Project Management

Client Onboarding: The Complete Guide For Architects

Client Onboarding: The Complete Guide For Architects

You went through the whole proposal process and snagged a client. Congratulations!

Now, you only have a very short time to make a good first impression. According to Forbes, you only have a whole 7 seconds!

It only takes 7 seconds to make a first impression

The secret to that good impression is having a great client onboarding process.

If your project start-up process is... 

  • Messy 
  • Unorganized
  • Or non-existent

your client could start hearing alarm bells.

In this complete guide, you will learn:

  • What client onboarding is
  • A step by step process to follow
  • Why you need a great client onboarding experience
  • Some tech tips for each step to make your onboarding experience as smooth as possible

What is Client Onboarding?

Client onboarding is your process of saying “Welcome!” to new clients and getting your client familiar with working with you.

Your onboarding process should:

  • Start building a strong client relationship
  • Calm nervous clients
  • Answer any questions or concerns they have
  • Make sure you are clear on the expectations and your client's goals
  • Begin to outline the strategy
Amy Edwards comments on client onboarding
“[Client onboarding is] a great idea for architects and designers because it takes away so many of those questions clients have while also setting some boundaries.”

- Amy Edwards, Marketing Consultant at Markedly

Wyzowl reports that over 90% of customers feel that the companies they buy from ‘could do better’ when it comes to onboarding new users/customers.

90% of customers feel that companies could do better at onboarding

Clients stick with businesses who have a good client onboarding process, but there are still many architect’s who don’t have a formal onboarding process.

Tracking touchpoints and interactions with clients/prospects is one of the top focus areas for improving project management (AIA Tech Culture Report 2021).

Architects find it difficult to provide a consistent client experience (CX) regardless of the project team.

We ran a poll on LinkedIn and found that only 13% of architect’s have a client onboarding process.

That means 88% of architects may be losing clients before they even get started.

Only 13% of architects have a client onboarding process

But according to our 2021 Best Practice Report, a majority (54.7%) of architects rank Client Satisfaction as one of the most important internal Key Performance Indicators they use to measure success.

54.7% of architects rank Client Satisfaction as one of the most important KPIs

If client happiness is so important, why are we neglecting the very first step of onboarding our clients?

Let’s go through the 7 steps you need to have a successful client onboarding process.

7 steps for client onboarding

7 Steps of a Client Onboarding Process

1 - Proposal, Contract, and Payment

Before your client sign a contract, they might require an architectural proposal to review:

  • Scope
  • Fee
  • Schedule

Once your client approves the proposal, you can get started creating the contract.

A good architectural contract should go over payment so your client knows exactly how to pay you:

This step is important to protect you and the client.

Without a signed contract, there are no guarantees you’ll be paid for your time or your client will get the building they want.

Tech Tip: Using an app like Docusign can make the contract signing process easier for you and your client in the new virtual world that we live in.

2 - Have a Tailored Welcome Package

Once your client signs the contract, you don't want to just disappear until the next time you meet.

Having a welcome package gives them something to review while they wait for the project to start.

This also gives you more opportunity to reinforce and educate them on the process and expectations. 

But remember to customize the package for each type of client. For Idan Naor Workshop, they have a different packet for each client to show them:

  • What the process is typically like
  • Things to watch out for
  • Important milestones
“We have a little PDF package that walks you through the process. They're tailored too, because we happen to deal with developers and residential clients that are very different, and commercial office space tenants.”

- Idan Naor, Founder of Idan Naor Workshop

Some things you might include in this package are:

  • A one-page flyer with all of your information, response times, team contacts, and a short FAQ.
  • Information your client needs to provide. For example, a site survey they need to obtain, a consultant they need to hire, or some existing drawings that they need to locate in their archive. 
  • Past precedents with client testimonials. This gives them references from your past work and also the confidence in the lifetime value they will get from your design.
  • A design process video. Creating a video that explains the entire design process to your client can help them understand quickly what the entire experience will entail - especially if they haven’t done it before.

Tech Tip: Set up a template for each type of client in your design software of choice. Most architecture firms use InDesign to create their documents.

But a lot of companies now use a web-based tool called Canva, which allows their non-design-savvy team members to create presentations virtually in real time.

3 - Get the Information by Having a Questionnaire

By having a questionnaire for your new clients to fill out, you can make sure you get all the information you need at this onboarding stage.

It's easy to have a set questionnaire you send to every client, but you might also need to tailor it to the type of client that you have.

Some example questions to include might be:

  • What is your address and phone number?
  • Who will be our main contact?
  • What are your 5-year and long-term plans for this space?
  • How concerned are you about privacy?

Says Elizabeth Fleishhauer, Project Architect at Bullock Tice Associates, “When I worked in residential we would ask things like ‘Is your preference for separate master closets, or would you like to share one?’ or ‘Do you want a tub in your master bathroom?’”

She also recommends asking for special and large furniture that the client wants to display, like a grand piano.

Elizabeth Fleischhauer shares questions to ask a residential client during onboarding

Kristen Irwin, Architect at US Army Corps of Engineers, recommends asking if the client plans to retire in the home.

That way the home can be designed with possible future mobility issues in mind.

Kristin Irwin recommends asking specific questions about clients’ future plan

By getting very specific in your initial questionnaire you can create a design that will meet all their needs from now to the future.

Tech Tip: Typeform is a great platform to create a questionnaire that doesn’t look boring. It also connects to your cloud storage so you have a record of your client’s wants and needs.

4 - Set Up the Project Internally

Now you can officially start working on the project in your office.

Get together your project team that will be working on this project, and have a team meeting to make sure everyone is on the same page.

This helps everyone who joins a project team to be excited about its vision. Fostering shared ownership helps teams meet goals.

“As long as the goals and the ideas are very clear from the beginning and everyone shares in it, it makes for a great working environment and it's a very clear way to achieve that goal.”

- Luisa Mendez, Senior Associate at SHoP Architects

At this point, you can also set up your project on all the platforms that you use to run your projects.

Setting up your project on a project management software like Monograph can help you save time and get everyone on the same page from the start. 

Tech Tip: Inside Monograph, you can first set up the project using the Project Planner which allows you to allocate your project budget to different phases and roles.

Once you set that up, you can share the project plan with your team internally so everyone understands the schedule and budget constraints.

Monograph Project Planner

5 - Client Kickoff Meeting

At this stage, you want to have a meeting with your team and the client.

Some things you should go over in this meeting are:

  • Introductions between your team and the client
  • Your client's goals
  • Key milestones and timeline
  • Any outstanding information you need from the client
  • Next steps in the process
  • A chance for any more questions

Remember that this is your client's journey.

They might be excited or nervous.

Make this a clear and organized meeting and set the tone for the rest of the project.

If you have consultants already onboarded at this point, you can also bring them into the kickoff meeting so they can present to the client their own process and request any information they need from the client.

This is also a great time for setting expectations, so your client doesn't expect a different project scope or schedule at the end of the day. 

Communication of everything is key at this time.

Tech Tip: Monograph allows you to easily create a shareable link of your Gantt chart to share the project schedule with your client at your first kickoff meeting.

Monograph Sharable Gantt Chart

The shareable Gantt allows you to:

  • Embed the link to your meeting agenda before the meeting so your client has a chance to take a look beforehand
  • Make real-time adjustments to your project schedule during the meeting if needed
  • Update your Gantt after the meeting and send the link along with meeting minutes to your client as a final review

6 - Checkup Call on Your Client

Plan on having a phone call with the client 2 weeks after the kickoff meeting.

Make sure you have a checklist made before you call them so you know exactly what to check in for:

  • Any information or documents you’re waiting for
  • Any existing drawings that you still haven’t received
  • Reiterate your project schedule and remind them what’s coming next
  • Provide any updates
  • Ask your client if they have any questions

This is your chance to make sure the ball is still rolling on their end.

It's also another chance for you to impress the client.

By checking in, you show them that you care and that you are a professional.

Tech Tip: It’s best to schedule this call beforehand right after your first kickoff meeting so your client anticipates what’s coming.

Using tools like Calendly with a Zoom integration can help make scheduling meetings super easy!

7 - Talk about Room for Improvement

Once the onboarding stage is over, have a meeting with the client and your internal team to discuss how the process went.

In the tech world, we call it “retrospectives”.

It allows the entire team to give feedback on the previous weeks openly.

Did it go as planned?

Were there any questions you should have included on your questionnaire?

Was the client clear about all the project details or did the onboarding leave them confused?

Tech Tip: At Monograph, we use a simple tool called DotVoter to simplify this process at the Growth team.

Every other Friday, we get on a Zoom call and use DotVoter to share our thoughts from the past 2 weeks.

Everyone is welcome to share it anonymously if they wish, or they can open up publicly to start a discussion.

Then we vote on which issues are the most pressing to overcome, and then the team takes action on solving them the following week.

Doing a retrospective after your client onboarding process allows for:

  • Instant feedback when your memory is the most fresh
  • Instant action to create a better client experience for your next client.

3 Benefits of a Good Client Onboarding Process

Client Onboarding is more than customer satisfaction. It's actually a crucial business strategy.

A good client onboarding process can lead to 3 benefits:

1 - Onboarding Reduces Customer Churn 

Happy, confident clients are less likely to jump ship.

32% of customers said they would stop using a product or service after just one bad interaction - even if all the previous interactions had been good (PWC).

32% of customers would stop using a service after 1 bad interaction

Simply put, a single bad interaction can lead to customer churn.

What is customer churn: Customer churn is when your clients back out of a project while you are in the process of starting the project.

But churn is preventable.

In fact, 67% of customer churn is preventable if the customer issue was resolved at the first engagement (Kolsky).

67% of customer churn is preventable if the customer issue was resolved at the first engagement

Having a great first client onboarding process can help reduce the chance of customer churn in the long run.

2 - Onboarding Decreases Scope Creep 

Scope creep usually occurs when initial communication isn't clear at project start.

You can keep your scope creep at bay by clearly explaining what’s within your basic services and what costs more if a client requests it.

“It's so important to articulate our scope. To be really, really clear about what aspects of our scope have to do with basic services, with some value added services that you may be able to charge more for.”

- Rena Klein, Founder of CVG

By having a questionnaire in place, your client had a chance to think everything over before answering all your questions.

They might realize during onboarding that they also wanted FF&E service from you - this can be added to the scope early on instead of coming up later during a deadline.

3 - Onboarding Can Lead To More Referrals 

A happy client who feels confident about your work will tell all their friends.

As we know, most architecture firms rely on word of mouth to win new work.

In fact, 89% of firms say that client relationships matter more than marketing for them to win new business (AIA Tech Culture Report 2021).

89% of firms say that client relationships matter more than marketing for them to win new business (AIA Tech Culture Report 2021)

This is especially prevalent in small firms who might not have the resources to focus on digital marketing.

But this is where small firms can win, by having a more personal and consistent client experience, you can easily stand out among your competitors.

Bonus Tech Tip: Automate the Client Onboarding Process

Having automated workflows in place within your practice can help make things more operationally efficient - and client onboarding is a great place to start.

As architects, we tend to think that automation can take away our values, but it actually lets us get back to our core work - billable work that keeps us profitable.

“We feel as though if we actually give what we're doing over to automation, we're taking jobs away from people...It's actually freeing us up to leverage our core competency. It's getting us back in touch with why we went into this industry to begin with.”

- Randy Deutsch, FAIA

Combined with Monograph, using a CRM system like Dubsado or Honeybook can be great for automating your client onboarding process. 

Both are designed for service-based businesses and allow you to create a series of template forms and emails that get sent out automatically once contracts are signed.

Inside the Best Practice Community, Dawn Zuber, Owner of Studio Z Architecture, shared how they’ve set up a step-by-step set of emails inside Dubsado that will be sent to the clients to let them know what happens next.

They also have guides set up for each stage of their design process that gets sent out before each design meeting.

This is extremely helpful for clients who have never worked with architects before, so they know what to expect at each design phase.

Client onboarding with Dubsado on Best Practice Community

Not only does automation save you non-billable time and effort, it also gives your client the best digitally enhanced experience that most architects don’t adopt.

With only 19% of architects using a CRM system to manage their client relationship (AIA Tech Culture Report 2021), you can definitely make a great first impression if you implement one.

19% of architects using a CRM system to manage their client relationship (AIA Tech Culture Report 2021)

Client Onboarding is Good Business Strategy

Follow the 7 steps to create a great client onboarding process.

With a solid onboarding process, you will put your client at ease and set you up for a fruitful future relationship.

It’ll also help the project run smoother in the long run.

  • What are your client onboarding stories?
  • What does your client onboarding process look like?
  • Did we leave anything out?

Let us know what you think by commenting below.

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