Onboarding new clients is a basic, yet essential process that established design firms and successful freelancers not only implement but continually refine.
Today, I’m going to give you an inside peek at Oxide Design Co.’s onboarding process, so you can start thinking about your own. (And, yes, we’ll be thinking about how we can refine our process this year as well.)
Quite simply, proper onboarding can make client relationships more functional. You’re effectively:
- Defining the scope of the project
- Setting client expectations
- Outlining the path ahead for both you and your client
- Displaying the value, credibility, and professionalism you have to offer
Onboarding starts with a conversation
Onboarding starts with that very first phone call or email. These potential clients need something, and they’ve taken the scary first step toward attaining it.
Not every client who needs design actually knows a lot about design, so it’s up to you to help them understand what it is you do. They might not actually need the services you offer. They might not be able to afford the work you do. Your communications must filter out these not-clients, all while conveying the tone you’d want to use with actual clients.
Once Oxide has done the most basic filtering, we set up a meeting. Typically, Drew Davies (Oxide’s owner) and I (Oxide’s creative coordinator) will sit down with this potential client to discuss their project.
Probably the most important point of this meeting — and what isn’t necessarily discussed outright — is a chance for both sides to get a feel for each other and see if we think we could work well together. Of course, we’re also trying to figure out this project’s scope, the purpose, the audience, the timeline, and the deliverables.
We tend to let our client do most of the talking during this first face-to-face meeting. We’re asking questions and then letting them talk it out. We share with them about us, our team (introduce them if we’re meeting at our office), our process, and answer any questions they have.
Before they leave, we let them know that the next step is for us to prepare a proposal and send it to them via email.
The proposal and contract stages establish clear goals
Our proposal is another way that we communicate who we are and what we offer. We include:
- our manifesto — what we believe about design.
- a short project brief that reflects our understanding of what their needs are, based on our initial meeting.
- the scope of the project, explaining what we mean by “corporate identity” or “website redesign.”
- And, of course, we provide bids. As I mentioned in “How to set your rate,” Oxide tries to flat-fee projects as often as we can. We present those flat-fees for each piece of work, like an a la carte menu, allowing our potential client to choose just the pieces that make sense for them right now.
Having everything down on paper allows us to be clear about everything, including things the client might not have thought to ask.
We try to use this proposal stage as a jumping-off point for further conversation about the price we bid. If our clients really need to make something else work, we try our darndest to negotiate something that will work. Or maybe that means they can just have us do this first bit of the project for now.
Once we come to an agreement, we send over a contract. This includes the agreed-upon scope of work (including number of concepts and number of revisions), the fees, the usage agreements (we usually maintain the copyright and lease it for unlimited usage), and terms.
We’re of the camp that requires a signed contract and a deposit check for half the total before we begin work.
Thoroughly research your client
Our team likes to gather just as much data as we can about our client, their project, and their audience. Or, as Drew says, “Who you are, what you do, and why anyone should care about you.” We want to know what makes that client unique.
To begin our research phase after we have a signed contract, we have our clients complete a questionnaire that asks about audience, goals, competitors, etc. We ask our contact to get their core team — especially decision-makers (and anyone with veto power) — to fill out this questionnaire.
When we’re able and when it makes sense, we love to ask these questions and more at in-person interviews. This can greatly help us get a sense of the voice of the organization.
We also like to do our Oxide Slide process with clients, again asking that any decision-makers be present. This process grants us unique access to what Drew calls the clients’ “Lizard Brain” — that more abstract/artsy/emotional/gut reaction part of the brain. Similar to a mood board, this highly visual process helps us collaborate with our clients in a visual way that might not have been articulated verbally alone.
After that Oxide Slides meeting, we ask each participating member to send about five found images in the next few days. These can be any image they find out in the world or sketch out on a cocktail napkin — anything that conveys the message they’re trying to communicate to us.
Then we engage in independent research, digging through any data we received from the client and exploring the client’s industry and competitors.
Keep going with clear and open communication
One of the things you’re doing throughout onboarding is setting a tone that lets your clients know what they can expect from you, or how they can expect you to be.
Be friendly. Let them know how you’re going to move forward. Yes, you’ve said some of this before. Say it again. They need to know what’s coming. You may have done this process dozens or hundreds or even thousands of times. They probably haven’t ever done this. Answer questions before they have to ask.
This is important for us, because we typically spend a few weeks at this point focused on digesting the information we have and beginning our design work, and not talking to the client much. It’s nice if they understand why.
All of this onboarding is built around establishing a healthy relationship with our clients, and we hope to continually improve our process as we find better ways.