Professional services firms dedicate significant time and effort to winning over each prospective client.  Every new client is important, so it’s important to make clients happy early in the relationship.  At this initial stage, each interaction comprises a large portion of the total experience with your firm.   Whether from your website, email exchanges, the proposal, your team’s pitch meeting, an engagement letter, the receptionist answering the phone, etc., every aspect of your pitch and onboarding communications matter!  Later, when you’ve “won over the client” with consistently high quality advice and timely responses to requests, you’ll have a bit of leeway if a mistake happens.  Early on however, every detail matters as the prospect or client forms and builds their impression of your firm’s brand.

It’s important to remember that everyone has expectations.  Without thinking about it, you have expectations about how to onboard a new client.  You probably just think of this as “the way we do it.”  Does the client have the SAME expectations?  You initiate the onboarding process many times per year,  but the client switches service providers only every few years, at most!  Their expectations are likely based largely on their experiences with their prior firm – for better or worse since the client just LEFT that firm!

It’s best to set expectations early and often.  By starting a conversation about your normal onboarding process and what the client can expect, you can create an opportunity to confirm that everyone’s expectations are in alignment.  You can clarify roles, responsibilities and timelines, recommend best practices, or perhaps adjust your process to meet a need that you learn is important to the client.  I’d say it’s better to know about this up front rather than working hard only to find out the client isn’t happy after the fact!

Consider a written onboarding document.  How many clients (year-round or project) does your firm onboard each year?  It’s probably a pretty high number.  If many of your engagements are similar, perhaps you’d consider creating a written document, anything from a one pager to an ebook depending on the complexity of the process or how much detail you need to provide.   Consider who might read this and aim for about 80% applicability.  One benefit of this is that each partner will have to follow the same FIRM process as outlined in the document, helping your new client’s experience to be brand confirming no matter who’s involved.

Include as many people as possible in the process – on both sides of the relationship.  Onboarding is about more than getting the documents and numbers you need to do your work. You will also want to add relevant client contacts to your database so they will receive newsletters, be invited to events or get holiday cards.  The onboarding process is the best time to handle this… no slacking!  Perhaps this is a part of the process that a manager or mid-level professional can undertake as a way to include additional team members in the process so that the client meets their service team early on.  Likewise, it’s a way to be sure that you have a relationship with more than the primary contact at the client company.

Onboarding is sometimes an afterthought in the wake of the “high” of winning a new client.  Give this important process its due.  By considering the ideas above I think you’ll find that everyone is better off.  If you try it, let me know how it goes!  Good luck!

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Alison has more than ten years of professional services marketing and business development experience. She is a Double Eagle, holding both a BS in Management with concentrations in Marketing & Information Systems, and an MBA from Boston College. Alison is a member of the 2009 Boston Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 class of honorees. Visit Alison on Google+.

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