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Are you making these client onboarding mistakes?

client onboarding mistakes
By Erin Flynn, Last Updated June 17, 2024

Let's set the scene: you have clients coming in (hallelujah!), and you're ready to build them an amazing website that will not only look incredible, but help your clients achieve their goals.

So why is every project heading south before you even get the first mockup sent over?

Why does every relationship seem to sour before the digital ink on the contract has even dried?

And why do your clients email, text, call, and Facebook message you constantly, about things you thought you explained?

It could be because you're onboarding your clients all wrong--or not at all.

Are you making these mistakes?

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Not understanding onboarding

Are you even sure what onboarding is? It's a term that gets used a lot, but few people actually know what it means.

Here's the definition Google throws at us when we look it up:

Onboarding: the action or process of integrating a new employee into an organization or familiarizing a new customer or client with one's products or services.

Forget the employee part of that definition, for our current purposes we're focused on onboarding clients, or rather, familiarizing them with our products and services.

But I think this definition is weak! It leaves out so much. Onboarding doesn't have to stop with services, it can also include things like how we work, our office hours, and what is expected of the client throughout the time we're going to work together.

One of the biggest causes of the dreaded Nightmare Client is unset expectations. You have to remember, just because we know the process, doesn't mean our clients do. And just because we know how we like to work doesn't mean our clients know.

That's why so many of us end up with phone calls interrupting our work 50 times a day, and clients who are annoyed that we're not writing the content for them as part of the web design process.

We have to set these expectations early on, and not only familiarize clients with our products and services, but also our policies, what we need from them, and the web design process as a whole.

So think of onboarding as integrating and familiarizing a new client with your products, services, policies, and processes.

Having no clear onboarding process

How are you currently onboarding your clients? Do you have a clear process outlined, or are you making it up with every single client?

Now that we know what onboarding is, it's easier to outline the process. What does a potential client need to know about you, your offerings, and how you work?

Take some time and brainstorm the path new clients should take in order to learn what they need to know for the project to run smoothly. It might look something like this:

  1. Potential client lands on website -- Who we work with and services are clearly explained
  2. Potential client fills out a client intake form -- Enough information is collected that we are able to determine whether the client is a good fit
  3. We respond to client inquiry -- We send an intro packet explaining how we work, our office hours, rough project timelines, how payments are structured, and what we'll need from the client in order to do our work
  4. Potential client agrees with intro packet and books a discovery call -- During the call we go in-depth into their project to fully understand their needs
  5. We create a proposal and scope of work -- Details of the project are outlined, and timeline is included
  6. Everyone signs a contract -- Because everything needs to be legal
  7. Client makes payment -- Officially making them a paying client
  8. We send a welcome packet -- This detailed document teaches the client how to use our project management tool, submit content, schedule calls, and give feedback that we can actually use
  9. The client joins our project management system or client portal -- Inside they can see what we're working on, see what they've been assigned, and keep everything organized
  10. The client is onboard -- Work on the project can officially begin!

Whew, that's a lot of steps, I know. But as you can see, at each step the potential client learns about how you'll work together, then becomes a client, and by the end, you have everything you need, and the client knows what's going on!

It may seem like a small thing, but without clearly defined processes, you might miss a step causing extra back-and-forth, or the client might not understand what's happening, causing frustration and a potential nightmare client situation.

Your process might look different, and that's okay, the important thing is that you have one, and you repeat it with each client so that nothing slips through the cracks.

Not using your process

I know, I know. Why go to the work of outlining a process and then not follow it?

You tell me! Because it happens all the time.

A lot of web designers get lazy, and the first thing that seems to go is their onboarding process. Or they get a potential client who wants to start a project quickly, so steps are dropped from the process.

But you know what happens? Chaos.

Alright, maybe that's a little dramatic, it's not chaos every single time, but more often than not, there are issues. Clients don't know what's going on, you start doing things out of order, and before you know it, you're trying to save the project and get it back on track, instead of humming along clear-process-road like you should have been.

Once you've figured out your onboarding process, you have to stick to it! Otherwise, it doesn't do you any good--kind of like those free downloads you've been hoarding with the idea that you'll get to them one day.

Even if you need to fast-track something, you can't skip steps. So take a deep breath, and get the process rolling. Do things in the proper order, and allow time to get them done properly. Onboarding your clients in the right way will save you time down the road, because you won't be wasting time explaining things they should already know, re-defining the scope of work, or hiding from your phone because your client won't stop calling.

Use the process, and trust the process.

Wrap up

Your clients aren't mind readers. Well, unless your target market is telepaths. But even then, they likely don't know what goes into making a website, how long it takes, or anything about how you work. You have to think of onboarding as educating new and potential clients about your products, services, policies, and processes.

Without a clear onboarding process, things happen out of order, or not at all. This can cause confusion and frustration for your clients. Sit down and map out your onboarding process, and be sure to include what your (potential) clients need to know at each stage of the process.

And finally, use your process! It does you no good to map out your onboarding and then when a new client comes in, throw all that to the side and wing it. Sticking to your process will save you time in the long run, and create happier clients--who are more likely to refer others to you.

Have you ever made any of these mistakes? Tell us in the comments what onboarding mistake you made, and how you corrected it!


Erin Flynn

Erin Flynn teaches freelance web designers how to take back control of their businesses (and lives!). After starting her own freelance web design business in 2012, Erin realized that most web designers were disorganized and struggling to make their businesses more profitable without adding to their workload. Hitting that "next level" just wasn't happening.

After getting her own systems in order and creating raving fans out of her clients, Erin knew she had to help other designers do the same. Today, she's helped over 10,000 students do everything from plan and build a basic website, to organize their processes, to restructure their work days so that they can FINALLY take a weekend off without guilt.

When Erin's not glued to her computer screen, she loves binge-watching Netflix with her husband and cat (who has his own Instagram--yes, the cat), and exploring the mountains around her home in Aspen, Colorado.

Check out what she does and grab her latest free workshop here!