A few years ago, an exhibit of King Tutankhamun’s tomb came to my area. I’ve been a fan of ancient Egypt since I was a kid, and the idea of getting to see some of the most well-known artifacts had me jumping to buy a ticket.
I was HYPED the entire trip down and only got more excited as I started seeing streets lined with banners featuring the king’s burial mask. It was over — I was 8 again sitting in the library, devouring books on Egyptian civilization, gods, and goddesses.
I started on the tour and every artifact had me more excited. I worked my way through Tutankhamun’s servants, his property, his family…and then I could feel it coming. The mask I remembered from history books. The golden sarcophagus from my favorite issue of my dad’s National Geographics. Buzzing with anticipation, I turned a corner and was met abruptly with a blank hallway and a small sign thanking me for the taking tour.
“What is this?!” I spun around angrily and rushed back through a few rooms, swearing I must have missed everything. I was making a scene in a museum.
In fact, I hadn’t missed anything. What I’d expected to see simply wasn’t there. To think day I feel a bit duped because every flyer, commercial, and billboard featured the mask — I expected to see much more of the king himself.
I left disappointed and frustrated, almost completely forgetting how a Colossal Head of Akhenaten had literally frozen me in my steps and stopped my breath just minutes before. That experience was dulled (at least for a while) because my expectations were built up and not met.
Clients And Expectations
I haven’t had a lot go wrong with clients, but anything that has, came down to us having different expectations about our relationship.
It would be easy for me to tell you to just start setting expectations from the get go, but, especially if you’re a new freelancer, building the confidence, knowledge, and foresight to do this well (and responsibly) takes some time. That’s why in this post, I want to go over what you stand to benefit from practicing expectation management, and how you can get started in a habit of doing this with every client.
What You Gain By Setting Expectations
As much as setting concrete expectations is important to client happiness, it’s also a key to your success, reputation, and peace of mind as a freelancer. You actually have multiple benefits to gain by getting into the practice of expectation setting…
It helps you figure out how to do work that solves client problems and exceeds expectations.
Keeping your freelance clients…getting them to buy more from you, getting them to accept price increases, and refer you to their friends is all about solving their problems and then doing just a bit more than they expect. This can seem like something only the most elite freelancers do, but it really isn’t. If you make just a little bit of effort to draw some definite lines around their expectations, you’ll be surprised at how little work it can take to go above and beyond those lines.
It helps you avoid conflict later.
Contracts can feel cold and informal, but they serve a dual purpose — they not only protect everyone legally, but they also serve as a reference point of how everyone is expected to behave in the freelancer-client relationship. They’re only one answer to the expectation puzzle though, and any document that attempts to formally address behavior and responsibility will help chip away at the chances that someone will be surprised about something down the line.
It positions you as competent and conveys trust.
Being able to even address the question of responsibilities and expectations sends a signal that you have an understanding of the possibilities in the freelancer-client relationship and are able to manage it with confidence.
It helps you weed out clients who are eventually just going to make your life more difficult.
This is an important one.
If you want to set up some boundaries and responsibilities around your relationship, and a client balks, start getting ready to back away from the table. That’s a sign that they likely don’t know what they want, can’t articulate the problem they need you to solve, or simply don’t respect your position as a freelancer. Regardless, you’re probably better off moving on to more agreeable pastures.
How To Start Setting Client Expectations
Setting expectations is something you do with every piece of content and client communication you put out, but if you want to be as intentional as possible, there are a few ways to get started.
Preview the experience of working with you on your site.
Do you have a formal interview process? Do you do introductory video calls? Do you send out monthly reports/updates on your work?
Outlining the general nature of what it’s like working with you not only sets expectations, it can also help overcome some early conscious (or subconscious) objections potential clients might have to taking the next step in working with you. You can do this in a page or section of your website, or even in introductory messages or emails after a client signs on with you.
List client responsibilities in a contract.
This pertains more to legal obligations, but is still very important in setting expectations.
This should include everything from granting you access to social media logins and graphics to designating one, official contact person from your organization whose word is final (there’re few things worse than working with organizational clients and getting different directions from different people.)
*Here are some tips on getting started with contracts from The Freelancers Union.h contracts from The Freelancers Union.
Maintain a client responsibilities page.
This is a bit of a spinoff of the contract, but it can go into requirements that aren’t legally binding and that simply make things flow more smoothly.
It can involve outlining client responsibilities to respond to your inquiries or supply documents needed for you to do your work. Depending on the nature of your work and your client base, you may even want to require things like attendance at monthly or quarterly calls so that clients understand that communication is a two-way street.
Ask lots of questions during ramp up.
This is subtle, but it really frames your entire client-freelancer relationship.
When you ask your clients questions, you require them to think about business needs they may be hoping you as a freelancer will magically make disappear. You’ll run into many potential clients who feel they need a website/social media presence/blog/whatever-service-you-provide and want you to just take the worry off their minds. That’s part of your job, but you don’t want to base your relationship on the idea that they can just dump work off on you and it will get done exactly to the specifications they need through some sort of freelancer mind-reading powers you have.
Keep them involved from the beginning and set the standard that they will need to be involved with you as a freelancer just as they would an employee.
So what can you do today to start setting expectations? Go back through this post and see if there’s anything you can put into practice today, and once you’re ready to go, sign up for our free membership and visit the forums to discuss the suggestions covered here. If you’ve got your own advice (or questions) on expectations management, come join our LinkedIn group and discuss some of your questions or experiences in setting and managing client expectations.