A Guide to Managing Client Expectations

Not every project is going to be stuffed full of rainbows and unicorns. Even with the best of intentions on both sides – agency and client – sometimes things just go awry. Usually it’s due to miscommunication, or not managing client expectations properly. You, the agency, think your scope of work is super clear, but a client sees a different thing, you don’t communicate about it, and you’re unaware their expectations are too high until it becomes an issue and they’re unhappy. Not a good situation.

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It’s hard to predict these things a lot of the time. Communication is hard. Agencies think they’re being straightforward, because they say the same terms all the time, but clients may not be familiar with those terms, or with digital processes. They may be afraid to ask questions, or to look unknowledgeable. Of course there’s no shame in asking questions, but who really likes admitting they’re not totally on the ball with what’s going on? Nobody. So things don’t get talked about, time goes by, expectations on both sides slip and then you find yourself where you didn’t want to be: client hell.

I don’t mean this to sound rude, or to snub clients. I love clients! They’re literally the reason I get to do what I love all day, and not have to live in a cardboard box. They make everything possible. And at the end of the day, they pay the bills. I work for each of them, and I keep that in mind constantly. Clients are not the enemy, clients are part of your team. And you can’t blame your client for having the wrong expectations unless you work hard to set realistic ones.

The problem with mismanaged expectations is that they can strike at any time. Even if your project is 90% done and you’re in the home stretch and so far all along everything has been great. Don’t stop communicating, or you might find yourself in hot water.

As an example… the classic website project. Your quote included a list of exactly what the client is getting and you think, “Great! Now I don’t have to talk to them about it because I wrote it down right there in list form.” While having that list, or scope of work, is absolutely crucial, you still need to talk about it.


You say you’re making a ten page website for your client, and you’re going to even write five of those pages too. Your client is on board. When you’re almost ready to launch, well, the client wonders if you wouldn’t mind helping them with a paragraph for one of the other pages. A pretty simple request you think, so sure, you’ll help out. Then they would just like a few things tweaked. No problem, you think, it won’t take that long and it will make them happy, let’s do it. A few tweaks and some extra writing is now done and you know it was basically free time you gave away, but you want your client to be happy with the end product, so you don’t mind. So everything’s done and you think, “They’re going to be so happy now, let’s get this launched!” Party time, right?!


Because you’ve opened a wormhole to another galaxy. The galaxy of infinite change and infinite scope creep. You were trying to be helpful and make your client happy, but it’s resulted in an endless loop of changes that’s quickly spiralling out of control, and you are powerless to stop it because, well, you already set the expectation of “yes”.

I’m not saying you should never go the extra mile, or throw in some free time, to genuinely help a client out. We all should. It’s in our nature to want to provide the best experience for our clients and a lot of times, a small change request is just that – a tiny tweak, and that’s it. No problem.

The only problem happens when communication has been weak throughout the entire project, because if it had been strong, you would have realized your client was unhappy with the project a long time ago, a really long time before hitting 90% completion. And if you would have realized their unhappiness at the 10% completion mark, well, that would have been a tiny tweak maybe. A slight change to get things right, and then go ahead and keep building on that. But when communication isn’t a two-way street, your project plugs along and you may think it’s all okay, but it isn’t.

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So if you think it’s fine, but it’s not fine, then what are the signs to watch out for? Here’s a few red flags to check for. If you see one, stop and consider it, and just be honest and ask your client about it.


Digital Project Management Red Flags

The Client Who Agrees With Everything You Say

You might think, wow, we’re totally on the same page, this is great! But this is rare. Typically it may be because your client is just too damn busy to argue with you, or they don’t see the full value of what they’re getting. You laid out a great document, all fifty pages of it, outlining your strategic research, your recommendations, your goals for their company… and they loved it. Awesome! Until you find out at 90% project completion that they never read it, but now they did, and they want to change a few things. Oh. Yeah, that might be a problem. So when someone says, “Yep, love it all, go ahead,” make sure to thank them for letting you run with your ideas, but also follow up and say, “OK so you’re sure that our goals on page fourteen align with yours? Just want to be 100% sure as this will affect all of our upcoming work with you, and we want to get you the absolute best results!” If they still say yes, well you’ve got a rare unicorn on your hands… and you better hang on to them!


The Client with Unclear Business Goals

While it’s not our job to dictate goals to our clients, we do need to have an understanding of where they want their business to go so that we can help them get there through their marketing and branding initiatives. Sometimes that involves knowing clear things about their business, things that clients may not want to share with “outsiders”. If you sense that your client either doesn’t want to share their true business goals or plans with you, or maybe just isn’t sure of them, ask. Have an honest conversation about the level of trust needed in an agency client relationship. Maybe your client has been burned by other agencies before, so let them know you understand and that you’re only here to help them succeed.


The Creeper

The scope creeper I mean. Approving things quickly, but then wanting to make “tiny tweaks” later on, constantly. This client may not realize the impact of their change requests, or realize that they are in danger of derailing the project completely. It’s your job as their project manager to inform them of why a change has lasting impact, and how making so many changes will just eat up their budget, not allowing for the project to stay within the approved budget and timeline. Just let them know, and most of the time, people understand. Most scope creepers aren’t trying to be disruptive or demanding, they just don’t know how their small changes are impacting the bigger picture. So tell them.


The Watchdog

I get why clients may not trust agencies completely, especially at first. Some may have dealt with unscrupulous firms in the past who took advantage of them, or maybe they’re totally new to bringing in an outside perspective on their business and are just unsure of what to expect. Either way, the relationship may start off rocky if there’s a low level of trust for a long time. Clients should always feel free to ask for their time sheet reports, or measurable reports that show what they’re getting for their money, and any good agency should be happy to provide those reports. But a constant routine of “What’s this 5 minutes of time being billed for?” is not productive for anyone, and will just add unneeded frustration to the project. If your client is acting like this, don’t blame them, blame yourself for not inspiring trust. Take them for lunch or call them in for a meeting and just talk about it. Soon a genuine agency client relationship can start to develop, and your project will be on track.


You might think talking about these red flags will be an awkward conversation, but your clients will appreciate your honesty and wanting to ensure that they’re happy. Sometimes it might start out awkward, but just remember: we’re all a little bit weird. An agency client partnership is just a bunch of regular people working together to agree on common goals, offer insight, and ultimately, to produce amazing work and even amazing-er results. So get out there and start having some awkward conversations. I promise it will be rewarding.

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