If you’re looking to uplevel your business as an online service provider (and save a bunch of time while doing it), introducing a client onboarding automation is one of the best ways to do it. Setting this system up is super helpful for you AND it can also go a long way to project your professionalism to your clients.
Having a client onboarding system is super important, and most service providers have at least something set up for this (if you don’t — that’s okay, too!). But you want to get to a place where you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every single time you onboard a new client…so that’s where client onboarding automation comes in!
A few years ago, I developed a client onboarding automation system for my business and it’s probably one of my FAVORITE systems, because of how easy and helpful it is! (And my clients love it, too!)
In this post, I’m going to go over how to set up not only a really amazing client onboarding experience, but a client onboarding automation that will allow you to onboard your clients on autopilot!
Even my clients often come out and say “Oh my gosh, I love your onboarding process!” Has a client ever said that to you before? If not, it’s time to wow them! And maybe, just like me, your clients will even start to ask you to set up a client onboarding system for them.
What’s a Client Onboarding System?
Before I go into the nitty gritty how-tos of setting up something like this for yourself, I first want to talk about what the heck it actually is.
Basically, onboarding your clients means taking them from Point A (not a client, possibly a stranger) to Point B (active client that you are doing work for).
There are quite a few steps in between those points, which is exactly why I’ve created this Client Onboarding Checklist for you, so that you can make sure you have all the pieces in place.
What’s a CRM and How Does it Fit In?
CRM stands for client relationship management, and it pretty much refers to any type of system you have set up that keeps your clients on track and helps you onboard them.
Examples of CRM systems include: Streak, 17Hats, Dubsado, and Satori.
17Hats and Dubsado are software programs that assist in the client onboarding process. They are pretty popular in the online service provider niche, so you may have heard of them before.
My main goal for this blog post is to show you how to replace 17Hats or Dubsado completely for free.
Dubsado starts at $35 per month, which can add up to quite a bit of money over time (up to $420 per year). That’s a lot, especially if you are just getting started out!
17Hats is even more expensive, with their monthly plan costing $45 (although it does get significantly cheaper if you sign up for the 2-year plan, which averages out to $16.50 per month). But you’re still going to wind up spending anywhere between $200-$540 per year.
If you follow my directions for setting up a client onboarding automation instead, you will save that money and be able to onboard clients completely for free! (Plus, it runs on autopilot, just like Dubsado or 17Hats, so you get the same functionality for a lot less $$$.)
Step #1: Creating Your Client Onboarding Workflow
The first step is to get all the actual pieces of your client onboarding system ready to go. You don’t have to start from scratch… Download my checklist to make sure that you have all of the necessary elements!
Once you have all of those pieces ready, it’s time to create a workflow. This will help you conceptualize exactly how your new clients are going to get from Point A to Point B (which we talked about earlier).
I like to use the online tool LucidChart to help me envision any new process that I’m about to create. It allows you to design workflows and funnels using circles/boxes, arrows, and text.
Here’s an example of a client onboarding workflow that I created using LucidChart:
Basically, you just want to outline for yourself all the steps that are part of your client onboarding process. Here’s what all of those steps look like written out:
- Client finds my “Work With Us” page
- Client decides to book a discovery call
- Client books an appointment using my scheduling software
- Client gets a confirmation email
- Client gets a welcome email from me
- Client gets an appointment reminder email
- Discovery call
- Client is sent a follow-up email with link to my welcome kit
- Client is sent a contract and signs
- Client is added as a “customer” in my bookkeeping software
- Client is sent their first invoice and pays
- Client is added as a new project in Asana
- Client is added as a new project in Toggl
- Client books a follow-up call
- Follow-up call
- Client is sent a follow-up email
As you can see, there are quite a few steps involved! A software like 17Hats or Dubsado can automate almost all of this for you (which is why they are so popular!). But, like I mentioned, you have to pay quite a bit of money for those features. (And, honestly, a lot of them are pretty janky and don’t always work.)
So, instead, I’m going to show you how to set up your client onboarding automation for free!
This saves you money and improves the client experience. It gives you complete control over the system, allowing you to add features and customization that might be difficult or impossible to do with a “one-size-fits-all” tool.
Step #2: Choosing Your Tools
The automation process that I’m going to outline for you in this post utilizes certain specific software programs. As a digital marketer for the past 5+ years, I’ve tried out many many MANY systems, tools, and programs. I’ve worked with them ALL.
So trust me when I say that I’ve done the testing for you! The ones I’m talking about today are the best.
But, if you are already using different tools than the ones I mention in this tutorial, there is a good chance that you can probably still automate your system if you follow my directions and simply substitute your tools instead of the ones I mention (you just might have to do some “figuring it out”).
The tools that I will be using for this particular tutorial are:
Step #3: Automation Station
Now that you have all the pieces in place and you’ve chosen your tools, it’s time to integrate everything together using automation!
The tool that I use to automate everything in my client onboarding workflow is Zapier.
If you haven’t heard of Zapier before, it’s an online app that helps you connect different tools and programs together using developer API. It’s a little confusing to explain, but it’s SO COOL.
Basically, Zapier allows you to set up automations like: “If X app does Y action, then Z app should do A, B, and C.”
If you’ve heard of IFTTT, Zapier is very similar, but more robust.
Although personally I have a paid Zapier account so that I can use their premium apps and features, it’s not necessary for what we’re doing today. If you want to do fancy stuff or add more zaps, you’ll definitely want to upgrade. (It’s a MUST in my business, and I’d much rather spend my money on a tool like this than something else).
Just so you know, the paid Zapier plan starts at just $19.99/month. It allows you to build multi-step zaps and use their “Filter” app, which allows you to get really specific with your triggers. You’ll see below how I maximize my use of Zapier.
Step #4: Hooking It All Up
Booking the Call
The first step is to hook up your Acuity scheduler (they have a free plan!) with WordPress.
On my Work With Us page, instead of having someone fill out a form or email me, I have them book a discovery call right away. This limits the amount of correspondence I have to do before booking a new client. Plus, it makes it much easier to automate the whole system! Also, video is where I really shine, so I love talking to potential clients on Zoom (also free!).
You don’t have to do this, but if you don’t send them right to your scheduler, you’re adding an extra step into the process that can’t be automated, since it requires you to respond to each inquiry personally via email.
I also love that you can easily embed your Acuity scheduler into a page on your website (even on their free plan!) so that it looks even more professional. Here’s what mine looks like: www.mirandanahmias.com/appointment-scheduler
Confirmation & Email Response
Once that person books a call, Acuity automatically sends them a confirmation notice.
If you go into Acuity’s Email Settings, you can even edit the confirmation email to include certain information. This is where I let the client know that we’ll be meeting on Zoom, and I give them my URL.
After the client books a call, they also receive a personal email response from me (you can find the template for this in The Systems Society!). I used to individually reply to each person with a canned response. Now, I have it set up to be even more automated than that!
To set up your automated reply, create a Zap that connects Acuity and Gmail together.
The Zap should start with Acuity and run every time someone books a call. (If you have multiple appointment types for things that aren’t discovery calls, you will need the paid plan to use the Zapier “filter” app to send this to just discovery call bookers).
When my Zap using the paid plan runs, it does three things:
- Creates a Gmail contact with the person’s name and email address.
- Creates a Gmail label for that person in my “Client Correspondence” folder.
- Sends them the automated response.
But for the free version, you’ll want it to just send an email.
For the “When This Happens…”:
- Set the app as “Acuity Scheduling.”
- Set the trigger event as ”New Appointment.”
For the “Do This…”:
- Set the app as Gmail
- Set the action event as “Send Email”
- Under “Customize Email” add in the email address from your Acuity sample.
- Fill out all the customization options and insert your email text!
You can even set it up so that the email includes an attachment. I use this feature to include my “Needs Assessment” checklist, which is basically a list of all the services I provide!
Once it’s time for the call, a reminder email needs to get sent out to your new potential client. If you have the paid Acuity plan (I have it and love it!), those email reminders go out automatically.
But, like I said, this is a free tutorial! You don’t have to purchase the paid Acuity plan to make this work. Here is a work-around.
In Zapier, set up a Zap that starts with Acuity. Choose the “Appointment Start” trigger. Then input the number of hours/days before the appointment you would like to send out your reminder.
Then, connect it with Gmail (just like we did above) and create an automated response that just says something like:
“Hi [Client Name]! Just a friendly reminder that our appointment starts in [Amount of Time]. Remember, we’ll be meeting in my Zoom room. Here is the URL you’ll need to join when it’s time: [URL]. Can’t wait to chat with you!”
Follow-Up Email After the Discovery Call
While you can’t automate this part completely, that’s okay, because you probably won’t want to!
To make sure that a follow-up email gets sent to each new potential client after their discovery call, I have a Zap that runs between Acuity and Asana that creates a new task to send a follow-up email to anyone who books a call with me. This automatically gets scheduled for the day of the call.
Once it’s time to send the follow-up email, I use Gmail to send one of 3 canned responses.
(Don’t know what canned responses are? Here’s a tutorial!)
- Canned Response #1: I have one canned response set up for if the client did not say “yes” on the call, which is just your typical follow-up email.
- Canned Response #2: I also have a canned response for if the client did say “yes” on the call, which is a welcome email that includes a link to my welcome kit.
- Canned Response #3: If we aren’t going to be working together for whatever reason, I use this canned response.
My “welcome kit” is actually a dedicated page I have set up on my website. It includes a welcome video, a list of next steps, and my “How I Work” information. I recommend setting it up as a website page vs. a PDF so that it’s easier to update! (I also think it looks a little bit more fancy and professional.)
Those next steps in my welcome kit let the client know that they will receive their contract and invoice soon.
(P.S. The templates for all of these emails and the welcome kit are in The Systems Society!)
Sending the Contract
Immediately after I send out my welcome email to a new client, I hop over to HelloSign to send out my contract.
Unfortunately, HelloSign doesn’t directly integrate with Zapier (unless you have HelloSign’s super fancy $99/month plan), so there’s no great way to automate this part of the process. It’s the one piece in this client onboarding automation tutorial that doesn’t run as smoothly as I’d like it to!
But, still, HelloSign is awesome and makes the process super easy.
You can send 3 contracts per month on their free plan. If you do more business than that, you’ll want to upgrade to their $13/month plan. That plan also lets you upload a reusable template!
Having that reusable template, although not free, is what can make this process super easy and fast. I have a contract template PDF that I created for my business. This is pre-loaded in HelloSign as a reusable template.
The PDF that I designed leaves a space for the sign date, the client’s name, and our signatures, but the rest is pre-written and ready to go.
If you have the free account, instead of having it pre-loaded in HelloSign as a template, you should just keep it saved on your computer as a PDF. Then, the next time you need to send a contract, upload that PDF template (with the blank spaces) to HelloSign. Edit it to add the date, client’s name, and create signature boxes. Then sign and send off to the client.
Although this part isn’t “automated” per se, it shouldn’t take more than 2 minutes. (And it takes like 10 seconds if you have the paid plan).
After you prepare and sign your contract, HelloSign will automatically send an email to the client requesting their signature. Then you will get a notification when they have signed it.
Sending the Invoice
Next up in your client onboarding automation, it’s time to send your brand-new client their very first invoice.
I have a Zap set up so that whenever someone books a discovery call with me, their information automatically gets sent over to Wave (free invoicing/bookkeeping tool!) and it creates a new Customer file for them.
Since there isn’t a good trigger to use for after they say “yes,” I use the Acuity discovery call trigger (same trigger as above and previous zaps). As soon as someone books a discovery call, a zap creates their Customer file in Wave. This does mean that occasionally there are customers created who I never end up actually invoicing. But that doesn’t really matter!
Note: Although I still recommend Wave for all newer business owners, I eventually switched over to QuickBooks once we became an LLC and hired an official bookkeeper. This process works the same with either tool!
With the customer information already inputted (and assuming you already have a product created for your service packages), sending out that new invoice can be done in seconds. Simply input the customer’s name, add the correct package, and click Send!
Asana & Toggl
During the same Zap that is set up to create a new Customer in Wave, I also have it create a new Project in Asana and a new Project in Toggl. This makes it super easy to begin on tasks for new clients as soon as I get my first assignment!
Since the free Zapier plan doesn’t include multi-step zaps, you’ll need to set this up as another new zap. Use the Acuity discovery call trigger again and then hook it up to Toggl as shown below.
Then use the same process to link it to Asana. Once someone books an Acuity discovery call, Zapier will automatically create a Wave Customer file, Toggl Project, and Asana Project. This makes it super easy to get to work!
Since I rarely have clients who don’t book with me, this trigger works well for me. But just in case, I also have a recurring task set up in Asana at the end of each month for me to go back and remove the people in Wave and Toggl who did not end up booking.
I consider it an important part of the onboarding process to set up a follow-up call with any new clients. This call makes sure that we are on the same page, and we can go through some of the nitty-gritty of the upcoming project(s).
In my client welcome kit, I make sure to instruct them to book this call, and include another link to my scheduling page.
When they book their call, they get the same type of automatic confirmation email from Acuity that we talked about earlier. (And you’ll want to make sure you make sure they get a reminder email, too).
My follow-up email zap runs again and gives me a new task in Asana so that I remember to send them a canned response after that call, which breaks down everything that we went over.
And that’s it! The step-by-step tutorial of how to create a client onboarding automation for free!
If you have any questions about my client onboarding automation process or need more help with setting up Zapier, don’t hesitate to reach out.
Note: I try to keep this post updated with all of the latest information, but prices of products and feature availability may be out of date. I originally published it in 2017 and last updated it in 2020. Since originally publishing this post, I no longer work with hourly clients. Because of that, some of these steps aren’t how I currently onboard my package-based clients (i.e. we don’t have a kick-off call). But this is still the process I use for clients when I take on custom work or specialty projects. It will work great for you if you want to onboard your own custom or hourly clients. For more information on how I recommend packaging your services and onboarding those clients, I break it down a TON in The Systems Society.