How to Set the Right Client Expectations

Delivering what was promised and clients still not happy? It may be time to reset expectations.

Finding clients is an important job for agency owners. Clients keep the lights on and your employees paid. But even more important is finding a way to keep existing clients happy and coming back for more work.

When you do the hard work to land a new client, the last thing you want is for them to leave. It costs 5x to 25x more money to replace a client than it does to retain them. Meaning if you lose too many clients, your business is on a slippery slope towards demise.

Clients have many reasons for dropping their agency. Delivering poor work is a common one. Cost is another. But just as common (yet rarely discussed) is a mismatch between what the client expects to happen and what the agency delivers.

Even if you produce great work, if it deviates too far from what the client was expecting (or does not include all the elements they were expecting), you’ve got a problem on your hands. One that could eventually lead to losing this business.

How do you avoid all this? By setting the right expectations with your clients upfront.

Why is Setting Client Expectations Important?

It’s an age-old story. Girl likes boy. Boy likes girl.

They go on a date, it goes really well!

Girl waits for the call. Boy doesn’t call.

Girl comes to the conclusion that the boy doesn’t like her, so she decides to forget all about him (and maybe curses his name to the full moon, who knows).

Boy shows up at the girl’s house a week later, only to find her going on a date with another boy.

What is the real problem here?

The problem isn’t that one doesn’t like the other or that they aren’t looking for the same thing. The problem is that there were no expectations set. Did she say she wanted him to call? No. Did he say he was going to call? No.

He could have very easily been waiting by the phone for her call that never came, so he took matters into his own hands and sought her out, only to be left devastated when she was with another man.

This situation was entirely avoidable. As are the instances when you lose clients because you didn’t set any expectations with them. Expectations are safeguards. They’re boundaries. They’re agreements where everybody knows what they’re getting.

Expectations make for a working relationship based on mutual understanding. There are no surprises that will leave one or both of you angry and wanting to end the relationship.

There are other benefits of setting client expectations too, including:

  • Avoiding Confusion: People don’t like to be confused. It makes them feel less intelligent and hits their self-esteem in ways that typically lead to projection in the form of anger—at you. Clear expectations leave very little room for confusion.
  • Providing Boundaries to Fire a Client: Not every client will be a dream. You’ll have to fire a few, and when that time comes, clear expectations help clarify why the relationship is no longer working.
  • Giving Your Team a North Star: Expectations aren’t just for your client, they’re for your team. When your team is clear on what has been communicated to the client, they have something to lean on for direction.

Remember, If you don’t set expectations for your client, they will make up their own.

How to Set & Manage Client Expectations

Now that you understand why setting client expectations is important, let’s explore how to set them with each new client:

1. Create a System

Most often, setting expectations has to be done multiple times. During the sales process. When they sign the contract. And then again when your client is onboarding.

For this reason, you may have different employees setting expectations at different stages. Unless you have a system of what expectations to communicate and when, you could have mismatched information that leads to confusion.

Decide how and when to communicate expectations and who will be the person to deliver them. Document this process and iterate if necessary until you find the system that works best for your team.

2. Be Upfront & Honest

Nobody wants to feel like they’ve been taken advantage of. Which is why you need to be upfront about what the client can expect from you.

Perhaps you run a social media marketing agency, and a client who only pays for photo-based content reaches out and asks you to post a video (a service for which you charge an extra $100 a post). You could simply accept the work and bill the client the extra $100, thinking “They should know! It’s in the contract.”

But how do you think that client will feel when the bigger invoice arrives next month?

Instead, be upfront about what’s going to happen if you proceed with the new service. “Would love to add that to your content plan—just a reminder that it will appear as an extra $100 on the invoice as it’s outside of the agreed upon scope.”

Wait for confirmation before starting. No need to make a big deal of the additional expense.

3. Make the Contract Clear & Easy to Understand

Don’t shield yourself with a contract stuffed with legal jargon. Instead, work with your attorney to make it as clear as possible. Remember, your goal is for your client to completely understand what to expect for the duration of your partnership.

4. Clarify How You Get Paid

Money makes people uneasy. Which is why you should be clear and upfront about how payment works.

During client onboarding, set expectations around:

  • How your invoicing works
  • When clients should expect an invoice from you
  • When you expect payment on that invoice
  • What that payment will include
  • What happens when they’re not paid according to these guidelines (late fees, interest, etc.)
  • Anything else that could be unique or different about how you’ll collect payment for services

5. Review the Process for How They Obtain Assets

Regardless of the type of agency you run, if you have clients, you’ll be delivering some form of work. And clients should have clear expectations on how that work is delivered.

In most cases, it’s best to find a tool to collect client assets and work in one place. We say “collect” because it’s easier to have a single place where both parties have access to everything than trying to send constant emails with attachments and revisions. That’s why a lot of agencies rely on the Docs & Files folder inside a project management software like Basecamp.

One central place for all your client assets, documents, tasks, and communications.
One central place for all your client assets, documents, tasks, and communications.

Your client can enter the project and access the most up-to-date version of the work with a single click. You can even create multiple folders and collections to house different types of deliverables, as well as their contract, communication guidelines, and even invoices for easy access.

6. Tell Them When & How to Communicate With You

If you’re keeping up with the times and ditching the time-suck that is email, you’ll have to be very clear about that with your clients, and provide them with instructions for how you communicate.

Since client communication is such an integral part of whether or not you retain that client in the long-term, you want to make it simple for them. Using a project management software that allows client access is one of the best methods. This way they know where to go to see project progress, track the status of a deliverable, and even chime in and give feedback.

Finding clients is hard. Keeping clients shouldn’t be harder. Set the right client expectations from the beginning, and you’ll reduce the chances of miscommunication and upset clients. Meaning you can turn your attention away from client chasing, and back to creating great work.

If you’re looking for a way to make your clients even happier, look no further than the all-new Basecamp. Bring your clients directly into your projects, allowing them real-time access to everything you want them to see (and nothing you don’t). Best of all, invite as many clients as you want to Basecamp for free - you only pay for your employees.

Try it yourself for free for 30 days. It takes just minutes to sign up, and there is no credit card or commitment required.

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