We’ve talked about nightmare projects and client red flags, but with today’s topic I’d like to turn the focus on us for a moment. Do you have demanding clients? Do you have clients that don’t pay on time? How about the client that emails, only to call five minutes later to make sure you received it, or the client that drops in to your office unannounced and wants to look over your shoulder while you make one last change to their website?
You’re probably thinking “but he said we were going to talk about us.”
It’s not your client’s fault they’re too demanding – it’s your fault for setting unrealistic expectations.
What expectations are you setting with clients?
From the moment you first respond to a potential client you are setting expectations for how to communicate, how project flow works, and what they should expect from you. They are also setting expectations for what you can expect from them. It’s best to set the right expectations from the beginning – let’s look at a few ways:
Single Point of Contact
One of the most frustrating issues for an account manager is a client that goes directly to other employees asking for changes or new work to be done. It circumvents the production schedule, rarely gets billed to the correct project (or even client), and causes confusion about priorities. The client should have a single point of contact – their account manager – and you should have a single point of contact with the client.
You also need to discuss how communication will be handled: email, phone, Basecamp? What is a reaonable response time? If you don’t set the expectation up front, they might expect a response to an email within an hour, when you might strive to respond within 1-2 business days.
Lots of business owners hate talking about money, but it is a necessary evil. You’ve got to discuss and agree to the payment terms up front. Are the terms net 30, net 15, or immediately upon receipt? What happens if the client doesn’t pay on time? Are there penalties such as late fees or interest? Is there a possibility that their site could be taken down?
And on specific projects, if you require payment in phases is the payment due before work will begin on the next phase? What if a client fails to meet a deadline on a deliverable, is the payment still due?
It’s a lot to think about, but if you don’t think about it and discuss it with your client up front they’ll come to their own conclusions which may be very different.
Turnaround times are an area where clients often get the wrong expectations. It’s rarely discussed or put into writing, and we almost always try really hard to impress a client up front. So when you first begin working with a client, you bend over backwards to make them happy. You work nights, weekends, answer emails in five minutes, and do whatever it takes to turn the project around and make the client happy.
But as time goes on, you go back to a regular production mode, and the client still expects super-web-guy (or girl).
What is the typical turnaround time? Do you promise to start on new work immediately, within one or two business days, or does every project need to be fit into a production schedule? Even if you plan on dropping everything to work on a project for a new client, you need to discuss their overall expectations. If not, you’ll have clients calling at 4pm on Friday afternoon expecting you to drop everything to make five hours worth of changes.
Get a Contract
Whether you work hourly or per project, a contract is a necessity. The contract shouldn’t just outline the technical details of the project or your hourly rate, it should include information about anything that can affect the project or your relationship. All of the topics above should be in your client agreement and per-project contracts.
How do you unset unrealistic expectations?
Unless you’re just getting started and don’t have a single client, chances are you’ve already set some bad expectations. How do you reverse course without just ditching your clients and finding new ones?
My first suggestion is to slow down. Don’t answer emails immediately. Don’t always answer the phone. Always respond, and always return calls … but when you do, also try to set the expectation of proper communication in the form of an email signature or voicemail message. Something like “I check email and voicemail at 10 am and 3pm daily, and will get back to you witin one day.”
To start setting payment-related expectations, send a letter or email detailing changes to your process before they go into effect. If you plan to start charging a late fee or interest on past-due invoices, don’t wait until someone is past due to let them know.
No matter what the issue is with your client, a phone call or an in-person meeting can most likely straighten it out. If they aren’t paying on time, aren’t contacting the correct person, or seem to expect a level of service you don’t feel you can provide, just call them. Sit down and discuss it with them.
How do you go about setting expectations?
How do you communicate to clients what they can expect from you?
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