How to Effectively Manage Client Expectations

By: Guest | February 25, 2013 | 

Today’s guest post is by Adria Saracino.

When you’re a marketer, having “people skills” is more than just a line from Office Space.

Interacting effectively with clients is pretty much make-or-break for your career.

Do well with one client, and he’s bound to send you more customers. Do poorly, and, yeah, forget about it.

Still, the term “problem client” exists for a reason, and there are days when even the best clients can grate on that very last nerve.

As frustrating as these moments can be, I’ve often found the problem comes back to a breakdown in communication somewhere along the line, particularly when it comes to expectations on both sides.

For maximum productivity and minimal drama in a working relationship, following are a few tips for effectively managing client expectations.

Because, you know…you don’t want to be like Tom from Office Space.

Problem #1: Misconceptions about the Project

You’re good at your job. You might even be an expert, having helped hundreds of customers in very particular and potentially patented ways. Sometimes, in the rush to get through the day, this can lead to assumptions about a client which may or may not be true.

You might, for instance, think a pizza joint you’ve just signed has a similar business model to the burger joint whose business you tripled, and proceed with similar techniques, only to find the client unhappy with the result. What to do?

Solution: Invest Time in Getting to Know One Another

I can’t emphasize this enough: Every client is unique. Taking the time to figure out how they tick is not an optional activity. Take them out to coffee, fly to their city, do what you need to do to get in front of them.. Just get them into the same room, pay them attention, and have a full conversation.

I often find it’s best to start with a casual chat, as this gives me a good sense of what the brand is about — its strategy, its voice, and all of those essentials the client may know subconsciously, but may not pop to the surface with questions such as, “Can you define your brand for me?”

Then get a little more concrete, as outlined in the section below. The more complete the picture of your client, the more likely you will be to deliver a product or service that actually feels right.

Pro Tip: Take Them Out for Beers.

Trust me, looser inhibitions and a non-work setting really helps solidify the relationship.

Problem #2: Goals are Too Diffuse

Let’s say you had a great first session with your client, and you brainstormed passionately about routes forward. Perhaps your discussion was, ermh, a little too passionate, as that idea web expanded onto several sheets. Then the meeting ended, and you were both left with a million different ideas, but no clear route forward. Progress: Halted. Action plan: Non-existent. Project status: Not good.

Solution: Agree on Specific Deliverables, and Deliver on Them

It’s time to get specific both in what you’ll do together and how you’ll do it. Your first step is to outline clear deliverables with timelines and due dates. Set the big goals, then break them down into achievable benchmarks, allowing room to adjust as things change.

After this is set, establish operating procedures with a clear contract. How quickly can your client expect you to respond to emails? What kind of extras do you offer if they’re not happy with the initial work? Clients often need coaching not just for the subject matter at hand, but also in working with you, especially as they may not have employed anyone quite like you in the past. So, make it clear, write it down, and stick to what you say.

Pro Tip: Follow-up with a Brief Email Outlining Next Steps and Actions.

Problem #3: Client is Frequently “Checking In”

Ever heard of a helicopter parent? Yeah, there are helicopter clients, too. These are clients who just keep “checking in” to see how things are going, effectively interrupting any workflow you have going on their project. Or, even worse, they might freak out and redirect the course of the project when they see unfinished work too early after pushing you for more insight.

Solution: Give Your Client Real-Time Project Updates

While presenting work in its earliest form isn’t ideal, keeping your clients in the loop with little samples of your work so far – as well as with instant project updates – can be an effective way to satiate their appetite for progress. For this, you’ll really find life is a lot easier when you get in the cloud.

Share a project board with your client using a tool such as Basecamp or Trello, where you can lay out all of your tasks with due dates and send your client automatic emails as you complete them. Sharing documents and spreadsheets through Google Drive is another option, as your client will see you editing work in the project stream. And never underestimate the power of setting a weekly update meeting to discuss progress.

Problem #4: Client Feels Disconnected and Not Cared For

Despite all of these efforts, your clients still may feel disconnected. Frustrating as it may be, it’s also perfectly understandable. We all communicate in different ways, and while you may feel you’re paying them enough attention, it may not be in quite the way that makes them personally feel assured. This deeper disconnect can feed any of the problems discussed previously.

Solution: Communicate Religiously

As tempting as it may be to funnel all of your communication through email, take the time to get to know your clients’ preferred communication style. A good rule of thumb is to prioritize in-person meetings first, then face-to-face virtual hangouts using a tool such as Google+ Hangouts, Skype, or GoToMeeting. After that, go to the phone, then email.

But again, some clients will prefer different methods and different lines will be better for different tasks. For example, an in-depth, bulleted email may be a good way to lay out important points before a phone meeting, while a video chat may be the best way to smooth things over when a client raises a concern. No matter, make sure to invest time into communication, rather than brushing it aside as a tertiary matter.

Problem #5: You Start Out Strong…and then Drift

Whether a company’s goals change or great communication slowly slips, project drift is a common issue. What was once a well-oiled machine is now a lazy one, and the project is lollygagging along indefinitely.

Solution: Regularly Evaluate and Reevaluate Expectations

Yes, setting goals is essential. The same, too, for timelines. But marketing is about more than simply spreading the word to customers. In fact, for many companies it’s a process of discovery – one that can tell them things about their business and their target audience they never knew they needed to know.

If that process isn’t managed properly, you can end up tacking on extra goals and chasing down rabbit holes until your efforts are spread far too thin. Or, to the contrary, you can find yourself forcing a project into rigid goals that no longer apply, with poor results. Rather than letting this happen, set regular reevaluation meetings with your client to reset and refocus goals. It’s okay to change direction, just as long as you do so in a controlled manner.

Like it or not, effectively managing client expectations is one of the single most important things a marketer can do – one that should be treated like any other task on your very long list. Take the time to get it right, and an easy, effective, productive dynamic will be yours, as well as a job well done and referrals to boot.

Adria Saracino is the head of outreach at Distilled. When not consulting on PR and content strategy, you can find her writing about style on her personal fashion blog, The Emerald Closet

  • Danny Brown

    I bet Gini Dietrich can share a few about a certain Toronto “tech” company…

  • Joseph Gier

    no .. all my clients are screaming children

  • @adria I thought this post was wonderful. You identified so many familiar client situations and then provided solutions or next steps as well as some pro tips. Well done. Glad to have read it and delighted to share with my networks!

    • adriasaracino

      @allenmireles  @adria Thank you so much! I deal with this all day, working around (and learning the hard way) setting client expectations. Hope it helps!

      • @adriasaracino  @allenmireles  @adria It definitely helps! I just joined the client world a mere seven months ago, so your solutions are really helpful!

  • adamlundquist

    @IdeaGrove how about “make me a viral video”?

  • mikejny

    RT @ginidietrich: Five problems (and solutions) about client service in PR by @adriasaracino

  • Gini Dietrich


  • lynngirl9978


  • lynettegirl9980


  • belllindsay

    Love this post about client expectations. When you first sent it to me @adriasaracino I wanted to publish it immediately! LOL Super job, come back anytime.

    • adriasaracino

      @belllindsay Thank you so much Lindsay, I really appreciate that!

  • HowieG

    Going through this now actually. I was partnering with someone but decided I can only be a contractor now because of this. We have very different views on client expectations. She told me never tell a client how much time you spend on work that is labor intensive. Because of this my part of the project was halted (I didn’t know the client was not being told everything).
    So I have to take control of my part. I told my friend she will have everything I propose written out and her client must sign off on it. While she can quote them anyway she wants I will have set with her form hours worked and expectations. This way I am protected and if she doesn’t manage the client properly I at least have something to present to show I was doing what was agreed upon.
    Great post!

    • adriasaracino

      @HowieG Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Howie. Your story actually brings up an interesting point that I wrote about in an article on CMI after attending the Content Marketing World conference. One of the sessions discussed whether or not agencies should charge clients per hour, since essentially the client would pay more depending on who was assigned to the project. The argument was that the client shouldn’t pay one price for it taking Suzy 7 hours to complete a task and Monica a different price because it took her 15 hours. I thought that was pretty accurate, since everyone has a different efficiency threshold. So I can see on the one side why maybe being completely transparent with how long things are taking can seem like a bad idea on one side, but on the other if they are paying basically per hour than they have a right to know. What do you think about this?

  • Your pro tip about taking them out for beers is absolutely spot-on. Sometimes even lunch will do, too. We have a client I try to get out to see once a month for this very reason. It’s impossible to learn the kinds of things you do over a meal when you’re running from meeting to meeting and have only 30 minutes or an hour with the client. Sure, in today’s digital world, it’s possible to do business around the globe, but that face-to-face interaction can never be replaced.

    • adriasaracino

      @ginidietrich I completely agree. I remember I was training one of my client’s teams and felt like I was losing one of them (he seemed disinterested and quiet). We ended up attending the same conference I was at and I made an effort to spend time with him at the organized social events, particularly the Rick Springfield concert they were hosting (I know, right?). After that experience, we now send Rick Springfield memes to each other and have a much better working relationship. We like to joke that Ricky brought out the best in us. It’s done tremendous things for the team’s dynamic too, so I can’t stress the importance of this enough!

      • belllindsay

        @adriasaracino  @ginidietrich Also, beers make everything better. 🙂

        • adriasaracino

          @belllindsay  @adriasaracino  @ginidietrich I think granttilus will appreciate that Jesse’s Girl reference, he’s a big fan. 🙂

      • @adriasaracino Jesse’s Girl made it all better!

  • kmkeidan

    What recommendations do you have for clients who decide to change their goals in the middle of the process? Following your step five by checking in and reevaluating has prompted a shift in some of the objectives which seem to be drastically different from what was established early on. The clients are a pair who do not seem to agree on their overall goals. Starting with one set of goals initially, then being asked to switch abruptly while keeping the old goals in mind is proving to be quite difficult. Conflicting goals and conflicting client partners are making our overall effectiveness challenging. Any ideas?

    • adriasaracino

      @kmkeidan That’s a very good question, and a common problem. I think over communication and directness is the key here. I’ve had a similar situation happen, where a client wanted to address 2 different goals with one project. We had a conversation (not email) and I blatantly said, “We can do this project to achieve this goal, or that project to achieve that goal. The two goals are too conflicting and we cannot address both in one project. You need to choose which is more important to you. This is my recommendation.” and left the ball in there court to decide. 
      The same pretty much goes with an abrupt change. I think again, saying directly, “Okay, we can definitely transition. This is how we will need to restructure the project and it will take some time to do so.” That way you are acknowledging that it is a shift and making it clear that this is NOT what you discussed in the beginning. Hopefully you have the original goals in writing somewhere – it’s when you don’t that this can get tricky because it turns into a he-said/she-said. I think over communication is important and wrapping all conversations with the TL:DR actions and key points discussed is important. Repetition is so important to making it stick!
      Good luck!

      • kmkeidan

        @adriasaracino This is so helpful! Over communication can never hurt. We certainly have the original goals in writing so revisiting those could help reevaluate where we are and where they’d like to be. Thanks again for your help!

  • Guru_Franchise

    @ginidietrich @SpinSucks @adriasaracino Thanks for sharing y’all. Nice job Adria. I can relate to no. 3. #HelicopterClient

    • adriasaracino

      @Guru_Franchise @ginidietrich @SpinSucks Thank you! We all have one (or 10) of those don’t we? 🙂

  • rdopping

    Hey @adriasaracino you had me at “Take them out for beers.” Notice the subtly there. Not a beer but beers. Get ’em hammered and drop them in a snow bank without any pants!
    And then there’s problem 3. Have you ever heard of seagull management? Clients who fly in, crap all over everything and fly back out? Pretty common in the Architecture world.
    I love this post though!
    You know, this is something that really resonates with me specifically. You see, I work in the Architecture industry and these issues, these 5 problems are systemic when there is no clear project management in place. It’s great to read that you have clear, actionable and tangible plans when you are engaging a client. Without a plan, a contract, regular meetings, meeting minutes and especially a relationship you could not build a successful project. These 5 problems are fundamental to good project management and absolutely necessary regardless of the scale of the project or account.
    Man, I could write a tome on this subject. I am just glad that there are others like myself who see the value in a structured approach. Bravo!

    • adriasaracino

      @rdopping LOL You picked up at that subtly right? Hey some clients need more than one beer to get talking! I literally LOLed at the “drop them in the snow bank without any pants” part though….that didn’t happen…not exactly like that anyway… 🙂 
      That’s interesting that we’re in different fields but run into the same problem. It’s definitely a problem when there isn’t solid project management in place. I think that’s what most agencies struggle with at the end of the day, creating solid processes for managing client expectations and leveling up all project owners to respond in an effective way to problems that arise!

      • rdopping

        @adriasaracino This is what I really like about this community. I have mentioned this to @ginidietrich a few times before. You have vastly different expertise coming together to bounce similar problems off each other. The things we can learn. 
        I wonder if like the legal industry, which has just recently started trending toward fixed fee contracts and a PM approach to service delivery, the agency world sees the value in a solid PM approach to manage cost and scope. I have heard “rumours” that the legal industry is being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
        How’s the agency world responding to this notion of responsible management of client expectations and money? Or am I opening a can that needs to stay sealed?

  • ginidietrich

    AlaskaChickBlog Happy Friday!

    • AlaskaChickBlog

      ginidietrich Hey! Same to you and Q for you… do you know Geoff Reiner?? AWESOME-NESS… Please check him out!!

      • ginidietrich

        AlaskaChickBlog I do know him!

        • AlaskaChickBlog

          ginidietrich Wonderful human! I just had to be sure that you did.

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  • AnnaPapasiopi

    Great article and very realistic! Let me suggest a business collaboration platform based on cloud that really facilitates real time communication. Its name is Comidor and you can find all the information you may need at . You can try also its free demo version available at comidor’s site.

  • KatieEfs

    Great article and very realistic! Let me suggest a business collaboration platform based on cloud that really facilitates real time communication. Its name is Comidor and you can find all the information you may need at . You can try also its free demo version available at comidor’s site.