Welcome Aboard! The importance of "Onboarding"

By Ron Rosenberg

The old saying that "you don't get a second chance to make a first impression" is especially true in these days of sub-par customer service.

The good news is that the bar is set so low that it doesn't really take much effort to stand out from the competition.

For example, a good friend of ours always gave his sons this advice about showing up for appointments: "early is on-time; on-time is late."  You might expect that this would be basic common sense since showing up late is something you should never do for an important meeting.

But the same thing could be said for sending resumes and cover letters with grammatical and spelling errors, or coming to an interview dressed as if you were going to a family reunion at the beach or a Grateful Dead concert. (All of which we've experienced in our own hiring efforts, by the way!)

But this isn't so much an article about "making a good first impression" as it is about solidifying the relationship you have with a new customer, client, or member.

Like Part of the Family...

When we work with our clients in a variety of service professions, one thing we always ask initially is, "What makes you different from your competitors?"

The answers vary but almost always include something like, "When people deal with us, we treat them like they're part of our family, and they tell us they feel that way about us too!"

You've probably had the experience of inviting friends over to your house for dinner, and having to apologize for something that's "not just right." If you have a relationship and history with your guests, they'll generally say, "Don't worry about it - we're not friends, we're family!"

This kind of relationship takes time to establish, but at the start, you need some kind of connection, and the first few interactions need to establish at least the possibility of a long-term relationship.

This is certainly true in romantic relationships, it's true with friendships, and it's true in your customer relationships as well.

It Starts at the Beginning

For someone to take the first step in doing business with you – whether it’s calling, responding to an ad, engaging on social media, or coming to your location in person – you have to generate interest. In other words, there needs to be some initial attraction between you and the prospect.

This “spark” can take many forms. For example, you’ve probably met someone for the first time and said to yourself, “I like that person – I could see us becoming good friends.” Conversely, there are other people you meet who have just the opposite effect on you – people you can’t wait to get away from as soon as humanly possible.

But that initial contact isn’t enough – you need to take that first interaction and follow up with an “onboarding” process that helps develop the relationship. This should be a formal process, but you can see examples of this in your everyday interactions.

It’s What Happens “Next” That Counts…

For example, several years ago, we spent a few weeks at a lake in the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York. It’s the area where my wife, Lorie, is from and where all of her family still lives.

When we first arrived, she was out walking and came across a group of women who were stopped on the side of the road with their bicycles. Lorie stopped to speak with them because we’re both avid cyclists and this was an opportunity for us to ride with a group – always a good idea when you’re on open roads.

It turns out that one of the women, Sue, was what we call a “connector” – the person who knows everyone and is always willing to make the personal introductions that good relationships are built upon.

In terms of “onboarding,” in this situation, we were made to feel like a part of the group, and in the years since then, many of these people have become very close friends.

But it didn’t stop there. Towards the end of our stay that first year, Lorie and I were participating in a triathlon not far from where we were staying. The event itself started at 7:00 am. And it was very cold for a summer day, even in the mountains.

We were there around 6:00 am so we would have ample time to get our gear set up in the transition area, and when we were done, we heard people calling our names. It was Sue and her husband Dan.

We walked over to join them and asked who they had come out to see.  The answer took us by surprise: “We came to see you!” It bears repeating that this was very early on a cold Saturday morning, and these were people we had only met for the first time just a few weeks earlier.

This is onboarding in its most direct and personal form.

What Happens After the Initial Contact?

A commonly held belief is that the purpose of the customer is to get the sale. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: the purpose of the sale is to get the customer.

If you look at things from a transactional viewpoint, then the initial sale is the end-all goal. When you take the long view and see the sale as the start of a relationship, then it really gives you a strong incentive to create a compelling and engaging process to foster and develop the fledgling relationship you’ve gone to so much trouble to create in the first place!