The Key to Managing Client Expectations is Setting Your Own
7 min read
There's nothing sweeter than the honeymoon phase at the start of a new client relationship when everyone is motivated, optimistic, and especially communicative. It's also before the first couple of billing cycles pass, before clients start getting antsy and impatient, and before managing client expectations becomes a full-time, uphill battle.
We’ve found the trick to managing client expectations — especially client expectations that are impossibly high — is to establish and maintain a strong sense of accountability in the relationship. Setting realistic expectations on both sides keeps your client on the hook and is crucial to building trust and understanding.
Set Expectations Collaboratively — and Early On
Setting aside time to discuss each other’s priorities and perspectives during a kickoff meeting fosters understanding — which eliminates the potential for surprises, last-minute changes, or disappointments down the road.
During sales, don't make promises you can't keep. Be explicit about your product’s strengths and limitations, including quantified results you've delivered to existing customers of similar sizes and situations. During onboarding, be concrete with the customer about the time it typically takes to see certain wins. Likewise, make your expectations of the customer clear. Emphasize that you're embarking on a partnership: As soon as they become non-communicative, you will struggle to deliver results. This kind of conversation sets a precedent for honesty and lays a foundation for accountability on both sides.
Assign Responsibilities and Deadlines to Both Parties
The next step is to translate those expectations into clear action items with deadlines. Otherwise, that initial expectation-setting will fade away. Assign individual tasks to each other in a shared space both parties have access to, like a streamlined dashboard.
This should also serve as a space to track goals, record major milestones, and lets both sides keep up with important dates coming down the pipeline. In this phase, the most vital aspects to nail down are:
Determine which party is accountable for what responsibilities.
Establish firm dates for responsibilities to be met.
Schedule regular check-ins to gauge progress and address challenges.
This kind of radical transparency with clients is a newer school of thought, but the positive impact it makes on building client trust, increasing accountability, and, subsequently, retention, makes going the extra mile worth it.
Keep Clients Accountable With Signposting, Nudges, and Check-ins
Whether it's done manually or automated through project management software, remind clients to complete tasks regularly and well before the task's deadline. This is especially important for clients who don't always follow through. Re-focus them on upcoming tasks with strategies like signposting, nudging, and check-ins.
In addition to reminders, hold regular check-ins where you can get more in-depth about blockers; perhaps the customer needs to see you face to face to talk through how to complete a task assigned to them. That's A-OK, but only if you give them the opportunity to do so. Depending on the value of their account and the nature of your service, we recommend holding regular meetings at least once a month and up to every week for your highest-touch clients.
Before these check-ins, practice signposting. This proactive tactic is best described as giving your clients a warning something is coming in advance, like a task, milestone, or deadline. For example, sending a note about what will be discussed in an upcoming meeting. It can be as simple as the following:
“During Monday's check-in, we'll discuss the deliverables we sent over last week. Please come to the meeting prepared with notes so we can incorporate your feedback and finalize the designs by the end of the month.”
This message is effective because it tells your client what’s to come, what you need them to accomplish beforehand, and, most importantly, it communicates your expectations of how Monday’s meeting will operate.
Provide (and Solicit) Honest Feedback About Your Partnership
One great solution for staying on top of client expectations is to create a feedback loop, or a clear back-and-forth about what is and isn’t working. Understanding the pain points both parties face lets both sides share constructive thoughts that ultimately make the relationship stronger.
According to Microsoft, brands that proactively solicit and embrace customer input are seen favorably by as much as 77% of consumers. Even if a customer is slow to embrace opportunities to discuss what’s working or not working, it’s vital to put processes in place to help them feel comfortable sharing input.
An efficient way to start gathering feedback is in meetings. Take notes throughout the sales and onboarding process and even later in the relationship during check-ins. In these moments be sure to ask, point-blank, how they think you’re doing. If your relationship with a client is in hot water, this gives the client an opportunity to share what’s not working and, on the other hand, gives you an opportunity to learn where you can improve. This kind of conversation can mitigate dramatic fallouts by constructively communicating in a way that helps, not hurts, the relationship.
Manage Client Expectations with Collaborative Project Management
Setting realistic expectations is a two-way street, and the best way to avoid collisions is to build a detailed, up-to-date, and shared roadmap. Specifically, use a client-first project management tool: A simple and reliable way to map out the expectations of both parties, manage projects in one place, and keep your client’s needs in focus.
These kinds of tools have features to facilitate all the expectation-setting and proactive communication we encourage above, from collaborative goals, assignable tasks, and reminders that help maintain accountability and keep your relationships with clients strong.