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How to establish client expectations from the get-go

Emily Belden's Layout avatar

For me, managing expectations is one of those things that goes back to my childhood. Whether it was how big my scoop of ice cream would be or how many vegetables I’d have to eat at dinner – my parents always did a good job of letting me know what to expect so that I wouldn’t be disappointed. Now as an adult, the ability to set expectations with a client is the most important part of my business.

Setting expectations early on puts everyone on the same page. In addition to it fostering good and open communication, it also protects the relationship from the unforeseen bumps in the road. Setting expectations in many ways is like having “insurance” for your client. And just like any high-worth item that you want to last a long time, an extended care plan is always a good idea.

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Here are my top four tips for setting expectations with your client.

Honesty is everything

Clients, especially ones that are hiring you for your creative genius, tend to think you can make literal magic happen with their product or brand. While that level of faith is inspiring, I often have to balance their enthusiasm with reality right in the beginning. If making the company into the next Apple is not likely possible, I’ll explain what is possible and why I think that’s the route to go. There’s no sense in promising that you’ll be able to build the slickest, newest features when that’s not a guarantee. Plus, erring on the side of caution allows for the moments you over-deliver to really shine.

Pro-active communication

Like most things in life, communication is key. However, over-communicating is especially key in keeping a client relationship thriving. In addition to an initial kick-off call or meeting, set your client up with bi-weekly calls to check in on progress. These calls should be led by you, with an agenda sent out beforehand. Lasting about a half hour with time at the end for the client to ask questions or provide updates, these calls should be upbeat and swift. Use the time to show your excitement to keep moving forward and accomplishing big things.

And of course, being available by phone or email between the bi-weekly calls is also crucial.

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Provide reporting

Reporting has all sorts of bad connotations to it: boring, complicated, tedious. But a) reports don’t have to be, and b) they provide a great service to clients that keeps your relationship strong. Remember, reporting is one of those things that expertly link the expectation with the reality, so a simple monthly email with bullets and clippings that summarize your work can go a long way. I suggest starting with a run-down of what you’ve done for them to show progress, followed by key highlights to show wins, followed by next steps to generate excitement.

Be in-tune with your client

One of the most impressive things you can do for your client is to anticipate their needs before they know they have them. People who really excel at their careers already have this ability, like a waiter who refills your soda pop when they see the ice has started to melt. There’s something really luxurious about not having to ask for something. When you’re one step ahead of your clients, they will feel taken care of and they’ll trust that the relationship is going well.

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Now that you know how to set expectations, let’s explore what types of things to set expectations for.

Project scope

Most creatives have been there before: you chat with a potential client, the project seems simple enough, you shake on it, and provide what you believe are the agreed-upon deliverables. Next thing you know, the additional one-off requests start pouring in and the project has gotten out of control.

Setting parameters for the scope is imperative or else the domino effect described above will set in. A shared Google doc or Trello board is a good way to define the work you are doing as well as designate clear boundaries. Those platforms show updates in real-time, which is an added bonus for clients who are really curious about the status of their projects.

Revisions

Telling a client about their end result is one thing, but detailing your process on how you plan to get there another – and a very important one at that. For instance, as a creative, a client will know what their final product is from me. However, they must also know that they get one round of changes to whatever I initially turn in. If I don’t clearly state that they only have one shot to tell me how they feel about my first draft, I run the risk of the project dragging out and falling out of the initial scope.

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Telling them about their one round of revisions encourages them to pool their feedback and be concise so that we can all move forward together.

Payment

The reward is in the payoff, right? So it makes sense that the payment part of the project be clearly laid out as well. It’s true that money can be an uncomfortable topic, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with letting a client know how and when you expect to be paid. To keep things professional, clearly include your payment terms in your contract and make sure they are signed off on before beginning the work.
As you can see, there are a variety of ways to set client expectations up from the get-go so that the relationship can foster. What has worked for you?

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