Ask freelancers what their number one pain-in-the-ass difficulty with running a business is, and you bet they’ll say onboarding new clients.
Incompatible values, unclear expectations, and unrealistic timescales all result in project delays—or worse, onboarding the wrong clients.
Onboarding new clients is an essential part of running a freelancing business. Some 75% of full-time freelancers chose a freelancing career because they want the ability to choose their own projects. Good onboarding allows you to choose the right client for your business.
However, as freelance writer Ashley R. Cummings says, “It can be challenging to know how to manage freelance clients and produce compelling content efficiently.”
In this guide, you’ll find a step-by-step process for onboarding new clients along with six bonus tips you can use. Get the process right and you’ll save yourself time, and effort, whilst building a professional reputation.
- What is client onboarding?
- Benefits of good client onboarding
- How to onboard new freelance clients
- Tips for onboarding freelance clients
What is client onboarding?
Onboarding covers every step from the moment a prospective client reaches out with an inquiry, to kicking off your first freelance content or copywriting project. It’s all about organization—one of the top nine freelance writing skills you’ll need to succeed.
Give new customers confidence that you’re a pro freelancer by having clear onboarding procedures that set expectations.
Your goal is to provide new clients with all the information they need about the services you offer (and those you don’t.) Bring new clients up to speed with your process, and kick projects off fast.
The benefits of good client onboarding
Some 55% of freelancers work full-time whilst running a freelance business—and that figure is expected to rise. It’s estimated that freelancers will account for over 50% of the total US workforce by 2027. That’s serious competition for the freelancing community.
Given that 70% of freelancers juggle between two and four projects at the same time, a good client onboarding experience can improve your workflow and make you stand out from the competition.
Let’s take a look at some other benefits of strong client onboarding so you can set the tone for great collaboration and freelance client retention.
Increase your efficiency
The first couple of years in business are tough. According to our data, over half of established freelance writers earn less than $30K per year. Clear processes and boundaries speed up the onboarding process, so you can go from inquiry to paid invoice in as little time as possible.
Become more efficient with your client onboarding process and:
- Reduce error. Human error affects every business. Minimize the risk of mistakes in your workflow by having an onboarding process that automates repetitive tasks, such as standardizing a questionnaire using Typeform or Google Forms.
- Increase output. Efficient onboarding processes help you get more done with less time. Use productivity tools such as Asana and get a complete overview of each stage of the onboarding process. It’ll help you prioritize daily tasks to keep things running smoothly.
- Faster onboarding. Save time going back and forth with potential clients via email. A good onboarding process allows you to give potential clients answers to what they need—before they ask for it.
Be seen as a pro freelancer
If you’re seen as a freelancer that knows what they’re doing, clients—be that social media managers or content managers—will be more receptive to paying higher rates for your services. They’ll also be more likely to hire you repeatedly. (It’s these monthly retainers that drive consistent revenue for your freelance business.)
A streamlined process for onboarding new clients plays into that. It can set you apart from other freelancers and show that you’re taking your and your client’s business seriously.
Take it from Steven Macdonald, co-founder of Kingspoint, who has spent more than $100,000 on freelancers and worked with 50+ writers. He says, “The entire process is time-consuming and creates a lot of additional work, so when it comes to onboarding, I want it to be as easy as possible.”
“The job of a writer is to a) deliver great work and b) make the process easy for the client. Do those two things consistently and you’ll keep your clients happy for a very long time.”Steven Macdonald, co-founder of Kingspoint
A defined onboarding process will allow you to get to know a brand and its products/services, too. If you request a demo of your client’s software as part of your onboarding process, for example, you’ll quickly get up to speed with the features you’ll reference in future content.
Avoid bad-fit clients
Starting out as a freelancer can be challenging. You need to make money, so you need to get clients who will pay for your services.
It’s easy to say yes to every inquiry that comes your way. But you’re bound to run into bad-fit clients that make your freelance business challenging. Indecisive, dismissive, or non-committal clients can make freelancing a headache rather than an enjoyable career.
New customers that don’t respect your time, for example, can eat into your personal life. That can amplify quickly into burnout. A request to be available 24/7 demonstrates a lack of understanding and empathy—and let’s face it, disrespect is something you should avoid like the plague. You chose to freelance for the choice and flexibility, right?
It takes courage to turn down work–especially when things are slow or you’re in the early stages of freelancing. But with a strong onboarding process, you’ll find red flags before committing to a project with bad-fit clients.
2b. Ensure to always vet clients even though you're in need of cash. Watch out for red flags that exist, that may be a problem later on.— Abel Idume 🎨 (@a_idume) August 12, 2022
That you're broke doesn't stop you from exercising due diligence when onboarding clients.
Being broke ≠ Accept nonsense
How to onboard a new freelance client
Follow these six steps for onboarding a new client and have clarity from the beginning. Avoid unnecessary problems later on.
- Do a background check
- Schedule a discovery call
- Forward your proposal
- Issue your contract
- Send a deposit invoice
- Arrange a kick-off meeting
1. Do a background check
Pre-onboarding is an essential part of the onboarding process. It helps avoid the pitfalls of working with a mismatched client by finding out more about them before agreeing to any work.
Pre-onboarding sets clear expectations for both the freelancer and the client. It’ll help you figure out whether a client agrees to your terms and conditions, such as key milestones, access to relevant data, or other assets which you need.
In an expert interview for Peak Freelance All Access members, John Bonini, founder of Some Good Content and the director of marketing at Databox said, “The writers need to also evaluate the client right back and say, “Hey, these are the things typically that I need to do great work.”
Develop a series of templates, such as pre-onboarding questionnaires, to carry out a background check on your client. Screen a potential client by using these sample questions:
- What’s your budget for this project?
- Have you worked with freelancers before? How did that go?
- What’s your preferred method of communication?
- What does your payment schedule look like?
2. Schedule a discovery call
If their responses fit with your own values and processes, arrange a discovery call. This meeting, usually on Zoom or via phone call, helps you get to know prospects and work out if there’ll be a good fit.
Discovery calls aren’t always for closing a deal—they’re used to figure out what your client’s needs are, and whether you can provide a solution. Only then should you continue the onboarding process and take them on as a new client.
Use your discovery call as a tool to thrash out finer details, such as:
- The scope and budget for the project
- The clients’ main objectives
- Who their competitors are
- Key milestones, such as editing or publication dates
- Communication preferences, such as whether they prefer to chat via email/Slack, and how soon they expect a response
“Initially, I used to ask my client to fill out a brief and give them the option to send me internal marketing collateral like product demos. Eventually, I found out that there was no way I could truly market their product if I didn’t have access to specific bits of info. Now, I’m particular about communicating my terms before the contract stage so that the onboarding goes smoothly.”Tanaaz Khan, freelance content writer
3. Forward your proposal
If you think a potential client could be a good fit following the discovery call, the next stage is to send a proposal.
Showcase what you can offer with a detailed proposal. This document proposal is an investment and influences your chances of closing the deal, so take your time crafting it. Persuade a potential client you’re the right person for the job.
Important things to include in your proposal include:
- An overview of the project
- Your process
- Pricing and payment terms
- Things you need from the client
Every proposal should be tailored to the individual client you’re onboarding. Keep it human; clients prefer to work with real people who they can build a relationship with.
Be prepared to discuss elements of your proposal and renegotiate. A client may pushback on how many revisions are included or your price by asking for a discount. Only agree with what you feel comfortable with. If your client still disagrees with your proposal after you’ve made any changes, then perhaps they’re not the best client for you.
4. Issue your contract
A contract protects you and your client from misunderstandings.
Common issues freelancers face when working without a contract include key milestones, the number of revisions included in your fee, and payment terms—the latter of which can result in overdue invoices. A quarter of freelancers are currently thinking about leaving their freelance career due to late payments.
Avoid having your work exploited without any legal backup in place to challenge your client. And most of all, get paid for the work you do.
In other words: a contract commits you and your client to what you’ve agreed.
Your contract should include:
- The names and contact details of you and your client
- Scope of the project, including any SEO keywords, access to resources, and target audience information
- The deliverables, such as landing pages or blog posts
- Information about edits and revisions
- Timescales, key milestones, and completion dates
- Cost, payment terms, and the process for late payment
- Ownership rights to content
- Termination clause, should either of you terminate the contract without mutual agreement
- Signatures and dates of both parties
Simplify the process by sending your contract through a document signature platform, such as PandaDoc or Dropbox Sign. Once it’s been signed by both parties, you’ve got the green light to start working with a new freelance client.
Freelance Friends: Here’s your reminder to always have a contract in place. They establish your boundaries, protect you from legal action, and ensure you get paid.— Harlow (@MeetHarlow) October 31, 2022
5. Send a deposit invoice
Although asking for a deposit upfront isn’t essential, it’s a great way to get commitment from your client. You don’t want them changing their minds when you’ve agreed to start work next month.
Deposits are great if you’re working on big projects and banking on a large payment. Should your client ghost you after you’ve scheduled the work in your calendar, sent them an outline, or final product, you’ll have some money up front for the effort and time you’ve put in.
As a rule of thumb, you should ask for at least 20-50% of the full project fee—but it’s totally up to you, and whatever you feel comfortable with charging upfront.
Read more: 7 Best Free and Paid Accounting Software for Freelancers
6. Arrange a kick-off meeting
You’re clear on the scope of work and you’ve got your contract signed. Next up, schedule a kick-off meeting.
The check-in meeting gives you a chance to chat about the information you need to do a great job. Whether it’s a chat with their current designer or product marketing manager, your goal is to uncover their product features and customer pain points–saving you a lot of time researching for information. (It ultimately creates better content with a higher conversion rate for your clients, too.)
“As a writer, it’s crucial for me to have access to existing assets, product demos, messaging and style guides, and the product itself. If a client refuses to offer specific information and wants you to “figure it out” — I know they’re not a great fit.”Tanaaz Khan, freelance B2B content writer
6 tips for onboarding new clients
Clients pay higher rates when they have confidence and trust in a freelancer. Your onboarding process plays a role in that, and demonstrates your expertise from the get-go.
Now we know what the onboarding process looks like, let’s take a look at six onboarding tips from established freelance writers. Implement these onboarding techniques and turn your business into a success.
- Allow enough time to onboard
- Be clear with your expectations
- Remain flexible
- Avoid miscommunication
- Be willing to say no
- Ask follow-up questions
1. Allow enough time to onboard
Good onboarding takes time and patience. Allow space in your schedule to get to grips with their brand and understand what their values and brand tone are.
Dimana Markova, founder and managing director of Down to Earth Marketing says, “The one piece of advice I would give to a new freelancer is to allow enough time for onboarding and warn the client appropriately.
“I usually have 10 working days onboarding as standard which gives me the chance to review data, familiarize myself with the product and make sure I have access to everything I might need.”
2. Be clear with your expectations
Ever hopped on a call and thought, “why am I sitting here?” Avoid wasting your time by being upfront with your expectations throughout the onboarding process.
Rochi Zalani, freelance SaaS writer, uses this approach: “Whenever a client reaches out to me, I share a quick bullet point list via email of “helpful information about me” that includes things like my working hours, when I check my email, and when they can expect a response to most messages (48 hours), and that I don’t hop on calls randomly and without agenda.”
3. Remain flexible
Good onboarding systems aren’t a one-size-fits-all. Be prepared to change your processes if it’s easier for your client—but only if you’re 100% comfortable with it.
Elise Dopson, co-founder of Peak Freelance, recommends to “Have your own processes while still being flexible to accommodate your client’s existing onboarding process.
“If they require you to sign a contract before a consult call (and you typically do it the other way around), figure out how much of a stickler that is for you,” Elise says. “Is it worth bending your typical process for that one client? It’s good to have your own processes and boundaries, but they can work against you (and ultimately make you appear more “difficult to work with”) if your clients work differently.”
4. Avoid miscommunication
When we asked Camille Hogg, freelance content writer, for her best onboarding tip, her answer was simple: “It might sound basic, but outlining basic processes, like how I’ll update a client on a project status and stay in touch with them while we work together sets expectations from the start—and it means they’re at ease, as they know exactly when to expect things from me.”
It’s a tip worth following. Some 52% of people report poor communication increases their stress levels. Even worse, in 44% of situations, it can result in failure to complete projects.
As part of your onboarding process, make sure you’ve got clear details of pricing, and how and when you will communicate. They might seem like awkward conversations, but having them upfront saves headaches in the long run.
5. Be willing to say no
Clients may ask to provide services out of your remit, or work in an industry that you have no prior experience with.
If another freelancer sends you a referral, for example, it may be tempting to say yes to everything a client asks. But, if you say you can do the work and have no previous experience, it may affect the quality and your self-confidence. A client will notice and vote with their feet–not great for building your reputation.
Accept that you might not be the best freelancer for the job. Be willing to say thanks, but no thanks—and free up more of your time to work with best-fit clients.
6. Ask follow-up questions
When onboarding a new freelance client, avoid repeating or going back and forth with important information further down the line and wasting everyone’s time.
“If I’m not sure about something, I’ll ask for clarification,” says Juliet John, content writer. “It helps with setting and understanding expectations and reduces the back and forth. A lot of freelancers think asking questions can make them seem annoying but it’s not true. You want to be sure you and your client are on the same page.”
Remember: there’s no such thing as a silly question throughout the onboarding process. Eliminate the risk of missing deadlines or missing the mark with your services. If you’re unsure of anything, just ask.
Are you ready to step up your onboarding process?
How you onboard new freelance clients will either get you that new project or not–saving you a lot of time and effort.
New clients don’t know you. A solid onboarding process, however, brings potential clients up to speed with the services you offer and how you work. It also sources the information you need before kicking off a project, so you’re not confused when the start date arrives.
Tweak this onboarding process and standardize it when collaborating with new clients. The sooner you can breeze through, the quicker you’ll get paid.
If you’re a freelance writer looking to build your processes, network, and earn more money, you’re in the right place. Join the Peak Freelance Slack community to meet people just like you.