Effective onboarding will make you an awesome freelancer

In 1996 a young guy walked into the local electronics store that I working in at the time. He walked up to me at the counter and asked what I thought about the newest mobile phone as he pointed towards the case. I said, “It depends on what you are looking for in a phone.”

The issue wasn’t that the phone was a bad phone, nor that the service itself was bad either. The plans this company offered were unlike that of all others back then. They charged based on minutes used, rather than giving a customer a set amount of minutes per month. However they also charged based on the time of day, whether the calls were local or long distance, and also if you were on their network or another cell network. Sure they had material explaining all this, but it actually confused people even more.

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What happened quite often was that customers would come back after their first bill to cancel. Mainly because the materials that the company gave out to new customers didn’t explain the complexities of their plans clearly.  The issue for that particular phone was that the company which serviced this phone lacked proper onboarding.

WHY All Freelancers Need an Onboarding Process

As freelancers and contractors, we are in the service industry in which our services are needed by our clients (otherwise why else would we be doing what we are doing, right?).  However they may not fully understand our services.  They realize that they need some of what we can offer, but may not fully understand all that we offer and how to get the most from us.  Onboarding is the critical first part of the business relationship.  If you don’t have a way to onboard new customers, then you are already dropping the ball.

Onboarding helps the customer in 4 very specific ways.  First, in learning exactly how to use the service.

Onboarding the customer: How to use the service

This is the opportunity to explain all the ways in which a customer can utilize your services.  If it’s through a certain helpdesk system, email, or through the phone, having the customer know the way to get the most from the service is paramount.  This also helps you as the freelancer to make sure that you can get the actual work done.  You are essentially defining the process you would like the customer to interact with you right from the start.

Onboarding the customer: What to Expect

The second is defining what to expect.  Setting expectations is the most critical form of communication.  If the customer knows what to expect from you, then there’s no way of misinterpreting it.  The other side of this is that the customer can also understand what you expect from them.  For example, if you need something from the customer to accomplish a certain task, you have to let them know this.  This second point clears the air of any ambiguity.  We don’t want to assume anything here (we all know what assume means, right? 😉 ).

Onboarding the customer: When to expect things

The third is the followup to number 2.  We have to deliver on what we are going to say we are doing.  This point defines when to expect things.  For example, if your service sends out weekly status emails, let the customer know when that will occur.  If your service has a certain response time for tasks, let them know.

The other side of the coin here is if you need something to perform a task from the customer, you need to tell them when you need it by to meet the deadline.  “What to expect” and “When to Expect” go hand-in-hand.  Clear communication on both sides help with setting the expectations to ensure your service is well received and most importantly successful.

Onboarding the customer: OPen the line of communication

Maybe most importantly, the last way onboarding helps the customer is that it opens the line of communication between the business and them.  Having a proper onboarding sets the tone between you and the customer.  It shows the customer that you are open to any and all communication.  You are transparent in your process and expectations.  It also gives the customer a sense of comfort in that they know exactly how to use a service they may not fully understand, but know that they need.

This is especially the case when the service is complicated, technical, and/or new. We see this in software all the time. Usually they are automated tooltips that walk you through the features of the software after installing it.  How often do you see it when you hire a designer?  developer?  content writer?  You don’t, but that’s also how you can stand out amongst the crowd.  Put in place a proper onboarding process and you’ll elevate your business immediately.

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Does Your Onboarding look like this?

We, as contractors and freelancers, need to grow our businesses. In order to grow, we need to make sure that we stand out among the crowd. Designers, developers, marketers and other web specialists know what their service is, but do their customers?  I’d be willing to bet that most of you reading this do not do more than shoot off an email or two at the very beginning of the project within the first couple of days asking for a whole list of things from the client, right?

I offer development services.  A service that I know can be very confusing to my clients.  When a new client comes on board, I used to have a series of email messages that I used to send out over a week or so. I would cut and paste these into a blank email, changes a few things around and send it off. As I tailored my business and received feedback from clients, I’ve altered these emails to make sure that nothing is left to the imagination with a new client.

My clients will tell you that I provide a valuable service to them because I have a skill that is necessary to their business. In order for me be valuable to my clients I need certain information from them. Sometimes they don’t even know how to get this information (i.e. server access, code, Google Analytics, etc).  I try to explain how to get this information so that I can give them what they need.  I also need to be in constant communication with them. However that communication needs some structure so that I can still do my job and get things done.  So my onboarding explains the process in which we communicate to each other clearly for all my clients.

My Onboarding process as a developer looks like…

When I get a new client, I already know that they are clouded with the idea of how and what I’m doing for them.  They know that they have some needs and goals for their website, but are really unsure about how I’m going to achieve these goals.  Unfortunately for me, most have a preconceived notion that developers speak a “foreign” language and are unapproachable.  This makes us developers almost a necessary evil in the eyes of most.  I want to squash this preconceived notion right from the start and show my new client that I can speak English and approachable.

They are immediately sent out the first of my onboarding emails.  I no longer cut-n-paste templated emails anymore.  Instead I’ve automated my onboarding using Drip.  Drip for those that don’t know, is an email marketing automation service.  Drip has allowed me to setup a great deal of automation within my business and part of that is onboarding.  When I tag a client’s email address in Drip, it’ll kick off an email campaign of either 8 or 9 emails (depending on the service you are getting from me). These emails trickle out over the course of the first month or so.  I’ve learned over the years that in order to be effective and get the information I need and have the new client be able to tell me what they need, the onboarding emails need to be concise and breathe a little.  Being able to trickle out these emails in an automated way allows for this.  The client gets all the information they need without overwhelming them all at once.  But also has the time to respond to any questions I have for them without getting the next homework assignment.

Onboarding sets the expectations of both the customer and the business. This sets the tone of the relationship right from the start. It sets a tone of professionalism as well as understanding. At times, customers perceive that they are buying one thing, and when that doesn’t happen right from the start, the relationship already has hit a bump in the road. If you are offering a service, you need to fully explain that service and how to use it. That’s onboarding!

build an effective onboarding process for your service

Onboarding does take time to tailor and needs constant adjustment. I still adjust mine along the way. Listen to your customers and what they are struggling with when it comes to your business. If more than one customer is struggling with the same thing, explain it in your onboarding.

During the onboarding process you may be explaining and asking a lot from your customer. Take some breaks during it. Ask them simple things like “Just wanted to see if you had any questions?” or “Just checking in on your day to see how you are doing?”

You can even ask them questions to help out your marketing. During my onboarding I simply ask “Why did you sign up with me?” This allows me to understand the pain of my customers and it also allows me some insight into what the triggers are that sealed the deal for my customers to choose to work with me.

Onboarding needs to have a specific purpose and that is to communicate how your business works and what the expectations are from both of you. If you are a offering a service to clients, you need to have an onboarding process in place. Do your customers and yourself a solid and take some time to really think about your service and how to explain every aspect of it to a brand new customer through a series of automated emails. You’ll have happier customers and a much more professional aspect that makes you stand out among the crowd.

Don’t forget to check out the Onboarding templates I use that you can put in your business right now

/ Jason Resnick

Jason is a WordPress developer helping small businesses, design and marketing agencies achieve their goals by specializing in Ecommerce and increasing conversions. Learn more about him here.

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8 responses to “Effective onboarding will make you an awesome freelancer

  1. Hey Jason. Can you give examples of the drip emails? It seems amazing to me that you have 8-9 emails worth of questions that you know every client is going to ask and that it could be automated. Are you in direct contact with them as well during this automation process?

    1. Hey Jarrod – I would encourage you to check out the download. It’s a PDF with the exact emails that I use as examples and you’ll see exactly what’s contained in the emails. And it’s of course not just a list of questions, but it’s a true onboarding process where there’s things that I need from the clients and what they can expect from me and when. Go ahead and check it out and I’d love your feedback once you see them.

  2. Jason this is a great read! I do onboarding with new clients but it’s usually in one hit so it’s a bit overwhelming for my clients, I will take your advice and break it up and drip it out over a series of emails.

    To tell you the truth, being able to clearly explain how my business works would definitely help me out a lot too. It will be a good exercise in clarity for my clients and for me and my team!

  3. Great article! Client onboarding is something I’m working on in the planning stages of my freelancing business. Where can I find the download with the email templates?

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