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How to Set and Manage Client Expectations: 8 Essential Tips

What's the worst possible -- while still realistic -- outcome for any project?

A project successfully completed where the client is completely unhappy and dissatisfied with your agency.

Most often, this is the result of mismatched or undefined client expectations. This is a common issue when projects are rushed into or when an agency wants the work so badly that they don't want to cause doubt in the client's mind by asking too many questions. A defined, repeatable onboarding process can solve many of the issues that cause client expectations to go unchecked, but there are also a few practical tips for managing and setting expectations so that both parties are on the same page.

Without defining the rules of engagement, you can't expect either party to be satisfied with the results. Here's how to get on the same page:

8 Tips for Managing Client Expectations

1) Set goals, and point to these goals during every single conversation.

You can’t manage the expected success of a marketing partnership without first setting mutually agreed upon marketing goals that align with the client’s business goals. This is the first step to getting you and the client on the same page and working towards the same end result.

In addition, when the client’s goals are established, you can point to these when they request a last-minute project or want to start over on a campaign. Will this help them to reach their goals? Or is this simply another distraction?

2) Create a detailed plan for all projects.

Even if your client claims he doesn’t care how it gets done, as long as it gets the results he wants, you still need to detail a plan of action with timelines. The client should be able to point to the status of a project at all times.

This also helps with managing expectations as the plan or scope of work should outline what deadlines the client must meet and the deliverables your team needs to stay on track for launch.

3) Be upfront about what happens if plans change.

This could be as simple as adding a line that details that if approvals are missed, the timeline will be moved back to reflect the delay in approval from the client. It might also be a conversation where you detail the possible risks in the project, how you are working to prevent these from holding up the project, and what your backup plan is. It’s ultimately your job to get the results, so you need to be considering what could prevent you from delivering a project on time.

This helps the client to adjust their expectations that things always go smoothly. There are roadblocks and setbacks in most projects. They just need to trust that you’ve thought through how a detour might impact their project.

4) Set expectations about how your agency works.

To build off of the last point, increasing trust is one of the best ways to manage expectations.

When beginning the relationship, communicate to the client how your team works. Introduce them to the people who will be working on their account so they can put a face to the person who designed their latest landing page.

Make them a list of promises that you will adhere to, such as: You’ll never receive a surprise bill. If something is out of scope, the agency will discuss why it is beyond the limits of the project, and we will get written approval before doing any work that would cause additional costs to the client.

It could also be as simple as: We will respond to any email within 24 hours. If we don’t have an answer, we’ll still respond and let you know we’re working on it.

When it’s a new relationship, there are just too many unknowns. Giving the client a better understanding of your promises as a business partner will help them set their expectations and allow you to always meet them.

5) Be transparent about what you can accomplish.

When I worked for a content marketing firm, clients were sometimes surprised that their articles didn’t sound exactly like their voice. They wanted the content to sound just like their writing. We could get close, but it could never be an exact replicate of their own efforts.

Be transparent about what you can and can’t accomplish -- what the limitations of the process are. Share case studies and examples of your previous work. Reveal what previous client’s wanted and how you accomplished their goals even though there were adjustments to the original asks of the client.

6) Help them understand their place in the market and their marketing maturity.

Some clients might think that just because they have a PR plan in place, they should expect every journalist to start ringing them up. Or maybe they’ve committed to blogging, and they think they’ll generate 10,000 leads per month and get 1,000 shares per article.

Help them see where they are in terms of marketing sophistication and maturity and the steps it will take to begin to see results that are common in their industry. Set their expectations for fame and fortune, especially if this is their first real foray into modern marketing.

7) Always underpromise.

You might want to deliver a fully functional, lead generating machine of a website in less than 30 days, but this is far from realistic. However, when you’re sitting face-to-face with a client who states that the site must be done in the next month, it can be tempting to respond with, “We might be able to do that.” The problem is the client only hears that you said you could get it done.

Give your team some cushion for the unexpected, and then deliver ahead of time. If you miss a deadline because you agreed to an unrealistic deadline, then all the trust you’ve built up will quickly be forgotten.

8) Overcommunicate and overcommunicate and then communicate some more.

It’s a mistake everyone makes. We think we hear something. We misremember a conversation. We focus in on one sentence in an email and glaze over the rest. We make assumptions.

Agencies should excel at communication -- that's our domain after all -- so we need to make it a point to deliver clear and actionable information that keeps clients informed of progress on a project, wins from a campaign, and details they need to keep reinvesting in your agency.

In addition, it’s not enough to just keep your point of contact on the client side informed. Make sure your contact is also communicating with her managers or provide her with the emails and documents she needs to report on to her bosses. Everyone should be clear about the strategy, the plan, the goals, the accomplishments, and the next steps at all times.

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