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New leads for your agency or freelance business are great, but they can eat up a lot of time. And worse, when you’re super-busy with projects, you tend to put off dealing with them until you’ve got no work and it turns into a feast-famine cycle.

Here’s what a potential client sequence might look like:

1. Client finds your site, loves your work, and emails you.

2. They send you a vague and longwinded explanation of what they think they need. This sometimes feels as if it’s being conveyed in a dead language, covering everything from what they ate when they started their business to what their mother thinks of their current website.

3. You email them back, asking for clarification on at least 5 of the points they made, asking them to fill in a project planner that you attach as a Word document.

4. They fill it in and email it back to you. (They probably used Comic Sans or Papyrus, but this is a judgement-free zone).

5. You review their answers and email them back to set up a call.

6. They go back and forth 2–4 times to pick a date and time that works for you both.

7. You chat on Skype or Hangouts to figure out what they really need, if it’s a good fit, and if you should proceed to giving them an estimate.

All in, that can take 5–6 hours, if you’re lucky. What if you could take everything but the phone call off your plate? You can with a little thing called automated onboarding.

What is onboarding?

Onboarding is a term that started in HR departments back when fax machines were a thing, but was quickly adopted by tech startups and growth hackers. Onboarding is really just the way you get folks from, “I’m interested” to, “Hey, now I’m a client.” It works by considering 3 things:

1. Accommodation: giving people the knowledge to make a decision. “Should we hire you?”

2. Assimilation: this is how you make the right people feel like they’ve come to the right place. “Based on what I’ve just learned, you are the person/company I want to hire to do this for me.”

3. Acceleration: helping them make the decision to work with you as quickly as possible. “Based on the short document I just read, I know what you can and can’t do for my business. Now, I’m ready to hire you.”

Now let’s look at how you can automate the 7 steps from the first section so you only have to get involved in the final stage. If that sounds enticing but you’re worried about automation removing the human touch from your brand, fret not. I’ll show you how to create a win-win scenario where the client gets the information they’re after instantly (even if it’s 2am and you’re asleep), and you get to vet potential leads without using any of your time or focus.

How to automate an onboarding sequence for new leads

1. Client finds your site, loves your work and fills in a simple form that’s connected to your MailChimp list or — even better — a group within that list.

2. They’re immediately sent a welcome package that includes a PDF that covers the types of clients you work with, your pricing, some success stories, and the services you do and don’t offer.

3. At the end of the PDF there’s a big call-to-action button for the client to fill in a project planner. If they click it, they’re taken to a page on your website with a pre-made Typeform embedded on it.

4. Once they’ve filled in your project planner, they’re taken to a success page with a single link that points to the booking calendar on your site, with an Acuity scheduler embedded in it. This booking calendar integrates with your Google Calendar, so it knows when you’re busy. (This eliminates the back and forth “Are you free at X time on Y date?” conversation.)

5. The confirmation message gives them your Skype handle, so all they need to do is get the reminder email (from Acuity) the day of the conversation and add you on Skype.

6. Because they’ve read your welcome PDF, they’ve filled in your project planner, and they’ve followed the instructions to book a call to talk about the project, all you have to do is open up Skype and do the call when it’s time.

7. Optional: use Zapier’s MailChimp to Google Sheets Zap to save each new lead to a spreadsheet. From there, you can track your notes see how far along in the process they’ve made it.

8. Optional: use Zapier’s Acuity to MailChimp Zap to add them to a custom group on your list, which could then trigger further automations.

9. Optional: use MailChimp’s goals to track if leads do not go to the page on your site that has the Typeform or the page that has your Acuity scheduler. (You can send follow-up automated reminders.)

Common objections to automating your potential lead process

“I’ll lose leads.”
The great thing about automation is that you don’t need to remember to keep the process going. Sometimes your inbox might be so full that a lead or 2 falls through the cracks. If your onboarding process is automated, you don’t have to worry about that, especially if you use MailChimp’s goal tracking and send automated follow-ups if they don’t get further along in your process.

“I don’t want new leads to feel like I don’t care or that I’m a marketing robot.”
The thing with automation is that you’re free to (and should!) stay on brand and in your tone of voice for every step. You’ll only come across as insincere if you leave out your usual charm.

“It’ll take too much time to set up”
Yes, it can take a few hours to set up a fully automated lead onboarding sequence. But if only a single lead goes through that process, you’ve saved those hours already. If 20 leads go through, you’ve saved yourself 100 hours. Now, use those hours for billable work instead.

Automation takes time and planning to work. But once you’ve got it set up and running smoothly, the sky’s the limit to what you can do, what you can offer potential leads, and how much time you can save.

Written by Paul Jarvis.

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