Managing expectations is an aspect of business that is often overlooked while establishing client relationships. When clients are not briefed at the outset, or request changes further down the line, there is a tendency to over-commit and take on more work than is really feasible.

When consultants, designers, and developers do this, they may be thinking that it’s in the best interest of the relationship, but it often does more harm than good and results in lower retention rates and fewer referrals. The only real way to deal with this problem is to be upfront about it.

Setting yourself up for successful client relationships

In this article, I’ll discuss three things you can do when taking on new clients to help set up and manage expectations in a way that will boost your company’s integrity and reputation within its specific niche.

Before that, though, you’ll want to have some idea of what areas need to be improved, and to figure this out you’ll need to establish your parameters. These will vary depending upon the industries you operate within and what services you provide, but at the very least, you should indicate:

  • What your contact procedures are
  • How you plan to communicate
  • What your deliverable timeframes are
  • What paperwork should be expected and when

Once you’ve set these clear benchmarks, you’re ready to move on to the three steps previously mentioned. Let’s take a look.

1Pre-qualify your clients

Choosing the right clients to work with in the first place goes a long way when it comes to managing client expectations, and this can usually be done through an onboarding process.

The truth is that clients are looking just as hard to find your particular skillset and may be coming from other engagements or possibly even negative experiences.

Onboarding typically starts from the moment a potential client views your online portfolio and reviews your rates. This typically instills an idea about what you can do for them, and (depending upon the outcome) will either motivate the visitor to contact you directly or continue with their search for the optimal working relationship.

An infographic of an on boarding process, image via Blue Cross Blue Shield

An infographic of an on boarding process, image via Blue Cross Blue Shield

In efforts to streamline the onboarding process, you should be thinking about ways you can welcome your potential client in order to set the tone for your future dealings.

Begin with automated processes to establish and set client expectations from the outset. Let them know you’ve received their message and will get back to them shortly. Implementing this phase will give you a bit more breathing room to begin with and will provide the potential customer with an added layer of security and confidence.

2Maintain communication

Once the client has reached out to you, they will be expecting a reply from an actual human being at some point. And, as communication is key to maintaining positive relationships, you can effectively use it to track and maintain client expectations.

After initial talks, and once you have gained an understanding of their needs, you can then greenlight the project or refer it to someone else who has the proper skillset. In the case of the former, it’s important to remain relatively inflexible when it comes to providing your services to avoid over-committing and underperforming.

The importance of this cannot be overstated. Clients rely on you to deliver timely reports even when things are progressing smoothly. In the event that problems do arise, your clients will likely want to be notified as soon as possible.

While I’m using the word client, what we’re discussing here is just as applicable for companies that sell more traditional products (as compared with services) to customers.

Consider, for example, the long-awaited UP3: Jawbone’s upcoming next generation fitness tracker and self-appointed “most advanced tracker known to man.”

The wearable has seen its release date slip continually since late last year, and customers now seem no closer to receiving their pre-orders. The good news is that Jawbone has been in touch with them about the delays, and has offered a choice of either a $40 discount on the cost of an UP3 pre-order, or a free UP Move—the company’s most basic fitness tracker—to tide them over in the meantime.

The UP3. Image via Jawbone.

The UP3. Image via Jawbone.

Closer to home, I’ve had the privilege of working with another company that wants to make sure customers know what to expect from their purchase, and that they get what they pay for: CJ Pony Parts has a dedicated YouTube channel with hundreds of product videos to help inform customers about their products and the best way to use them. They understand that earning and retaining customers starts with inspiring confidence.

The cost of failing to keep customers informed can be high; the FDA has carried out 80 high-profile product recalls so far in 2015, driving home the fact that, where the private sector sometimes fails, the government is ready to step in and protect consumers.

So there are many excellent ways to maintain communication, but one potential danger then becomes oversaturation. If Jawbone started sounding too desperate to keep its customers, that might become an even bigger turnoff than product delays.

3Provide a written report

The last step in managing and ultimately fulfilling client expectations is by far the easiest, but it’s also one of the most crucial. This has to do with providing a checklist or quote for the services provided before any money exchanges hands.

This document should specify some timeframe for delivery and should provide the client with a clear indication of what they will actually receive as well as an incremental payment breakdown. This can be done at the beginning of the project or at the end of the relationship (provided that the figures match with their earliest confirmed expectations).

Feel free to add a section detailing exactly what was done and how problems were overcome. This will pre-emptively explain any discrepancies and provide your (hopefully) satisfied client with added assurances.

You may wish to conduct this process over the phone or in person to ensure you leave a great lasting impression.

How finding a balance helps set you apart

After all this, the question is whether or not businesses should be under-promising and over-delivering. A quick Google search will reveal numerous results either for or against the idea. In general, it seems any middle-ground is forgone in favor of the two extremes.

On the one hand, you’ll want your client to be pleasantly surprised at the quality of your work, but you don’t want to be doing any additional favors. The trick is to find a balance and be anticipatory, rather than reactionary, in order to create measurable levels of customer satisfaction, regardless of whether you’re servicing B2C or B2B clients.

At the end of the day, what the client walks away with is either a job well done or a disaster. But by catering to their needs and managing their expectations throughout the project, you can affect the way they ultimately perceive the experience.

How does your business manage the expectations of your clients? Do you have any advice for fellow entrepreneurs? Let us know in the comments. 

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Daniel Wilhelm
Daniel Wilhelm

Daniel Wilhelm studied business and creative writing at Susquehanna University, and has written for a global audience ever since. He currently serves as a columnist for the London School of Economics and Political Science. You can join him for political conversations at Only Slightly Biased, or you can visit The Byte Beat for science and technology news.