“I didn’t hear from you, so I hired someone else.” Those were bitter words to hear from my prospect, who was an attorney in Nashville. He had wanted a new WordPress website, an easy project for me with a good profit margin. And he was a referral. His oldest son and I had known one another for years. With a solid client onboarding process, selling the project would have been a piece of cake.

The only problem was, I never sent him a proposal.

We had already agreed upon a price range over the phone, but opening a new Word doc and dredging up appropriate verbiage from an old proposal and changing the scope and tweaking the deliverables and spell checking and proofreading once, twice, three times… Yuck. I hated creating proposals.

I procrastinated, and the next time I reached out to David, he told me he had hired someone else. Stupid. I lost an easy sale, a profitable contract, and all of the potential referrals that David might have sent.

Make your clients’ heads spin.

We human beings often don’t change until it hurts worse to stay the same. We all need to make a handful of bone-headed mistakes in business to get our education.

Six years later, I grit my teeth and turn around proposals so fast that my clients’ heads spin—typically the same day.

Better efficiency yields two fruits:

  1. I spend minimal time on tedious tasks, such as creating proposals. I no longer feel like punching myself in the face out of boredom.
  2. Repeatable systems enable me to win more business. If the early bird gets the worm, then the early proposal gets the… worm.

Proposals. You hate ‘em. I hate ‘em. Have you ever met anyone who likes them? No. They’re a necessary evil in the world of freelancing and consulting.

The goal isn’t to avoid the medicine but to compress it into a pill you can swallow without too much trouble.

Fair Warning: Learning that compression requires some work. If you’re averse to work, go back to your 9-to-5.

Steal My Client Onboarding Process

After I sold Bright Newt in April 2015, I needed a new name for the consulting arm of the business. Rebranding the business as Wunderbar gave me the excuse I needed to rip out seven years’ worth of creaky, jerry-rigged infrastructure and replace that tired wreck with a logical sequence of interlinked steps and processes for getting business-y with a new client.

Let’s go back to my prospect for a second. David wanted a new website. I had already sold websites. What could I have done to streamline my client onboarding process and seal the deal with him?

I should have sent him a proposal about thirty minutes after we ended our call. And if I had already implemented the process mapped out below, then that banana would have been easy to peel.

Monkeys peel bananas from the bottom—opposite the stem. It’s easier that way, and you don’t smush half the banana trying to crack open the stem. Of course, I didn’t figure this out until I was in college.

Proposals are like bananas. There’s an easy way and a hard way.

What about you? Have you been doing a simple thing the hard way?

client onboarding process

Photo Credit: Lotte Lohr via Upsplash

Step 1 – Organize reusable project and contract files in the cloud.

Create a GDrive or Dropbox folder named Services/Offerings or something similar. Every time you put together a new proposal or new set of deliverables, save that section as a separate text doc in the folder with a descriptive name: “Custom WordPress Site with Blog.”

Step 2 – Can your pricing.

Eventually you’ll have pricing ready to go for a whole menu of options. When a new project comes along, you can open an old doc, copy the text, and paste it into your quote template.

Step 3 – Separate quotes from client service agreements.

I don’t send proposals anymore. Proposals, at least the ones I have seen, are the common response to a Request for Proposal (RFP). They are these terribly bloated, verbose documents where agency owners talk about how experienced and awesome they are and team member bios try to be winsome by talking about their cats and knitting projects.

Does anyone read the entire proposal? No. The decision-makers skip to the pricing page. If the pricing is off, they toss that proposal aside. If the pricing is on, they move the proposal from the slush pile to the frontrunners pile.

You can learn two lessons here:

  1. Responding to RFPs is a day-long lesson in self-flagellation. Do you want to build your business by shipping off cartons of fluff and hot air? Go for it.
  2. Decision-makers skip straight to the pricing. They don’t give two craps about your cat. Do them (and yourself) a favor by keeping your proposals very short.

Should you choose to respond to an RFP, what kind of “proposal” would stand out more? An equally ponderous tome or a beautifully designed three-pager that cuts to the heart of the matter?

Who would you want to do business with?

I for one appreciate people who don’t waste my time.

Rant concluded.

Forget proposals. Put the pricing and terms in separate documents that you send in this order:

  1. Quote
  2. Client Service Agreement (CSA)

The quote PDF covers pricing and scope in broad strokes. It will elicit a yes or no from the client. If the client says no, you can reduce the price, dial back the scope, and try again. Or you can part ways amicably. If the client says yes, you can progress together to the CSA.

In the No scenario you don’t waste time on a project that was never going to pan out. In the Yes scenario you don’t waste time by asking an eager client to wade through legal jargon before you’ve agreed upon the pricing and scope.

Legal jargon serves an important role in business, and the CSA is a longer, more formal, legally binding document similar to a Master Service Agreement (i.e., a particularly noxious piece of legal garbage required on occasion by corporations with “procurement departments”).

My CSA has neutral construction, and typically passes through review by my clients’ legal teams without any requests for changes.

Step 4 – Finalize your quote template.

My one-page quote template contains three sections:

  1. What the client gets
  2. What s/he doesn’t get
  3. How much it’s going to cost

I don’t want to hear any whining about why you must include more sections or stretch this very simple document across more pages. I stole these three sections from an old client of mine, Fulghum Macindoe. They’re a firm that typically does multi-million dollar civil engineering projects.

If they can’t use a one-pager with their clients, including The Federal Government, then you can use it for your very impressive Ruby-on-Rails-meets-nuclear-submarine project.

Step 5 – Duplicate the quote template document.

Step 6 – Use the copy to create a new quote.

Copy in your template pricing, make any tweaks, save the changes, and export a PDF.

Step 7 – Open a new email and attach the PDF.

Step 8 – Buy a little Mac app called aText.

You’re all using Macs, right?

Step 9 – Create a shortcut phrase—“.newquote”—and compose an email template.

That way, you won’t have to think of what to say each time. You type in the shortcut and Voila! Your email template appears.

The whole point of a client onboarding process is to take out the unnecessary guesswork and improvisation. Save your creativity for the project itself.

Here’s the language I use for my quote email template:

“Hi So-and-So,
Thanks again for sharing your goals with me. I left our conversation feeling energized, and I’m really looking forward to working with you.

Take a look at the attached PDF. Once we talk through the pricing and are both happy, I’ll send you Wunderbar’s standard Client Service Agreement, the W-9 for your accountant, and an invoice for a deposit.

We’ll hit the ground running!

I’ll give you a call tomorrow on my mobile (XXX-XXX-XXXX) to discuss the quote.


Step 10 – Call your prospect the next day to discuss the quote.

Most people feel weird about money. So talk to them on the phone about it. Don’t sheepishly send a quote then end with a cop-out: “Let me know if you have any questions.”

(Wo)man up! You stand by your prices and can easily have a conversation about them on the phone without flinching. And this while strangling a grizzly with your non-phone hand.

Also, don’t make people agonize over a response. Keep the ball in your court by telling people that you will call them.

If a new prospect does have qualms with the price, you’re not going to come to a resolution by waiting around.

Once you talk it out and are both happy with the scope, you’ll do exactly what you said in the first email.

Step 11 – Duplicate your Client Service Agreement (CSA).

Note: I purchased the “Creative Class Contract” sold by Rodgers Collective. It is a template delightfully free of legalese, and I like the neutral construction. Because it’s fair to both parties, I get less pushback from clients (and their legal departments).

It has clear instructions with a decision tree of sorts that enables you to customize the document based on your type of services (for example, copywriting) and your mode of delivery (for example, ongoing retainer relationship).

Step 12 – Customize the new CSA.

Adding new details, including dates, client name, company address, services provided, scope, pricing, and contract terms, should take you five minutes.

From there, you save the changes and export a PDF.

Step 13 – Upload the CSA to SignNow, sign it, and download the signed version.

These days, only Neanderthals have to print a hard copy to sign a document, and I’m being unfair to my Neanderthal friends by saying that. I use SignNow. It costs $1 a month. Yes, you read that correctly.

Pro Tip: I signed a piece of white page, took a picture of my signature, and uploaded it to SignNow. Now I can upload a new PDF, sign it, and export the signed version in less than 60 seconds.

Step 14 – Open a new email and attach the signed CSA PDF.

Step 15 – Create a shortcut phrase—“.payme”—and compose an email template.

Feel free to steal mine:

Hi So-and-So,

1) The client service agreement is attached, along with Wunderbar’s W-9 for your accountant.

Look over the CSA, sign and date it, and return it to me. Let me know if you have any questions.

(I personally use SignNow to save time and paper when signing documents.)

2) You can pay the deposit invoice with a credit card here: Harvest invoice link.

If you have any trouble, let me know.


Step 16 – Attach your company’s W-9 to the email.

Have a pre-signed, scanned copy of your W-9 ready to go. Clients shouldn’t have to ask.

TurboScan is my go-to for scanning a document I have printed out. You can also use this editable template from the IRS and SignNow for your signature.

Step 17 – Set up a scalable time tracking, invoicing, and payment system.

I use Harvest for all of that, and I won’t repeat myself here. You can read these three blog posts instead:

An efficient invoicing system helps you give your clients a better experience. You send these implicit messages to them:

I’m efficient.
I’m organized.
I’m responsive.
I’m in control and know what comes next.
I won’t waste your time or my own.
I’m professional.

Requiring that the deposit invoice be paid with a credit card makes things easy for them. They don’t have to pull out their checkbooks and go to the mailbox. They can just use a credit card online.

Now before you raise your hand and inquire about credit card processing fees, I’d like to say that money in the bank is money in the bank.

You know what’s awesome? Push notifications from Harvest telling me that big, fat deposit invoices have been paid.

You know what’s not awesome? Having to wait for a check to show up in the mail and having to send clients reminder emails.

The inconvenience of having to initiate bill pay—or in the case of one client, wait in line at the bank to purchase a bank draft—is enough to make many people drag their feet.

You want to make more money? Remove friction. Make the experience of working with you as frictionless as possible.

Friction is heat. Friction is risk. Relationships die from a thousand frictions, and they live by a thousand tiny graces.

Step 18 – Paste in the invoice link.

Step 19 – Send the email.

In Closing

The only reason I lost that contract years ago is because I procrastinated. I procrastinated because I hated creating proposals. I hated creating proposals because it’s tedious and boring.

By overhauling my client onboarding process, I have effectively removed that mental block. You can too.

Start peeling the banana from the bottom. If you can turn around a contract in 15-20 minutes, who is most likely to get worm?

Do you want to build a profitable business you love?

Duh. Pony up that email address, and you can learn from my failures. You can laugh at my mistakes. You can envy my success at croquet, slow running, and modest bank accounts. Let’s make good money and leave the world better than we found it.

No-nonsense business advice for content writers and freelancers. Served warm with a side of dad jokes.

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