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Managing Stakeholders
4 Key Methods To Manage Client Expectations The Right Way

Your business success isn’t determined by attracting new clients, but by keeping existing clients. How you are managing client expectations matters a lot. Naturally, managing expectations well helps to keep customers satisfied while giving them enough space, so you can keep bringing in the revenue. 

The data suggests that the retention of customers is overall more likely to be profitable than new customer acquisition. Hence, companies with higher retention levels generally make more money, as existing clients are much easier to sell to. 

According to retentionscience.com, there is a 60 to 70 percent chance of converting an existing client, whereas converting a new prospect has only a 5 to 20 percent probability.

illustration of bar graphs representing the 60 to 70 percent change of converting an existing client and the 5 to 20 percent change of converting a new prospect
It's much easier to keep existing client than the sign new ones (source).

I will give you real-life tips to define and manage client expectations. Take a look at that previous sentence again. In one line, we established what to expect right out of the gate! 😉

Managing client expectations is a tricky business. On the one hand, you want to set realistic expectations so that your client knows what to expect and can hold you accountable. On the other hand, you don't want to set the bar too low and end up under-delivering.

Luckily, there are a few simple tips you can follow to make sure you're nailing it when it comes to managing client expectations.

I’ll cover:

Managing Client Expectations Right From the Beginning

When setting client expectations the best approach is to do so early on during the onboarding process and to reinforce them as you go. In your role as project manager, you are in charge of keeping everyone informed, which includes your internal staff as well as the client’s team. 

You are required to state and document upfront what is expected from your team and the client at every project stage. Every team member and step in the process is crucial to the success of your project, hence it is better to go over everything right off the bat.

When it comes to communicating and relaying goals and parameters at each stage, you must be thorough and persistent. All too frequently, loopholes provide a basis for unexpected scope creep

Prepare For The Project Kick-Off Meeting

At the start of each new client project, schedule a meeting with your internal team and another separate meeting with the client's team to talk about all the specifics and procedures that will potentially impact the project's success. 

In these sessions ahead of the kick-off meeting, you should address the following:

  • What is in scope and out of scope?
  • Timing
  • Specific requirements
  • Required (formal) documents, such as the project charter
  • Other information (ex. specifics that came up in the negotiation phase, etc.)

In my experience, it’s preferable to have the pre-kickoff session with your team first, so unclear points can be either addressed internally or clarified with the client in the upcoming session. Document each of these meetings well, as this could become an appendix to supplement your statement of work.

Clarify Internal and Client Roles

Larger projects tend to be time-consuming and complex. Tasks frequently overlap, rely on one another to finish, or have such a broad scope that requires many team members. Resourcing can get confusing if it’s unclear who fulfills which role and when things have to be done.

It is crucial to assign each team member a specific project role with clear responsibilities. Apply these tips to ensure responsibilities are clearly defined:

  • Create a RACI chart to define responsibilities on your side as well as the clients’ side
  • To guarantee crucial information is recorded and shared, define two team members who will document every meeting
  • Consider using an online project management tool like Asana to assist with communication and sharing of document between your internal staff and the clients' team

Explain Your Process And Agree On How You Will Work Together

All projects are different. Of course, there are certain methods or deliverables that apply to many projects, but it's crucial to agree on how you will approach the specific project at hand. The completed project charter captures your client’s needs and supports you in setting expectations for the budget, deliverables, how stakeholders will be managed, and timeline all at once.

Follow these tips to successfully manage your clients' expectations.

Set Goals and Milestones

Don't set yourself up for disappointment by setting unrealistic goals and milestones. Not only will this disappoint your client if you don't meet them, but it will also reflect badly on you and your business as a business owner. 

Set achievable goals and milestones that you know you can hit, and then aim to exceed them where possible.

Build Trust by Setting Expectations About How You Work 

Building trust with your clients is essential for managing their expectations effectively. One of the best ways to do this is by setting clear expectations about how you work during the onboarding process. 

For example, let them know how often you'll be available, what methods of communication you prefer, how long projects typically take, etc.

This will help them understand what it's like working with you and they’ll know what they can expect from the relationship. And if there are ever any issues or misunderstandings down the line, you can always refer back to these initial expectations that you both agreed on. 

Make Honesty and Transparency a Priority 

Honesty and transparency are the most essential ingredients for effective client management. Whenever something comes up—whether it's a problem with the project or simply a change in schedule—be honest about it with your clients right away. This way, they won't be caught off guard later on and they’lll appreciate your transparency throughout the process. 

It’s also best to be transparent about your process and, when applicable, offer multiple options for working together. This way, your clients can choose the option that best fits their needs and budget

However, always point out the pros and cons for each, and be sure to recommend one option based on your experience with a similar project.

Part of being transparent about how you work is setting clear boundaries with your clients from the start. Let them know what's included in your services and what's not included, so there are no surprises later down the road. 

Give Access to Your Tools for Full Project Visibility

Keeping your clients in the dark is a surefire way to breed mistrust and misunderstanding. Make sure they have access to all the project management tools you're using so they can see for themselves how the project is progressing. This will help to keep them abreast of any changes and prevent any surprises further down the line. 

Stay in Regular Contact with Your Client

Staying in constant contact with your client is another key tip for managing expectations. This doesn't mean being available 24/7—that's not realistic or healthy. But it does mean determining who their main point of contact will be (do this during the client onboarding process), checking in regularly, and keeping your lines of communication open either via emails or phone calls.

Be Clear About What Happens if Things Change

Be clear from the outset about what will happen if there are changes to the project scope or the timeline, or if revisions will be needed. Put everything in writing so there is no confusion later on.

Look Out for Red Flags and Avoid Difficult Clients from the Start

Last but not least, another important tip for managing client expectations is to listen to your gut and look out for red flags. If something feels off from the start, it's probably best to walk away. The last thing you want is to get stuck in a situation where you're constantly battling with a difficult client. It's just not worth it.

Pricing and Documentation

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s ensure that your upcoming project will be airtight.

Put Everything in Writing and Draw up a Contract

The contract or scope of work is an essential tool for managing client expectations. It sets out clearly what both parties agree to and provides a reference point should anything change throughout the project. You can include the documentation from the pre-kickoff session, the RACI, and the final project charter in the appendix of your contract.

Combine Pricing With Your Documented Scope of Work

When pricing a project, make sure you include all the deliverables in your scope of work so that your client knows exactly what they're getting for their money. This will avoid any misunderstandings further down the line about what they're actually paying for. 

Pricing: Fixed or Hourly?

There's no right or wrong answer when it comes to pricing, but there are some things you should take into consideration before making your decision. If you're working on a fixed price basis, make sure you factor in contingencies for unexpected changes or delays. 

If you're working on an hourly basis, make sure you're transparent about your rate so that there are no surprises when it comes time to invoice your client. 

Under-Promise but Over-Deliver

In order to establish a lasting relationship, it's often better to under-promise but over-deliver rather than the other way around. This way, even if things don't go exactly according to plan, your clients will still be happy with the results, as they would have been expecting less than what they actually received.

Good Client Communication Is the Key To Success

For project managers, it's all about being a good communicator and facilitator. If you've done your job well, a communication plan allows your team to know that regular updates and check-ins are expected of them—your project will feel open. 

The team and your client will always understand what's going on because they'll be kept informed of all ongoing developments by the continual feedback loop that you have set up in advance during the planning stage

Status Meetings

Regular check-ins with your clients and internal team are one of the most effective methods to establish and manage expectations. Sharing progress, whether you are working alone or with a team that consists of 15 people, remotely or in the office, is the greatest thing to ensure ongoing transparency.

Internal Status Meetings

Overall, a 15-20 minute catch-up via video call or in person with your team is a good way to reconnect. Make yourself available for whatever works best for conducting your status call; be flexible when it comes to choosing the most effective approach.

Make sure everyone can share what they are working on today as soon as you begin. This will also push people to review their project to-do’s before the call. Accountability is key, no matter how big or small. 

Before you go, you can ask if anyone requires assistance or if somebody has the capacity to assist with additional tasks. A simple inquiry such as this helps to build trust with your project team, while also ensuring that work gets completed efficiently.

Just as a reminder, there is no ‘one size fits all’ in project management, so the method you use to hold status meetings is determined by the task at hand, existing schedules, and even how busy things are.

Client Status Meetings and Weekly Updates

It's a good idea to constantly communicate with your clients. Keep track of all project developments by sending out weekly status updates, either per email or by sharing it directly in your project management tool. Use this checkpoint to ensure that all activities are aligned with the overall project objectives.

Not only do the status reports help the project team to stay the course, but it also keeps everyone informed about the status quo of the different work streams, the budget, and any other concerns. Taking the time to talk about these issues with your client pays off in the long run as it strengthens your existing client relationship as well as assists your staff to follow through.

The weekly status report should include: 

  • Accomplishments since the last report
  • Plan for the upcoming week 
  • Include necessary follow-up actions
  • Schedule and budget updates
  • Update on potential risks 

These status meetings ensure that everyone who is involved in the project reviews and reiterates the goals set at the project’s beginning. Finally, make these sessions enjoyable and also use them to chat with your clients and internal team about off-work topics.

Great Client Management Starts with Managing Expectations

Given my long-term experience as a project management consultant, the crux of the matter is that managing client expectations does not have to be difficult. Setting and managing client expectations can be simple if it’s done right from the start. 

In the end, it's all about how you describe specifics, whether you're able to meet deadlines, and the overall quality of project delivery.

Of course, every project is unique, and it isn’t necessarily easy. However, it is a skill that can be honed and mastered over time. If you are looking for more information on managing client expectations or project management tools, subscribe to our newsletter and stay tuned for our upcoming posts!

By Mandy Schmitz

Mandy Schmitz is a freelance consultant and project management expert with 10+ years of experience working internationally for big brands in fintech, consumer goods and more. Join her on Changeaholic.com to learn how to optimize your business operations.

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