A better client onboarding process that leads to a long-lasting retainer

by Kat

Welcome to part 1 of the Content Marketing Agency Playbook where we’ll do a deep dive on how to run content for clients at scale.


You’ve just brought on a brand new client. Right away, you and your team hit the ground running. You’re doing research, outlining strategies, and planning all of the brilliant marketing activities you’ll complete to get this client the results they want.

Then suddenly—seemingly totally out of the blue—you get that dreaded email in your inbox: We’d like to discontinue service.

You sit staring slack-jawed at that message. What? How can this be happening? You’ve barely even gotten started. How can they end things before you’ve even had a chance to prove your worth?

In these sorts of situations, it’s easy to point the finger at the client. They didn’t give you a chance. They don’t know what they’re doing. They’re obviously short-sighted.

However, clients who cancel early often warrant an honest look in the mirror. What did you do (or not do) to contribute to this cancellation?

Whether your clients explicitly state it or not, your client onboarding process (or total lack thereof) could have a lot to do with those frustratingly premature cancellations.


This is part 1 in our playbook for agencies. Download the entire eBook here. Or dive into specific sections:


Why Your Client Onboarding Process Matters

Unfortunately, your onboarding process is something that’s easy to gloss over.

You’re swept up in the excitement of bringing on a new client and eager to roll up your sleeves and get to the work that really matters—meaning you don’t want to be bothered with the frequent communication and little details that go into an effective onboarding process.

But, here’s the thing: Those first few weeks of your engagement with a client are an incredibly fragile period. The relationship is still delicate and the client isn’t all that invested—meaning even the smallest annoyances or the most minor oversights will give them reason for pause (or the necessary justification to walk away altogether).

This is something we knew we could improve in our own content marketing service, Audience Ops. When we identified that issue, we decided to do a complete overhaul of the first month our client onboarding process.

Rather than leaving clients wondering about what we were working on during those first few weeks, we stepped up our level of communication and delivered on the expectations that were set—and, the results spoke for themselves. Our client lifetime value absolutely soared.

Want to accomplish the same? We’ll show you exactly how we did it.

Need some extra help? Grab our week-by-week client onboarding process here.

The Importance of Setting Expectations

Imagine this: You’re going to build a house, and you put down a large sum of money up front for the builder, he takes your money and then swears to you that he’ll get to work right away. “You’re going to love it,” he promises.

Then, weeks go by. No emails. No phone calls. No questions. No updates on progress. No information about timelines or what you can expect throughout the rest of the build.

You have no idea what he’s working on or if he’s doing anything at all. He swore up and down that you’d get the house of your dreams. But, now that you’ve heard nothing but crickets, you’re getting nervous that your money has all gone to waste.

You’re not building houses for your clients; however, this same sort of emotion can quickly creep in for them.

How do you avoid it? By setting clear expectations early and often.

Pre-Sale

Detailing how you work shouldn’t happen right after a client signs on the dotted line—you should touch on your processes and timelines when you’re actively selling.

While you can dive into the nitty gritty details after the client has officially signed up, you should make sure to do the following pre-sale:

  • Explain what they can expect in the first few weeks
  • Detail how long the onboarding period lasts
  • Encourage them to ask questions about your processes

Doing these things allows your clients to better assess whether your service meets their expectations. The more you can prevent surprises, the better off you and your clients will be.

The more you can prevent surprises, the better off you and your clients will be. Click To Tweet

After Sign-Up

You did it—you converted that lead to a customer, and the client has signed on and made a payment. Now, it’s time to get them up to speed by explaining your onboarding process and timeline in detail.

You can do this via email updates, some sort of “Getting Started” guide, or really anything else that you think works well for you.

At Audience Ops, we created a “Welcome” video for our new clients to view as soon as they have signed up.

The goal of this video is to set our clients up for success when working with us. Within it, we explain:

  • The goals clients should expect to achieve
  • How our content topic generation and approval process works
  • Our article production schedule
  • How clients can provide content feedback and edits
  • What they can expect in terms of communication from our team
  • Next steps the client should take care of after viewing the video

We’ve found that this video not only ensures that we’re on the same page as our clients right from the start of the engagement, but that it also serves to answer questions and address any client concerns—often without any additional communication needed from our team.

During the First Month

Your first few weeks working with a client involves a lot of behind-the-scenes groundwork. You’re researching their audiences, you’re generating topics, and you’re getting things setup—that work is all important.

However, it also involves a longer expanse of time without any deliverables, which can leave clients concerned about what’s actually getting done. So, frequent communication during this stage is imperative.

At Audience Ops, we decided to combat that silence with weekly onboarding updates. During the first four weeks of a client’s engagement with us (following their first kickoff call) we send an update email every Friday.

In these emails, we explain:

  • What was done that week
  • What we’ll be working on the following week
  • What (if anything) we’re still waiting on from the client

These emails have helped to keep our team accountable, since they serve as a checkpoint that all onboarding tasks have actually been dealt with. They also reassure our clients that we are actually getting work done.

We recommend you map out exactly what happens from week-to-week when onboarding new clients. This is good practice for two reasons:

What goes into your onboarding from week-to-week will depend on your particular service. Want to see what ours looks like at Audience Ops? Grab our 4-week onboarding process below:

What happens during onboarding? See our week-to-process process.

Getting What You Need

From logins to notes about their competitors, there’s a lot of information you require from your clients before you can get started on their content.

It’s important to remember that your clients hired you in order to remove some tasks from their own plates—which means they aren’t going to be thrilled when their inbox is packed with different emails requesting access to everything from Twitter to their email marketing platform.

For this reason, it’s best if you plan ahead and ask for everything you’ll need at the same time.

At Audience Ops, we do this through our “Getting Started Form.” A link to this form is emailed to our clients as soon as they sign up for our service. When the client clicks the link, they’re walked through everything they’ll need to submit in order for us to get up and running—such as access to social accounts and information about their CMS.

What information do we ask our clients to submit? Grab the free list here!

We also utilize Ops Calendar to share access and sync these different accounts. It’s a great way to keep things as straightforward and streamlined as possible.

Planning the Content Calendar

While all of those communication details and updates are important, there’s one other key piece of onboarding that can’t be overlooked: Planning the client’s content calendar.

This is likely the first deliverable that your client will receive in their inbox. So, in order to set the right tone, you want to make sure it’s strong. We’ve learned that if the client is happy with the process, the research, and the topics right out of the gate, generally the engagement runs much smoother from there.

At Audience Ops, we’ve refined the following process for planning out a client’s content calendar and getting it approved:

Research, Research, and More Research

Our team starts with in-depth research into this client’s target customer—including their goals, challenges, and problems they’re aiming to solve. From there, we’ll also look into what competitors and other businesses in that same space are doing in regards to content.

This in-depth research lays the necessary foundation for generating relevant and valuable topic ideas. While we send our clients eight topic ideas to approve at a time, we often generate more than that—so we have a backlog of solid topics that we can rely on.

Setting Production Dates

Once we have the topics generated, it’s time to assign some dates and map those content pieces out on the calendar.

Internally, we set milestone dates for when various team members need to have their related tasks completed. However, we also believe in being transparent about timelines with our clients.

When the first eight topics are set on the calendar, our client is sent a document detailing our research, the topics we came up with, and thei planned publish dates.

When doing so, we always invite our clients to let us know if they’d like to see something moved, changed, or removed entirely. Getting those topics and dates ironed out before we ever begin production allows us to confirm that we’re moving forward with something the client will be happy with.

Where Ops Calendar Fits In

Transparency with topics and our calendar is another area that Ops Calendar has been able to help with significantly.

Ops Calendar offers various features—like an ideas list where you can store topic ideas to a calendar with a clear view into production dates—that make these processes far easier to manage.

The best part? All of our clients also have access to Ops Calendar. This means that—at any time—they can login and see what we’re working on, as well as what’s coming down the pipeline for their content.

The End of Onboarding: What Happens Now?

You’ve made it through the first few weeks of your engagement with a client, and so far they seem happy. Your work is done, right?

Not quite. The last thing you want to do is be super communicative and helpful during onboarding—and then let that level of service lag. Clients want to be kept in the loop at all times, and not just when they’re getting started.

When you reach the end of your onboarding process, it’s wise to send one final “update” email to your client letting them know what they can anticipate in the more “normal” weeks ahead.

How often should they expect to hear from you? When should they expect those messages? What should they do if they have questions, concerns, or ideas?

Clearing those things up before you officially consider a client onboarded will help you make sure that you’ve tied up any loose ends and that you’re both share the same expectations. From there, you’ll be able to move forward into what is hopefully a long and mutually beneficial relationship!

Don’t forget to grab the two resources that will help you fine-tune your onboarding:

What happens during onboarding? See our week-to-process process.
What information do we ask our clients to submit? Grab the free list here!