The success of any professional services business depends not only on expertise but also on its ability to onboard and retain valuable clients.
That is why, in most cases, a well-structured onboarding process is the best first step in developing long-term client relationships while also laying the groundwork for meaningful collaboration. Whether you are a new firm owner developing a strategy for the first time or an experienced accounting professional looking to improve your current workflow, we have got you covered with actionable tips and strategies.
Why is a client onboarding process so important?
Before diving into the specifics, let’s first understand why having this type of orientation in place is so important for your firm’s success. Here are several key benefits:
- Efficiency. Properly onboarding new clients helps to ensure that you start working with the new client on a timely schedule, reducing downtime and delays.
- Professionalism. This type of introduction sets the tone for a professional and organized partnership, instilling confidence in your firm.
- Clarity. Clearly defined processes and expectations lead to fewer misunderstandings and disputes down the line.
- Scalability. Another advantage of having this type of “well-planned welcome” is that its repeatable and helps new accounts hit the ground running in less time
Building a repeatable onboarding process
Next, let’s cover the steps that can make this a win-win situation for you and the businesses you work with.
1. Create a client onboarding checklist
A well-structured checklist is the backbone of your onboarding process. Whether jotted down on paper or set up digitally in a spreadsheet, having tasks documented ensures that all steps during the client onboarding journey are accounted for.
While the details will likely vary depending on the type of clients you work with and the services you offer, the following are some must-have items to include on the list.
- Get a signed service-level agreement or engagement letter. Before starting any work, be sure you have a signed service-level agreement or engagement letter. This document outlines the scope of your services, fees, and expectations. Without it, you could spend hours of valuable time on a project, only to have a miscommunication or potential disagreement over rates upend your plan and leave you writing off your fees.
- Establish communication. Determine how and how often you’ll communicate with the client. For instance, will you schedule monthly office hours or put quarterly planning meetings on the books? Are phone calls and emails with a “quick question” included in your fee, or is the clock running at all times? Address questions like preferred communication methods and availability hours at the outset, so there’s no room for misinterpretation. Consider adding the client to your newsletter (if you have one).
- Gather client information. Collect essential details, such as the client’s employer identification number, legal business name, and a copy of last year’s tax return, financial statements, or trial balance. Depending on the type of service you provide, you may also need a current P&L and balance sheet, general ledger, payroll records, inventory records, tax documents, copies of leases or other contracts. Take the time to set up a confidential data collection system so this information stays out of the wrong hands.
- Payment schedule. Agree on a payment schedule and outline payment methods. If you collect fees before turning over deliverables or charge interest or late fees on past-due balances, communicate this upfront to avoid surprises.
- Access to accounting software. Ask to have access to their accounting and payroll software, read-only access to their bank accounts, and other applicable systems.
It’s also a good idea to identify responsible parties and deadlines for each step of the onboarding process. Assigning roles and having due dates minimizes confusion and creates a smoother, more organized experience for everyone involved.
2. Identifying ownership and key stakeholders
Now that we have a list, it’s time to decide who will be in charge of the onboarding process. If you’re a sole practitioner, you may run the entire process yourself (with the help of technology). However, firm owners with team members may want to delegate this task to free up time for higher-level work.
It’s also important to get clarity on how clients should reach out. For example, do you have a dedicated client success manager on your team, or should all communication come to you? Set availability hours and provide access to resources like an FAQ page on your website or video walkthroughs for the software you’ll use to work together.
Make sure you identify key stakeholders on the client’s side who should be involved from day one. Who will be the primary point of contact? To whom should you send invoices?
3. Celebrate the partnership
To make your clients feel valued, consider sending a welcome kit with branded items, such as coffee mugs, drink tumblers, folios, sticky notes, or a canvas tote.
This is more than just a nice gesture — a well-curated and branded welcome kit keeps your firm top of mind, builds brand awareness, and fosters a sense of belonging and appreciation, making clients feel valued and more likely to engage actively in your process.
4. Schedule the first meeting
Organize an agenda, share it with all the participating stakeholders, and let them know you’ll review it during a kickoff meeting. If you haven’t done it already, this meeting is a good time to set clear goals for communication and service requests. For example, you can use the time to determine meeting frequency, key performance indicators (KPIs), preferred communication methods, and how to handle new service requests that come up but are outside of the agreed scope.
In addition, consider sending a list of questions to everyone who will be present before the meeting so they can be included for discussion. Here are some that can add value to the conversation:
- What are your most important business goals for the coming year?
- What are you most proud of in your business?
- What challenges are you facing or seeing on the horizon?
- What do you think will be most beneficial or valuable about working with our firm?
5. Record and review
After each meeting or interaction, take time to organize your notes and summarize any projects or action items that need attention. Ask the client for feedback and ensure nothing critical is missing.
Remember, your onboarding process is never a set-it-and-forget-it scenario. It will evolve over time as your team grows, as you adopt new technology, and as you expand your service offerings. By periodically reviewing your workflow and gathering client feedback, it will help you to see if all the steps still make sense and that there’s nothing missing.
6. Continue building the relationship and your suite of services
Will part of your services include regular check-ins? During the onboarding, add an item to the agenda: Schedule at least one to two follow-up meetings. This can go a long way toward making sure staying in touch doesn’t fall by the wayside during busy times of the year.
Use these meetings to review progress, discuss additional services, and explore opportunities for expanding your role, such as adding payroll, tax planning, cash flow forecasting, sales and use tax compliance, or even employee benefits administration.
Leverage technology for streamlined onboarding
Creating a system from scratch might seem overwhelming, but technology can help.
Furthermore, there may already be tools in your tech stack that can help, such as
- Client relationship management software. If you already have a CRM set up, it can be used to track client interactions, set reminders for follow-up actions, and maintain a record of communications. This can prevent important engagements, tasks, or client requests from falling through the cracks.
- Document management tools. Your document management software isn’t just for securely storing important documents. Many also offer client portals, which allow you to send and receive documents from clients quickly, securely, and beyond the reach of cybercriminals.
- Workflow automation. Some platforms make it easy to create or use pre-built templates to automate communication. You may be able to send welcome emails, schedule meetings, and trigger follow-up tasks automatically, reducing manual administrative work.
- Accounting software integration. Your internal accounting software can automate client billing and likely even set up recurring electronic funds transfers for subscription pricing plans.
Integrating technology into your client onboarding process lets you focus on the more strategic aspects of your client relationships.
Onboarding is instrumental to the success of your firm
A well-structured client onboarding process is the foundation for establishing strong and lasting client relationships in your firm. It streamlines operations, enhances professionalism, and positions your firm for growth. By following these steps and customizing them to your firm’s and its clients’ specific needs, you can ensure a smooth onboarding experience for clients and set the stage for a successful partnership.