How To Manage Expectations

Episode 34: How To Manage Expectations

It’s one of the most difficult functions of the digital strategist. It makes the difference between success and failure. And it defines your career. So why is it something that so many people struggle with? And how do you manage expectations while winning business and delivering profitable projects?

First, why is it so important to manage expectations? Simply put, client expectations make up the definition of success in a given venture. This is true if your audience is an individual client, or a broad online audience. Understanding what is expected of you will define how you are perceived, wether as a reliable partner or otherwise. Clients may have difficulty in articulating their expectations, or these expectations may change over time.

A second challenge is unreasonable expectations. Your client wants it all, at a high quality, in the fastest possible time, and at the lowest cost; or better yet, for free. Remember the old adage, ‘quality, speed, cost, pick two’. Often, it’s simply not possible to deliver all these things consistently. And consistency is the key word here. After all, if you work in an agency, it is expected that you will produce something extraordinary. Otherwise, why should they hire you at all; best to stick with something safe if all they want is mediocrity. Remember not to lower your own bar in order to manage your client’s expectations. After all, there’s always someone who will be able to deliver. But if you find that you can deliver against otherwise unreasonable expectations on occasion by pushing, cajoling, pleading and burning the candle at both ends, it’s important to be clear that this is exceptional and cannot be expected for an extended period of time. The cost in not doing so is to experience high turnover on your team.

Where do unreasonable expectations come from? If we start with the assumption that your client is smart, why do they ask for something unreasonable? Let’s start by understanding that they are not setting you up to fail. They made the case to their manager to hire you, they found the funds to pay you, so your failure is their failure. So why do they do it? At its root, it is typically due to unexpected business pressures. When expectations are unreasonable, it is often because your work is to tackle a symptom of the problem rather that the cause. Regardless, these pressures cause people to act unreasonably as they look for ways to tackle the immediate problem. They also cause people to mismanage expectations internally as to what is achievable, and this in turn cascades to you.

Managing expectations starts with having the client clearly articulate the definition of success, both in the immediate term and the long term. If they have difficulty in doing this, then give them guiding questions and suggestions of what success might look like. Suggesting an answer helps your client sharpen their focus in a way that just asking the question may not.

Next, understand the reasons behind these expectations. Why are they the way they are? By understanding these reasons, you will begin to see the dynamics behind the problem. This in turn makes you a more valuable and strategic partner since now you might be able to help address the underlying problem in a way that they might not be able to on their own. This will also allow you to set a series of expectations that change over time, becoming more reasonable and attainable after an initial intense phase to right the ship.

Once you have all this understood and agreed to, make sure you write it down and get the client’s explicit written agreement. Then ensure that you refer to these expectations regularly and consistently. Show how each deliverable is in line with these expectations, or how new demands conflict with what has been previously agreed upon. This document can change as circumstances or demands change, but it allows you to make demands of your own, either in the form of more time or more investment to address the revised requirements.

But it’s not just about a document. At the heart of managing expectations is the ability to clearly and consistently communicate. Bring the client into your business as you are brought into theirs so they see you and your team as people who are doing their best, and that human relationship will ultimately carry you over any rough patches. And remember that once you say you are going to do something, deliver against that, because nothing breeds success like success.

Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.

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