Same Page, Wrong Book. How To Manage Client Expectations So They Don’t Manage You.

Same Page, Wrong Book. How To Manage Client Expectations So They Don't Manage You.

You’ve heard the phrase “herding cats”?

That’s what it’s like to manage clients sometimes.

If you’re in a service business, I bet you’ve got stories – moments in client history that make you roll your eyes, gnash your teeth or pull at the roots of your hair and wonder why you never took up stuffing envelopes for a living.

Even if you’re not in a service business but some aspect of your business relies on service (and who’s doesn’t? Think: customer service) then you also know how challenging it can be to make sure everyone is on the same page… in the same book… reading the same line… and interpreting it the same way.

We’ve been drilled with the mantra “the customer is always right” (see: why that’s not necessarily true) and the vast majority of small businesses that want to stay in business will attempt to employ some version of that. But it’s far from simple, especially in a digital age where the real marketing power has been shifted to customers who can literally lose us money and reputation with a single tweet.

The topic of communicating expectations to clients came up recently in my Word Carnival group – part writing group, part ad-hoc mastermind and part vent-it-now-then-take-a-deep-breath-and-go-back-to-work support group. It seems there’s one big, sinking communication boat and we’re all in it. You, me, even the clients we vent about.

I’ll tell you why I think it’s happening. Then I’ll share some thoughts on how to un-happen it. At least some of the time.

Me Now, Me Later, Me All The Time

One of the down sides to social media is the ME part. Businesses lean toward wanting it to be a broadcast medium. They want to shoot out ads disguised as conversations and wait for “communities” to form. In brand-speak, a community is often just someone’s idea of a good demographic. People who can be persuaded, sold and perhaps even converted to mini-ads who then go on to persuade and sell others.

From the consumer side, social media is the giant, amplified podium they’ve always wanted. A way to vent their frustrations, communicate their needs and get instant gratification.

Do I have to explain the problem there?

I’ve been on both sides of the equation – the company, working to balance generosity with making money, and the consumer, screaming my aggravated head off about some failure in product or service.

Maybe you have been, too.

Email started it. Social media is exacerbating it. Rather than bringing us together, it’s creating a schism between rational expectations and the immediacy of digital communications.

We Don’t Need No Education. Bring On The Reeducation.

Another problem is that the web has put so much information – and consequently, so much misinformation – at our fingertips that we as businesses are no longer in the business of educating clients about what we do, but rather reeducating them after they’ve been bamboozled and befuddled by the massive quantities of junk they’ve already ingested.

Our clients no longer come to us bright and starry-eyed, impressed by how wonderfully smart and professional we are. They come to us sometimes thinking that anyone with a 21-day DIY book can do what we do, sometimes wary that we’re going to try to pull the wool over their eyes and occasionally thinking they know just as much as we do because they read about it on the internet.

They may even be jaded by previous experiences with one of the cheaper versions of us that they’ve already tried (thank you again, internet). Possibly they’ve read some conflicting reviews of our company and worry about being on the wrong side of one.

Before we can get around to teaching clients the ways of our worlds, we have to un-teach them everything else.

No Time, Less Money

It’s a paradox of convenience: the easier things become for us, the harder it is to get anything done.

We’re blessed with some amazing technology, from productivity tools to automation. Our communications happen in an instant. Our internet connections work in the blink (or two) of an eye. We’ve got fast food, speedy service and real-time responses.

So when was the last time you felt like you had a whole lot more time to spare? You know, now that you’re so productive and can automate so much?

We’re perpetually time-crunched. So are our clients. That makes for short tempers and the hope – if not the expectation – that when they hire us, we’ll just get it done. Any “ands, ifs or buts” that come up translate to more minutes out of their day

And in the current economy, that “get it done” mentality is often followed by “and cheap”. It doesn’t help that (see above) we’re often competing with cheaper, albeit less worthy, versions of ourselves. It’s a vicious cycle, really.

Knowledge Is Power. Empathy Is Its Strength.

So now that you know why we seem to be facing so many more crazy-ass customers than we probably ever have before, the question remains: now what?

Knowledge is half the battle. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know its roots, so if you can pin your communication gaps down to a common thread like one I’ve mentioned above, or even to something more specific to your clients, then you can begin to address it.

Your customers need to know that you understand where they’re coming from. It could be a place of impatience, or a place of financial struggle. It could be that they’re stuck in an “always on” mindset. Or maybe they’ve been hosed by the cheaper-you and are slow to trust again.

If it sounds like I’m asking you to play therapist… well, I am. You know the stereotype of the bartender who hangs out listening to his customers’ woes all night long? Well that’s pretty much every business owner now. We’re living in an increasingly personal world. Everything is everybody’s business, in part thanks to platforms that let us share our deepest thoughts in often incautious ways.

Empathy is one of the most powerful skills we can learn. I can’t begin to tell you how many obnoxious situations I’ve negotiated with a little bit of “I understand what you’re saying.”

It’s hard. It’s really hard when sometimes you just want to throttle someone for being thick-headed and unreasonably demanding. It requires that you shut your ego down and not just put yourself in your client’s shoes but become your client.

Put on your acting cap and get into the role. If you can swing that, even some of the time, you’ll find yourself in fewer adversarial situations.

Be Succinct

True: grown adults have the attention span of a two year old child. Maybe worse.

True: nobody reads any of those 987 emails they get each day.

True: you are not the center of your client’s world. You are not even on its periphery. In fact you may as well not even exist, until the day you annoy someone.

Put all of those things together and you come up with one solution to many communication problems. Be succinct.

I used to write long, detailed, thorough emails to make sure my clients would know exactly what was happening and exactly what I meant and have a 100% complete picture of life, the universe and everything (name that book and I’ll buy you a cupcake).

Clients would call me up and ask questions or refer to things I had very clearly (and thoroughly) explained in an email and I would shake my head in puzzlement, thinking, “Did you not just read that?” Until one day I answered my own question. No. No, they hadn’t.

Here’s a simple trick you can use: make sure that any email you write is about a single topic. A single idea. A single question. I kid you not, if you send an email that says “How many blue widgets do you want? And when do you want them by?” you will probably never get an answer to both in the same shot.

Learn From A Kindergarten Teacher

I don’t mean this to be insulting but sometimes you have to treat clients like five year olds.

(Sometimes this works for husbands, too…)

Assume that they’re not paying attention, and even if they are, they’re going to be thinking about dinosaurs any second, plus they probably have to pee and want to know when you’ll be done talking.

Also, five year olds can’t read (mostly) so forget email.

Email is the bane of business communication anyway. Here’s my advice: use it sparingly and when you do, know that it’s strictly CYA. It’s of no benefit to your client, nor will it help you manage expectations or anything else.

If you want to communicate with your clients, call them. Here’s how it works:

Call your client and tell them whatever you need them to know.

Ask them to repeat back to you what they understand about what you just said. I’m not kidding. This is kindergarten 101.

Make sure that their translation matches your delivery. If not, repeat the exercise.

As for email? Use it to follow up and reiterate the key points you just discussed. CYA, baby.

Do this any time you send a client a proposal, before you ask them to sign a contract, when you’re dealing with a service issue, when you have a complaint or demand.

Play Good Cop Bad Cop

I’m giving you this page right out of my own playbook. It’s a trade secret so don’t tell my clients, but Ralph and I will play either role when the need arises. We’re fortunate enough to be business partners, so if you work solo, this will be tough. But if you can find a foil, it may just be your best friend.

One of us deals with the client’s issues from a conciliatory, empathetic perspective and the other stands there and says, “F#@$ you, pay me.”

Ok, so it’s a little more nuanced than that but it gives us two benefits:

  1. We can try different approaches to see which one resonates with the client. Some of them like warm fuzzies. Some need tough love.
  2. We both get to stay sane.

A Little Dose Of Reality

Here’s a fact: you’re not always going to resolve every miscommunication or repair every damaged expectation.

Also, some clients are just nuts.

Detach yourself personally from it and be strictly professional. If your business is your baby (like it is ours) then it can be hard to let go. You want everyone to be happy. You want thrilled clients. You want rainbows and unicorns and cupcakes.

But sometimes you have to be clinical. Is this client good for my bottom line? Is the effort worth the return? Is there a reasonable path to resolution or will this person be perpetually unsatisfied?

You have to be realistic about your own expectations. If the project or the business relationship isn’t working out, it’s not your job to fix it. It’s your job to decide how to move forward.

You also have to be realistic about your own efforts. We like to put things in writing here. Even though we know clients don’t read them, we send out detailed contracts with everything anyone could possibly ever need to know. They’re in plain English, too, so nobody can accuse us of lawyering up.

At the end of the day, how much do you think that matters when we’re embroiled in a debate over “what’s included” in a project?

If you said “not at all” you’d be right.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put it in writing, but you have to realize that it’s primarily another one of those CYA gestures. It can also come in handy for Bad Cop, so don’t ignore this step, just be realistic about it.

Be realistic about how much information someone is going to retain. Sure, you may tell them “this is how I work”, but tomorrow is Thursday and aren’t the Bengals 6-2 this season, and wow, the cat is shedding like mad.

You’re just not going to win that one.

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you… (name that poem without looking it up, I’ll buy you two cupcakes)… then you’re already ahead of the expectation game.

Being in a service business isn’t simple. We all have days where we think our jobs would be just perfect if we didn’t have any clients. But simple was never part of the promise.

So flex your empathy muscle, learn to distill a problem down to a viable solution, make yourself as clear as you succinctly can and learn to recognize when it’s time to cut your losses.

And know, after everything I’ve just written here, that I still have days when the only real option is to roll my eyes, gnash my teeth and pull my hair out. I don’t know the answer to all the client conundrums. I learn something and try something and keep going. And that’s the best any of us can do.

How do you (realistically) manage your client’s expectations? Let me know in the comments. And if you need some help with the “put it in writing part”, get in touch and I can help. I’ve had lots (and lots) of experience being clear and succinct!

This post is part of the monthly Word Carnival series of posts. This month, our carnies take on the challenge of managing client expectations and communicating effectively. Read the rest of the Word Carnival posts here for more great advice from some of the smartest business owners and entrepreneurs you’ll meet.

Carol Lynn Rivera

Carol Lynn Rivera

I'm a business owner, content creator, podcaster and marketer. In 1999 I founded Rahvalor Interactive, a web and creative services production studio, with my husband and business partner Ralph. In 2011 we created Web.Search.Social, a consulting and marketing service line for small businesses. We also cohost the Web.Search.Social Podcast where we challenge the status quo of marketing and the Carbon Based Business Units podcast where we talk about the human side of being an entrepreneur. On any given day I wear the hat of project manager, consultant, social media manager and content marketer. My true passion is writing and in my spare time I'm busy planning my early retirement to Barcelona as a famous and wealthy novelist.
Carol Lynn Rivera
Carol Lynn Rivera
  • SandyMcD

    Ah Carol Lynn, we are so talking the same language. We’d make good clients of each others I think!

    Insightful observation that in today’s marketplace, businesses expect an ad, disguised as a social media conversation to form community. Those that do are either not an ideal client or they are ripe for the teaching!

    Your take away message though was to be succinct in communication.

    It’s an art, the two sentence email that doesn’t sound abrupt, uninterested or unfriendly while containing exactly the one thing a client needs to know and compelling them to act. There’s got to be a product in teaching that!

    • Carol Lynn Rivera

      You’re right about the short emails, Sandy… it’s an art to make them sound friendly and not abrupt. Not so easy to do, which is why I think people resort to emoticons and lots of exclamation points. Sometimes I’m surprised at how much teaching really needs to be done! Things we take for granted (polite emails, being succinct) are a foreign language to lots of people.

  • Jeff Sieh

    Great article Carol Lynn. Excellent points and it’s refreshing to hear that others have the same issues with clients.

    Your points about customer service and communicating with clients is right on point. Many of my clients have come to me because they have been fed up with other web designers and social media “professionals” who never return calls or emails. It really blows my mind how some companies can stay in business.

    Your tip on following up a phone call with an email on what was discussed is excellent. Doing that has saved my bacon more times than I could count.

    • Carol Lynn Rivera

      Thanks, Jeff! I haven’t met too many people who don’t go through this. The funny part is I could go through the same thing with a client… who will then complain about their clients going the same thing to them 🙂

      I always always always follow up on things in writing… and then of course sometimes I forget and I always always always live to regret it.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  • This is the best thing you said: “Ask them to repeat back to you what they understand about what you just said.”

    That’s the ONE thing I forgot to do with clients when I had my marketing agency. And MAN, would it have helped!

    Great article (again) Carol Lynn. You and your vast stores of wisdom are worth billions.

    • Carol Lynn Rivera

      Yup, it’s a thing that will kill you every time. It feels stupid for a while because you really are treating them like 5 year olds but hey, less headaches later! I’ll check my mailbox tomorrow for that check 😉

  • I would like to state my objection to treating a husband like a 5 year old. I won’t tolerate it. I won’t. I WON’T!

    I WON’T!

    I WON’T!

    I WON’T!

    • Carol Lynn Rivera

      Sit down and eat your peas.

  • Hi Carol,

    I love that poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling! I’ll pass on the cookies lol.

    Seriously, I can resonate with this post. I’ve worked with people for 30 years providing service in my own business. I had to learn from the school of hard knocks.

    When someone hires me, I’m a bit of a hard ass. Yea, I’m the kinda gal that goes with the flow and is pretty mellow by nature, BUT…I realized a long time ago that Empathy (putting yourself in their shoes) is a great way to communicate.

    However, you are spot on when you say to talk to them like they are in kindergarten. It is not a bad thing, but an effective communication tool. People are mostly all caught up in their own heads. Society has taught them they want it NOW….like a 5 year old right?
    Boundaries have to be set. We first have to know ourselves and what we can tolerate or not. I cannot tell you how many people I said “Sorry I cannot work with you, we are not a good match.”

    We, as the service provider must have strict rules and never bend them. I know what you mean when you talked about those emails and then have people coming to ask you the same question you have already explained!

    Great post!

    -Donna

    • Carol Lynn Rivera

      Thank you Donna! I love that poem too. When I was in high school we had to memorize the whole darn thing and a good chunk of it is still stuck in my head. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that we have to set boundaries. That’s one of the toughest things for me to do because I’m always trying to make everyone happy (doesn’t happen!)

      After 30 years you have earned the right to do business YOU way, Donna! If you don’t take any nonsense you won’t get any. Good for you!

  • OMG, there’s so much wisdom in here it’s hard to know where to begin. Love the part about empathy, though you have to really feel it – fake empathy won’t work. And you’re right about the question. I’ve lost track of the number of multi-question emails I’ve sent where I get the answer to only one thing. I communicate with most of my clients by email, as it’s less time consuming than the phone for me (the more I yak, the less I write) but keeping things succinct as you suggest is a great tip.

    • Carol Lynn Rivera

      I think “fake empathy” is sort of an oxymoron! No doubt that if you pretend to understand… that just means you don’t, and that won’t help your communication at all. I like to put things in writing which is why I use email (also yes, less yakking, more working!) but there’s no way I send more than ONE thing and even one paragraph! The fewer words the better.

      • Oh it’s definitely an oxymoron (I can hear my high school English teacher now!) 🙂 And putting things in writing is the way to go, because it gives you a reference point.

  • Goodness gracious, I can certainly attest to the fact that husbands do occasionally need to be treated as if they are five year olds. And you and I certainly seem to share an affinity for long-form prose, I think my record was an e-mail that is printed would have resulted in a 20 page litany of tasks, explanations, answers to previous questions, and a glossary of terms. To create a customized wiki encyclopedia would likely have been less work than it was to pen that e-mail.

    Worse still, the witty rapport you think you’re conveying via e-mail is rarely if ever received in the manner you’d intended. Of late, I’ve resigned myself simply to calling and then following up the e-mail with a CYA style outline. Even so, I hate the phone. Not only does the phone open up wiggle room for misunderstandings, snuck in deliverables, or sneaky advances in the timetable, it is nearly impossible to document the entire scope of the conversation in one fell swoop without also recording it, and then transcribing it word for word, which takes up an inordinate amount of time.

    The”just get it done”mentality is something that is utterly amazing to me. More often than not when I encounter this with the client, it’s because I haven’t properly explained the type of work but it will take in order to get the task accomplished. I am continually confounded by any client who thinks that by hiring a contractor to accomplish something, they will have to do no work in order to get it done.

    Well that’s probably true in some circles, or with very specific and limited tasks, the ability for a contractor to come into a new environment, new company, and a new culture, and read minds at will is extremely limited and not nearly as sophisticated as the clients would hope or dream. One of the most important things that contractor can learn is that the clients seeming hands off approach to solving their problems is often little more than a complete lack of understanding about the type of work that they have just asked you to perform.

    What’s important then, is that each contractor be able to earnestly and honestly explain the type and scope of work that they are doing, in terms that the client will understand.

    Of all the things you’ve said that stuck with me from this, the most important is the “repeat that back to me, would you?” trick. I’m going to use that for sure! Great post!

    • Carol Lynn Rivera

      Nick, speaking of long form prose, you could turn your comment into a blog post! Yeah, I like words too but most people don’t. Were in a dying demographic, you and me, and the internet is killing us off quickly. Single topics, single words, heck even abbreviated words.

      Also nobody wants witty rapport. Not in emails. Not on the phone. Unless they’re being witty and you’re telling them how witty they are. Then that’s cool.

      I agree that phone calls leave room for “forgetting” or misinterpreting which is why I always follow up in writing with “here’s that thing we just said and if you don’t see it the same way tell me now”.

      I’m big of repetition. Say it. Say it again. Say what you said. Make them say what you said. Say what you think they said about what you said…. sometimes it’s not so much about running a business but about the games we play to be sure it keeps running!

  • I haven’t dealt with any “clients” (probably because I haven’t old anything on the internet). But, I have had experiences.

    People complain, don’t they? (I do too. And, I hate it when I do that. But, for some reason, it provides satisfaction. I am working on it, though. Controlling my anger, my frustrations and focusing that energy to analyze the situation).

    I have read about the idea that Customer is always right. Like you mentioned, they are not always right. I was going to say it outright (you are wrong!). But, now I realize that might not be the best solution ever.

    Sure, I could not care what that guy thinks. But, it will cost me more clients. Negative reviews do tend to spread faster (people love negativity, don’t they?).

    I do love your idea about treating clients as 5 year olds – makes sense.

    Thanks for the tips, Carol 🙂 This would be helpful when I launch my writing services 😀

    • Carol Lynn Rivera

      Thanks Jeevan! You’re right, negativity tends to spread a whole lot faster and we do seem to love it. I guess it’s just the idea of something being sensational. Ultimately we have to be diplomatic with clients – say what we mean but be mindful of how they perceive what we say.

      I think we’re all 5 years old at heart. So the more simple we can make things, the better for everyone. Speak simply, engage simply, email simply!

  • Oh I love this one -> “True: you are not the center of your client’s world. You are not even on
    its periphery. In fact you may as well not even exist, until the day
    you annoy someone.”

    I’d only recently been introduced to the one topic / message per email. I’m finding it very useful in ways I hadn’t expected. Such as realizing I’m trying to throw too much at someone at once. Another is forced prioritization. If I can only send one email, and it can only have one purpose, what should it be?

    Another trick is the title. Preferably it communicates what they need to do / why they are getting it. Examples would be, “Feedback needed to move project forward.” or “Here is your completed XYZ.” Unless I’m asking the client to do something, sending a deliverable, or the unavoidable CYA / Contract, then perhaps I shouldn’t send the email after all.

    Now there are occasional clients who prefer their emails to be more like SMS texts or live conversations. I can roll with that.

    Bonus points for the Pink Floyd reference (which is now stuck in my head).

    • Carol Lynn Rivera

      Not in the center…. nope. WE are the center of our world and our business is soooo important… so of course we assume it’s the same for everyone else. Nope. Nobody cares.

      As for one topic… LIFE SAVER. You made a great point about the subject. I love getting emails that say “today” or “project”. And by love I mean hate with a passion. Oh, the best is when people have a subject that says “!!!!!” My personal favorite.

  • Ooooo such gold in these words Carol! The one I attached to was the, one topic/question per email. I’ve certainly found myself doing this with boyfriends, and men in general. I know they tap out at 2 questions, so to pose a third is to speak into a black hold. You’ll never get an answer. It’s a good approach to clients as well, because after all, they’re busy humans too!

    • Carol Lynn Rivera

      It took me too long to learn that one, Ashley. I am known for many words… succinct is rarely one of them 🙂 But it’s saved a lot of aggravation!

  • Hadass Eviatar

    The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, If, and I love you even without cupcakes.

    • Carol Lynn Rivera

      Nice 🙂 And thank you. Also I would totally send you cupcakes!

      • Hadass Eviatar

        <3

  • Ruth Zive

    Such a timely post Carol Lynn. It’s a tough balancing act – ensuring that the customer is happy and not letting them take advantage. Clear contracts and a reliable email trail can be helpful in managing expectations. At the end of the die, my inclination is always to err on the side of client happiness.

    • Carol Lynn Rivera

      Hi Ruth,

      Most people I know err on that side, too… which is part of why we tend to rip our hair out, because we do try to please! At my company we use Basecamp to manage projects, which has really helped us keep an audit trail of communications. Since our clients can respond to us via regular email and it gets recorded online, there’s always something to go back to and say “look at what we said here…”

  • Back in the Dark Days (aka “law school”) (it just occurred to me this is the SECOND time in one Carnival I’ve written that phrase, LOL) we had to take a first-year course called Legal Writing. We all thought we wrote extremely well, of course, and yet the first assignment we handed in, there was one “A” and all the others failed. (I won’t tell you who made the A.)(OK, twist my arm, sheesh – it was me.) The *second* assignment, we ALL failed. When I read all the lovely red-ink notes on my returned paper, I … well. I got mad. I rewrote the entire thing as if I were writing it for a five year old. I mean, I REALLY overdid it. “This is a fact. Here is the source for that fact. Here is the law. Here is some more law. Because of fact plus law plus law, here is the conclusion.” Really. That simplistic. And I was all “HA, I’ll show THEM.” I get the paper back. A+. :::headdesk::: And then we knew the secret. So I wholeheartedly support the notion of “KISS.” (Keep It SHORT, Stupid.) (Um -not that you are stupid.)

    • Carol Lynn Rivera

      LOL, Love that story! It transcends industries, really, because at the heart of all our businesses we all deal with five year olds! Yeah, I don’t follow that rule on blog posts, but I blame Google 😉