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A financial professional colleague of mine, Sarah, called me recently and shared that she was devastated that her client of only a few months wanted to terminate their relationship. 

When she asked them why the change of heart, they shared “Honestly, we really like you and the plan you created for us. But the process of moving our money and getting set up with your office has, well, given us reason to pause.” Upon more discussion, she found out that they were frustrated by several little things including mistakes on their applications and snafus with account transfers. On top of that, they felt like they didn’t hear from her once they transferred the money. Their trust in her diminished. In short, simple mistakes that we often don’t think are a big deal ended up costing her big. 

Research shows that a client’s experience in the first 100 days determines the longevity of your relationship. Once I mastered this in my practice, communication issues evaporated and our referrals skyrocketed.

Even if these errors haven’t been made in your practice, there’s still a staggering difference between a basic onboarding experience and one that’s designed with intentionality. A few tweaks can take your process from so-so to one that creates lifelong clients.


What We’ll Cover

  • Onboarding Is Misunderstood
  • 4 Must-Dos to Create an Elevated Onboarding Process


First, Onboarding Is Misunderstood

Paperwork and account setup is only one part of onboarding—the most elementary part. True onboarding is a foundational step in becoming an indispensable financial professional to your clients, and ultimately receiving referrals. 

In the early years of my own advisory business, our onboarding process was fine. We didn’t make mistakes and I thought that was enough. But after I redesigned our process with a top-notch client experience in mind, we got waves of referrals from new client relationships. In other words, the first 100 days became our best referral source. 

The key is creating a client experience that’s designed to deepen their connection with you while setting up their accounts. Your onboarding process should not only be functional, but also provide a concierge-level experience that assures clients they’ve made the best decision when they chose to work with you. 


Second, 4 Must-Dos to Create an Elevated Onboarding Process

  1. Elevate the account setup process.

    How can you level up the customer service you deliver during this phase? Identify what’s just a basic necessity and what you can do to make it exceptional. In the first 100 days, it’s ideal to add two little “extras” such as these to help clients feel the love by going above and beyond:

    • BASIC: Sending clients a link to get access to their accounts online

    • ELEVATED LEVEL: Help them create their login and show them how to navigate your website, e.g., use a Zoom call to show them how to access specific account information, view performance, where their tax forms are located, etc.

    • BASIC: Calling your clients when their money has been received by your firm

    • ELEVATED LEVEL: Send a weekly email regarding the status of all pending business: where it is in the process, things that still need to be done, and whose responsibility it is to do them. For example, notifying a client that “We’ve submitted all the paperwork to your 401(k) plan administrator. They’ll send a check to us within a week.”

    • BASIC: Completing only basic paperwork required to establish them as a client

    • ELEVATED LEVEL: Asking new clients to complete paperwork that anticipates future needs or problems (e.g., signing third-party authorizations, spousal release forms, trusted contact forms). For example, if a client's spouse requests account information and the required form isn't completed, you'd be in the awkward position of denying their request.

    • BASIC: Emailing their account paperwork with little or no explanation

    • ELEVATED LEVEL: Hosting a “signing party” during which you walk new clients through the various documents and forms to make sure they fully understand the purpose of each one and why each is necessary. (Note: This can be done virtually or in person.) Try to make this a fun experience. Clients will appreciate understanding everything they’re signing and why.

  2. Set expectations about what they can expect from you and your team

    This is the most frequently missed opportunity in the onboarding process. One thing that is universally true for all humans is that we love to know what to expect next.

    • BASIC: Telling your clients how often you'll meet with them

    • ELEVATED LEVEL: Giving clients a service calendar. I love when financial professionals set the stage for not just the frequency of meetings, but what will be accomplished in those meetings, e.g., topics you'll cover or events you are hosting that they can expect to be invited to. Let them know any value-adds you will be doing between meetings, such as searching for unresolved funds, reviewing tax returns, etc. 

    • BASIC: Telling the client who is on your team and what they will be doing for them

    • ELEVATED LEVEL: Take the time to introduce your clients to each team member. Let them know that you have different people on your staff that do different things and will be interacting with them in different ways. Give them a face with the name and a brief conversation between that staff member and your client. You could even take them on a tour of your office and introduce them to each employee, and have your team give your client a 60-sec description of what they do for the office and how they will interact with your clients. 

    • BASIC: Telling your client to email or call with any questions

    • ELEVATED LEVEL: Let your clients know that you're often in meetings during the day and that you have a process to answer their questions quickly. Let them know it's most beneficial for them to tell your team as much information as possible about their question, need, or concern, so that you or someone on your team can do as much research as possible before you call them back.

      Often, based on what they share, one of your team members can usually answer their question or take care of their needs right then and there and not make the client wait for you to be available.

  3. Make your client-financial professional relationship a human-human relationship.

    This means taking your relationship with your clients beyond their accounts, goals, and financial data. Show your clients that you appreciate them and want to get to know them and serve them as humans. This is the true differentiator in your onboarding experience.

    • BASIC: Sending them a thank you for becoming a client

    • ELEVATED LEVEL: Sending a gift that shows you were attentive during your conversations. Instead of a coffee mug with your firm’s logo on it, try a coffee mug for their alma mater! If you learned that they like fly fishing, send flies. If they told you they are going to go to Italy when they retire next year, send a travel guide for Italy with a personal note on the inside front cover.

      Note: Don’t directly ask clients about their hobbies or interests. Instead, discover these things during routine small-talk conversations.

    • BASIC: A birthday or anniversary card

    • ELEVATED LEVEL: A personal video wishing them a happy birthday. My clients loved these. You can efficiently record all your birthday videos at the beginning of each month (BombBomb or Loom apps make this easy) and then email them on clients’ birthdays.

      Have your team make reservations on their behalf at their favorite fancy restaurant and send them a note or call to let them know you scheduled that for them. Talking points: “Hey, we know your anniversary’s coming up in a couple of months. A few months ago, we went ahead and grabbed a reservation at (restaurant name) at 7 on your anniversary. You can keep it or not. It’s just something we like to do for people.”

      Note: You don’t need to pay for the meals, just make the reservation.

    • BASIC: Mailing their first statement or insurance contract.

    • ELEVATED LEVEL: Call your client to confirm that they received their statement and ask if they have questions about how to read it. Provide a summary to make sure the information is clear. For an insurance contract, schedule a time to review it, including the riders and nuances the client chose. Show them how to read the contract and answer questions.

  4. Create a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)

    The best way to systematize it is to document strategies and make them simple to follow.

    Having a documented process helps prevent missed steps, dropped balls, and being left in a lurch if a teammate resigns.

    I strongly encourage financial professionals to create a Standard Operation Procedure (SOP). The SOP lists each step and details that include when and how it’s done, who’s responsible for doing it, and what template/tool/workflow is used.

    Once the SOP is formally documented, it should become a routine checklist that you and your team execute by DESIGN, not by DEFAULT.

    Having an SOP in place also makes it easier to train a new team. Revisit when you’re working on your annual business plan, asking yourself and your team how you can continue to improve it with new tools, technology, and other resources.


To Summarize

When Sarah seriously considered the experience she wanted new clients to have, she revamped her onboarding process. The results were almost instant. New clients started to comment to her about how amazing the experience was and how excited they were to work with her and her team. She started hearing comments such as, “wow, that was such a smooth experience” and “gosh, you guys are on top of everything,” or “there was no stone unturned.” Soon after implementing their new and improved onboarding process, referrals increased as clients went through the new process. 

If you want to turn prospects into clients, and new clients into referral sources, an onboarding process that delivers an exceptional client experience is imperative.


Next Steps

  1. Schedule a meeting with your team to evaluate your current onboarding process. Would you feel like a VIP client if you were in a prospect’s shoes?
  2. Brainstorm how to address pain points or areas needing improvement
  3. Formalize an SOP that includes detailed onboarding steps and incorporates your solutions
  4. Agree to consistently follow the SOP going forward, but make refinements as needed


About The Author
Ryan Sullivan Headshot
The Efficient Advisor LLC.

Did you ever wonder how a financial professional could build a seven-figure practice while only working three days a week? Libby Greiwe, host of The Efficient Advisor podcast, did just that. Since selling her highly successful 16-year planning business, she’s obsessed with sharing her practical, step-by-step processes to help other financial professionals achieve the same results. She ran her own planning business for 16 years culminating in a sale & retirement in 2019. Now, she’s simply just obsessed with helping other amazing financial professionals do the same thing.

Hartford Mutual Funds may or may not be invested in the companies reference herein; however, no particular endorsement of any product or service is being made. 

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author, who is not affiliated with Harford Funds. 



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