How well do you reinforce your clients’ purchase decision in the client onboarding phase of your relationship?
Let’s face it, the MOST engaged your clients will ever be is when they sign that first contract, or pay that first deposit. They are excited and hopeful about the outcomes you are going to achieve for their business. They are ready and willing to roll up their sleeves and give this thing a red-hot crack with you.
But they are also seeking reassurance. Early on in the engagement, they are looking for proof – be it perceived or actual proof – that agreeing to work with your agency was a good idea.
It’s kind of like when you buy a new pair of jeans. You get home, try them on, and hope for some positive reinforcement from your friends and family. If you don’t get the reaction you were hoping for you might simply fold up the jeans, place them in a drawer and never wear them again.
Do you want to be the agency that is left collecting dust at the bottom of the jean drawer?
Of course not. So you need to think strategically about the things you can do in the onboarding phase of your client relationship to:
- Promptly reinforce the purchase decision, and;
- Lay the groundwork for long-term retention.
If you are serious about retention then you will already be thinking about that next contract as soon as they sign the first one.
The key to achieving these two outcomes from the client onboarding phase is to:
- Develop a long-term strategy that positions your agency as a strategic partner for at least 12 months.
- Document, optimize, and automate your onboarding processes as much as possible.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these elements.
Developing a long-term strategy
Content marketing takes a long time to deliver noticeable results in most cases. This can be both a blessing and a burden for agencies.
On the negative side of things, some people find it hard to wrap their head around investing in something that has a long lead time and no tangible outcome.
But if you do a good job of educating your clients about the power and necessity of content over time, then it presents an opportunity. A huge opportunity.
If your clients buy into the worth of content and are willing to trust you with the direction of their business, you can leverage this to architect the next 12 months of your relationship together. Along that road, you will spot further opportunities to embed yourself in the makeup of their business and be a part of the boardroom furniture before you know it.
A well-put-together content strategy looks at the entire journey of the customer from stranger to premium recurring client, and all the bits in-between that influence that journey. I won’t go into great detail about creating a content strategy because you’re already an expert at doing that. Instead, let’s take a look at the key elements of a content strategy from the perspective of planning ahead and retaining clients.
- Set goals and metrics. If you don’t have something to work towards, and a way to measure it… Then you and your client will never know if you are succeeding. Craft a long-term vision for each of your clients and set monthly, quarterly, and annual goals that contribute to that vision. This will help you report on the progress.
- Build in a research phase. A lot of businesses want to jump straight into the “strategy” development… Basically, an aimless brainstorming session that makes them feel like they planned something. As you are designing the engagement, build in time for researching the client’s audience, keywords, influencers, and opportunities to expand the brand’s reach. This not only improves the chances of a successful engagement, but it also extends the scope of work.
- Partner the strategy with an editorial calendar. The most important thing here is to educate your clients about the importance of staying consistent with their content production and publication. Even if you only plan one blog post a month, it keeps you present and active during the engagement so they know something is happening. To keep everything on track and provide your clients’ with visibility of this activity, put content ideas in an editorial calendar for the next 6-12 months and develop a client approval process using a tool like FlypChart.
- Diversify the type of content you create. There’s a lot more to an effective content strategy than just writing and publishing blog posts. You need to create different types of content to complement, reinforce and extend your written content. By planning a diverse set of content types with your clients, you keep things interesting, open up opportunities for expanding your services and create more ongoing value.
- Focus on SEO optimization. SEO is one of the primary reasons people create content regularly, and it is perhaps a big reason why your clients are working with you. The great thing about SEO is that it’s a fairly mature service and most business owners appreciate that it takes a long time to kick into gear. Use this knowledge to your advantage when creating the content strategy for your clients and demonstrate the things you plan on doing that will help them improve their search engine performance.
- Plan other projects and campaigns and put them on the calendar. Obviously, you can’t predict the trends and tactics that will be important in 12 months, because digital marketing is always changing. But think ahead and put a regular cadence of other projects or ongoing maintenance and optimization deliverables into the calendar. For example, you might do a quarterly conversion audit, build a lead nurturing drip sequence in the first 90 days, or plan a bi-annual campaign or promotion. These things not only increase the “stickiness” of your services over time, but they also provide an opportunity to increase the revenue value of each client by expanding the services you offer.
Optimizing your onboarding processes
As I mentioned earlier, your new clients are excited about working with you. They have visualized the results you are going to help them achieve, and already started mentally buying that speedboat they have always wanted.
But they also need their purchase decision to be reinforced. They signed up for an “idea”. They made a decision based on a set of emotions that your marketing and sales team inspired in them. As much as you can scope out an engagement on paper, it’s all intangible until the work kicks into gear. It’s a fantasy that you need to deliver on.
While developing a strategy that aligns with your service-offering is important for retaining clients long-term, it’s pointless if you don’t back it up with a well-oiled onboarding process. If your first 90-days of working together don’t create a positive impact, you can be sure they will pack up their bags and leave. They have just bought a new Ferrari and want to take it for a spin to make sure it’s everything they dreamed of. Something they can tell their friends about. Don’t swap the Ferrari out for a second-hand Ford Fiesta.
There are three areas of the onboarding process you need to optimize to create an unforgettable client experience every time:
1. Workflows and processes
This part of the onboarding process needs to align with the scope of work you have agreed to in the sales conversation.
It’s critical early in a new client engagement that you figure out exactly how the work is going to get done. Who is accountable for each part of the strategy execution? Most of the time the client will want to play a role, even if it’s just overseeing the process and approving the final work products.
The best way to optimize your approach is to segment your service offering up into chunks. Document the workflows, processes, and accountability for each of those chunks and then use this documentation to keep clients informed at every step on the journey.
By segmenting up your service offering into productized chunks, it makes it easier for you to contract with clients, onboard with reliability, and also establish consistency with your pricing.
Here are some example “service chunks” for a blog content service package:
- Writing articles
- Uploading articles to their website
- Optimizing articles for SEO
- Promoting articles to social media
- Managing paid promotion
- Influencer outreach
- Link building
These chunks might seem granular, but that’s exactly what you are looking for. Now, instead of just offering a blanket “blog content service”, you enable your clients to pick and choose the parts of the package they need most. It’s like they are selecting from a menu.
If you then document and systemize the onboarding process for each individual “service chunk” you have in your armory, the whole thing becomes a breeze. Think of everything you could possibly need during this process. Things like client email templates, relevant industry case study examples, informative how-to articles, and answers to frequently asked questions.Your account managers can then jump into a shared library of onboarding collateral and get what they need, instead of recreating the wheel every time.
Documented processes are great, but you will also need an appropriate set of software tools to seamlessly onboard new clients and begin delivering results.
Ideally, you will have a stack of tools that you use with all of your clients. However, the world of digital agencies is not always (almost never) perfect and you will need to adapt to the choices your clients already have for these things.
Either way, here are some of the tools you will need to onboard and deliver for your content marketing clients:
- Project management – Basecamp, Trello or Asana are good options.
- Email marketing or CRM – ActiveCampaign, Infusionsoft, Campaign Monitor, or HubSpot are great agency choices.
- Content planning and collaboration – FlypChart helps you plan, schedule and post all of your clients’ marketing content from one place. A great way to give your clients’ visibility of their blog, social, and email activity, as well as letting them approve content before it gets published.
- Social media management – There are lots of tools in this space and it depends on your agreed scope of work with the client. For scheduling, FlypChart will do the job. But for managing inboxes, commenting, monitoring, and follower growth, something like SproutSocial is worth a look.
- Analytics reporting. This will depend on your size and the expectations of the client, but you should have a way to deliver regular reports to your clients. Something like Google Analytics is a minimum requirement.
- Content management – You’ll need access to your client’s website for publishing content. WordPress or Squarespace are most common.
- Document sharing. Google Docs is great for sharing documents because it has a built-in commenting system and a way to track changes.
- Communication. You may choose multiple tools for communication and create rules for each one. The makeup will likely include a messaging tool like Slack, a video conferencing tool like Skype or Zoom, email, and phone.
Whatever toolset you go with, the transition needs to be smooth for your clients. Use something like LastPass to share passwords, get access to the tools and systems you need to as quickly as possible, and have a strict process in place for setting up each of your chosen tools for your clients so the work is minimized for them and it all feels like a breeze.
3. Quality assurance (QA)
As your agency grows it becomes harder to maintain the same level of quality that your first group of clients experienced. After all, they were dealing directly with you or some early team members. Everyone was extremely invested in the relationship and making it successful.
As much as you can tick all the boxes from a recruitment and training perspective, the fact of the matter is that your account managers and other team members will have nuanced ways to deliver on what appears to be the same scope of work. You can’t just assume that you and your clients’ high standards for quality will be upheld.
To some extent, you need to give up control and let your team do what they do. But you can also bridge the gap between your expectations and the end deliverables by documenting quality assurance (QA) checklists and guidelines. Every “service chunk” that you offer clients should have associated QA collateral, checks, and balances.
During the onboarding phase of your relationship, you will most likely customize these resources so they suit each individual client. Every client will have different expectations and requests. These little bits and pieces should be captured in your QA collateral and adhered to.
Here’s why QA documentation is so important to client retention:
- It sets quality expectations with your clients from day one, that they agree with.
- It lets your client know that quality is important to your agency and that you have checks and balances in place to meet their expectations.
- It holds your team accountable to a certain level of quality with everything they do.
- It ensures that you are always meeting your clients’ quality expectations, making retention a no-brainer.
In combination, a well-oiled onboarding process, and a long-term content strategy that embeds you in the client’s’ organization, helps keep your clients happy and willing to stick around.