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5 Best Practices for Managing Client Expectations

By Lynn Bruno

As employees, we’ve all had experiences with bosses with unrealistic expectations, so why should it be any different as a consultant? Clients are no less likely to dream of getting hundreds of leads for a few thousand dollars, to stick to the same aggressive sales targets for a poorly received product, or hire you for a project that turns out to be completely different than advertised. Sometimes they have unrealistic expectations before a project starts, or it develops during the project in the form of scope creep. Dealing with these kinds of situations was the topic of EM Marketing’s “Client Confidential” discussion on a recent “Consultant Forum Call.”

The good news is, as a consultant, you’re in a much better position to push back, educate your client and help them develop more realistic expectations. Failing that, you are also in a much better position to walk away from work that is simply impossible to perform as expected — if it comes to that. By managing your fears and sticking to the following best practices surfaced by the EM Community, you can actually manage expectations to yours and your clients’ mutual advantage.

1. Approach the client on equal footing.

Sometimes we’re so afraid of losing the work that we don’t ask enough questions in the discovery phase. Or we get into a “winning” mentality and focus too much on selling ourselves and not enough on learning what the other person is thinking. Go into each meeting with the mindset that you’re interviewing them as much as they're interviewing you. Both you and the hiring manager should want to know the same three things:

  1. Can you do the work? They want to know if you have the skills and experience to do the job. You want to know if the job they have in mind can be done by a person of your skills and experience. That means digging into details of the project, the time frame, and the expected results. This will help you scope the contract appropriately, or you’ll learn that they don’t really have clarity on what they need done. That’s not a deal breaker, but it is important information to learn early on.
  2. Will you do the work? This gets at attitude and work ethic. Are you going to meet deadlines? Turn in quality work? Have a can-do attitude? Not come back asking for more money? You should be trying to learn the same things about them. There are usually things they need to do to help you succeed, such as review and approve work, and provide materials, training and access to people. Ask things such as who you’ll be working with, what their processes are, and how communication and collaboration works inside their company.
  3. Will we like working with each other? This is about cultural fit, and while consultants don’t usually get asked behavioral interview questions, you can feel free to ask the client about their culture. Also pay close attention to any cultural clues you’re observing during discovery, such as how team members interact, and how well people are aligned.

Besides learning about the work and beginning to develop the relationship, doing some homework and being prepared with some questions equalizes the balance of power and helps you decide if you want the work.

2. Educate.

If you believe the client has unrealistic expectations about what can be accomplished from a budget, revenue, acquisition, time frame or other standpoint, that is not necessarily a red flag, but it’s a pink one. After all, you are the expert in your field and they simply may not know what is or isn’t possible. Take the time to educate them, drawing on relevant industry benchmarks, case studies and statistics, and on your experience across multiple companies.

Sometimes only seeing is believing. If you make the process and the data very clear and transparent, it can sometimes be effective to position your project as a test where you try out what they want to do and measure the results. When they see the data come in, they see the realities for themselves, and it's really hard to blame you for a poor performance.

3. Put it in writing.

If you’ve done your homework in the discovery phase, the next step is to spell out everything you understood about the project in a proposal. Describe and quantify the scope of work, the milestones, and who you’ll be collaborating with. Also spell out what the client will be doing. For example, “client will provide access to the following tools/information/people; client will approve milestone work within ten days.” Position the proposal as a draft, open to further discussion: “This is what I’m proposing, based on our conversations so far.”

The proposal very often becomes the contract, or is incorporated into the contract. This is your opportunity to double check your understanding of the project and make sure everyone is on the same page in terms of expectations. Otherwise, you may be a month down the road, they're unclear what you're delivering, you're unclear what you're delivering, and that's a terrible place to be. Having everything in writing will help immensely if you get into a situation where there’s scope creep.

4. Plan the work and work the plan.

Lay out your strategy and what you’ll be working on in the first few weeks of the project. This will help keep the project on track. It will also give the client another opportunity to help make sure you’re aligned on expectations, and to course correct if there is misalignment. Then, have regular check-ins. If the client is not willing to meet with you for even a short period every week, that is a recipe for disaster.

As you build trust over time, you can meet less frequently, but in the beginning, it should be once a week. Another thing that works very well is to send an email at the end of each week letting them know what you did that week, and what you’ll be doing the following week. That way, you’re always syncing with them, and if you feel like things are getting out of sync, you can refer back to those emails.

5. Rescope when the project changes.

If business conditions, personnel, or strategy changes, you may be asked to do something that is substantially more or different than what was initially agreed upon. Respond positively — "I'd be happy to help you with that" — and also re-scope the project immediately, going through the same discovery, proposal and work plan process. If you did a good job scoping the project initially and keeping in sync weekly, this should not be too hard to do, and it should not feel like you’re nickel and diming them.

You’re well positioned to say, "Here's the list of what we thought we would do. Now, here's the current list. I know we need to shift where we are now, and I only have a certain number of hours with you. Help me prioritize." Let them decide if they want to add to your scope and hours, or make tradeoffs to stay within the original budget. The client might find that painful, but in the end, they'll appreciate it because you’re helping bring clarity and detail to the new scope.

Learning to align around scope and expectations is a critical skill for success as a consultant. It can sometimes be difficult to have these conversations. Although they are vital for both parties, it’s often up to you as the consultant to take the lead. Don’t shy away from doing so. This is part of the value we add as consultants. If you’re an employee and your boss tells you to do something, you often don’t get the opportunity to scope it out, educate him or her, set realistic expectations and align on measures of success. That’s unfortunate, because a lot of cycles are wasted in companies pursuing projects that aren’t well thought out.

You can have success with clients that are unrealistic when you work to educate them and agree to a detailed plan that includes dates and measures of success. And if you can’t get to that place, that's a great time to say, "I don't think this is the right project for me." It’s far better to learn that up front, before they suck up a lot of time and energy that could be spent developing a new and better client.

Lynn Bruno

About Lynn Bruno

Lynn Bruno is a blog editor and independent digital marketing consultant.

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