That's How to Successfully Onboard New Clients!


Project Manager Mark Cunningham joins to me to share his thoughts on how to go about onboarding new clients to a project in a way that ensures a successful outcome and builds strong working relationships.


Mark discusses some of his own process, which involves using empathy to understand your client's needs, and asking the right questions to get a better sense of what success looks like for your client.


You can connect with Mark on LinkedIn.

The following transcript was auto-generated and may contain typos or spelling errors.


Leslie Early

Okay, today I am joined by my friend and colleague Mark Cunningham. Mark happens to be a project manager at Fredrickson Learning and I have had the privilege of working with him on multiple projects so far. Thank you so much for joining me today mark to talk about onboarding new clients.


Mark Cunningham

Well, thanks, Leslie. I am super excited to be here and joining you on this podcast is rapidly rising in the minds of the instructional design and learning and development community. Like you said, I'm a project manager with Fredrickson Learning. We do custom learning experience design, learning strategy and staffing and training and l&d around the Twin Cities and beyond. And we really work with a wide variety of clients in a wide variety of ways, across many different tools and platforms. And I love working for Fredrickson, and I love project management. Because I find it's a very unique combination of people and process. And I think what we're going to be talking about today comes from my lens as a project manager. But really, I think it's very widely applicable across a variety of roles and experiences. Because I mean, to at least a small degree, or all managing some aspect of a project, even if what you're directly responsible for is just a part of the whole.


Leslie Early

Also, so yeah, so we're here today to sort of talk about onboarding clients and like you just very eloquently described, for our work at Fredrickson Learning, we work with so many different clients and so many different types of clients, and even within the same clients, so many different types of projects. So basically, the term onboarding is usually something that you would hear in like onboarding new employees or like an HR kind of way. But I like how you're using this because you're using it to onboard new clients. So what do you mean when you're talking about onboarding new clients?


Mark Cunningham

So yeah, I have, I have a very strong belief in the obligation for me as a project manager, and really anyone who's working in the consultative way, or anyone who's working with another person, to create project empathy between you and your team and your clients. And I think really, typically, project managers and project teams focus on having a mutual understanding of the parameters or the constraints of a project, which are important things like you know, scope, and timeline and budget. And we really focus on making sure we have a shared understanding of those things, with with our clients to define the boundaries. But what I also really think is important is to not neglect the project process. And when you start a project, you typically share a project plan or kind of your organization's preferred process with a client. But I think especially in our line of work, that's really just a first proposal. In most cases, it's still very important for us to learn about how the client likes to work, and also what constraints that they have that might impact how, how we would work with them. So this is where kind of that empathy piece comes into play. And I think that by presenting our clients with our recommended process, and then listening to them about how they work best, and then adapting the process, especially those kind of key points of transition, where things you need to complete the project intersect with what the client needs to give you to be able to complete the project, you build project empathy. And when you do that, it enables you to really create buy in front of your client and create investment in the process. And that allows you to train them on the project process. And I think all of that is really what I mean, when I think about what I'm calling client onboarding. We all want our learners to be engaged in our training, the things that we make for them to take and to learn. And I think it's also important that we give or get our clients to be engaged in the project process.


Leslie Early

Yeah. And so I have the benefit of working with you and working in this way. So I sort of understand what you mean when you're saying this. But so basically, what I think you're saying is, you know, we had Frederick have our own way of doing things. But it's not like we show up to these client meetings and we're dictating to the client like, this is exactly how this is going to go. I mean, obviously, we can say this is how we usually do things. But it's also more of like, and how does that how is this compatible with how you want this project to go? Does that does that sound like an accurate interpretation?


Mark Cunningham

Yeah. And that's kind of the first part to this client onboarding. It's, it's demonstrating that you have expertise, but also you're willing to adapt to the situation of your client, again, to create that buy in, so that they're invested in learning and joining with you in creating that that project plan and project process. So that so that your your mutual understanding, is really kind of what Pilate's the rest of the project.


Leslie Early

Yeah. So I guess then that that begs the question, you've gone through several of these several versions of this process. So what would what does a successful client onboarding look like? What does that look like? Feel like? How do you know that you have successfully gotten through this stage with a client?


Mark Cunningham

Sure, yeah. Um, so there's a couple different parts to it that I want to talk about. The first part is kind of like pre work. And I think about it as anticipation. It's really about putting yourself in the client's shoes and anticipating potential trouble or problem areas, and also identifying key dependencies in the project. And when you do that, and bring those points up to a client, as you're, you know, working with them to kind of refine your project process, it, it really helps to build that empathy and also to bring out other issues ahead of time that that may otherwise have been surprises down the road. And so some examples of things that might be important to understand that I'm thinking about when I start projects and trying to anticipate our things like client review durations, and potential limitations from different groups of stakeholders who might be reviewing at different points in time. Understanding how and when things like assets, images, videos, branding that we need from a client, will will come to us or understanding how and when subject matter experts will be available to answer questions and give us the knowledge we need to do our work. And I think it's it's these things that you anticipate and kind of talk about his key dependencies along with the project parameters that I mentioned earlier, kind of that budget, scope, timeline piece that become the fixed points in the project process, and plan that you're going to kind of work with the client to scaffold the rest of the process and the schedule on. And I, I just can't encourage people enough to make sure you're talking about these things early and often with your client and open up the conversation, to the client for things that they might not necessarily have thought of. So that's the pre work piece. That's the anticipation. And then what I would say, as you kind of more actively do this client onboarding piece, is to take that information, and then use it to help train your clients on what you and your team need to do the work. And you should try to give your clients at least a conceptual understanding of what your team is capable of doing, and not capable of doing in different example circumstances. So how I think about it, as having been trained as a chemical engineer is inputs and outputs. So in l&d, our typical inputs, what we're getting from our client to be able to do the work are things like knowledge, either in the form of some source materials or working with subject matter experts. Other inputs are assets, like I mentioned, images, branding, that kind of thing. And then their time in the form of reviews and feedback. So these are all things we need from our clients to do our job. And then our outputs are things like content outlines, storyboards, prototypes, development versions, all of that stuff. And there's typically some level of dependency between the inputs and the outputs and when they can happen in the process. And this is usually informed by what the project parameters and assumptions that we were just talking about those, they kind of determine what those things are. And then, and then you should make sure that your clients have a level of awareness of these dependencies, and the amount of time and effort to create once you have the required input. And so that's kind of really where the, the more active piece of the client onboarding comes into play. And if you've demonstrated that you're anticipating the problems before they happen, and discussing contingencies, and your client is understanding the inputs and outputs of the project, and how their relationship impacts your ability to do the work. And then you use all that information to continue to refine the project process a little bit more. That's really what I view as having a successful client onboarding experience.


Leslie Early

Yeah, yeah. Yes, you explain all of that very well. I'm just thinking, you know, people who maybe come from a more like they're in one company. So they're used to just dealing with internal product, I'm sure a lot of this still applies for internal projects. But But if it's very different from us, and a consulting type business, or a freelancer who might be doing taking on freelance projects, and a lot of what you just described also, like the pre work questions that you're asking, and searching for answers for a lot of that, I think, is what you want to also document not just have the conversation, but make sure that it's documented somewhere so that, you know, if for some reason the input side is not coming our way or your way, as a designer, you have it documented that like, Look, we've decided that this was going to be the way this was going to go. And because it hasn't gone this way it now it's an impediment. And we can't hold up our end of the bargain. Because we haven't gotten the things that we need to do that.


Mark Cunningham

Yes, that's exactly that's exactly right. And what I think is one of the huge benefits to kind of thinking through things this way and kind of doing this client onboarding, is that it makes those difficult conversations that can happen when unexpected things happen during projects a whole lot easier. And it also reduces the probability of them ever occurring as well, which is awesome. And I should mention, you know, it's also on the onboard, he doesn't stop it the after kind of the beginning of the project, I think it's really critical that you are continually reminding clients about where they are in the project and pointing back to kind of what you all agreed on, as the project goes on and continually reminding them of, this is the next thing that's coming up. And these are the inputs and outputs that we've talked about. And these are kind of how they relate to each other. I don't think you can just like leave a URL here, marker during project check ins and things as projects Go on, you have to continually be reminding your clients of kind of where they are and what's coming. Because remember, you know, for you as a member of the project team, the project is top of mind for you probably pretty frequently. But for a lot of clients, they might be thinking about this once a week, maybe less. Yeah, a little bit more. So again, it's about empathy, and just kind of understanding the client's situation and and really trying to be accommodating to them.


Leslie Early

I think also what you're describing is a good way, like setting up these expectations from the beginning and also saying, Hey, we're paying attention to this, or like, these are the things that we will be paying attention to, is also a good way to build trust, like you're saying to your client, I care about, you know, making sure this is done successfully. And these are the benchmarks I see. And I will be paying attention to this all along. And I'm happy to give reminders when when things need to be reminded. But I think that it goes a long way in establishing trust and also sort of your domain of expertise. You know, like, Hey, I'm, I'm the professional one here or Whatever the case may be, but I guess I always when I say what does it successful version of the thing look like? It always then makes me curious to know, what would be the consequences. So I mean, I'm sure anyone who's attempted to project manage sort of maybe already knows what the consequences are. So we might not have to spend too much time on this. But yeah, just based on your experience, what are the what could go wrong, if you are not taking these extra steps at the beginning?


Mark Cunningham

The cost of not successfully onboarding a new client, I think is that, like I mentioned earlier, it, it makes those difficult conversations more difficult than they need to be that can happen when things go wrong. And I think really, what, what ends up coming down to is that conversations can skew a lot more towards the like me versus the client versus something else, you know, things like you know, you didn't get us this input on time. So we have to move the deadline back by this much, which means we're not going to be able to ultimately deliver, when we had agreed upon and having those types of conversations in the moment, rather than making sure the client kind of has an understanding as best or an awareness of what that impact is. And so I think really, the relationship gets more strained, the language becomes more combative. And it just makes it harder to kind of grow that business partnership with your client. I think it's a bit might be cliche advice, by now for managing personal relationships. But I find this true and client relationships. I think for a project to be as successful as it can be. The conversations really want to be framed as not me versus you, like I mentioned, but but kind of us versus the problem. And client onboarding helps frame conversations in that way.


Leslie Early

Oh, I love that. I don't know. I mean, that's not cliche. Because I mean, I don't know if I've ever heard it framed in exactly that way. So you're not being cliche mark, I think you get good at a nice little tidbit to walk away with. So it's not me versus you. It's us versus the problem. I feel like that's like a very, like, yeah, counseling moment, just have them there. That's great. So I guess then, that actually answers my very last question that was gonna try to squeeze in, which is, what type of skill set or mindset is most beneficial to someone who's jumping into project management? Or whose I guess let me rephrase that. What type of skill set or mindset is most beneficial if you are in this process of onboarding a new client?


Mark Cunningham

So first and foremost, like I've been talking about all along, and it's, I'm a huge believer in it. And anybody that I've worked with knows this about me, but but empathy is the number one thing and I would say, if you don't think you're an empathetic person, or if you aren't good at it, I think it starts with being intentional about it, and and communicating with your client. So things like based on what I know about the project parameters, or based on my experience with this type of project, I feel like this part of the project might be challenging for you. Is that true? So asking questions that inform you, as to what the client is experiencing are going to experience? What does success look like? What do you think the biggest challenge of the project will be? Which project parameters most important to you? Those kinds of questions can help helps them simulate empathy or being you know, keep that top of mind for you and get that information that I think is really important. Other things that I think are good to have, especially as a project manager is a good understanding of your team and your process. And that allows you to kind of know how you can work with your clients but also not put your organization at a disadvantage, which is important. And you know, that that also takes I think, some some creativity, to be able to figure out how the processes and the needs of your organization intersect with those of the clients


Leslie Early

And yeah, and then you can get a win win as we like to say at Fredrickson Learning.


Mark Cunningham

Everybody wins.


Leslie Early

Yeah, everybody wins, always aiming for that as the ultimate goal. Okay, well, thank you so much again, mark for joining me. If people wanted to reach out to you to continue this conversation, what would be a good place to find you?


Mark Cunningham

I'm usually in Zoom windows or in spreadsheets. But if you want to get a hold of me, LinkedIn works fine. Again, my name is Mark Cunningham, project manager at Fredrickson Learning. I'd be happy to connect with anyone who wants to talk about project management as a profession or managing projects as a necessity.


Leslie Early

Perfect. All right. Well, thank you again, so much, Mark. It's been a pleasure.


Mark Cunningham

Thank you, Leslie.


Transcribed by https://otter.ai