Making the Client-Expectation Pieces Fit Without Losing Your Ever-Lovin’ Mind

by Annie

in client-tell

Incomplete jigsaw puzzle of red heart on white background One of the quickest ways to lose your shit?

Lose control of the client.

And how does that happen?

Simple: by failing to manage expectations.

Simple, perhaps. Maybe even universally accepted. But also? Easier said than done.

MUCH easier.

Here’s why — and what to do about it.

Crazy Clients? Or Just Human Ones?

We Couch Warriors have such a love-hate relationship going with our clients.

We have Ideal ones (that exist solely in our head).

And we measure the Real ones (the ones who are actual flesh and blood, the ones who pay us and shit) up against that “ideal” all the time.

No, don’t even bother trying to deny it. We do it. We know we do it.

This client has a bad habit of sending email after email, instead of putting all her questions in a single email, the way you’ve asked her to repeatedly. (But Ideal Client wouldn’t do that.)

That client refuses to read your emails to him, resulting in dispute after dispute over changing scope. (No way IC would do that.)

And that other client? The one who freaks right the hell on out when you don’t immediately call her back? Somehow, she feels it’s appropriate and OK to not return your calls for days. DAYS. (IC? Wouldn’t dream of driving you batpoop crazy like that.)

The IC concept is just that — a concept. It’s not real. It’s just a way to help you narrow your focus and target your marketing efforts. It serves a very useful purpose, and you ignore it at your peril.

But I think somehow, deep down, a lot of us have internalized this concept as an expectation. Our expectation.

We expect our real clients to behave like our IC.

And then, when they don’t, we just sort of sit there in stunned silence, jaw dropped, feeling blindsided.

We might rant and rave to our mastermind groups, or loved ones, or the dog.

But we don’t talk to the client. (The real one.) And the cycle just repeats, until we just have to explode in anger, and we either sabotage the project (subconsciously, of course, ’cause we’re pros) or decide we have no choice but to cut the bastard loose. 

More than a few iterations of this pattern, and we’re left with this sense that everybody is crazy! 

Of course, they’re not. They’re just human, with human failings, and their own sets of expectations.

And that is the problem. 

But it’s also the solution.

A Problem of Expectations

What’s going on with ‘crazy clients,’ 9 times out of 10, is a failure on your part to manage expectations.

It’s completely understandable. We’re so excited to get a new client, especially in the beginning when funds are tight and loved ones are looking at us funny come bill time, that we don’t want to do anything to ruin the warm fuzzy feeling. We just wanna take the money and bask in the good feeling.

But hold up there, sparky.

Your relationship with the client, and by extension the entire working experience (for both of you) is like a huge jigsaw puzzle. One way or the other, those pieces are gonna get filled in — either by preconceived notions and pre-existing expectations, or by design.

The more you craft by design, the less is left up to the vagaries of human nature and personality and experience and emotional states, etc.

In other words: If you don’t take the time to manage client expectations — and your own — at the beginning of the project, then the client will run with her own

And that may — but probably will not — result in the completed picture you had in mind.

It’s on us, my fellow llama-lovers. We have to manage those expectations in the beginning, before the first piece is officially set down on the table.

You can (but don’t have to) make this a formal contract thing (but you totally should have a contract anyway). You can just cover this in a conversation or an email at the outset.

But however you do it, you should think about the following …

  • How do you expect to be paid? And when?
  • What deliverables should client expect from you and when?
  • How long do you expect it to take? And what might change that timeframe?
  • How often do you expect to communicate with client? On a regular basis? As the need arises? Email or phone or carrier pigeon or what, exactly?
  • What do you expect the client to do? Or refrain from doing?
  • Likewise, what can client expect from you? What should she not expect?

Also, think about past working experiences and where they went wrong. What tends to happen that you don’t like? Where did things go wrong? How could you have prevented that with clearer boundaries?

Just like with the metaphorical puzzle, the more pieces you can provide up front, the more complete the picture will be on the back end.

And when expectations are not met, don’t shy away from having that slightly awkward convo with the client. Don’t delay it. Don’t let it fester or build up. Putting that uncomfortable conversation on the back burner will only result in a boil-over, with a greatly decreasing chance of salvaging the relationship at all.

In this day and age, and with our “couch warrior” realities, we just cannot afford not to manage expectations from the get-go. We need the vast majority of our clients (better still, all of ’em) to sing our praises after the work’s completed.

Don’t let them slip away merely because it was uncomfortable. Slap those puzzle pieces down at the start of the job.

And You?

How do you manage expectations? Got a handy tip I haven’t mentioned? Share in the comments!

Note: This post is part of this month’s Word Carnival. Our theme this month is all about improving communications with clients. Check out all the Carnies participating this month right here.

Photo Credit: Alfonsina Blyde » via photopin cc

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

SandyMc October 30, 2013 at 6:07 am

“Don’t shy away from having that slightly awkward convo with the client. Don’t delay it. Don’t let it fester or build up.” The hardest advice of all Annie, but the best. When you are roiling with frustration, anger or injustice, it’s hard to pick up the phone with an open view to solving the issue! Emails often convey passive aggression when there is any sort of negative emotion involved and tend to escalate the problem, so great advice to manage expectations from the get go, rather than getting to that point in the first place.
SandyMc recently posted..Coherence is the business


Tea Silvestre October 30, 2013 at 2:16 pm

Back in the day when I owned an agency and all we did was produce work for clients, I started to see a pattern very early in clients and their expectations. So I put together a welcome kit. This little folder had all the “rules” (I called them tips for working with us), their contract, and how they should communicate with us about everything. And I went over all the pieces with them in person. Looked them in the eye balls, asked them if they had questions, and then handed over the lovely gift. There were sometimes STILL issues around communication. Because selective hearing, right? Some folks don’t bother to read either. But it did cut WAY down on the over all level of stress and frustration at the office.
Tea Silvestre recently posted..My Big Why: On Motives, Mentors, and Defining Moments


Michelle Church October 30, 2013 at 5:57 pm

Not shying away from the awkward convo is big for me too. If it get’s to the point I normally do not hold back, I just have to breath first. I honestly have only had one situation with a client that questioned what I was doing and we still work together, it’s not the same and I often think I should just stop working with him. I believe we have to be aware of our limitations and utilize each experience to learn more about ourselves so that we don’t keep doing the same things over again. But I suppose it all begins with accepting the role we play vs. thinking it’s always them not me.
Michelle Church recently posted..I Am Talking, Don’t You Hear Me?


Sharon Hurley Hall October 30, 2013 at 6:42 pm

“think about past working experiences and where they went wrong. ” – that’s responsible for every new clause in my client contracts over the last 7 years. Great tips, Annie. I find my client questionnaire really helps to iron out potential difficulties up front, and I put a review period into contracts so we can both have a reality check on how things are going. That way, even if something isn’t working, I know it isn’t for long.
Sharon Hurley Hall recently posted..Are You and Your Writing Clients Speaking the Same Language?


Nick Armstrong October 30, 2013 at 7:14 pm

I started building in the habit of “defining winning” at the start of contracts, that is: setting up the expectations of what the client is looking for a head of time (what exact deliverables they want, when they want them, what they had in mind for refining goals as time goes on), so that I can guide them to the sort of deliverables that I can create (rather than the fantasy world that is sometimes constructed -as you mentioned above).

Sometimes, the client gets some funny ideas about what my company can actually do or what I’ve promised to do. This is especially true after in person or on the phone conversations, and is a reason why I avoid as many in person meetings and phone conversations as possible. And why, when I do have them, I send a follow-up documenting the discussed deliverables, timelines, and any resources we might have asked for from the client.

I also found that adding a weekly meeting, in person, almost entirely eliminated the need for backtracking, expectation mitigation, or apologies – it’s a lot harder to lose focus on the goal when you talk about it on a weekly basis.

Great blog post, Annie! 🙂
Nick Armstrong recently posted..Can You Hear Me Now? How to make sure you and your customers are speaking the same language (you probably aren’t)


Nicole Fende October 31, 2013 at 3:22 pm

All great, my favorite is this line, “If you don’t take the time to manage client expectations — and your own — at the beginning of the project, then the client will run with her own.” It’s so easy to assume everyone expects the same thing, and as you say everyone is in the honeymoon phase of starting to work together. In my new client proposals I first state what I understand their needs to be. Then I state how I will help them, and of course the corresponding fees. Works well and ensures I’m really solving the problem they want addressed.
Nicole Fende recently posted..Client Communication Explained by Prime Numbers


Ashley October 31, 2013 at 6:27 pm

It’s so true Annie! But first you’ve got to be okay with setting those boundaries, those expectations, those milestones. I find may people (myself included at the beginning) don’t do that because they’re afraid of the reaction or gasp loss of a client.

In all aspects of life, you teach people how to treat you. Your client relationships are no different. Thanks for a great share!
Ashley recently posted..Same Meaning, Different Language: How to Clear Up Your Client Communications


Carol Lynn October 31, 2013 at 6:51 pm

LOVE how you turned the expectation game right back around on us. The whole “ideal client” thing? …. “I think somehow, deep down, a lot of us have internalized this concept as an expectation. Our expectation.”

YUP. I don’t like the idea of ideal “anything” for just that reason. We end up building our own expectations around things, often far detached from reality.

You’re totally right, that our customers are going to fill in all the gaps without us, so we’d better get that spackling putty ready . My contract is a big duct-taped mass of expectations-gone-awry. The stuff you go… good lord, I should have said THAT. Then you say it next time 🙂 Live and learn!
Carol Lynn recently posted..Same Page, Wrong Book. How To Manage Client Expectations So They Don’t Manage You.


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