Clear Expectations and Streamlined Onboarding Set The Tone For Client Relationships

A lot of freelancers and agency owners I speak with struggle with on boarding new clients and setting expectations for the exact same reasons:

  • We want our clients to like us, so we tend to jump when they say jump
  • We want to eventually get a great testimonial or future referrals, so we cave to client requests instead of standing our ground
  • We do things we normally might not do because it's easier to say yes than no and feel uncomfortable

Here's the problem: when this goes on for too long, we as designers, developers, and consultants eventually start to feel resentful and taken advantage of. Then when we've hit our limit, we get mad, blame the client, and things go to hell.

The reality is that we're the cause of the problem not our clients. By not setting clear expectations up front, not standing our ground, and not communicating well, we're teaching them to keep asking and keep pushing because we keep saying yes.

Why You Need An Onboarding Process

Systems and processes allow you to create consistent experiences for you, your team, your vendors, and your clients — and when you have consistency, you are able to track effectiveness, efficiency, profitability, and quality.

Onboarding is the system or process of “getting started” and completing all project kick-off tasks, of getting new clients up to speed so you can work together effectively, get all of the information you need, and have a great relationship with your clients.

A clear onboarding process is proven to increase confidence and satisfaction, improve productivity and performance, and reduce stress and confusion — and not just for clients, but for service providers too.

Some of the tactics used in this process include meetings, hangouts, or calls, videos, printed materials, digital communications, training documentation, tasks and reminders, forms and questionnaires, research and more.

Recently I spoke at the East Bay WordPress Meetup group about how to implement a new client on boarding process and set expectations. The topic was so popular that I recapped it in detail on the Bourn Creative blog, walking you through the process of creating your own on boarding process step-by-step.

Two Critical Pieces Of Your Onboarding Process

There are several moving parts to a successful new client on boarding system, including internal and external tasks, communications, and activities.

While I believe every step of the process is important to the experience you create for your clients, there are two parts of on boarding a new client that are critical and must be addressed no matter what:

  1. Welcome and confirm this was a great choice
  2. Set crystal clear expectations

The First Step Of New Client Onboarding

The very first step in the on boarding process for a new client is welcoming them to your company, thanking them for investing with and choosing you, and providing a brief overview of critical information.

How you implement this step will set the tone for the entire relationship you have with your client.

You can't just send them a quick email with a form to fill out — that's impersonal and it's too soon! First you need to make sure they feel good about your expertise and are ready to fill out your questionnaire.

I believe that most freelancers and agency owners want to kick off new projects in a way that makes the client think, “Wow! I'm so happy I invest with them.” So why don't more of us make that happen? Why do so many of us default to a quick email and pushing a form for them to fill out right away?

Maybe it's because you don't know what to say? Maybe it's because you're thinking only about getting started and not about setting the tone for your relationship? Or maybe you are, and writing that message is intimidating?

Fret not! I've been there. And over the years at Bourn Creative, we have dedicated A LOT of time to crafting our own new-client on boarding system. We've created the content, tested it with a diverse group of business owners, used it with our own clients, refined it over time, tested it again, and continue to use it to this day.

Here is a sample of the Welcome message that kicks off our new projects:

Welcome To Your Partnership With Bourn Creative!

We are thrilled to be working with you and look forward to getting started! A member of our team will be in touch very soon for a quick project kickoff call (about 15 minutes). Before we get started, here are some things you need to know:

We Love Collaboration

This process is interactive. We need you to participate in the process, be open to new ideas and information, and be honest with all of your feedback and input. To keep your project on track, we need you to be responsive throughout the process, responding to emails, communications, and requests in a timely manner.

We Need You To Read Our Emails

Over the next week, you'll receive information about our design process, what you can expect, and even strategies to help you get the most out of your investment with us. We communicate primarily through email about your project, including tasks we need you to do, things to send us, and resources to make writing your website content easier.

Key Check-Ins By Phone

At key points during our partnership, we'll call you to recap our progress, confirm core decisions, answer any questions you may have, and review next steps.

Our Questionnaire Is Critical

In a few days, you'll receive our questionnaire. This questionnaire is critical to our understanding of your brand, business, clients, and desired results. The more information you can give us, the better your strategy and site design will be.

We Want You To “Bug Us”

If you need help or have questions, let us know! Don't worry about “bugging us” — we want to hear from you! Whatever it is, don't suffer and try to get through it on your own. We're here to help and support you, and that means you can reach out and get help when you need it at 916-788-1740.

We know that when it comes to selecting a creative partner, you have a lot of choices, and we're honored you have chosen to work with Bourn Creative.

Thank you! We look forward to getting started!

Setting Crystal Clear Expectations

The second more critical part of your on boarding process is communicating very clearly what your clients can expect from you and what you expect of them.

Most designers, developers, and consultants can clearly communicate what clients can expect of them, as that is part of their value delivery. But when it comes to communicating the latter, what you expect of your clients, things most often fall short.

Setting expectations with new clients can be scary and uncomfortable

We want our clients to love us. We want to make them happy. We want them to tell all their friends about us when we're done… and telling them what we expect of them and what we will and will not tolerate often makes us feel like we're risking that.

But in reality that couldn't be farther from the truth.

Setting clear expectations and boundaries, and being up front about what your client will need to do will make them feel more comfortable. It reinforces the fact they they are working with a professional, not their buddy. It also shows them that you take their project and the relationship seriously.

If you're not quite sure how to set expectations and establish boundaries up front, don't worry! I've got your back. As I mentioned, we have been honing our communication processes with clients for years — the first complete implementation of our onboarding system was in 2011.

Here is a sample of how you can set expectations with your clients:

What you can expect from us:

  • typewriterWe will be responsive and timely with all of our communications, and will answer all of your questions and support you as much as we can, Monday-Friday between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm Pacific time.
  • We will respect you, your expertise, your time, and your investment, and we will be up front about exactly what's included and what's not — no surprises. If there are changes or additions to our original agreed upon scope of work, we will talk about it, make a plan, and review how it impacts the project.
  • We will share our expertise and knowledge, and make recommendations as appropriate, and will deliver a top-of-the-line end product
  • We will provide you tools, resources, and help to make this process as easy for you as possible.

What we expect from you in return:

  • Be responsive and timely in your communications, ask for help if you need it, and be honest in your feedback, comments, ideas, and suggestions.
  • Be committed to the project and respectful of us, our expertise, and our time. Participate in the process and answer questions to the best of your ability.
  • Be upfront about your deadlines and needs, respect our original agreement and scope of work, and be open to new ideas and strategies.
  • Creating your website content will take double to triple the time you think it will and we need you to complete it to do the best job possible for you. Please set aside time in your calendar now to ensure it gets done on time.


Firm, Fair, and Friendly

When working with clients,

 That means having the tough or uncomfortable conversations when they are needed. It means setting clear expectations and boundaries and sticking to them. It means providing a great experience by ensuring they know whats happening now and what will happen next at all times.

For years my husband and business partner, Brian has used the phrase “firm, fair, and friendly” to describe how we approach everything with our clients.

  • We are firm about scope of work, budgets, deadlines, boundaries, etc. — the serious parts of doing business together
  • We are always fair, never behaving or acting without integrity, empathy, and honesty
  • We are friendly because it's just more enjoyable to work with people who are enjoyable

Your systems and processes, especially your new client onboarding process, should embody the “firm, fair, and friendly” approach, which reinforces your professionalism, strengthens trust, and creates a successful relationship.

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Jennifer Bourn

Jennifer Bourn is the Creative Director and Digital Strategist for Bourn Creative, a full service design company based in Sacramento, California that specializes in custom, lead generation WordPress sites. With more than 15 years in the design trenches, and 9 years as co-owner of Bourn Creative (with her husband Brian Bourn), Jennifer is an award-winning designer with a penchant for writing, marketing, chocolate, and Legos (yes, Legos not logos). She built her first WordPress site in 2008, fell in love with giving clients the ability to make their own content revisions, and went all in with WordPress pretty much the same day. Now with more than 300 custom WordPress sites under the belt Jennifer now shares her expertise and lessons learned as a dynamic speaker, an avid blogger, and a co-organizer of the Sacramento Meetup Group.

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