Conversational onboarding

by Todd

Many teams take a structured approach to new clients and projects by using onboarding forms. The forms range from simple to involved, prompting clients to convey what’s needed for everything from first contact to project scoping. The form-based approach is often informed by hard-won experience, putting lessons learned into a tight system.

Forms are consistent

Forms ensure that all the bases are covered with each and every client.

They’re efficient

While a prospective client spends their time filling out a form, you can be doing other things for the ones who already hired you.

Forms make client screening easy

A form is a great place to introduce screening criteria like your preferred project types and budget. These conversations can be awkward, and a rational form saves you any discomfort around fit or money.

Some thinking required

In-depth forms push prospective clients towards the realities of technological complexity and design costs early, rather than requiring you to consider ideas that aren’t fully baked.

Going form free

Although online forms have a lot going for them, we’ve taken to onboarding new clients and projects entirely through direct conversations. It usually takes two or three rounds, but we’ve realized a some special benefits that make the longer road worthwhile.

Conversations are a rich channel

Whether in person, FaceTime/Skype, or even just over the phone, a realtime conversation carries much more information than written text. In conversation we detect degrees of certainty, passion, and other ‘meta’ qualities that influence projects from start to finish. Forms can hide these more subtle clues, and obscure gems in the rough.

Path-making vs following

Where a form has one path to follow, a conversation is a path made by both parties. We can investigate connections as they come up and give as much or as little space to a topic as is needed. It’s easy to get lost in conversation, so we always set some goals for the conversation and keep them in sight.

Telegraphing sensibility and style

How the conversation unfolds not only gives clients an idea of whether we can do the job, but it gives everyone an idea of what it might be like to work together. Are things more friendly or formal? More giving or withholding? These things all come through in conversation to help clients, and us, figure out if we should work together.

The work is on us

We like to give clients the feeling that they’re being taken care of and in good hands, so we do the writing and any form-filling. If you think about walking into a store for a major purchase, would you rather be greeted by someone who takes care of everything, or find an unattended clipboard with a form to fill out before someone will talk to you? We like the first one better, and that’s how we want our clients to feel.

Uses established skills

Everyone knows how to have a conversation. Some are better at communicating clearly than others, but writing is a real roadblock for some people. With a conversation, we’re able to step clients into our process with no learning curve at the outset.

The idea of going with what people already know is why we don’t even use a contact form on our website. Here are a few contact forms from around the web. They’re all just fine as contact forms.

But with each one there’s a bit of cognitive load placed on the person using it. From parsing specific fields to validation rules (what’s required, what’s optional), to the dread-presence of bot-repelling CAPTCHAS, there’s just a bit more friction for a prospective client. And of course, there’s the writing problem for some.

For contacts from the website we just use a simple email link, so our contact form looks like this.

Why? For one, spam filters have been doing the job that the obscuring wall of a contact form used to do. The sender’s email address and often their name are pre-filled and pre-validated. And it’s an interface that people already know: no extra cognitive load, no wondering if it actually got sent, no moment of friction other than a bit of typing and hitting send. And no need to code a bunch of extra stuff that could silently break in the future. This works for us, and more importantly, people who want to talk to us.

Everything has trade offs, and what works for us might not work for others. The important thing is not whether a business uses forms or not to welcome new clients; it’s that the choice is made thoughtfully and supports the client experience we want to deliver.