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July 5, 2019

Client Onboarding: How to Nail the Sales-to-Service Handoff


The first 30–90 days of an engagement are critical for the long-term success of a customer. 

Once customers have made an investment in your company, they want assurance that they made the right decision, and they don’t want to feel like now that you have their money you don’t care about them anymore. 

To ensure you’re starting your customer relationships off right, you need to have a streamlined sales-to-service handoff and a positive client onboarding process. 

Research has shown that a poor onboarding experience could cause businesses to lose up to 80% of customers within the first week

“Those are largely product-led companies, so onboarding is a very clear experience and your first use of a product might churn you if you have a poor user experience,” Karin Krisher, New Breed’s Client Experience Lead says. “Whereas when you’re signing a contract, it’s less likely you’re going to dump the contract within the first week.” 

However, in the long-term onboarding still does impact service retention rates.

“Within a service company, you’re coming off the back of a really exciting sales process. You don’t just download an app and have a bad user experience; you’ve been building up to this for a number of months,” Karin says.

In the time leading up to a closed-won deal, the client has been in consistent communication with sales, getting hyped up about how amazing working together will be. If as soon as the contract is signed, communications stop, that’s an immediate poor customer experience, which will negatively impact their impression of the services team they’ll be working with.

Set Realistic Expectations

Your sales and services team need to be synced on what service delivery actually looks like. If a product implementation will take 40 hours, your sales team shouldn’t be promising that’ll it’ll happen in 12. 

Additionally, your sales reps need to understand why your service delivery process works so they can sell customers on your process.

“It’s fine for there to be questions, but you never want to get the feeling that sales has already set poor expectations for the services team members,” Karin says. “An important piece of that is nailing scoping from the start, and to nail scoping from the start, you need that feedback from services to sales.”

If you’re not consulting with service team members directly to determine the time and resources required by a project, then your sales team needs to receive training that enables them to accurately make those calls. 

Create a Streamlined Checklist

There are a lot of moving parts involved in the sales-to-service handoff and onboarding process. From the services team members who need information on the project to the operations occurring behind the scenes to the marketers who want feedback to guide future communications, a lot has to happen in a short amount of time without adding undue friction for the new customer. 

Sales needs to have a streamlined checklist of requirements from all the parties involved that they can finalize with the client before the handoff is complete. 

“You should create criteria for what the services team needs to know in order to begin an engagement,” Karin says.

These criteria should be informed by postmortems from previous client engagements and guided by your services and sales service-level agreement (SLA)

In addition to including the services team’s criteria, the checklist also needs to include operational requirements. 

“Just like there is a marketing-to-sales handoff, there’s a sales-to-services handoff operationally that is important,” Karin says. “So, you have to make sure all the pieces involved in what it means to become a customer for you operationally are settled.”

Software accounts may need to be created or activated, communication channels may need to be set up and permissions may need to be granted. 

Marketing may also need to gather information from onboarding both to inform their future customer marketing efforts and to improve their prospect marketing strategy, though that’s not necessarily a priority at this point. 

Once that checklist is completed, your team needs to determine the best way to deliver it for your company and client. Does a video explanation work best, or is it better to send a written document? Is an in-person kickoff meeting necessary or can initial communications happen digitally?

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Establish Point of Contact

At this point, you’re in the onboarding process, but still facilitating the sales-to-service handoff, and the handoff itself requires a go-between.

While you can automate the movement of a contact from your CRM into your project management system that will open a new project and notify team members, a go-between will oversee that and act as a point-of-contact if any questions arise. 

This point-of-contact can be someone who will stay with the customer throughout their entire engagement with your company or it can be someone who specifically facilitates the onboarding process. 

Regardless a go-between will help illuminate the onboarding process for the customer while ensuring the necessary steps are occurring internally. 

Set Goals

To prevent new client onboarding from getting lost in the shuffle of everything else your sales and service team members are working on, establish goals for what the process should look like and hold yourself to those goals. 

“You should create an onboarding timeline and a sales-to-service timeline so you can measure how closely you’re meeting that timeline,” Karin says. “If your target is that the contact will have no contact with sales after five days and be exclusively focused on services, you want to measure whether you’re hitting that target or not.”

In addition to time-based goals, you should also set goals for what you want your onboarding process to accomplish. What do you want your customers to have gained when they finish onboarding? 

“Another way to nail onboarding is by creating a feedback loop specific to onboarding,” Karin says.

For example, you can check-in with clients after 30 days to determine if their onboarding experience matched what you hoped it would accomplish.

Nurture Your Clients Through Onboarding

Depending on the capacity of your service delivery team and the new customer’s timeline, the actual services may not start immediately after the sale closes. 

“Immediate communication is valuable because you want to keep up that level of excitement, but you have to balance that with your actual engagement schedule,” Karin says. “While I say you should make contact immediately, it doesn’t end the kickoff immediately, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you want your services team and your client working together right out of the gate. That’s all dependent on what schedule makes sense.”

If your services team won’t be working with the client for another 8 weeks, you don’t necessarily want to preemptively open those channels of communication to the new customers. However, you also don’t want to just leave the new client hanging. 

If there will be a gap between the deal closing and the start of services, set clear expectations of what’s to come, establish a go-between to stay in touch and continue to nurture the customer to keep the relationship warm.

Additionally, try to provide your new customer with actionable items to accomplish during the lull so they can feel like they’re making progress because of your help.

“After the handoff, try to provide them with 10 quick wins that they can execute and report back on when we start the engagement,” Karin says. 

Consistent communication and quick wins will enable the client to gain value from your company as they wait for the services to begin. However, while conducting intermediary communications, match your cadence to what the client wants. 

Quick feedback and constant communications are important if they’re raring to start, but if your customer is relaxed and willing to wait, you don’t want to come off as too aggressive.

The Takeaway

After closing a deal, don’t let the enthusiasm drop off during the transition from prospect to customer. 

“The sales period is sort of their onboarding into the experience with your company and then you onboard them into the service as well,” Karin says.

Keep your customer’s needs in the center of your communications through every touchpoint to reinforce they made the right decision to choose your company. Retaining and upselling existing customers provides the best ROI for your company, so you want to ensure every client relationship starts strong. 

“You always want to be delivering value whether you’re in the sales phase, the onboarding phase or the service delivery phase,” Karin says.

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Tag(s): Sales

Quinn Kanner

Quinn is a writer and copyeditor whose work ranges from journalism to travel writing to inbound marketing content. She’s super passionate about grammar and punctuation and loves learning new things that she can share with readers. Her favorite punctuation mark is the em dash.


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