk about the importance of client onboarding, why it needs to be a process, how to build relationships with your clients, how to troubleshoot problems and the benefits of implementing these steps in the onboarding process.

Onboarding Is a Process, Not a Task

When a new client decides to partner with your brand, you have to remember that most (if not all) of their trust was built during the sales process with a sales rep. “Handing clients off from the sales team to the service team presents an opportunity for that trust to be lost or broken,” Kate explains.

She continues that moving a client from one team to another runs the risk of their information, concerns and the goals not being passed on to the marketing consultant. In this case, new clients might feel like they’re repeating themselves in meetings or that the internal team is unorganized.

To avoid these snafus, Kate recommends evaluating your sales and service processes.

“There are many things that happen prior to a client signing an agreement that can affect the relationship, and even more after they’re officially on board. That’s why you have to see client onboarding as more than just a handoff from sales to services. It’s a process that requires coordination and care.”

Sales Process

Kate names a few things the sales team can do during their interactions with a potential client to set up the service team for success:

  • Ask the right questions to assess the client’s needs (likes and dislikes, what are their goals, what to do they hope to get out of the partnership)
  • Take notes in a place that’s easily accessible to the whole team, such as in the CRM
  • Record sales calls so the client services team can hear how the client speaks about their business and goals.
  • Make sure the contract sets expectations on deliverables, budgets and timelines so there are no surprises

With all these items in place, the sales rep can set up an internal kick-off call to brief the assigned marketing consultant and other team members about the client and their contract agreement. This ensures everyone is on the same page from the get go concerning deliverables, timelines and expectations.

After everyone is briefed, the sales rep should introduce the client to their new marketing consultant via email and transition them to the client services team.

Client Services Process

The client service process should always begin with a welcome email or video before the official kick off. This is where the marketing consultant introduces themselves again and gives the client an overview of any forms, questionnaires or additional information your team needs to get started.

(Hint: Sending this email within hours of a client signing a contract is a great way to make a positive first impression and show their needs are top of mind.)

“This is so you can hit the ground running with deliverables and there’s no lag time between the kick off and beginning work,” Kate says.

The kickoff call is where the client will meet their team for the first time. It’s important to use this time to get any remaining details, ask more questions and gauge your client’s mood. They should feel confident and comfortable with the plans moving forward.

Based on the kick-off call and throughout the partnership moving forward, the marketing consultant should keep notes in a central location your entire team can access. This ensures nothing falls through the cracks.

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Building a Relationship

The goal of the onboarding experience is to build trust. You want your clients to feel confident in their choice and stave off any potential feelings of buyer’s remorse.

“Being proactive and engaged in your client’s success goes a long way to establishing trust,” Kate says. She outlines steps your team can take in each phase of a client engagement to ensure you’re building and maintaining a healthy client relationship.

Pre-Engagement

This phase includes the steps we mentioned above — the marketing consultant introducing themselves as the point of contact, requesting necessary information and scheduling a kick-off call.

“Take any opportunities in this phase to show that you understand the client’s pain points and are ready to help,” Kate recommends. “This makes the client feel heard and like they’ve selected a partner who can solve their problems.”

Kate is also a big fan of video introductions. She notes that this is a more personal way to introduce yourself to new clients. It makes them feel special to receive a custom greeting and gets them energized for the engagement.

Kick Off

The kick-off call is a great opportunity to start your face-to-face relationship on the right foot. At this point, the marketing consultant may have only spoken with the client via email. This call is an opportunity to answer questions and clarify the terms of the engagement and the client’s expectations.

Marketing consultants should encourage the client to open up in these meetings. This is their chance to clearly state their goals, concerns and any past challenges they’ve had with other agencies.

In addition to this information, Kate says there’s one important question her team always asks clients in the kick-off: What does success look like?

“The answer tells us not just what the client is looking for, but also what would make this a great experience for them,” she explains.

During the Engagement

“Every single touch point with the client is an important opportunity to get a pulse check on how things are going,” Kate says.

She stresses that marketing consultants need to read between the lines in every interaction. Part of their role is to ask the tough questions to ensure the client is feeling confident about the project and getting what they need from the team.

For example: If a client doesn’t offer much or any feedback on projects, this could indicate a problem. Marketing consultants should encourage clients to give honest feedback and work through any negative feelings to find an appropriate solution.

Maintaining the Relationship

You want to be more than a vendor to your clients. You want to be a partner. And a key aspect of that is maintaining the positive relationship you developed during onboarding.

Kate notes a few best practices that will help you continue to develop trust throughout your working relationship:

  • Consistently touch base throughout the engagement to regularly check in with your clients and evaluate their needs. You can make these meetings weekly or bi-weekly.
  • Include discussion sections in meeting agendas. This section is where the marketing consultant can go over broader goals, initiatives and objectives, outside of the current deliverables.
  • Take notes. This helps you build a consistent rapport with your clients and deepens the personal relationship. If a client says their child just graduated high school, you can bring it up a few months later and ask how they’re enjoying college or how the move to a dorm is going.

“These simple touches help you dig deeper into your clients’ businesses and ensure you can make a positive impact on their success,” Kate says.

Problem Solving

It’s not uncommon for client relationships to have a few bumps in the road. What’s important is that those bumps don’t become reasons for your client to leave.

Kate says there are three main reasons why a client might be unhappy with your service:

  • Lack of communication. “Whether they email questions and don’t hear back for days or they don’t know how long projects will take, lack of communication always hurts your client experience,” Kate says. She notes it’s best practice to have a timeframe in which marketing consultants are responsible for answering clients’ emails and to set the expectation of sharing agendas and notes with the client both before and after meetings.
  • The client feels the agency isn’t solving their problem. When results take time, clients might start feeling antsy. It’s easy to feel a little buyer’s remorse if their situation doesn’t immediately improve. “To help put them at ease, use metrics and KPIs as much as possible so you accurately measure the success of your tactics and initiatives,” Kate says. “This will demonstrate growth even if they haven’t quite reached their goal yet.”
  • There’s no clear timeline. The kickoff call can sometimes feel like a blur of project overviews and task assignments, which can leave clients with no clear idea of when their campaigns will be launched. It’s important to set clear expectations upfront and reiterate them every step of the way. Your regular touch bases (and the follow-up emails) should include updates on milestones, outline what’s in the client’s court, what’s in yours and the anticipated completion date of current campaigns.

“Addressing each of these common problems before they happen will keep things moving smoothly, on time and on budget,” Kate adds.

Addressing Negative Experiences

Unfortunately, sometimes those bumps in the road do more damage than we can mitigate. For this reason, you need to be equipped to discuss a client’s negative experience with your business.

“You have to address it head on,” Kate explains. “It may not be comfortable, but it’s important to talk about the elephant in the room. It’s the only way you can learn what went wrong and possibly find a way to move forward together.”

How you handle a negative situation will depend on its urgency. Kate says that if the problem can wait, it’s good practice for the marketing consultant to start the next meeting by mentioning that the client seemed frustrated with a specific task. They can turn over the floor to allow the client to explain their experience and feelings, then try to find a solution together.

Not all problems can wait until a biweekly meeting. If a frustrated email comes through, Kate advises that the marketing consultant call the client immediately to talk about the situation. “This keeps the client from sitting there frustrated and feeling like they aren’t getting the service they expected.”

Even after working to find a solution, sometimes the best solution for everyone is to part ways. Although you never want to lose clients, it’s important to put their needs and success before your own business model. This means handling the situation gracefully and leaving the door open for future engagements.

“When the partnership is no longer serving the client or serving you, it’s important to ensure that kindness and care is carried to the end of the partnership,” Kate says. “We’ve had many clients return to us later when their situation had changed to continue working with us. Or they’d send referrals our way after we ended the partnership. If you lead with kindness and a truly helpful spirit, you’re always better off.”

Benefits of Successful Onboarding

The client onboarding experience sets the tone for the rest of your partnership. And if you can get it right the first time, you’re much more likely to create long-term relationships.

Kate highlights some of the top benefits of successful onboarding:

  • Reduced client churn
  • Increased efficiency both in communication and project management
  • Longer engagements
  • Higher rate of continuations
  • Deeper trust in your agency
  • Happier clients

Your onboarding sets the tone of your partnership, and it should have one central message: You want your clients to win.

Kate says that with a seamless onboarding process, “clients know they have a strong strategic partner who understands their business’s goals and can help them in the long run, beyond just a quick project.”

Build Partnerships that Last

Your onboarding process creates a strong foundation and trust in your agency. Clients want to know they have a partner to lean on for the long haul. Show them you can meet their needs now and in the future with a great onboarding experience and a strong relationship.

To learn more about how to build and maintain long-term relationships with your clients, read our blog about the importance of NPS scores.

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Kate Cygan
Kate Cygan
After being in the industry for over 11 years, she’s been on international business at global advertising agencies, worked at small startups, and everything in between. Her favorite thing about what she does is the deep, open and transparent conversations she has with clients. Through those, she’s able to uncover their goals and challenges to create a plan that will help their business succeed and get them to where they want to be.

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