In a perfect world, developers or designers would only work with clients that are a perfect fit, ones that speak their language, respond on time to every communication, and understand the scope of every project.
But sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world, and sometimes you end up with clients that are dissatisfied for one reason or another.
Most of the time, this satisfaction can be attributed to either undefined or mismatched expectations. The client wanted one thing, you delivered something different, and everyone winds up unhappy.
The good news, however, is that you can minimize the risk of dissatisfaction by managing client expectations before, during and after each and every project. Here’s what you need to know.
As Earl Nightingale says, “People with goals succeed because they know where they’re going.”
For client relationships to really succeed, there must be goals other than “project completion.” Your goals should align with the client’s goals, because ultimately it’s not about you, it’s about them.
The first step to getting on the same page is to define the result you’re working towards. A client doesn’t just want a website, they want a website that brings in more traffic so they can sell more products.
Their end goal is sales, not a fancy website. If you understand that, you can build a website that brings in sales, not one that just looks good on your portfolio.
During your very first meeting, you want to make sure you ask questions (and listen to the answers) to determine what the end goal of the project should be. Then, throughout the planning process, ask yourself, “Will this help them reach that goal or is it a distraction?”
Create a Written Plan
To ensure that you meet your goals, you will need a written plan of action. Even if your client really doesn’t care how you do it, it’s a good idea to detail your processes and assign timelines. This will help both you and your clients track progress and spot any errors or missteps along the way.
It will also help you keep to your original scope of work. If clients start asking you for additional things along the way, you have something to point towards to determine if a request is in scope.
Your written plan should include:
- Project details and the desired results
- Projected timelines for completion
- When and how you will communicate
- What clients can expect during the project development
- What clients can expect after the project is completed
- How feedback or clarification can be given
- Any additional processes involved, like billing or invoicing
The more clarity you can provide up front, the better. Just be sure not to overpromise results and stick to timelines and tasks that you know you can achieve.
Be Upfront About Setbacks
You should also have a plan in place for how you will handle unexpected delays, changes to scope or anything that would otherwise disrupt the process.
If something does go wrong – your computer crashes, you lose valuable project files, you miss a deadline, etc. – you should be as upfront as possible with clients.
There are usually roadblocks or setbacks in most projects, and while they can range from frustrating to complete disaster, it’s important that you budget time and energy for handling crises should they arise.
Be transparent about what you can and can’t accomplish should a setback occur, and about what limitations you’re experiencing throughout the process. If you need more feedback from them to continue the project, for example, make it clear to them what’s expected and give a deadline.
If the holdup is on the client’s end, be firm with your own expectations. If they are late paying a bill, tell them that the project is stalled until payment is received. If they’re frequently unavailable, set deadlines and automated email reminders. If they’re not communicating their thoughts, let them know that you don’t understand.
Emphasize that you are willing to be flexible and accommodating (within reason) but that it takes two to tango. Make sure they understand what is needed from you, and don’t be afraid to ask questions and clarify expectations or set new ones.
Along those same lines, when dealing with difficult clients or those that frequently expect more from you, it’s better to over-communicate whenever possible.
As much as possible, you want to ensure that everyone involved in the project has all of the information they need, when they need it. This means not only informing your direct point of contact, but also including other project managers or team members in your communications.
If you’re suffering from email overload, consider using a simplified communication solution like Slack, so that things don’t get buried or lost in the process. Using automated project management tools like Trello can also help you keep things organized so clients can see progress without having to ask.
The more you can do to preemptively ward off concerns or frustrations, the happier you and your client will be.
Create a Hand-off Plan
Once you’ve survived the project itself, you want to make sure that client expectations are met after everything is wrapped up, especially if you want to keep them around for more projects in the future.
A “hand-off” meeting can help you evaluate what was successful, what needed improvement, and what clients can expect from you in terms of project maintenance or wrap-up.
You may want to include another written plan that details things like:
- Who will make changes to the project if needed
- What additional work will look like once the project is completed
- How the project will be tested (to be sure that it’s meeting goals)
- What clients can expect from you in terms of follow-up, billing or other post-project tasks
- Where clients can go if they need help
Your hand-off plan should also include timelines wherever possible (“I will make changes to this website up to one month after project completion”). The goal of a hand-off plan is to pass off the baton back to the client with the understanding that you have fulfilled your end of the bargain.
It should be clear that any complaints or unmet expectations after the project has finished are no longer your concern.
While dealing with clients can be difficult, there are many things you can do to ease the burden. By developing a (written) plan at the beginning and end of your project that outlines expectations, goals and other strategies, you can minimize finger pointing and stay on track should things go awry.
It’s also important that you take the time to communicate with clients and really listen to what they’re saying. Don’t assume that you understood what they mean, and don’t be afraid to ask questions and clarify expectations as you go along.
If you’re bogged down by communication, using automated tools to track progress and speak with clients can help, and if you run into errors, speak up. Take responsibility for your actions, but let clients know that you expect them to do the same in return.