The agency-client relationship can be complex.
You’re dealing with different personalities, different goals, and a variety of expectations.
But it’s that last part that makes it so hard to deliver consistent value – your client’s expectations.
No matter how hard you try during the sales process, a large portion of client expectations will go unsaid. As in, the very things your new client plans to judge you by will be invisible.
Sure, they will tell you what they think they want – leads, sales, traffic. But the real reason they’re paying for your services is emotional and harder to articulate. It’s a deep-seated desire or fear that you may never truly understand.
The issue is, the assumptions you have about what a client actually wants will make or break the relationship. Retention, up-sells, and sustainable agency growth rely on the successful meeting or exceeding of client expectations.
So how do you manage client expectations during the sales process and throughout an engagement if they are so hard to define?
Here are some best practices.
Learn what is (and isn’t) possible
The first part of managing client expectations has very little to do with the client. It’s about your agency knowing precisely what you can and can’t deliver.
There are three primary components to this:
- Experience – Based on your work with similar clients in the past, what results are you confident of achieving? For example, if a client expects a cost-per-lead of $20 and you have never achieved anything less than $30 for clients in the same industry, there is a notable gap in expectations.
- Resources – Do you have the skills and resources in-house to deliver the outcomes you’re promising the client? The last thing you want is to promise the world to a new client and then realize your team doesn’t have the capacity, or the know-how, to deliver.
- Tools – Do you know the limitations and opportunities of the software tools you use to execute client deliverables? No tool does absolutely everything you need it to, so be sure you don’t say “yes” to everything the client wants without ensuring it’s possible.
Understanding what you’re good at allows you to set boundaries and pursue expected client outcomes with confidence.
Establish detailed expectations from the start
If you are confident in the outcomes your agency can deliver based on your experience, resources, and tools, it puts you in a position to define a detailed scope with a new client. The scope is the expectations of the engagement and should include a very specific breakdown of what will (and won’t) be done.
When defining the scope during the sales conversation, consider the following:
- A definition of success – What future state does your client want to materialize? The definition of success should go beyond hard metrics. How does the client want to feel? How does it make their life or job better? What’s going unsaid that needs to be articulated? Remember, there is likely more than one stakeholder from the client side that has expectations about your work – you need everyone’s input. This is all about identifying what the client wants, not what you can give them. That comes next.
- A promise of delivery – Once you understand in great detail what the client expects you to deliver, you can then form a commitment. If what they want is beyond your capabilities, then their expectations either need to be adjusted, or you should walk away. The promise you make at this stage of the relationship is the scope of work. Detail precisely what will be done by whom, how long it will take, the communication channels, how it will result in an emotional transformation for the client, and what hard metrics will determine success. Ideally, you will promise a set of deliverables that you are 110% sure your team can surpass.
The more details you gather with probing questions at the beginning, the greater control you have of managing and delivering on expectations.
Note: It’s critical to get the client to verbalize their expectations and a definition of success prior to making any promises. For starters, it prevents you from putting things in the scope that you don’t need to. But it also establishes the goalposts and ensures you’re playing in the same stadium.
Refer back to the scope on a regular cadence
Once an engagement is underway, managing client expectations is an ongoing process. You can’t simply document the scope and then let it rain. Your clients will quickly forget about the sales conversation and adapt and change their opinion based on what is happening at any given time. They need regular reinforcement that things are moving in the right direction.
And I’m sure it will come as no surprise that “Dealing with challenging clients” is one of the top agency pain points:
Most Common Agency Pain Points
This is why it’s so important to have all your ducks lined up before things kick-off. If you have a written agreement that defines the scope and is signed, sealed, and delivered by all the key stakeholders – you can refer back to it during the engagement.
Your conversations with the client then become very targeted.
“This is what you said you wanted and this is how we are progressing towards that outcome based on the metrics and measures you highlighted as important.”
Commentary like this takes all of the emotion out of the discussion. They can’t argue with clear definitions of success, a tight scope, and an agreed set of progress metrics.
Of course, if they want to move the goalposts, which may very well happen – you should re-scope the agreement and get multi-stakeholder commitment again.
Managing client expectations is a simple concept with complex layers.
Know what you can deliver > Find out what the client wants you to deliver > Make a promise > Refer back to that promise
These four steps, put on repeat, will ensure you minimize tension with clients and set yourself up for more win-win relationships.