How To Set Expectations Road

How to set expectations with your clients

6 min read
Lisa Stambaugh

Learning how to set expectations is key to building relationships, maintaining your reputation, and ensuring satisfaction for both the client and the web pro. As India Knight writes in The Thrift Book:

“Be realistic with your expectations. I'd really like to cuddle a unicorn, but it ain’t going to happen.”

When it comes to defining and managing realistic expectations, I recommend the journalistic Five Ws approach.

How to set expectations using the 5 Ws approach

The methodology of the Five Ws (also referred to as Five Ws and How, 5W1H, or Six Ws) is well-known to journalists, researchers and investigators. Reports are only considered complete if they answer these six interrogative questions:

  • Who was involved?
  • What happened?
  • When did it take place?
  • Where did it take place?
  • Why did it happen?
  • How did it happen?

By using similar questions to frame our expectations as a web pro, we clarify the value of expectations, and the role each party plays in meeting them. Here are the questions I ask each time I take on a new project:

  1. Who is responsible for what?

  2. What are the expectations and corresponding consequences of non-compliance?

  3. When are expectations communicated?

  4. Where are expectations communicated?

  5. Why are these expectations important?

  6. How are expectations enforced?

Let’s delve deeper into the discussion that happens around each one of these inquiries.

1. Who is responsible for what?

Expectations are a two-way street. The web pro and client each have responsibilities, making it key to articulate what each promises to deliver. For example, in proposals, I’m explicit about what is included in my fees, and which items are separately paid to a service provider (such as domain registration or stock photos). In contracts, I explicitly state expectations regarding what clients will provide so I can meet my commitments to them.

2. What are the expectations and corresponding consequences of non-compliance?

Expectations can range from the obvious (schedule and payment) to the not-so-obvious. Most web pros set expectations and boundaries regarding how and when clients can contact them, creation or acquisition of content (including delivery format), and appropriate communication behavior.

Consequences are up to you.

In some cases, a financial penalty or schedule delay is warranted. In extreme situations with difficult clients, terminating the agreement might be the consequence for repeated violations — assuming expectations were documented, and appropriate warnings were given. It might seem petty, but I have dropped clients who repeatedly texted me after multiple reminders that I only accept change requests via email. Their repeated failure to honor agreed-upon expectations resulted in miscommunication, inefficiency and frustration — none of which were tolerable for long.

How To Set Expectations Meeting

3. When are expectations communicated?

Some expectations should be set in the initial conversation. Suppose a prospective client discussion starts with, “I need this site in two weeks” and I can’t deliver to that deadline. After discussion, the result might be either a revised client expectation of delivery date, or termination of the discussion.

Taking a staged approach to communicating expectations will keep them fresh in everyone’s mind for the duration of the project and reduce the risk of misunderstandings happening.

I use a staged approach:

  1. Initial conversations and proposals focus on expectations of project scope, deliverables, schedule, and cost.
  2. Contracts center on expectations around how stated proposal objectives will be achieved and compensated, and the consequences when those expectations are not met.
  3. At project kick-off, we discuss expectations around next steps, behavior, and communication.
  4. In addition, expectations are reviewed at appropriate opportunities.

When exploring how to set expectations with clients, this approach saves a lot of headache.

4. Where are expectations communicated?

Many items can and should be covered in both the proposal and contract, which are formal documents requiring explicit acknowledgement by the client. In addition, consider covering key expectations on your website, in the FAQ or on pages covering your process and approach.

I always start a new project with a kick-off meeting to review the strategy and how we are going to proceed. That’s a great time to again review expectations covered in those documents, and bring up others.

Some expectations may need to be reiterated later on.

My proposal and contract clearly state that I expect clients to commit to a Care Plan within one month of a new site launch, or they can choose not to go with it, and I will hand over the keys to the site. But if the project takes several months, they might not even remember discussing or reading about Care Plans, and a reminder is appropriate.

Payment expectations can be documented on each invoice: timeline requirements, payment options, and late payment penalties.

5. Why are these expectations important?

For each expectation, you should first be clear with yourself as to its importance:

  • “I expect to get paid on the agreed-upon schedule because I need to be compensated for my work and expertise, and I need to pay my bills.”
  • “I expect clients to work to our agreed-upon completion date because I have other projects lined up to start after that.”

However, expectations about client behavior might not be obvious to them:

  • “I expect you to schedule non-emergency calls so that I can be prepared, available, and completely focused on your needs at that time, without worrying about distractions or other commitments.”
  • “I expect all change requests by email so we both have a record of what you requested and when. This also lets me respond in context with questions, and provides documentation if we forget the details of the conversation.”

6. How are expectations enforced?

If unmet expectations can result in changes to timeline, cost, or even project continuation, it’s crucial to include enforcement policies. I recommend forgiveness, warnings, and the benefit of the doubt — but only to a point. At some point, repeat offenders don’t deserve leniency, and if your clearly stated policies include consequences for non-compliance, be consistent in enforcing them.

More pro tips when it comes to learning how to set expectations:

Be selective — initial interactions may clarify if this potential client will be a good fit for how you manage your business and expectations.

Communicate in more than one format (i.e., documents, email, and conversation) — not everyone comprehends information in the same way.

Under-promise and over-deliver — build in contingencies and buffers to minimize the risk of having to deliver bad news.

Address issues as they occur — quickly, directly, and proactively.

Enforce expectations and policies consistently across your client base — many of my clients know each other and may discuss how they are treated, so I strive to be fair.

In summary

Success happens when expectations are:

  • Clearly defined in terms of responsibilities and boundaries.
  • Mutually agreed upon from the start.
  • Formally documented.
  • Justified as to why they are needed.
  • Reviewed, revised, and enforced along the way.

Using these standards when setting expectations with clients will lay the foundation for a mutually respectful relationship and help you run a productive, efficient practice.

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