Onboarding new clients to your accounting firm

Onboarding a new client sets the tone for the relationship. Here's how to get it right.

Onboarding a new client to your accounting firm

Onboarding a new client is perhaps the most pivotal step in your relationship with them. If you can delight your clients from the first moment, your chances of up-selling your services, gaining referrals, and keeping that client long-term are high. But it will be a very different story if they find it too confusing, overwhelming or complicated.

To set your clients up for success you need a clear process that can be replicated over and over again. If your current client onboarding plan could do with some improving, look at these seven steps.

1. The pre-work

A big chunk of the work required to successfully onboard new clients happens before you even speak to them. You want standardization—a clear process laid out in clear and logical steps. While you should be prepared to be flexible to make room for each client’s unique requirements, most of this process should be the same for each client you onboard.

Documenting this process for the client will instill confidence by letting them know exactly what will happen and when. It also ensures that everyone in your team will know what they need to deliver and when.

You also need to decide on your critical technologies. These are the programs, apps and systems that you are going to use to manage the client, get the work done and stay on top of it.

2. Establish why they are here and what you can do for them

Your first meeting lays the foundations. Begin by finding out as much as you can about your new client. You want to get to the root of their needs and wants, and understand what motivated them to come to you. What is working for them? What isn’t? What are they using now and why did they choose it? Do they like it? Where do they want to take their business?

A standard set of questions that you ask every new client will ensure you don’t miss anything and will help with the transition to other team members that will happen later. 

Once you know their problems, show that you are their solution. Reassure them that you understand the specific problems they’re facing, and explain the services or assistance you can provide to help them overcome them.

Don’t forget to explain that you can help them grow their business. While this may seem obvious, often a client won’t be aware of all the services you provide, so go through all that you can do for them.

Getting clients onboarded smoothly relies on building trust. They are asking you to handle sensitive data and systems, which is a lot of faith to put in someone they don't know very well. It's important to constantly be aware of this and make them feel comfortable.

3. Map out the framework

Show where you’re currently sitting amongst everything else that will happen in the relationship. Your initial meeting is only the first stage of what will hopefully be a long and mutually beneficial relationship, so it will help to position this first session and orientate your client with where it fits amongst the bigger picture. 

Be upfront that the engagement isn’t going to be one-sided, explaining that you are going to become an extension of each other’s teams. Outline your plan to share what they need to know about working with you, and interacting with the technologies you are using. You should also explain how your firm is structured, who the point people are, and how they should contact your firm when they need support.

4. Explain key concepts and principles

Education begins in the very first client onboarding meeting, so it’s vital to get off on the right foot. There’s a whole lot of language and terms you use every day, which might be confusing to someone new.

Establish common terminology early by defining key concepts using logic they’ll already be familiar with. Keep it short—anything more than one sentence can get confusing.

You will need to listen carefully and judge what the right level of information is for each client. You want to avoid patronizing them by telling them things they're already very familiar with, and you also need to be careful not to move too fast or get too technical—something obvious to you isn’t common knowledge for everyone.

This is also an opportunity to establish your principles. Show what your practice cares about and your values, and demonstrate the way you’ll make decisions and what the drivers are around this. What are you really great at? What is it like to work with you, and why do they want to be a part of that? Set the tone now so that your client knows what to expect later in the relationship.

5. Identify responsibilities

Discuss what your practice is going to do for your client and what your specific responsibilities are. Then explain their responsibilities and what they will need to take ownership of. Remind them that you both need to work together for the partnership to be successful. You want to be clear and up-front about what they should expect so that there are no surprises.

Depending on the size of your firm, the client may be transitioned to someone else in your team.This transition must be smooth—no one wants to feel like they were just dumped onto someone. Let them know exactly what to expect from the next person they’re going to be working with. You want them to feel secure and confident.

6. List the first activities

Your first foundation meeting mustn't end without a clear list of next actions. Schedule your next meeting and provide an onboarding checklist of everything they need to prepare and provide. Make it as easy as possible for them by including clear instructions outlining where they will find the information, how they should get it to you, and what the deadline is.

It’s a good idea to ask for any information incrementally which will keep the requirements from becoming too daunting. Determine what you need to start working, and ask for that first. Then lay out a timeline to explain when you will need things done going forward. You’ll need to temporarily play ‘bad cop’ and explain what will happen if they don’t meet any deadlines (delays, additional costs, etc.). 

7. Getting to work

Be realistic from day one about what is possible. Understand what is important to the client—do they care how pristine their books are from the last seven years? Is migrating data from one system to another more important to them? Keep this in mind when prioritizing tasks and get those critical things done first. Maintain your client training and ensure they stay on top of their own responsibilities.

Client onboarding will be complete when everything is routine for both them and your firm. Weekly check-ins with the client, video conferencing, and consistent status updates will identify any roadblocks and keep everything on track.

Client onboarding template

Your onboarding process will be very similar from client to client, so don’t reinvent the wheel each time. Record every step and its requirements, and replicate this for each new client. If set-up well, you should only need to make a few small tweaks between separate onboardings to suit the unique needs of each individual.

A client onboarding checklist will help with this.

Your client onboarding process, along with the progress of all the clients your firm is onboarding, can be managed in Karbon. This allows for seamless automation from client-to-client, and allows you to view progress and provide visibility of this throughout your team.

To see how one progressive accounting firm is onboarding clients, download the onboarding process used by BOSS, in our crowdsourced library of templates.