The Freelancer’s Guide to Expectation Management

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Most ex-freelancers I know give the same reason when I ask them why they don’t do it any more. “The clients!” they say. “They always have big expectations and tiny budgets.”

Expectation management really is the crux of happy freelancing. It’s crucial to establishing a good working relationship with your client, and it’s the only way you’ll keep that relationship sweet.

So, what’s the secret to expectation management? I don’t know if it’s a secret, but there is one vital step I take with each client, right from the initial scoping meeting, that helps me to manage their expectations. First, though, let’s look at what happens in many scoping meetings.

Off on the wrong foot

Humans tend to think that if we disagree with something, and we don’t say so, that lack of objection will be taken as agreeance. With clients, we know that tacit agreeance can be very dangerous. And we know that silence can make us seem uninterested in the project.

As a consequence, we go into client meetings with our hackles up, looking out for the signs that reveal that the client’s expectations are unreasonable. And we’re poised to pounce when we do — to step in a shut them down as soon as they start talking beyond their budget. The more we’ve been burned in the past, the more defensive we are from the get-go.

The problem with this approach is that it’s defensive, and counter-productive. It doesn’t create the right atmosphere — one of team work, closeness, and mutual respect — for a good long-term relationship.

Learning to listen

The first step to turning this approach around — without selling out on our sanity — is to understand that not objecting to the client’s wild expectations at every turn in that initial scoping meeting does not mean commitment on our part.

This, in itself, is an expectation. It’s our own expectation. To understand our clients’ expectations — to really hear them — we must put our own expectations aside.

The scoping meeting is an opportunity for the client to tell us what they’re hoping for. It’s the golden time for them: they have a project budget, and they have a bunch of goals. Great.

If we can stop objecting every time they overstep the mark — even mentally — we’ll be in a position to really get a feel for what the client actually wants.

We all know that frequently, clients think they want solutions that we know won’t help them achieve their goals. But if we can sit and listen to them without objecting — without even getting uncomfortable, and without letting our own expectations get in the way — we can gain deep insights into why they hold the perceptions they hold, and how we might be able to help them.

Shaping up

After that initial meeting, you’ll get back to base with a bunch of information. You know what your client’s goals are, what they think will help them achieve those goals, and what their budget is.

You’ll also have an intuitive feel for what the client will be like to work with. Will they respect your opinions? Will they work with you, or are do they see the relationship as you working for them? Are you comfortable with them? Did they seem comfortable with you, or guarded? Do you want to work with them?

Each of these factors will influence your decision to pitch for the project, the way you price the job, and what you offer in your solution.

Importantly, if at this point you feel you won’t be able to meet the client’s expectations, nor adjust them to reflect reality, or manage them over time, that’s fine. You haven’t committed to anything. You can decide not to pitch, and leave it at that.

If you do decide to pitch, though, you’re laughing. Because you spent the scoping meeting listening, rather than freaking out every time they mentioned some high-falutin’ idea that was way beyond their budget, you know how these guys tick. So now you can combine that information with your technical knowledge to put together a proposal that will meet their business goals.

You also know what you need to make patently clear in that proposal — what you need to state in writing — to keep their expectations in check. There will undoubtedly be a few things you think they’ll probably realize — state those clearly in the proposal as well, just so there’s no confusion.

Going forward

The basic process we’ve talked about here looks like this:

  1. Put your expectations aside.
  2. Listen to the client.
  3. Take the information they’ve given and compare it with reality (including cost, your skills and time, their goals, etc.). Consider.
  4. Respond to the client, explaining the workability of what they’re suggesting — what’s doable, what’s not, why, and what it means for the future.

This little process isn’t just useful at pitch time. It’s invaluable at basically every interaction during the project, and beyond. The client sends you a change request list as long as your arm? Use this process to assess it. At 5 on Friday the client asks you to implement 30 pages of content by Monday, and you’re away for the weekend? Use this process to assess it.

Take your emotions and expectations out of the equation, and you’ll have a much better chance of managing the client’s expectations into reality — and then meeting them.

How are you at managing client expectations? We’ve all got horror stories — and good ones. I’d love to hear yours.

Image by stock.xchng user valike.

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  • Thomas Molby

    Great advice, thanks!

  • AndyiBM

    Sometimes, when the pressure is on, it’s difficult to get past Point 1 on your list… thanks for your reminder of why it’s so important to do so.

  • Patrick Samphire

    Very helpful.

    What on Earth is ‘agreeance’, though? Agreement, maybe?

    • dave bennett

      the act of agreeing
      Usage of the site constitutes agreeance with these terms.
      considered obsolete and a bastardization of ‘agreement’

  • Georgina Laidlaw

    Hey guys,
    Glad you found this post helpful :) I agree, Andy, it can be *very* hard to get past point 1 sometimes.

    Patrick, sorry about “agreeance”! Dictionary.com calls it “obsolete and a bastardization of ‘agreement'” :o

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/agreeance

    :)
    Georgina

  • tien hoang viet

    thanks for info -microadvert

  • northk

    I agree with all of this, thanks for the article. Setting aside my fears that come up as I hear the customer talking about what they want (and imagining what it will cost) are easier said than done. But, it gets better with practice. Also, estimating change requests, cost estimates for additional functionality, doing feasibility and cost research all takes time. That’s all part of the job. But, Somehow, this time has to be built into billing the client. I’d like to hear more about how others build that into their billing.

    • Georgina Laidlaw

      Hey northk, I just wanted to let you know that tomorrow’s post should (I hope) begin to address some of the billing-related questions you raise… Thanks for your comment,
      Georgina

  • ARGBanks

    I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m guilty of having my ‘hackles up’ during initial meetings – particularly when it comes to unrealistic budget/scope expectations. When I think about it, if our positions were reversed, having a professional in a field I am not familiar with, whom I am hoping to form a working relationship with, constantly interrupt me and tell me how ridiculous what I’m proposing is, would definitely put me off.

    Thanks for the reality check : )

  • WindUpDoll

    I know this is one of my biggest challenges because I get into problem-solving mode before I’ve truly heard the entire problem. It’s like a Pavlovian response — I hear a buzzword & my inner critic goes off.

    I’ll be bookmarking this as a reminder to shut that critic the hell up! ;-)

  • CarlosJa

    I fall into this problem a lot. Recently lost a client because I kept agreeing to all the scope creeps and after 2 months of just dealing with all the unrealistic changes, and additions i finally said enough is enough and they didn’t like it. and fired me; and on top of that they took all my work, designs, and ideas and gave it to the next designer / developer.