Manage Client Expectations Walking

How to manage client expectations and set clear boundaries

9 min read
Jennifer Bourn

Have you found yourself in any of these situations?:

  • You have to excuse yourself from a family gathering to send a client a quick email. You miss your child’s soccer game because your client needs something.
  • You’re leisurely browsing through Facebook in the evening and a client reaches out through Messenger with a question and wants an answer now.
  • Your client just appeared after going MIA and you’re forced to drop everything and finish their project.
  • When you wake up in the morning, you have three emails from your client — all received after 7 p.m. the night before — and they’re mad that you haven’t responded.
  • The client didn’t meet their deadlines, but they still expect you to meet yours.
  • You’re trying to deal with an upset client because they changed the scope, you provided a change order, and they thought the work should be done for free.

If you’re nodding your head yes, you might think you have bad clients.

After all, it’s easy to blame these uncomfortable situations on bad clients because they don’t know what they’re doing and you do. It’s also easy to stomp our feet, get mad, and vent behind the scenes, then simply fall in line and do whatever the client wants, whenever the client wants.

But easy isn’t always right.

As a freelancer or service provider, you want your client to like you, so you tend to jump when they say jump. You also want to get a great testimonial and future referrals, so you might cave to crazy client requests instead of standing your ground. You probably find yourself doing things you wouldn’t normally do because it’s easier to say yes than to have a tough conversation.

But when this goes on for too long, you begin to feel resentful of your clients and taken advantage of. Then when we've hit our limit, we get mad, blame the client, and things slide downhill really fast.

You might think that bending over backward for your clients and going the extra mile to accommodate every ridiculous request is providing extraordinary service, but it’s not. These actions actually do more harm than good.

By not setting clear expectations and establishing boundaries up front, you’re teaching clients to keep asking and keep pushing because you keep saying yes.

Two critical aspects of client onboarding

Manage Client Expectations Onboarding

When you welcome a new client into your business and kick off a new project, an onboarding campaign should be triggered to educate your client, equip them with the information they need, and empower them to be a great client. There are several moving parts to a successful new client onboarding system, including internal and external tasks, communications, and activities — and I cover all of them in my client management course, Profitable Project Plan.

But don’t worry, if you don’t have a comprehensive client onboarding system in place yet, that’s OK. Primarily, there are two critical aspects of client onboarding that you can’t ignore:

  1. Setting clear expectations.
  2. Establishing realistic boundaries.

Let’s explore both of these in depth.

How to set and manage client expectations

You want your clients to love you, you want to make them happy, and you want them to tell all their friends about you when the project is done. Communicating exactly what you expect of the client and how specific situations will be addressed can sometimes feel like we’re putting that at risk. But in reality, that couldn't be farther from the truth.

Setting clear expectations and being upfront about what your client will need to do will make them feel more comfortable. Taking the time to set expectations also reinforces the fact that they are working with a professional, not their buddy, and shows them that you take their project and the relationship seriously.

Here are nine things you need to communicate when setting expectations with clients:

1. Response times

Share how long it takes to receive a response to an email or phone call. Do you respond to client messages same day or within 24 hours? Or do some clients receive shorter priority response times based on their retainer amount? Also share what response times you expect of the client.

2. Scope of work

Let the client know what happens if the scope of work changes. Explain what constitutes a scope change or new request and how the process of managing changes and new requests works. Make sure the client understands that changes and additions to the scope may affect the timeline and budget.

3. Milestones and deadlines

Make sure the client understands that the milestones and deadlines you both agreed to are serious. Communicate what is expected of you and what is expected of the client to meet each project milestone, as well as what happens if the work doesn’t get done or if one of you misses a deadline.

4. Respect for time

Talk with the client about the value of your time and of their time. Let them know that you’ll show up on time and ready to work for every meeting and that you expect them to do the same.

5. Consulting

Reassure your client that you’ll be providing consulting along the way to ensure the project’s success and that while not every client does everything you say, you do expect them to listen with an open mind and engage in positive conversation.

6. Behavior

Remind your client that you like working with nice people. Let them know that you’re happy to help them in any way you can, but you will not tolerate mean, rude, hurtful, or offensive behavior.

7. Communication types

Be crystal clear about how the communication with your clients will be happening. Will you be communicating primarily by email or phone? Will you send the links to a video chat? Will you be meeting in person?

8. Work required

Be honest with your clients about how much work they will have to do to complete the project, what support you provide (if any), and how the work needs to be provided to you.

9. Participation required

Let your client know that this is an interactive process and you’re going to need them to participate fully and engage with you or your team as needed, providing background, input, feedback and revisions.

Remember, when setting expectations with new clients, you’re not just telling the clients what you expect of them. You’re also telling them what they can expect of you — which can be pretty powerful in terms of reassuring a new client that you are not just a good choice, but the best choice for the job.

Setting expectations for both you and your client and establishing realistic boundaries go hand-in-hand. They’re both all about helping your client to be a great client and feel more comfortable with the investment and the process.

Establishing realistic boundaries

Setting and managing client expectations and establishing boundaries go hand-in-hand because they’re both all about helping your client to be a great client and feel more comfortable with the investment and the process. When you set boundaries as part of your client onboarding, your time, your sanity, and your schedule are protected because the client has guidelines in place to reign in their actions.

Here are five things you need to communicate when establishing boundaries with clients:

1. Availability

Share when you’re available. For example, at my agency, Bourn Creative, we’re available Monday to Friday between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Pacific Time.

2. Response time

Let the client know what happens if they email you or call you outside of normal business hours and when they can expect a response.

3. Social media

Everyone uses social media, but just because you’re on Facebook at 8 p.m., that doesn’t mean your client can ping you through Messenger to ask questions about their project.

4. Communication types

Be sure your client understands what types of communication tools are off limits or not accepted. For example, I don’t allow any communication about a client project to happen through Facebook Messenger or Twitter Direct Messages.

5. Location

If you work from home, you might need to communicate that you do not take meetings at your home. Once, a local client of mine just dropped by to talk about their project and because I wasn’t expecting them, I answered the door in my pajamas without a shower. It was awkward and embarrassing for us both.

Spelling out each of these aspects for your client lays the foundation for a constructive and happy relationship between you two, and increases the chances you’ll receive a glowing testimonial at the end of the project.

A firm, fair, and friendly approach helps you manage client expectations and set clear boundaries

Manage Client Expectations Boundaries

When working with clients, your job isn’t to be their friend. Your job is to be the expert and leader they hired you to be. That means having the tough or uncomfortable conversations when they are needed. It means setting clear expectations and boundaries and enforcing them.

Taking the time to educate your client on what you expect of them, what they can expect of you, and when and how you’re available not only sets your relationship up for success, but ensures that you don’t get run ragged by an out-of-control client who keeps asking you to jump through higher and higher hoops.

At Bourn Creative, we use the phrase "firm, fair, and friendly" to describe our approach to client services:

  • We are firm about scope of work, budgets, deadlines, boundaries, etc. — the serious parts of doing business together.
  • We are always fair, never behaving or acting without integrity, empathy, and honesty.
  • We are friendly because it's just more enjoyable to work with people who are enjoyable.

As part of your new client onboarding process, your communications to set expectations and establish boundaries should embody the "firm, fair, and friendly" approach — which reinforces your professionalism, strengthens trust, and creates a successful client relationship.