Hold Up, I Was Supposed to do What?! – Best Practices for Managing Client Expectations
April 23, 2020 in The Consulting Experience
By Joseph Sahili
Each month of 2020, we provide insight into what life is like as a consultant by discussing what skills and experiences make this career unique and interesting. You can ask any consultant what is single-handedly the most vital aspect in being successful in their job and they will all tell you the same thing, client relationships. It may seem mystifying, but the same fundamentals that support a successful client relationship will also support any interpersonal relationship. Like so many others have, I could write an entire book on the tenets of a healthy and positive relationship, though this blog will focus on what may be the most important fundamental of them all. The ability to earn and sustain someone’s trust will always prove to be an accurate indicator of the strength and quality of a relationship held between any two people, including a consultant and their client.
Companies will typically reach out to a consulting firm because they have a specialized problem that requires a specialized practitioner to solve. These companies may also reach out to consulting firms because they do not have the resources capable of performing a service, or to develop a product. Either way you slice it, clients will always have a problem that they are now trusting and depending on someone else to solve.
There are many ways that you can break someone’s trust, though in the world of consulting it typically revolves around not meeting the expectations that your client had. So, if maintaining positive client relationships is vital to being a successful consultant, managing client expectations is the most critical skill a consultant must have in order to do so.
So, what does it mean to manage client expectations? At its most basic, it means that you’re meeting the client’s expectations for your work. To that end, meeting expectations ensures that you are delivering on not only what the client needs, but what they believe is going to come to fruition from your work. Imagine giving someone $10 to run to the grocery store with the belief that they will bring you one thing that you need, but instead they end up delivering something entirely different. It is pretty easy to understand why this would damage the trust you have in this person, as they failed to meet your expectations for how the $10 would be spent. At the same time, managing expectations isn’t just about meeting expectations- it is about actively managing what your client expects to come from your work together. To do this, you must stay aware of your client’s expectations throughout the life of your work and recognize when they may have changed from what you previously understood or agreed upon. Client relationships are, after all, human relationships and as such, they change and grow over time. While this is a normal part of the consulting process, having a clear and shared vision of the outcome of your contracted work is critical for both parties to feel satisfied with the result. Continuing the previous analogy, imagine that after giving someone $10 to get you one thing from the store, once they left on the errand, you decided that you also wanted them to pick up two other items. Unless you call them to clearly discuss the change in plans (and potentially how they should reallocate the $10), how on earth could they be successful on this shopping trip if you changed your expectations mid-way and didn’t tell them that?
Being aware of and managing a client’s expectations is an important part of reaching a successful outcome of any contracted work. Beyond just meeting the original expectations, actively managing a client’s expectations requires that you continually seek confirmation that you’re both on the same page, acknowledge and discuss why and how expectations might change along the way, and, if that’s the case, consider and potentially renegotiate the resources (e.g., time, budget) required to adjust to these changes. Fortunately, good consultants have a few methods for managing these expectations and they are all important. Any of the following approaches that I am going to share with you all have their value and it is up to the consultant to know when to deploy these various practices.
An easy practice to implement is utilizing clarifying questions and paraphrasing what you have been told, which are both a part of active listening. This framework suggests that repeating back what you have heard can produce two benefits; it supports the image of you being genuinely engaged in what the client has to say and it allows the client to correct you in case you misinterpreted their statement. This is a great way during a kick-off meeting or in regular check-ins with your client to ensure that what you have envisioned is the same image as what the client has envisioned. Lastly, it begins to open the door for collaborating with your client, which is another proven method for building and sustaining a client’s trust by working more closely with them.
Another important practice is to use roadmaps that act as an artifact that can anchor further conversations had regarding the scope of your project. Whether this roadmap, or project plan, is a part of your contract or a separate document and deliverable, it should clearly delineate every task within your contract that covers all of the various services and deliverables that you will provide. The roadmap should indicate when these deliverables will be completed based on the timing preference of the client and the available resources of the firm. Lastly, the roadmap should also indicate preferred methods for communicating between both parties to ensure a smooth process for exchanging knowledge. The main takeaway of this technique is that you are creating a mutually agreed upon plan that can be used in future conversations to remind both parties of agreed upon deliverables and delivery dates.
Managing Scope Creep
When talking about managing expectations, some of you may start thinking about scope creep. Scope creep is when the original parameters of your project are beginning to expand to the point where you are now asked to do work that was never originally discussed. Sometimes this means doing extra tasks to get to the same result (e.g., extra interviews to get to the same agreed upon report) and other times it means adding new deliverables and outcomes (e.g., adding a new briefing for a previously unidentified stakeholder). In either example, the agreed upon expectations and scope have changed, often with big impacts on the time or cost associated with this unanticipated work. So, without the corresponding funding or time being added into the contract to do this additional work, it seems pretty obvious why a consultant would want to avoid scope creep at all costs.
So how does a consultant manage scope creep in order to manage client expectations? Beyond the conventional wisdom in developing accurate and thorough contracts, the roadmap that you created in the beginning of this client engagement is going to save your you know what in these kinds of situations. Refer back to the physical plan that both parties agreed upon and use it as a way to anchor conversations had regarding additional work that was never originally agreed upon.
Does the scope creep bring you in or out of focus? If the additional work would actually support the outcomes of the final deliverable in a positive way, then discuss modifying the contract with your client if more funds or time are needed to perform the work- or whether you could trade-off planned activities and do these new tasks instead. Use the roadmap to identify where this new work could be placed to not lose any momentum in the efforts that are currently being expended. Conversely, does the additional work now bring you out of focus? Well, then that should be an easy one, just refer back to the mutually agreed upon roadmap to anchor the conversation back into the original purpose of this project. Let the client know that once the original purpose of the work has been completed, you would be more than happy to discuss further follow-up work. While navigating these client conversations can be tricky, they get easier over time and are aided by the next tip I’ll share.
Adding Unexpected Value
The last practice to consider is adding value that is NOT expected. Meeting a client’s expectations is a proven way to obtain and sustain the client’s trust, but what if you provided them with a deliverable that they absolutely love, even though they were never expecting it? Even if you find a small, unexpected way to add value (e.g., drafting up an email that the client can use and was planning to have to write themselves), actively going above and beyond their expectations can reinforce their trust of you and demonstrate your commitment.
Most importantly, you actively listened and were able to predict what their needs were before even they did! This can convey to a client that you are not the stigmatized “external” support, but rather more of an “internal” thought partner that is just as invested in the company’s success as the client is. Another idea to consider is “Show, Don’t Tell”. It can be tempting to provide clients with a ton of recommendations and to think that your job is done, but if the client can’t visualize the intent of what you’re telling or suggesting to them, it can be difficult for them to put your recommendations into action. When possible, mock-up a sample for them or show a previous example to give them insight into the finished product of what you’re recommending. By giving them a visual, you placed your client that much closer to implementing your recommendation, which will increase the likelihood that your recommendation is accepted. Though more importantly, you found yet another way to earn and sustain the trust of your client by conveying how invested you are in seeing this company thrive by adding value that was not expected.
To conclude, a client’s ability to trust a consultant is predominantly derived from the consultant’s ability to meet and manage expectations to earn and sustain their trust. Trust is correlated with doing what you say you’re going to do, so meeting a client’s expectations is a great way to begin to earn that trust. To do so, you must manage their expectations to ensure that there is an alignment between what both parties have envisioned for the work that lies ahead. This process can ebb and flow, so just because your expectations are aligned in the beginning of the project doesn’t mean they will be aligned near the middle or, most critically, the end. Be sure to build in opportunities for structured conversations with your client regularly and to draw on these techniques to guarantee a successful outcome.
What approaches do you use to build trust and manage client expectations? Share your experiences with us on LinkedIn!