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The DNA of a Great Client Onboarding Process

As an accountant, you’ve likely already figured out how to save time by creating an onboarding process that's as quick and efficient as possible.

But while your time is certainly valuable, the onboarding process is not really about you, it’s about the client.

While every accountant has their own system, there are certain elements—the DNA if you will—of a great onboarding process that should always be included.

The Pre-Work

Before you even begin the onboarding process, you need to understand your business model and the services you offer. This might sound redundant, but ensuring you have clearly defined the level of service you provide and how that service will be delivered, will help to prevent any future misunderstandings. If you don’t have a clear idea from the start, you may end up setting up unrealistic expectations for your client. To make sure everyone is on the same page, write all of these things down, so there’s no confusion later on.

If you’re stuck, Practice Ignition has a great guide for writing service descriptions. If you take the time to do this early on, your clients will have a much better understanding of the scope of work you provide and when to expect things to happen.

Promises and Expectations

No one likes to be sold on a pitch only to find out that the reality doesn’t live up to the expectations. As a result, a good onboarding process should start by identifying what was promised and outlining how you will deliver on those promises. This means covering all of your bases, from what specific problem you intend to help them with (ex. tax preparation), to the apps you’ll be using (ex. QBO), and your availability (ex. regularly scheduled meetings).

Remember, clients often stick with their accountant for years, so this is your opportunity to set up expectations that will define a long-term relationship. If you tell a client that they can contact you any time of day with any question they may have, be prepared to follow through on that promise for the duration of your relationship.

Setting Timelines

Once you’ve gone over what you’ve promised the client and how you’ll deliver, it’s time to go over how things will unfold over the next few days and weeks. Clients sometimes expect instant results, so laying out a timeline can help to give them a more realistic idea of when to expect certain tasks to be done. Your timeline should also outline not only what you’ll be doing, but also what is expected of the client. Remind them that this is a partnership and that both of you need to fulfill certain responsibilities to ensure success.

The first part of your timeline is the most critical as it usually covers the first few weeks. This time may include some exciting tasks such as getting them set up with the cloud software you’ll be using, as well as more routine admin work such as gathering all of their business details. Whatever the first few weeks involve, be sure to communicate this with the client in the most straightforward way possible. It can help to even lay it out in a visual such as the UK firm Raedan has done.

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Keep in mind that the invisible nature of some accounting processes can leave some clients wondering what is actually being done. Giving clients something they can physically see, such as a timeline, can make it easier for them to trust that work is being done.

The Details

The onboarding process is often when a client is most excited, but also when they are most nervous. To quell fears and answer questions, lay out a detailed explanation of what you’ll be doing over the next 90 days (or however long your onboarding process is) and the deadlines for each task. Though this will vary from client to client, it may include tasks such as:

Gathering necessary client information (ie. bank details)

Getting the client set up on a new accounting system

Integrating relevant apps and training the client on how to use them (TIP: ask your technology partners for assistance as they can offer tips and best practices for onboarding a client)

Walking the client through their responsibilities

Explaining how to interpret certain information and empowering clients to better understand their own numbers

How you accomplish these tasks is up to you, but make sure you lay it all out for the client. The easiest way to do this is with a checklist that is broken down into manageable increments. As you cross items off the checklist, you can celebrate those wins with your client. You should also make clear what happens in the event of delays and any additional costs that the client may incur.

The key point here is to lay out a timeline that is informative, but doesn’t feel too overwhelming to the client.

Beyond the First Few Weeks

Most accountants consider a client fully onboarded once the client is trained on all the necessary programs and the work is fully underway. However, it can be helpful to think of onboarding as something that extends beyond that first 90 days. If you want to cultivate a great relationship with your client, you’ll want to make sure that your firm is delivering on its promises and values over the long-term.

For instance, if technology is one of your firm’s core values, ensure that you’re continuing to share new technology with your clients as you grow. On the other hand, if family is a core value, get to know your client and their world on a more personal level. Whatever your values are, keep them in mind well beyond the official onboarding process.

At the end of the day, a successful onboarding process is one where the work being done for the client’s business becomes routine. While a fast onboarding process can be great, taking the time to ensure that expectations are lining up with reality can ensure a better client-accountant relationship in the long run.

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