The Biggest Mistakes Designers Make During The Onboarding Process (And What To Do Instead!)
I know that one of our biggest struggles as designers is how to set up proposals, invoices and contracts.
These are crucial steps made during the client onboarding process (aka the stage in your projects where you familiarize clients with your service(s) and process).
During onboarding you have a TON of opportunity to lay some good groundwork and show clients what they can expect from working with you.
Not only that, but the groundwork you lay here can be used to book ongoing work or get referrals from your clients later! It’s not enough to only deliver a great design experience, it needs to be awesome from top to bottom as soon as someone finds you, not books with you!
A designer friend was actually just telling me about a referral she got from a new client who had only gone through her onboarding process (#goals). Her client felt so taken care of, was so impressed and just really excited about working with my friend that she couldn't help but refer new leads to my friend right away!
I'm just saying, there's a lot of power in this part of the process when you get it right!
(PS my friend and I are getting a training together all about providing an amazing client experience that breeds referrals and ongoing work - so excited to get this out to you in July!)
So today I’m laying out three of the BIGGEST mistakes I see designers make during the client onboarding stage and showing you what to do instead.
Because how your onboarding stage goes is the biggest indicator of how successful a project will be, so it’s important to get right!
I was able to sit down with my buddy Jo of Branding Babes Co and take an inside peek into her client onboarding process - she shows us exactly what her proposals and contracts look like, as well as a look into how she manages her projects once they start (it gave me LOTS of ideas).
She's also a web designer with a paralegal degree, so be sure to listen to her take on contracts that we cover at the end (I've got quick jumps listed for you below the video)
Mistake #1 | You aren’t properly managing client expectations
The onboarding process is the first and most important opportunity you have to let your clients know what to expect from you. If you get it right during this stage, you're pretty much setting the rest of your project up for success, too.
Just for a second, think about yourself when making a large purchase or big decision. That thing is a BIG DEAL to you (because #hardearnedmoney), so you most likely need to understand every part of what that purchase or decision will hold before putting it into action. You want to consider all odds and make sure you're doing the right thing, and that it won't point you in the wrong direction or become a waste of time.
That’s something we can all relate to! We all wanna know what a big investment will look like before we make it, and we want to have a CLEAR understanding of what we’ll get out of it.
So do this for your clients!
Lay out your process and policies in a systematic way. Write down each step that goes into a successful project (I’ve got help for you here!) then slap it onto your service guide and website. Get leads on the phone and talk about it! Make sure they understand your process and be sure to give them an opportunity to ask questions!
You want your services to be crystal clear for your clients so that they know exactly what to expect.
Here’s what to do:
Lay out the entire framework of your process so clients have a clear idea of what it's like to work with you. Lay out what tasks you'll each be responsible for before and after they book (things like "take care of contract + deposit" for your client
Tell clients what your policies are. Let them know things like how you handle payments, if you hold office hours, if there's any work you don't do that might be expected, etc. Make sure your clients know everything they need to about your design process or how you run your business before a proposal or contract is sent!
Get on the phone, listen to your clients and answer any questions they might have!
Mistake #2 | Your client communication could use some tightening up
This is a big area where I see designers not showing up for their clients. Good communication is SO IMPORTANT to develop a great client relationship and see a project succeed!
As you’ll see in the video of me and Jo below, a lot of what we focus on is how to best communicate to our clients during each stage of the onboarding process.
We've spent a lot of time asking ourselves things like:
How can I most clearly tell leads what my service includes?
Did I remember to include how the revision process will work and how many rounds the client will get?
What non-design tasks specifically related to my web design process do I need to make sure the client is clear on before sending their proposal? Things like setting up their domain, SEO, analytics and copywriting...
Think about: Do you even want to offer services like these? If so, which ones? Do you treat them as part of your basic web design package? Should they be separate add-ons?
Am I abundantly clear on what services I offer, and can I explain them easily to clients?
Are there any services or tasks that I will not do for clients, so I'm more prepared to walk away from someone who needs something I can't give?
There are a million ways we can be intentional in our communication with clients. Always think, "How can I make this even better next time?" or, "How can I predict and avoid [this uncomfortable thing that just happened]. How can I tweak my messaging and approach so that it never happens again?"
It’s important to take responsibility in this way when something goes wrong in your business!
I know for me, I only needed to make a VERY simple tweak to my client emails that directly (and immediately) helped me start getting feedback from clients on time*!
What I mean by that is, often times simple solutions are often the best. Nothing needs to be complicated - just intentional.
*Jump to 18:43 in the video below if you're curious what the tweak was - so easy omg 🤓
Here’s what to do:
Map out all of your client touch points and major milestones during a project, from first inquiry to sending a goodbye email at the end of a project.
Once everything's all mapped out and in order, write the type of communication - aka email, project management tool, phone call, etc.
This one’s gonna sound totally un-fun, but it’s going to help you transform your business in the quickest way imaginable. When anything goes wrong in a project, write it down. I actually recommend doing this as an ongoing thing - I have a running list of “project stressors” that I've been adding to for the past couple of years that I directly tie to the peace and love I have around my business.
I don't repeat my mistakes. Writing my stressors out (anything that caused tension or frustration in a project) shows where my opportunities for growth are! I write it down then peel back layers until I'm able to pinpoint the first opportunity I have in my process to fix it. I’ve found that most of the time, it comes down to a communication issue. Humans are tricky things so communication during collaboration can sometimes get skewed, but luckily the more you reflect like this the easier it becomes to avoid those stressful situations :)
Mistake #3 | You aren’t showing your leads and clients that they can trust you
THIS IS A BIG ONE GUYS! And a little hard for me to talk about, because I know I'm gonna sound tough.
But I honestly think we take for granted just how much influence we have on the opinions people form about us!
Everything you say and do gives your leads and clients information about you, for better or worse.
I’ve personally experienced those nightmare projects where the designer is struggling to stay in control and keep the project from getting derailed, but the client seems SO stubborn and won't follow the process or show up how you need them to.
Like, have you ever gone through round after round of revisions and had the client hate everything you did?? Maybe they ended up sending you hand-drawn sketches of what they wanted or started sending you design ideas without understanding how it would (or wouldn't) translate on their site?
If so, your client likely started to doubt that you understood their needs and point of view, and probably decided you wouldn't be able to deliver what they wanted. They trusted themselves more than you to bring their vision to life.
Or maybe you know what it’s like to have a client who, instead of asking you for your advice about something they didn’t connect with in their design, sent links to 20+ sites with notes about elements and features they liked, expecting you to tie it all into a cohesive and beautiful design.
Your client probably didn’t believe you had the skillset, creativity or technical know-how to help them get what they needed.
BUT HOLD THE PHONE. Cuz I know you’re a bad ass designer with amazing ideas and experience to back it up.
It's not that you don't have the skills, experience or creativity to do a great job. It's that you need to show your clients how dependable and talented you really are! And more importantly, ensure them that you can help them get to their next level of business.
Okay soooo what should I do?
I know I’ve already said this, but the best thing you can do is start being intentional about showing your trustworthiness. This is all about your positioning.
Make sure to hop on the phone with your leads and tell them things like, “I’m so excited about this project - I loved hearing everything about you and what you’re doing. I know we could create something so beautiful and cool together!”
And instead of having your clients come to you with “X, Y + Z” (a list of things they want on their website*), use "X, Y + Z" as a starting point for a much bigger conversation about how their business runs and what their unique needs are.
This allows you to turn your discovery calls into an assessment that leaves your potential clients feeling heard, supported and excited.
You'll be able to assess their goals, organize what they need, reflect it back to them and offer a game plan that includes things they might not have expected (double win if you can help them come up with a more efficient game plan that helps them avoid a headache later)
* 9 times out of 10, your client will have a solid idea of their website needs. But there will also be times where you can step up and guide someone into a better direction that really shows them that YOU'RE the design expert. I’ve done this many times when it comes to where to purchase a domain, what email platform to get on, etc. Getting into consultation mode like this instantly positions you as an expert and lays down a huge layer of trust between you and your clients. DO IT!
My onboarding chat with Jo!
Okay I know I peppered in lots of stuff about the video above, so you probably already guessed how excited I am to share this lil training with you!
I personally walked away with a fresh outlook on proposals + a clever way to help my clients stay on-task during our projects. It’s so good!
The beauty of Jo’s approach is how simple and straightforward it is (something you probably need after digesting my points above). She only includes the most important information, but it’s the right info. Just proof that sometimes easiest is best 😉
You'll also notice how Jo carries herself and talks about her process. SO PROFESSIONAL HUH?? But easy! You don't need to be pushy or assertive to show clients that you know what you're talking about, just intentional and organized!
Here’s what you’re gonna learn (+ quick jumps!):
0:30 Get to know Jo and understand why she’s such an awesome designer, business owner + human being
3:05 See how we lay the groundwork for our projects (like how we get clear on the services we offer + type of client we wanna work with)
5:20 How to present your services in your proposal + position yourself as an expert (Jo shares a real proposal from one of her client projects - one of my favorite parts of this chat!)
9:45 Pricing….determining how to charge for your services and why it’s important to understand your audience when determining your prices
14:30 Enforcing revisions + how to tell your clients that you’ll need to add a fee to their invoice for more revisions (go to 30:30 to learn how Jo adds these to invoices when they come up)
17:51 Communication is yer frand
19:20 An easy way to keep clients on-task without using a project management tool (plus a BTS peek into how Jo does this at 21:40)
24:08 Getting all the info you need up front before sending your client a proposal (and avoid those “surprise” tasks that always seem to pop up once a project gets going)
25:57 Designer confidence + stepping into a boss mentality
28:38 A look at Jo’s contract and how she handles it
31:33 Jo’s top contract tips (late fees, making sure you’re able to promote your work after the project is over and wtf do you need to know about intellectual property)
38:15 How Jo handles contracts + proposals for ongoing work/smaller jobs
And a favor!
If you learned anything new from this post and video, can you share the blog post with your buds? I know a lot of us can get so stuck with the onboarding process and I really wanna start seeing more conversations about it!