How onboarding impacts client success

To make their lives easier, creative agencies should frontload their customer service efforts. By handholding clients through the onboarding process, agencies familiarize their customers with how they operate, what to expect, best practices for communication, and more. This helps agencies set the tone for future agency-client interactions. But, more importantly, this encourages clients to trust their vendor and avoid sabotaging their own success.

Companies everywhere can benefit when they employ a careful and comprehensive onboarding process. I spoke with several agency managers to see how their kickoff strategies have impacted the success of their client engagements. Below, I share their advice for establishing a successful onboarding process to improve agency-client relations and enhance the quality of each deliverable.

Confirming clients’ broader goals

Before an engagement starts, agencies need to know exactly how they can create lasting value for their clients. For PR shops, Amy Laski, president and founder of Felicity, a virtual communications agency, recommends, “Begin with the client’s overall business strategy and goals, NOT the communications goals. Your communications plans are a means to achieving the business goals, they are not the end in itself. Starting with the business goals in mind often leads to a different—more effective—communications approach.” Other businesses can apply this advice by tabling discussion about their proposed strategy and the granular details about their service offerings. Instead, during kickoff calls, they’ll want to ask pointed questions about their customer’s long-term goals to gather a firmer understanding of how they can actually assist.

Afterwards, Laski suggests, “Set your scorecard. Once you’ve established your plans, set out your metrics. How will you measure if your efforts have been successful? This opens up the conversation to make sure your expectations are on the same page. We have had clients who express at this stage they want to do things like have ‘their video to go viral’ and it’s better to have the discussion of what that means right up front, rather than in hindsight!” That way, agencies know exactly what it will take to advance customer goals and guarantee an ongoing relationship.

Curbing unreasonable expectations

All clients have varying degrees of misunderstanding about how a project should go. And, often, they get frustrated when their expectations aren’t met.

Angelique Pivoine, owner and Chief Account Executive of Good Thinking Agency, recalls, “I recently spoke with a prospective client who said right off the bat he was very unhappy with his PR firm. I asked why, and he said that they promised him a national TV spot that never materialized. I was a bit baffled, as I knew the PR agency and knew that they wouldn’t guarantee coverage. Turned out during the onboarding he told them he wanted a specific TV coverage and the account executive said, ‘Sure, we’ll get right on it!’… It might have been a joke, but he took it as a promised deliverable.”

Although agencies are inclined to be optimistic in their interactions with customers, everyone is better off when agency reps communicate what is actually possible given a specific budget. Best and worst case scenarios are important to explain. With a better understanding of what may or may not happen, clients abandon the fantasy that their vendor has a magical wand that can solve all of their problems. Instead, they set more practical expectations. And in some cases, they may become cooperative partners who are invested in the process you plan to implement to deliver value.

Expediting approvals and preventing project delays

It is a familiar problem: Agency staff work overnight to meet certain deadlines and provide meticulously crafted deliverables for clients to review, but they never hear back. Even after persistent follow-up, clients forget to find the time to give vendors the green light. Consequently, three-week long projects stretch out over three months as account managers tirelessly chase after unresponsive clients who may, ironically, become perturbed by the project’s delay. To help customers help themselves, Steve Gibson of JotForm insists, “Define how long the client has for a review period. Clients don’t always plan for the amount of time needed to review and return feedback for various stages of the design process. If they wait a week to get back to you, they need to understand it will push the schedule a week, and potentially cost them more money.”

In other instances, clients expect endless revisions, yet fail to realize that, even after months of hard labor, no deliverable will ever be “perfect.” So, to ensure brands get the value they paid for in a timely manner and avoid derailing progress, Gibson proposes agencies, “Define how many iterations of review the client has at each stage. Tell the client they have a fixed number of opportunities to provide feedback, typically one or two. If you don’t, many clients will continue to provide feedback over time, causing your team to have to rework things that were previously signed off on.”

These conversations can be uncomfortable; Gibson knows agencies will have to be careful with presentation. “All this needs to be presented in the best possible light, letting the client know it’s how they can get the best results. It will result in happier clients and better designs.”

Minimizing the negative impact of overcommunication

For clients, relinquishing responsibility to an external resource can be scary. Cautious and overprotective, many client contacts spend most of their day checking in with their contracted agency on progress. Often, though, the persistent inquiries are unnecessary and disruptive to everyone’s work schedules.

When Sam McIntire first launched Elliott Maurice, a digital advertising agency, onboarding was an afterthought. At first glance, onboarding can feel like a gratuitous process. But in hindsight, it helps agencies and their clients thrive. McIntire remembers one of his first engagements: “We did not properly communicate catch up cadence expectations with a client who we onboarded. As a result, the client called us multiple times per day for the first few months of our engagement to catch up. We ended up spending a significant amount of time working on the account, and eventually had to have some uncomfortable conversations with the client to scale things back to a lower-touch relationship. Everything worked out fine, but it could have been prevented by clearer expectation-setting up front during the onboarding process.”

Some agencies believe there is a huge opportunity cost when you invest time and effort into onboarding. Actually, the opposite is true. To prepare a client engagement for success, agencies will want to build out a thorough onboarding process so that post-kickoff call, it’s smooth sailing.

Danny Wong
Post by Danny Wong

Danny Wong is an entrepreneur, marketer, and writer. He is the co-founder of Blank Label (an award winning menswear company focusing on luxury made-to-measure garments) and does marketing at Grapevine (a platform that drives eCommerce, helping retailers partner with YouTube celebrities). Tweet him @dannywong1190

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