Managing Client Expectations: What to Expect
When They’re Expecting


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Managing client expectations can be tricky. Even when you’ve done everything right, and you think you’ve managed all the expectations you ever could, there’s still the possibility of a “clean up on aisle 7” situation.

I’ve done it. One day, my team struck up a conversation about logo design—specifically the ineffectiveness of design crowdsourcing, in which companies post their design needs online and receive a multitude of responses from freelancers with any and all levels of design experience. Out of curiosity, we conducted a few Google searches and came across this fantastically snarky website called 5 Minute Logos. The mastermind, a talented illustrator behind the site, stressed in every copy point that you get what you pay for: a $5 logo created in 5 minutes.

Even after all this expectation management and hilarious web copy, I had expectations. Big ones. I eagerly sent in my criteria, and a little art direction, for a “Mixmaster Mikey B.” logo—don’t ask.

Lo and behold, about 3 hours later, I received an email from the illustrator: “My Idea Untitled 593.” I was ecstatic as I clicked the bold, unread message.

Oh, the disappointment.

Y’all, I bought a $5 logo and still had unrealistically high expectations. Imagine the expectations of a client buying $50,000 in branding services…

There are only a couple outcomes to unrealistic expectations, right? It’s either pleasant surprise when expectations are met or exceeded, or disappointment when they are neither met nor exceeded. So, what are we missing here? Is it simply human nature to set expectations? Is it a fact of the industry—not to mention life in general—we must accept?

Let’s dive into what we may be missing—what it really takes to properly manage client expectations. Read further to discover a few techniques we use.

1. Good Beginnings: Lay it all on the table.

Set the tone at the get-go. This is the time to set expectations on how your agency works. Introduce the client to the professionals who will be working on their projects and decide on the best methods of communication.

Don’t be shy about asking questions. You’ll need to know to whom you report and how often, who the main decision-makers are and how they will be available to you. Emphasize the importance of communicating frequently and having direct access to those influential decision-makers in case of crises.

Take this opportunity to organize. You’ll already have some idea of your immediate deadlines, so put those solid due dates and approval dates onto an editable calendar for your client to refer to periodically.

Be transparent with your client about what can be realistically accomplished within the budget and allotted time. If something is not attainable or within scope, be honest and offer a solution that fits client needs. It’s better to under-promise and over-deliver than it is to over-promise and under-deliver.

Tip: Set goals with your clients and point to those goals in every conversation.

2. Communication is key.

George Bernard Shaw once wisely stated, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Communicate effectively. In most situations where there was a misunderstanding, you can bet the culprit was ineffective communication. Effective communication is so important that we’ve immortalized this sentiment within the tired phrase “communication is key.”

Effective communication is just as important with clients. Communicate often, honestly and as effectively (and tactfully) as possible, and document all communications. Set regular face-to-face meetings, whether you can swing weekly, bi-weekly or only monthly ones. Do what you can to have in-person conversations. For everything else, there’s Masterca—I mean, phone calls and emails. Make all communication to-the-point and follow up on any unanswered correspondence. Be persistent, but not pesky; confident, but not haughty.

Earn your clients’ trust. People appreciate when you understand them and their needs. Do your best to do that for your clients by actively listening to their needs and being transparent about how specifically you can address those needs. Your effort will be rewarded. You’ll have a client who trusts you, and that means more freedom to do what you do best.

Tip: Recap phone conversations in email to keep track of any verbal instructions or changes.

3. SEC—No, not the conference. State, Empathize and Compromise.

Be prepared. How often has a client ignored your warning, only to have that warning surface a few weeks later as a problem that needs solving? Suddenly, the client panics. As the experts, we’ve most likely already accounted for any foreseeable obstacles, but there’s never a good time for “I told you so.” Instead, lead with, “Remember when we talked about…”

Use the acronym “SEC”—state, empathize and compromise—to diffuse the situation without losing any credibility or damaging the relationship with the client.

Had I responded to Von Glitschka of 5 Minute Logos and expressed my disappointment with his logo design, he could have been less than kind. Or, he could have employed SEC—stating what his website aptly conveys, empathizing with my disappointment and compromising by extending a discount on a new logo, for example.

In any case, SEC allows you to maintain a level of trust and transparency with your clients, even during times of confusion and disappointment. Because two necessities of any healthy relationship are empathy and compromise.

In Conclusion…

We’re not all mind-readers. Even with the most open communication, clients may still have unmet expectations. Setting expectations may be both human nature and a fact of the industry we work in, but that doesn’t mean we must blithely accept these unrealistic expectations. Actively fight against the weight of expectations as best you can.

Anticipate. Set expectations upfront (I mean, you gotta do your due diligence). Empathize, then compromise. Then, rinse and repeat.

Don’t forget to consult the experts and find a process that works best for you and your company. For additional, valuable information on how to manage client expectations, take a look at this HubSpot article.


Christina Berger
Wordsmith, Punster and Red Pen Enthusiast (also, Copywriter) at J.O.

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