4 Onboarding Steps For Successful Client Relationships

So you have a brand-new shiny client that you’re excited to be working with. You’re looking forward to helping them achieve their goals. They’ve accepted your project proposal and you’re ready to get started on the creative work.

Now what? If you have an onboarding process, you can bring your client into a successful working relationship with you, manage expectations on both sides, and increase the likelihood that they’ll want to work with you again.

When you sell products you don’t need an on boarding process. Your customer simply buys your thing and then goes off to enjoy it. With clients it’s different. You’re working together for several weeks, several months or even several years. You’re developing a log-term business relationship in which you both need to know what to expect. Through a step-by-step intake process, you’ll build their confidence that you’ll work with them to create the desired outcomes.

I didn’t always have an onboarding process. I’ve had some less than stellar experiences because of my own lack of attention to this detail in my business policies. I remember one client where I sent a project proposal and we had a lengthy phone call in which he verbally accepted the proposal and said to move forward. I began the creative work only to discover a week later that the client had engaged another designer at the recommendation of a colleague. So I ended up wasting a number of hours on a project for which I had no client. Don’t make my mistake! This is the on boarding process that I now use with new clients:

Get a signature and initial payment.

You don’t have a client until you have an agreement to work together. Verbal agreements don’t hold, as illustrated by my experience. You absolutely must have a signed written agreement listing the scope of work, schedule, creative fees, rights transferred, and payment terms. And you should not begin work without a down payment.

If you’ve offered the contract and they’re taking awhile to sign it, or if they’ve returned the signed contract but have not sent the down payment, don’t move forward with the work. Follow up with a friendly reminder email.

When a client opens up their wallet in your direction,
you know they’re serious about working with you.


Do do not start working on a project until you have that signed contract and down payment in hand. These two items indicate commitment. When a client opens up their wallet in your direction, you know they’re serious about working with you.

Send a welcome letter.

I use my own form letter that I modify for each new client. A welcome letter lets them know you’re excited to be working with them, and what to expect in terms of creative reviews, communication, access to you, and what you need from them. I send my welcome letter the form of an email, and include next steps. I even use this letter to let them know that during the research and concept development phases they may not hear from me much, because I’m hard at work developing ideas and strategy.

Send the welcome letter quickly after you receive the signed contract and down payment. They are now officially your client.

Establish your communication channels.

Will you be communicating by phone or email? Will you use text messaging? Will you use Google Drive? Dropbox? Slack? Instapage? Set up the necessary project folders, FTPs and dashboards, upload necessary documents And give the client access to them.

You can use your own website as the communication hub with password-protected user profile access to an exclusive client area.

Have a “clarification and next steps” conversation.

One thing I do after the down payment’s been received and the contract’s been signed and before I start the work is to meet with my clients virtually or in person for the purpose of clarifying goals, deliverables, scope, schedule, voice and position. Although we’ve already talked about these things  and they are included in the project proposal and contract, it’s always a good idea to “synchronize” expectations before moving forward. It also can happen that the client needs to change the scope or direction of the work since the contract was signed.

Having this kind of conversation clarifies and confirms, and you can start the creative work confidently. Your client will be assured that you understand their needs and have a plan for meeting them. You want your client to trust you.

Communicate early and often.

Stay in touch with your client throughout the process. Let them know what you’re doing even though you have nothing yet to show for your efforts. I let my clients know when I’m engaged in the research phase, when I’m starting the concept development phase, and when they can expect to review initial concepts. This is a mark of professionalism and shows that you care for your client. It keeps you connected.

Pursue clients, not projects.

The onboarding process is the introduction to what it’s like to work with you. It establishes expectations for both you and the client and makes for a smoother collaboration.

To keep clients coming back to you, or retain them for long-term work, you’re designing more than graphics and websites. You’re designing a relationship, and if it’s a good relationship your clients will keep coming back to you because of it. The benefit to you is that you’ll have clients you’ll want to continue working with because you’ve created an atmosphere of mutual respect.