Managing Client Expectations

Learn from our mistakes and our successes. Rob Harr shares insight into the art of managing client expectations.

Let me set the stage for you. You've been working on a project for the last six months. The project has gone okay—not great—but you are finally at the end. The budget is gone, the deadline is looming, and you are reviewing what you believe are the final deliverables with your client. Things are going well until the client says, “This is great. When will the rest of it be ready for review?”

As you start to panic and dig through emails to state your case, you realize this is a no–win situation. Even if you are not legally obligated to do any additional work, your client is not going to be happy with what your team has delivered.

Managing Expectations

This happens to everyone. The scenario above is simply a symptom of not setting and managing expectations. As web builders, one of our most important jobs is to manage client expectations throughout the life of a project. This is best achieved with open and honest communication.

The most common reason I've seen projects go bad? A failure to ensure that all parties are on the same page during the project. When expectations are not managed on a regular basis, you'll often end up in a place where very uncomfortable discussions are required at the end of the project. 

Remember: Everything you do during the course of a project has an effect on your client's expectations. You can either choose to lead the conversation or not.

Some Good Practices

Early in the project, restate everything.

After I am handed a project, I like to have a client meeting where I can restate everything I’ve learned about the project. This gives the client a chance to define, in their own words, what the project is.

It may feel redundant, but if you were not involved in the sales process, you probably missed some important information. Even if you had a near-perfect internal hand off, you should hear the client's needs personally. I have never had a client say to me, “I already went over all of this with so-and-so.” Oftentimes, our jobs are to help read between the lines of what our clients are saying to help inform what our clients really need. At this point I like to set the expectation that this will be a process where we find the best solution.

Reach for the phone, then follow up with an email.

Whenever I receive a client email that requires anything more than a one or two sentence response, I reach for the phone. I often warn clients jokingly that they will be sick of hearing my voice by the end of the project.

In general, I prefer real conversations to anything written. You can hear tone and other clues that aid in communication. These verbal conversations often lead to insights that would be missed over email. They also set the expectation that your client is fully involved with the project. To document things, I'll then follow the phone call with an email that reviews decisions made and items that still need to be resolved.

Review early and often.

I am a huge believer of frequent, informal reviews. They allow you to get feedback and answer your client's questions. The questions your client asks are the single-best clue about what is going on in your client's head.

Oftentimes, I can tell if we have the same project expectations just by listening to what and how they are asking questions. I use these reviews to gauge how I'm doing at setting expectations—as well as how we are doing at delivering a good solution.

Have tough conversations during the project.

The easiest way to avoid a really tough conversation at the end of a project is to have those tough conversations during the project. Seems simple, right? If you have these talks while you can still do something about it, you may well avoid ending in the wrong place altogether.

Things are going to go wrong during a project. Assumptions that were made turn out to be incorrect, priorities change, estimates are wrong. When these things happen, you have an opportunity to educate clients and allow them to make good decisions moving forward.

It's okay to be wrong or make a mistake.

When you (or your team) give bad advice or make a mistake, you need to own it. Be the person that brings up the issue first. There may still be repercussions, but things will go better this way. It is often the cover-up that causes the most problems.

Remember, your client is likely to make as many mistakes as your team does. How you handle your errors could affect how they handle theirs.

Offer to help communicate inside their organization.

Sometimes, a client is not only your "point of contact" but also the point of contact for their larger organization. After setting proper expectations with your point of contact, he or she may also need a little help navigating the political waters of their organization's expectations. This is a huge opportunity for your relationship with your point of contact. Make them look good, and you will have a strong ally.

Your point of contact may also have been shouting from the mountaintops of his or her organization for years, but as a consultant, your voice can oftentimes carry a different weight. Though stakeholders could not understand (or maybe accept) the points being made before, they will often listen to your outside voice. Help bridge that gap within the organization, and you'll be looked at more as a partner and less as an outside vendor.

Make sure expectations evolve with the project.

Above all else—it is our job to help evolve client expectations as the project evolves. Scope has changed considerably for nearly every project on which I've worked. And it happens during the project.

Expectations have to change as the project changes. If they don't, it will catch up with you. It could be as simple as a change in budget or timeline, but the expectations must be addressed. And the sooner, the better.

In summary: You know less about your client and their needs today than at any time in the future. Embrace this fact, and you are well on your way to truly managing your client's expectations.