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.