When DOOR3 asked me to write an article about managing client expectations, I didn’t know where to start. Being from a project management background, I first looked to my old PMBOK for advice. After pulling out all the overused industry terms, I realized it’s not really something a textbook can teach. Don’t get me wrong, you still need to learn the trade if you want to be successful, but to me it’s much more akin to designing an experience like UX or creative work. Like the famous UX researcher Jared Spool puts it:
“Good design, when it’s done well, becomes invisible. It’s only when it’s done poorly that we notice it.”
And in many ways, managing client expectations is just that. After a project is over, no one will remember how many meetings you had or how many documents you created, how fast you did something, or for how much or how little. But, they will remember the experience.
The following are some key universal points and simple reminders for how to manage that experience or reset expectations with your clients regardless of your role on the project.
From the very beginning of anything you’re about to do, make sure you care about it. First and last impressions are everything and it sets the tone for the working relationship. It’s also flattering for a client if you’ve done your homework and are prepared to talk about concerns they have too.
One of my favorite paraphrased quotes on the subject is by Theodore Roosevelt:
“No one cares how much you know until they first know how much you care about them.”
And its true. It doesn’t matter how many awards your last site won or what you did with some other company, it only matters what you are doing right now and what you plan to do in the future to manage client expectations.
For extra points, get to know them outside of a business relationship. Strike up a personal conversation when appropriate. This will help you figure out what makes them tick and you’ll start to understand their motivations and more importantly, they’ll start to understand yours.
Trust doesn’t come easy. You can lose it at anytime and never get it back. How do you avoid this? Just as easy. Say what you mean, do what you’re going to do and follow through on it. Hit your dates or just make sure you show up to work on time. And if for whatever reason you can’t, make sure everyone understands why.
Along these same lines, make sure everyone understands why you are doing what you’re doing. Provide background for the most mundane of tasks. This will not only provide transparency, it will create buy-in to the work and give value to the little things that help make everything else better.
This is the single most important point on this client expectation list. Why? Because how we present information is always subject to interpretation and people absorb it in all sorts of different ways. Some contextually from a situation, others verbally. Some need it drawn out on a whiteboard and others need to take their time with a cup of coffee and an email.
To add to the complexity, once you’ve picked your communication of choice, you now have to deal with how the recipient internalizes it. We all have filters that only let in the information we need or worse what we want to hear. We then impose a perception of the situation based on our own experiences which naturally develops a bias. To complicate things further, this changes daily depending on our moods or level of distraction.
In order to eliminate that grey area of understanding, deploy a combination (I’d even recommend using all) forms of communication and deliver it in the simplest way possible. Be a broken record. It might seem annoying, but it’s the bridge between client expectations and assumptions, which we’ll touch on next.
You may think that after you have communicated everything clearly it ends there. You are wrong. The minute you assume everything is fine, you’re in trouble.
Most people (clients included) are really bad at articulating exactly what it is they want or need. So you’ve got to work doubly hard to extract all meaning and get to the marrow of what they’re actually asking for. Otherwise, they’ll assume you know and will be disappointed when you don’t deliver.
If there’s any doubt or if something can be interpreted in a number of ways, follow up and get a concrete answer. Never read between the lines.
Yes, this is confusing, but stay with me. Agree on a strategy, agree on goals, agree on a timeline and agree on client expectations. Then agree on what success looks like - this will be your north star throughout the project and for getting you back on track after you do this next part.
Disagree. It’s not easy and no one wants rustle feathers, but sometimes you have to say no. It’s a necessary evil in order to accomplish the things you have already started. If this becomes a sticking point with a client, make sure there is an equal trade-off or a concession in place that keeps you pointing north. Anything that is a distraction from this needs more discussion.
And of course, there can actually be some good that comes out of these constructive disagreements. The client hired you for your expertise, but they keep you around for your opinion. As a consultant, you’re outside of the organizational politics and chains of command. If something isn’t right or if you think something can be improved, speak up! When you offer up the brass tacks you become more than a vendor. You become a partner.
In business, money is not a dirty word. Although, it will still be the root of all evil if you don’t address it openly. Being open and honest about budget reduces any tension associated with it. And it also shows a client just how much something costs and what is required to continue.
If this isn’t addressed, (especially if you’re operating in the red), you’ll quickly find you have some unhappy customers and you might end up having to pick up the check.
Lets face it, information travels fast and we can only absorb so much before we lose track. Like witnesses reporting the details of a crime, the information gets less accurate the further they are from when it occurred. As time goes by, people forget what was agreed upon or morph details into something else. So taking notes during these meetings and conversations is crucial.
This paper trail not only serves as a reference for what was said, it also allows you to codify potential new requirements and provide instructions for what to do next. Post these notes in your collaboration tool of choice (ie. Jira, Basecamp, etc.) for all to see and refer back to when times get busy or when lines blur as new things are added last minute.
These 7 tips are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to managing client expectations, but they’re simple and easy to execute at any point during the engagement. You’ll find too that once you put these into practice you’ll start to notice a shared vision and understanding of where things are going and what needs to be done to get there.
Plus if you’re consistent, you’ll have created a great project experience. And success or failure, that will be the metric used to determine whether or not a client works with you again.
Ryan Daniels is a Senior Project Manager at DOOR3. What’s your strategy when it comes to meeting client expectations? Share your opinion by commenting below.
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