You only get one chance to make a first impression

Register now

It’s always exciting to start working with a new client. You’ve got a clean slate, high expectations and unlimited potential. But how do you establish yourself from day one as your new client’s most trusted advisor instead of just their tax preparer? It all starts with the client onboarding process.

Before bringing in your next new client, you and your team should ask yourselves the following questions:

  • What does the process look like when we bring in a new client?
  • What is the end result we’re hoping to provide for them?
  • How are we going to help the new client make better financial decisions?

Ironically, H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt have put more thought into their new client onboarding processes than many CPA firms have. It’s all part of their playbook: streamlining all aspects of the client relationship to enhance profit margins. Well, you’re operating at a higher level than retail tax prep outlets and you’re helping clients solve more complex issues. But you can still look for ways to systematize as much routine work as possible. Doing so frees you up to spend more time on personalized client service that requires higher-level thinking.

New way to look at client onboarding

At the start of any business or professional relationship, it’s essential for both parties to set expectations and make sure they understand each other 100 percent. Without establishing that foundational level of trust, you’re just throwing up walls, rooms and roofs without a blueprint. Eventually the whole house will collapse on itself.

With each client, you have to have a clear and shared understanding of where you are now — and where you want to go. It sounds basic, but I’m always surprised by how many firms don’t seem to know where their clients really are and where they want to go. Without that information, any recommendations you make will be less than optimal.

Like many firms, we have a personal financial organizer that new clients can fill out online. Many firms ask new clients to complete the organizer prior to the first meeting. We don’t. Try this approach instead: Use the organizer as a roadmap to show clients what you’re going to work on together over time. If clients simply fill out the organizer on their own, they won’t be able to provide you with the backstory and details behind the numbers. Understanding the color and the “why” behind their numbers establishes trust and helps you as their trusted advisor.

If you take nothing else away from this article, it’s that client relationships are about more than just the numbers. They’re about constantly asking why and getting to a deeper level of understanding of your clients than you ever have in the past.

This is probably going to be a more in-depth onboarding process than you’ve done before. But remember this: getting to know your clients better doesn’t stop at the end of the onboarding process. It’s something you should be doing throughout your relationship.

Core components of onboarding

At the end of the day, client onboard comes down to three things:

1. Having a clear and shared understanding of where the client is today, and a clear and shared understanding of where they want to be.

2. Having a clear, step-by-step process for helping clients achieve their goals.

3. Establishing mutual expectations. How do we know if we’re on track and how do we want this relationship to progress?

Leveraging your role as trusted advisor (i.e., advocate, catalyst and integrator)
You have a three-part role as your client’s most trusted advisor. You’re the advocate; you’re the catalyst and you’re the integrator. These are very important responsibilities that you’ll want to establish day one during the onboarding process. Let’s unpack those roles one at a time.

1. The Advocate: This is about building trust with your client so they know you’re always on their side. One of the ways to build more trust with a client is to ask them better and deeper questions. You could be well intentioned, but it’s really tough to be their advocate if you don’t have a defined process for actually delivering on your promises.

2. The Catalyst: Part of the onboarding process is understanding where a client is now, where they want to go and actually helping them get there. As the catalyst, you’re the driving force that moves clients forward. As a byproduct of having a successful relationship with you, clients are going to do things that they otherwise wouldn’t have done if they weren’t working with you.

3. The Integrator: As the client’s financial quarterback and Personal CFO, your responsibility is to make sure all the moving pieces in their financial life — and all the expert professionals working on their behalf — are doing so in a coordinated manner.

In future articles, I’ll cover topics like these (with helpful worksheets included):

Where is your client now?

  • Building out a household balance sheet, personal cash flow statement and net worth statement;
  • Understanding your client’s family tree;
  • Managing and evaluating your client’s outside professional network.


  • Where does your client want to go?
  • Setting short-term, mid-term and long-term goals.


  • Setting mutual expectations;
  • Roadmap for getting clients to their desired destination;
  • Building a timeline for implementation;
  • Prioritizing what’s most important today.

We all know what clients ultimately want — more time, less stress, and the confidence of knowing they’re making better financial decisions. In order to provide them with that peace of mind, you need to become the expert in their lives from day one. Doctors don’t recommend a cure for a patient unless they’ve done a complete diagnosis of all their symptoms and are up to speed on the patient’s complete medical history and all the medications they’re taking. The same goes for your client’s most trusted financial advisor.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.
Client acquisition Client strategies Client relations Practice management Client portals Tax practice