Listening to, understanding and then meeting client expectations is notoriously tricky. It can be hard to find the balance between going the extra mile to appease clients and being taken advantage of – but luckily there are some things you can do to manage expectations from the start. Whether you’re a big agency or a small team, here are 4 golden rules to managing client expectations.
Being upfront from the very beginning is key to managing client expectations. Set out your rules of play before you take on any work, and agree on your process together. If you can’t guarantee something, be clear about it – it’s always better to underpromise and overdeliver! Remember that many clients don’t actually know much about the creative process at all, so take this chance to be clear about what you can and cannot promise, e.g. writing a great promotional article doesn’t mean it’s definitely going to get a great placement.
Take time to clarify the confines of the project. Make sure the client is aware that many parts of the project – e.g. timeline or scope – are apt to change as the job advances. Have case studies you can show them, ideally of projects where plans changed along the way – then use these examples to explain how you can accomplish their goal even if there are revisions. And make sure you clarify exactly how you charge, so your client isn’t surprised to be paying for those additional revisions, meetings and calls.
Use this chance to restate that there are some things you can’t guarantee. This mean that the client will have to place their trust in you (always helpful!), and it also means they’ll better understand the creative process and will have more realistic expectations moving forward.
While you can’t guarantee, you can anticipate. Try to anticipate your client’s requirements before they know themselves. This doesn’t mean tapping into your psychic powers, it just means being one step ahead and knowing how things works. Being able to raise concerns you have from the start not only proves to the client you’ve done your homework, but also that you’re planning and thinking about stages in the game that come much later.
You can anticipate things, but you should never assume. No matter how well you communicate, it can be hard for some people to explain precisely what they’re looking for. It’s tempting to just nod and go along with it – after all, you know what you’re doing! – but don’t. Listen well and begin the practice of always asking questions and finishing every conversation with a recap.
Being upfront and anticipating problems is great, but if you don’t have clear communication then you may as well pack up shop. Creative agencies should be experts at both interaction and consultation, yet if you want to manage client expectations you need to do more than keep your point of contact updated: you need to make sure your contact is collaborating with the rest of their team. Everyone must be on the same page.
Make communication your top priority. Not only does this mean your client will be up to date with what’s going on, but it also means that any concerns or problems are addressed and resolved before they escalate; if your client isn’t feeling positive about the way things are going, you want to know as soon as possible so you can A) manage their expectations, and B) rectify the issue.
Set a time, perhaps at the end of each week, that you’ll speak to the client. It lets you develop your relationship and pick up issues as soon as they arise; no nasty surprises for you or for them!
Managing client expectations is much easier when you set objectives and boundaries. You need to share the same end goal as your client, and these should be jointly agreed on before the project kicks off. This gets you working towards the same aim and means that if last-ditch changes are requested, you can redirect the client towards the original objective.
Set clear limits, too. As tempting as it can be to say “yes” to everything your client wants, you need to be careful that unrealistic expectations don’t start creeping in. It’s OK to say "no" if a client’s expectations are causing things to go off track – but always follow up your “no” with an explanation and another suggestion that will help them.
The client should also be aware of the ways your agency works. Expectations are far better managed when the client understands how your team works and who does what. Be clear about how you work – for example, if you’re not prepared to work on weekends, communicate this to the client. Remember that the more the client feels they can trust you, the easier their expectations will be to manage.
Here's how to handle some of the most awkward issues testing your client relationship.