Elephant Onboarding: Fintech Strategies for Tier 1 Clients
Published in WealthTech Today | May 8, 2023
Special thanks to Craig Iskowitz, Founder and CEO of Ezra Group, for letting me share my thoughts and then publishing them in WealthTech Today.
Congratulations, signing a tier 1 enterprise client (an elephant) is huge! You should all spend some time high-fiving one another and sharing a glass of champagne. But don’t celebrate too long; the hard work is just beginning.
Welcome to Elephant Onboarding – a guide for fintech CEO’s to launch top-tier financial institutions successfully.
As a true Onboarding Delivery Executive, let’s begin with defining the scope. For today’s discussion, we define Client Onboarding (COB) as all activities between the contract signature and the go-live date. Although some experts consider User Adoption to be part of COB, I consider it the first stage of the Client Nurturing phase and, therefore will save it for another day.
The goal of your Client Onboarding team is simple: to welcome the client to your platform in the shortest time possible while satisfying client expectations.
What to do first
As CEO, you should remind your whole organization of your collective greatness. It is a big deal to win a Tier 1 financial institution. A good salesperson can convince a senior banking executive of your value proposition, but only a good fintech company can get through its procurement and due diligence process.
So, congratulations and express your confidence in them. I know it sounds obvious but unfortunately, too many times I’ve witnessed CEO’s simply congratulate sales and not focus on building the confidence of the delivery team.
Let your team know you’re staying involved and will assume personal accountability for successful onboarding. Encourage your COB team to showcase their expertise and leadership skills and not fade into the background. Remind them they are the ultimate experts on your product, and although big firms can be intimidating, you have confidence in them. Once you’ve expressed your faith, step up your game and show them the way.
The process is the process is the process
The client onboarding process is the same regardless of the institution's size or level of integration. If your product is relatively simple, the phases may be short, but I warn you not to take shortcuts. Every step in the process is important, and I can pretty much guarantee that skipping steps will cause delays, likely decrease client satisfaction, and will put your revenue at risk.
If you don’t already have goals and artifacts defined for each process, it’s not too late to do it now. This article focuses on the first half of the program management part of COB. If you nail the early stages, the later stages will operate like clockwork.
Scout Motto: Be prepared.
Whether as a Girl Scout or Boy Scout, many of us learned the importance of the Scout’s motto to ‘Be Prepared’. As we enter the COB phase of a large-scale financial institution, it would be wise to recommit to this creed!
Sales to COB Transition
Require your salesperson to provide both a verbal and written review of the deal to the COB team including Contract Details and an updated Strategic Deal Review (SDR). For more information on SDRs, see Elephant Hunting: Fintech Sales Strategies for Tier 1 Prospects.
Socialize Contract Details. Your COB team must know the financial terms, service level agreements (SLAs), and any specifics on the change order process. Top-tier institutions will often negotiate these terms, and your COB team needs to know when money is on the line.
Hopefully, you were able to negotiate half payment due upon signature and equal remaining installments at UAT release and production release. Knowing these terms means that they will be aligned to realizing these dates as early as practical and use their influencing skills to keep the client on-track with these milestones.
They should also be aware of financial incentives such as bank days/dollars for change orders and terms around discounted pricing or escalating minimums.
Also, special SLAs mean that the COB team needs to ensure that they are measurable, reportable, and fully understood across your company.
Update your last Strategic Deal Review (SDR). This is the only SDR update that I recommend you showcase redlines so participants can see the changes.
Last-minute negotiations are rarely broadcasted to all client stakeholders; redlining will warn your head of COB of likely communication gaps.
However, it’s more than just updating the scope; remember to review the Expected Benefits and ROI, and any knowledge you now have about new stakeholders, their level of influence, their perception of your solution, and their personal drivers and concerns.
Pro Tip: include both formal and informal organizational charts.
At this stage, the SDR doesn’t get filed away for reference but instead, maintenance accountability transitions from the salesperson to your COB leader.
Tier 1 Client Onboarding usually takes a minimum of three months, and during these phases, people and expectations often change – and you’ll definitely be updating the Red Flags and RAID items throughout the onboarding program.
Pre-format all kickoff and onboarding documentation and tools
I’m assuming that your firm has standard onboarding documentation and tools so that you can pre-populate your toolkit before the SDR review meeting. Pre-formatted documents should include:
Milestone plan. This should include all workstreams, milestones, anticipated durations, and dependencies. Your plan should go beyond delivering the technology and Include workstreams for finalizing user requirements, testing, operational readiness, training, marketing, and user rollout. Pro Tip: Include a plan reset date dependent on requirements approval.
Requirements documentation. I’m sure you already have your internal checklists for platform configuration. However, with a top-tier institution, you need to convert this into detailed requirements for official sign-off. That means it needs to be written in terms understandable by laypersons and experts. Everything must be documented, not just the user stories. You should include operational workflows, architectural diagrams, print screens, and all configuration items, and very importantly, include sections for workflows and interfaces that are intentionally out of scope.
Training materials. Although training will likely be customized once you understand the client’s workflows and lock in their requirements, you should be able to start the engagement with at least 75% of all training materials completed. Training materials must be written from the viewpoints of each of the user constituencies. Remember, the larger the client, the more likely they will have specialists for each function, sometimes even for sub-functions.
Communications plan. We’ll go into this in more detail later but have templates pre-populated to describe all your committees. Even if there’s an overlap of people, each group has different charters, and the RACI matrix for each committee will likely have different owners. For elephant accounts, you will most likely have a Steering Committee (Steerco), Business Committee, Committees for each Workstream, a Program Management Committee, and a formal approach for Items for Escalation (i4e).
Kickoff Agenda and workshop presentations.
Conduct a Pre-Kickoff Meeting
The purpose of this meeting is to set expectations for the kickoff meeting, and, most importantly, ensure proper representation. For the pre-kickoff meeting, keep the group to under five people; from your side, it should include the Salesperson, Head of Client Onboarding, and their COB Liaison. From the client side, include only the Business Champion and Executive Sponsor.
This is a relationship-building call designed to showcase your COB leadership. Share the kickoff agenda, including client roles and the requirement that the executive sponsor (P&L owner) be present for the entire meeting.
You also need to understand whether they are assigning a Program Management Office (PMO) and how the Business Champion feels about working with their PMO.
Align with their PMO but do not acquiesce.
From the business perspective, large institutions either love or detest their PMO. Your role is the same regardless, but you do want to know the political landscape in order to determine the most appropriate escalation procedures.
What do you do if there’s a PMO? You learn their schedule and cadence and align on meetings. You inform them of your tools and process and teach them how to translate your existing tools into their process.
If they insist on using their tools and methodologies, here’s your first change order because the administrative tax will likely be 20-30%. The change order usually results in the PMO accepting responsibility for translating your standard procedures and reporting methodologies.
It’s always important to push back as you are already familiar with your own processes. Although I would agree to use the PMO’s reporting and processes (with a change order), I strongly encourage you not to adhere to a third-party consultancy firm.
The Kickoff Meeting
The duration of the kickoff meeting depends on how engrained you are in their operating model and infrastructure. I frequently see 2-3 days dedicated to the kickoff for a deeply integrated enterprise-wide solution. For a point solution, it’s quite possible you can do the entire kickoff process in under two hours. The agenda is the same regardless.
Welcoming remarks. Client and Fintech Executive Sponsors to communicate expected value from the solution. In the deck include pictures of all participants and ask for the introductions to include their role and responsibilities for this project, not just their department and title.
Kickoff Agenda. Your COB Lead reviews the objectives for the kickoff, a detailed review of the agenda, and the importance of staying on schedule. It gives a high-level peek into the overall engagement phases. This is also when you should introduce the use of a parking lot. (I recommend separate parking lots for questions, gaps, new ideas, and administrative items.)
Fintech Overview. Do not bore the audience with a recap of your history but communicate your company vision, explicitly state how this engagement aligns with it, and recap their expected benefits. Pause for a moment and ask if there’s anything else they want to accomplish that you haven’t captured. Pro Tip: Require the client to elaborate – it’s quite likely the client team is not yet aware of the expected benefits.
Fintech Demo. Do a sales demonstration even if everyone attended the demo during the sales process – your COB stakeholders were likely not listening. I recommend your COB team do the demo (not the salesperson) but do follow your sales script where you are discussing benefits and showcasing features, do not fall into the habit of doing a training demo. At this stage of the kickoff, you must still win over several naysayers.
Engagement Assumptions. Go through all assumptions made during the sales process, including what’s in and out of scope. Usually, this is a straight lift-out from the Strategic Deal Review, Proposals, and/or Contract. The purpose of reviewing this is to ensure everyone in the room has the same understanding. Pro Tip: Be prepared for items of ambiguity and start documenting this initial feedback.
Client Overview. Ask the client to provide an overview of their entire company, not just the lines of business that will be interfacing with your solution. Have them review the strategic goals at the company level and for each business line. For the lines of business impacted by your solution, have the client show the org charts and explain roles and responsibilities as it pertains to the program’s success. Ask hard questions about size of the business, current levels of growth, department size, clarification of org charts (it’s probably matrixed), business challenges, and focused growth opportunities. You need to walk away from this session fully aware of how your solution aligns with their business goals, the likely impact you will have immediately and over time, and some understanding of their decision-making process. You’re facilitating this conversation not just for yourself but also for the client, as you need everyone to hear the same story.
Working Together. Have an entire section dedicated to how the teams will work together, the committees to be formed – along with their role and cadence, reporting, and communications plan, including recommended tools such as RACIs, RAID, Jira, Slack, Shared Drive, etc. This is not just informational; the COB lead should be selling the importance of using your standard tools as it’s proven successful at keeping the program on budget and on schedule. You should highlight the key program risks that could derail onboarding and how you plan to mitigate those risks. Also, acknowledge that you propose formal escalation and approval processes for locking down the requirements and approving change orders. At the session, while everyone is listening, explicitly ask them to affirm the approval and escalation processes. I like to end this part of the session at a whiteboard capturing agreed-upon Guiding Principles – my ideal is to walk away with agreement on three to five guiding principles but under no circumstances should there be more than ten. Your Guiding Principles become important as you look to institutionalize the cadence process and hold each team accountable.
Intake Workshops on Current Operating Model. The first workshop is almost always dedicated to an architectural diagram and an overview of their tech stack and flows. I like to begin with these artifacts as they are often referenced during other workshops. Your next set of intake workshops should cover every department impacted by your solution. These workshops aim to learn their current operating models from the subject matter experts so you can start assessing the change management effort. Typically, there are separate workshops for client experience, financial advisors, contact centers, middle office, and operations. You may also need workshops for each major workstream in your milestone plan, but workstream topics can occasionally be covered during the operating model workshops. In each workshop, ask the SMEs to go through their typical day-to-day operations, demonstrate their systems, and give a verbal overlay of their operating policies. As appropriate, bring up the architectural diagrams to clarify flows and sources of truth. Capture pain points associated with the current process but do not elaborate on them. Note this is where the parking lot will come into play, and your COB team needs to document esoteric questions or items that are not in scope. Pro Tip: This is not the time to negotiate any scope items.
Digest and Prepare. You’ve already learned a lot during the intake sessions, so allow time for your team to regroup and assimilate your findings. With a proficient COB leader, this is usually a 20% tax on the time spent in client intake workshops. Often this exercise is done overnight, but it’s also fine to ask for a private conference room. This pause allows you to reframe your Fintech Workshop into terms they are familiar with and begin setting expectations. You are the service provider, so it’s your responsibility to use the clients’ terminology to ensure understanding.
Fintech Workshop. Using the information you collected during the client intake sessions, it’s now your turn to take the lead. Typically, you will start with a presentation of your architectural overview and how it will overlay into their diagrams. Then, review how your solution fits into the client’s operating model. This is a highly interactive session where the client should walk away with a reasonable understanding of likely gaps that will require additional investigation.
Recap. Before you rush to catch your flight, be sure you’ve allotted some time to recap with the team – or at least the Steering Committee. At the recap session, directly ask if you met the client’s expectations and communicate if they’ve fallen short in any area that will impact the timeline. Inform them how and when you will prioritize and address the Parking Lot items. Last but not least, you must walk away from this session with a detailed list of participants for each committee.
In my opinion, the kickoff meeting is where you can make or break the relationship and schedule. It is an opportunity to showcase your team’s subject matter expertise, your overall leadership capabilities, and your exceptional program management skills. Pro Tip: Roleplay the kickoff internally as many times as necessary to ensure effective communication and confidence.
Let’s Talk Committees
Top-tier institutions are highly matrixed organizations, and onboarding will be successful (or not) based on how well you establish and administer the committee structure. For every onboarding, you should create the following committees; however, the cadence will vary based on the anticipated length of the onboarding cycle.
Steering Committee (Steerco)
Purpose: Communicate program health, risks, and mitigation plans, formal items for approval or escalation, and hold both teams accountable.
Participants: Executive Sponsors (P&L owners), Business Leads, Delivery Leads, Program Management Leads, and Departmental Leads.
Frequency: Monthly if your onboarding cycle is over 6 months. Every other week if onboarding takes 3 to 6 months. Weekly if onboarding is less than 3 months.
Purpose: Agree on success metrics, ensure they are trackable, monitor success and recommend pivots as necessary. This committee is also accountable for recommending change orders that align with anticipated benefits.
Participants: Executive Sponsors, Business Leads, and Finance
Frequency: Weekly following the kickoff and until Success Metrics are finalized; ad-hoc as change orders are presented; and weekly during initial rollout and through hardening phase.
Purpose: Clarify requirements, and agree on how gaps will be handled. These committees are the first line of approval on requirements documentation and identify change orders.
Participants: Departmental Leads, and Subject Matter Experts
Frequency: Weekly following the kickoff until requirements are finalized and approved; ad-hoc as change orders are presented; and weekly during UAT and initial rollout phases.
Purpose: Plan and execute work. Ensure all interdependencies between fintech and client are known and aligned. Become experts in the requirements documentation, identify and close open items, and determine where additional documentation is necessary to ensure clarification. Define test plans, complete unit testing, and own end-to-end UAT.
Participants: Workstream Leads, Technology, and Subject Matter Experts
Frequency: Weekly but sometimes daily. The Technology and Operations Committees commence after Requirements Documentation is officially approved and stays active through hardening. Other workstream committees, such as Operational Readiness, Financial Advisor Readiness, and Marketing Committees, will likely commence at the start of UAT.
Program Management Committees
Purpose: Assess risks to timeline and budget, propose risk mitigation strategies, ensure all open items across all workstreams are getting closed and documented, document change orders, and present change orders to the Business Committee for approval.
Participants: Program and Project Managers, including PMO Liaison
Frequency: Weekly from the kickoff until the completion of the hardening phase.
Items for Escalation (i4e) Delivery Execs
Purpose: Prevent SteerCo items from escalation by openly addressing concerns early on and ensuring all teams are properly resourced.
Participants: Delivery Executives: one from fintech and one from client.
Frequency: 15-minute check-in calls weekly starting at kickoff until the completion of the hardening phase.
I know what you’re thinking – this is a lot of work. You’re right!
As the CEO, you must remember the sales cycle isn’t over when you receive the contract. You are selling throughout the onboarding phase and must showcase your team’s expertise and leadership to stay on track.
As I discussed in my Elephant Hunting Post, there are a lot of reasons to avoid Tier 1 firms. However, when you successfully onboard them, you’re in a new and powerful game: material increase to your revenue and instant credibility throughout the industry and to potential investors. So, in my opinion, if you made the decision to sell to top-tier financial institutions, be ready to do successfully onboard, too.