It’s 10:30 am on a rainy Wellington morning and I’m sitting in the boardroom with a new client to discuss a new project. This is a typical client on-boarding meeting where we go over the scope, our agency’s delivery approach, the timeline, and how we’ll work together. I am well prepared — the sales manager who brought in the job briefed me on all the details in a handover meeting the week earlier and I’ve run through the contract. This is going to be a straightforward job (we’ll be adding some new features to an already existing website) with a small budget, and I put together a high-level plan and locked in a team to do the work. At first, this meeting seems to be going smoothly, but things will soon get difficult…

The first alarm bell goes off when we discuss the scope and what can be achieved within the budget. The client says,

“Oh, you need to develop this? I saw this on another website you built. I don’t understand why you would need to spend time developing it and why I’d have to pay for it. Why can’t you just copy and paste the code?”

So, I spend the next hour rationalizing why we do things they way we do (and why we can’t just copy the code!). The client seems accepting of what I am saying, but I can tell by his mannerisms and the tone in his voice that he’s not happy.

The meeting starts to spiral out of control when we discuss the timeframes. All of our developers are working on other jobs and the earliest they will be available for a new project is in 3 weeks. The client starts to get irritated and tells me that he was under the impression the work can be started straight away, in fact, he insists that this was promised to him by the sales manger. We go back and forth — me explaining why we can’t start straight away, and him demanding to get what was promised to him.

We eventually come to an agreement on how to move forward, but both of us leave the meeting with sour tastes in our mouths — this relationship isn’t off to a great start and I will need to spend many hours in the months to come mending the relationship and regaining the client’s trust.

It all comes down to setting and managing client expectations

This meeting happened over 10 years ago when I was just starting out as a digital project manager. It shows how unset expectations can lead to disappointment and quickly cause conflict. It also illustrates why those early stages of a client relationship are so crucial.

The agency I worked for at the time was still losing its baby fat and I encountered many of these meetings where I had to work doubly hard to reset client expectations. Since then I have learned a great deal about how to succeed as a service provider and make sure my clients have a great experience from the get go.

Expectations are assumptions

Remember one thing: expectations are not requirements or needs. They are (unconscious) assumptions that your client has made about what you will be delivering for them and by when. Sometimes these are unrealistic, and sometimes you don’t even know what they are unless you read between the lines and dig into the details.

In this case, the client had conversations with the sales manager and looked up work we did for other clients, all of which led him to believe that things would go a certain way. At the same time, I made a number of assumptions about the client’s needs based on my conversations with the sales manager and looking through the contract (without ever talking to the client directly), laying a flawed foundation for our understanding of the relationship. All of this meant I needed to address my client’s expectations from a point that felt we were at a crossroad instead of mutual understanding.

5 essential tips for managing client expectations

While every client is different and there is no one-size-fits-all approach, there are general themes and techniques you can use to build a shared understanding with your client and steer your project towards success. Here are my top 5 tips:

1. Get involved early

In hindsight, a lot of the issues I was facing during my meeting could have been avoided if the sales manager and I had communicated more effectively and had worked together from the outset, instead Sales was working on the pitch and negotiating the contract with the client in isolation and then “throwing it over the fence” for the delivery team to take over.

Understanding and managing clients' expectations begins with the Sales pitch, which is why I now make sure that sales and delivery teams work side-by-side when it comes to scoping, estimating and scheduling new work. I also get to know the client and what they want to achieve before the contract is signed.

2. Never assume anything

As you go through scoping and putting together an estimate and statement of work for the client, make sure to listen carefully and ask a lot of questions. In this presentation, Michael George sums it up nicely:

  • Listen … to both direct and indirect communications
  • Ask … to clarify in mutually understood terms
  • State … to verify expectations are aligned
  • Agree … to how to define fulfilling expectations

What’s really important here is to also listen to indirect communications as they can carry lots of hidden expectations. Take this example from Micheal George’s presentation. Client:

“What we need is a very user-friendly system.”

How would you interpret this sentence? It could mean:

“Our biggest sponsor is the department with the least qualified people,” or
"I expect user testing to be very exhaustive," or
"We don't have a training budget."

The only way to get to the bottom of what the client really means is listening between the lines and asking questions.

3. Don’t promise anything you cannot keep

There’s the saying that you should “underpromise and overdeliver”. I don’t 100% agree with that. What I’d say instead is: be realistic about what you and your team can and can’t do, and never (ever) promise anything you cannot keep.

Having worked both on the agency and the client side, it’s been honesty and integrity that I appreciated most from the project managers and teams I interacted with.

Additionally, if a client asks you a question that you do not have an answer for, it’s okay to say “I don’t know. But I will find out for you and get back to you by <date>”. Just be realistic about when you will get back to them.

4. Talk to the right people

I’ve worked on projects where I did an excellent job setting and managing my client’s expectations just to find out that the person I talked to wasn’t the main decision maker. Make sure to clarify the client team’s roles and responsibilities and determine who has decision making power before you dive into the project.

5. Set expectations around all areas of the project

In addition to the scope and timeline, it’s also important to talk about and set expectations around other areas of the project. Talk to your client about:

  • how your agency works
  • how you will communicate with each other
  • what your expectations are in regard to the client giving input into important discussions.
  • how you will be handling risks, issues and changes, and
  • how you will report on progress

Lastly… be human and have fun!

This might sounds cliché, but remember to treat and interact with your clients and team members the way you would like to be treated. Put yourself in their shoes. Think about what challenges they are dealing with in their organization and what you can do to help them make their job easier.

Most importantly, smile, be positive and don’t forget to have a laugh every so often — ideally with your client!