CPA Growth Trends, Marketing, Practice Management

Why a Marketing Defined Onboarding Process is Crucial to Client Experience

Historically, marketers within the accounting industry have not had to spend much time and resources getting involved with the client relationship. And why would they? Accounting professionals have long been successful with the traditional, relationship-based approach to client acquisition. Personal connections and the transactional nature of most engagements rendered an onboarding process less important to firm growth. With limited marketing resources, our efforts turned to demand generation, lead nurturing, opportunity development, the list goes on.

Yet today, as firms shift and merge to provide more complex and personalized services that touch more areas of the business than ever before, a robust onboarding process serves as the cornerstone of efficiency, reliability, and client satisfaction. Client onboarding isn’t merely a bureaucratic formality; it’s a strategic differentiator that marketers should be paying attention to. This pivotal phase empowers the marketing team to set the tone for the entire professional relationship, ensures seamless collaboration, mutual understanding, and ultimately, client success.

An effective client onboarding process will accomplish the following overarching goals:

Build Trust

The initial stages of client onboarding are all about fostering a deep understanding of the client’s needs and goals. It’s a crucial opportunity to not only demonstrate your expertise, but also to introduce the human element to the engagement. We all pride ourselves on our people, and this is when the pursuit team that has worked diligently to win the new client can personally hand off the client to the team that will be performing the work, highlighting pain points and opportunities for quick wins. By making onboarding about people, your team can make the new client feel valued and heard right away.

Set Expectations

Effective communication is key to any successful relationship, and client onboarding provides a platform to establish clear expectations from the outset. By outlining the scope of services, timelines, deliverables, and communication channels, firms can mitigate misunderstandings and align their efforts with client objectives. How does the client prefer to be contacted? Who will be the point person for each aspect and stage of the engagement? Clarity breeds confidence and lays the foundation for a productive partnership.

Enhance Efficiency

A well-defined onboarding process streamlines administrative tasks instead of simply walking the client through them. From gathering essential documentation to setting up secure communication channels and systems, every step should be orchestrated to optimize efficiency and ensure compliance with regulatory requirements. We can use process and technology to automate routine tasks, so the engagement team can devote more time to value-added activities, such as strategic analysis and advisory services.

Where Marketing Fits into the Onboarding Process

The onboarding process will look different for each firm, and in many cases, for each client. However, it is important to have a structure in place that can be followed regardless of individual circumstances surrounding that engagement. Your process should be flexible enough to adapt, yet structured enough to ensure each major goal listed above is achieved. And as the keepers of your brand and voice, your marketing team should be involved each step along the way. Here’s how:

Maintaining the Process

When’s the last time you looked at your engagement letter and terms of service? A new client’s first interaction with your firm contains the scope of services, fees, responsibilities, and terms of engagement. These documents formalize the relationship and set clear expectations for both parties. Making sure they reflect your brand and company voice can help add a layer of cohesion to the onboarding process. Marketers can also include relevant background information, team biographies, and access to firm resources.

The marketing team can also help manage the onboarding process and mandatory points of contact. Who attends the initial consultation? How often should the client be contacted during onboarding? An established process can go a long way towards making sure a new client feels like a valued part of the firm, and not just another engagement.

The first in-depth consultation should serve as the hand-off between the business development team, which has spent time and resources getting to know the client during the sales process, and the engagement team that will be working with the client day-in and day-out. These parties will work together to understand the client’s needs, objectives, and pain points. This involves active listening, asking probing questions, and offering preliminary insights to demonstrate expertise.

Another key part of the onboarding process could be a welcome gift to make the client feel valued on day one. Welcome gifts could comprise of a local product or service if your firm is regional, or a gift bag full of branded swag. What better to help keep your firm top of mind throughout the engagement?

Cohesion & Brand

With the initial formalities out of the way, the next phase can start to get technical, presenting some unique challenges and opportunities for the marketing team. The engagement team provides clients with a comprehensive checklist of required documents, such as financial statements, tax returns, and legal agreements. Meanwhile, the marketing team may start sending helpful collateral, such as video tutorials, shortcuts, and helpful background information.

This can become overwhelming quickly! Creating a singular onboarding packet, or a drip campaign to provide resources in bite-sized pieces over time can reduce information overload. Digital project management platforms and secure portals facilitate the secure exchange of sensitive information, ensuring confidentiality and compliance. Work with your IT team to determine what platforms might facilitate the transfer and storage of marketing materials in a safe, effective manner.

The marketing team can help alleviate some of the whiplash that can occur amidst so much information transfer. Create a simple, streamlined onboarding packet that you and your engagement team can follow. Include breaks and give your clients time to get to know their new team and the firm at large.

Ongoing Support & Communication

Once the engagement is underway, you should have a process in place to ensure continuous communication. Your firm has spent significant resources on getting this far, and maintaining an open line of feedback can help promote continuous success.

Many marketing automation platforms and CRMs provide you a way to collect periodic feedback, conduct surveys, and otherwise check in with your clients. An automated drip campaign highlighting new resources can also help keep your clients informed as your offerings evolve.

Did you record the date the client started working with the firm? Set up a reminder to send them a gift or a card on their anniversary. Regularly remind them why they chose to work with you in the first place and use your onboarding process to make them feel like more than a compliance checkbox.

The Human Element

In the competitive landscape of accounting and CPA firms, the client onboarding process serves as a strategic differentiator, distinguishing industry leaders from the rest. Much of our firm’s work is dictated and directed by the governing bodies that make accounting one of the most trusted industries in the business world. As marketers, we are uniquely equipped to find the human element to elevate the onboarding experience and show our clients why our processes and our people provide them value.

By prioritizing transparency, efficiency, and client-centricity, firms can lay the groundwork for long-term success, fostering trust, loyalty, and positive word-of-mouth referrals. In an era defined by rapid technological advancements and evolving client expectations, mastering the art of client onboarding is not just an option—it’s a prerequisite for sustainable growth and excellence.

Learn more about onboarding and client experience on the Association for Accounting Marketing CPA Growth Trends blog.

About Ian McManis

Ian McManis, co-chair of AAM’s podcast committee, was the interviewer for this episode. He is a marketing specialist at Barnes Dennig where he is responsible for niche marketing, seminars and business development support, with a specialization in digital marketing. In 2016 he was named AAM’s Rookie of the Year. Contact him at [email protected].

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