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3 Steps to Manage Client Expectations and Overdeliver on Value

We’ve all been there. You think you did a killer job in the recent quarter and you’re excited to share the results with your client, and then you discover...they aren’t pleased.

What went wrong?

You thought you and the client were on the same page. It turns out you’re not even reading the same book.

You try to explain your results, but nothing is getting through.

It turns out your client expected one thing and you delivered on something completely different. It’s not your fault though…or is it?

Managing client expectations is not always easy, but getting clear on what your clients truly need and want to see is the key to building a long-lasting relationship.

There's no question that running an agency is incredibly challenging.

Not only do you actually need to be good at digital marketing, but chances are you’re splitting your time with multiple administrative duties, finding new opportunities, and pitching prospects.

The last thing you need is an upset client consuming what valuable time you have.

Setting client expectations is critical for your agency’s success—yet it’s one of the biggest problems that agencies face.

In fact, hitting client goals and managing expectations is one of the largest pain points for 23% of agencies.

Source: Hubspot

In this article, we’ll go over exactly how to manage your client expectations, starting from your first consultation.

By establishing clear expectations from the very beginning, you’ll set the client relationship up for success.

In this article, we'll be going over the three core areas you need to focus on when establishing expectations:

  1. Set Realistic, Measurable Goals
  2. Outline Your Strategy & Deliverables
  3. Create an Ongoing Communication Strategy

Define and document each of these steps with your client, so you’re on the same page from the beginning.

Ready to learn exactly how to establish clear client expectations?

Let’s get started.

Set Realistic, Measurable Goals

First, you need to start by assessing your client’s current and near-term needs.

What are their biggest pain points? What’s their current marketing performance?

During the assessment, you’ll also gain an understanding of their core expectations. Assessing your client's needs is easy to do, but often neglected.

At the outset of your client relationship, follow the 4 step process below to make sure no topic is left uncovered:

  1. Listen
  2. Clarify
  3. Set Expectations
  4. Document

1. Listen

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” - Steven R. Covey

Start with some basic probing questions to understand your client's business and core problems. At this stage, allow your prospect to do most of the talking.

One of the early problems that can lead to mismatched expectations, is a reliance on canned “one-size-fits-all” proposals.

It’s easy to just jump into a presentation and try to impress your prospect with your extensive experience and knowledge, although it’s more important to let them share their story first.

By allowing the prospect to express their business needs you’ll have a much better idea of what their core expectations are.

If they had a previous agency or marketer, now is the time to explicitly understand what went wrong in the relationship.

Did they miss their goals? Was there a communication issue?

Be sure to use plain English. This is when your prospect seeks understanding, not the time to dazzle them with marketing jargon.

2. Clarify

After you have a strong idea of what they need and want out of their marketing efforts, don’t just move ahead to close the deal.

Stop to clarify any lingering questions or details.

The clarification process is designed to root out any misunderstandings. Upon further investigation, your prospect may change their mind on certain details.

Initially, your prospect may have said, “I just need more traffic to our site.”

When you press for more specifics about their overall objectives, they may recognize that conversions are a more appropriate goal.

Spend some extra time on clarifying their goals after the initial research phase to make sure your client is clear on their goals.

3. Set Client Expectations

Clients will always dream up the impossible, so temper expectations with a dose of reality.

This is especially true of prospects with no previous marketing experience.

During this phase, focus on setting realistic goals together.

Look at their historical performance to determine what’s possible. Make sure they understand that they aren’t going from 0 to 1,000 leads overnight.

Events such as Google algorithm updates, SEO changes, and seasonal advertising costs are all things you need to bring up too. Make sure the client is aware of potential “roadblocks and detours” to avoid frustrations down the road.

Otherwise, a client may try to upend your marketing strategy the moment things don’t go according to plan.

4. Document

Don’t just set goals. Write them down!

Many disagreements arise from different understandings of what was said during consultations.

This is why it’s so important to create a structured onboarding process that dissects your client’s expectations and outlines their goals.

Document the goals in writing by:

  • Including the goals and targets in your formal proposal.
  • Create a dashboard or report template that highlights the goals. Share it with your client to let them know those are the goals and the reports they’ll receive each month to display your progress.
  • At a bare minimum, send a follow-up email after the consultation call that outlines their goals in writing.

Having something written down ensures everyone is on the same page. Plus, this document can always be referenced if anything comes up in the future.

Outline Your Strategy and Deliverables

Now that you’ve discussed your client’s business needs and documented their desired goals, it’s time to design the marketing strategy that will reach those goals.

Client expectations extend into the planning and implementation process, because if they don’t agree with exactly how you’re going to achieve their goals, then conflicts and misunderstandings are sure to follow.

All marketing strategies are not made equal, although a strategy that has the following elements will greatly reduce the vagaries that lead to conflict:

  1. Well-defined deliverables.
  2. Realistic Timeframes
  3. Metrics to measure progress

Define the Deliverables

Deliverables are the tangible outcomes of your project. In other words, it's telling the client exactly what you are going to do.

Make sure the client is clear on the deliverables they can expect.

Let's look at SEO services as an example.

Many clients view SEO as a mystery. They know you're supposed to increase their keyword rankings, but how?

Ultimately clients want to know what they are actually paying you to do.

It could mean creating backlinks, new content, or optimizing web pages. Be sure to quantify the deliverables to avoid scope creep or misunderstandings.

For example, you may list the deliverables each month as:

  • Optimize content on 5 web pages per month

  • Build 20 backlinks per month

  • Fix up to 100 crawl errors on the website each month

Each deliverable is time-bound and quantifiable. By including these clearly defined deliverables in your contract, you'll avoid any misaligned client expectations in the future.

Setting Realistic Timeframes

Setting a realistic timeframe should be high on your list of things to nail down. Most clients won’t know what is realistic, especially if you’re doing SEO work.

Most clients simply don’t realize how long it can take to get results, particularly, when it comes to organic search.

Emphasizing the competition in their space, how long it typically takes for Google to rank their keywords, and how long it takes for an effective link building strategy to take hold will bring clarity to this topic.

They need to know that high-quality articles and regular content updates will slowly move the needle, but it’s not something that will change overnight.

Be sure to negotiate enough time for your team to meet its deadlines. Constant delays and passed deadlines will quickly erode away the trust you’ve established.

Set Metrics to Measure These Goals

Now that you’ve discussed deliverables and timeframes, it’s time to determine the metrics that are best to measure the results you're achieving.

While agreeing on measurables, be clear and concise about which metrics are important and why.

Your client will need to be educated as to why a specific metric will effectively measure a specific deliverable.

Choosing the right metrics should be just as important to you as it is to the client.

These metrics are going to determine how you measure the success of your marketing efforts.

Create a Communication Strategy

Everybody knows the importance of great communication, and yet, this is where agencies often make their biggest mistakes.

The reason is simple—they don’t create a communication strategy the same way they put together a marketing strategy.

A good communication strategy has the following elements:

  1. Clearly determines times, channels, and contacts.
  2. Defines the client’s responsibilities.
  3. Establishes reporting standards.

Determine Times, Channels, and Contacts

The when, what, and who of every communication strategy covers all scenarios a new client will face when reaching out to your agency.

  • When scheduled communication takes place. How frequent are email check-ins, strategy calls, reports, etc?
  • What communication channels you’ll use. Are you available for phone calls regularly? Or will you limit communication to email or slack messages?
  • Who you are communicating with. Have a clear point of contact for both the client and your agency.

Your client should know exactly who to contact, when they will be available, and what channel to use to reach that individual.

This should be applied to all relevant people in your agency and anyone touching that client’s account.

Define the Client’s Responsibilities

Clients are frequently the biggest bottleneck in completing a project.

Be sure to outline not only what the client should expect of you, but what you expect from them.

What communication will you need from them? Will they be reviewing copy and ad creatives? If so, establish the timeframe they need to complete reviews by.

Also, include a note that outlines what is done if a client holds up a project. Do you pause the project and set a new due date? Or move forward with a campaign without the client’s approval?

Outlining these responsibilities will save a lot of headaches down the road.

Establish Reporting Standards

Reporting is one of the most important communication methods you’ll have with a client.

Done the right way, reporting will dramatically increase your chances of keeping a client for the long run.

Establish a clear reporting practice upfront. Are you sending reports weekly, monthly, or quarterly? What will each report include?

When reporting client results it’s important to know how technical they are. This will allow you to adjust your reports to display metrics that your client will understand.

Your reports should contain all the details that were covered during your prospect's goal and metric setting process.

Always emphasize results over numbers.

A performance report is your opportunity to tell a story with the data and explain how your marketing efforts have increased their business. For example, our SEO dashboard includes a section for each of the KPIs and metrics that matter, as well as a section to provide your client with a written summary of that month's goals, wins, and plans going forward.

Summary: Managing Client Expectations

Defining realistic expectations from the start will set your agency up for success. Conversely, setting unrealistic or unclear expectations will almost always negatively impact the client relationship.

Managing client expectations is more than simply setting goals. You need to make sure there are expectations for strategy, deliverables, and communication as well.

Work through each of the steps outlined in this article and you're certain to have clear client expectations from the beginning.