How To Set Realistic Expectations With Your Clients

tl;dr: Communicate, communicate, communicate

Jordan Bainer
Jul 10 · 7 min read
Photo by Jens Johnsson on Unsplash

In account management, setting realistic expectations with a client partner can make or break a project. Early ambiguity can spell disaster. Confusion leads to client frustration, or worse, reduces their trust in the overarching partnership.

Your aim is to alleviate fears while also being open and honest about potential limiting factors, like technology challenges, conflicting stakeholder priorities, or a finite budget. You need to balance feasibility with progress.

Below are four tactics I’ve found useful when trying to establish realistic expectations early:

  1. A pre-read agenda creates focus
  2. Conversation set-up establishes partnership tone and collective goals
  3. Quick confirmations through documentation vet key assumptions
  4. Side conversations get informal leaders involved

Of course, you are never done communicating and reaffirming expectations with stakeholders, but it’s important to start with a strong foundation. Here’s how.

1. Pre-Read Agenda

Our schedules are often filled to the brim. In a given day, you may have 30-minute back-to-back meetings leaving very little time for conversation prep and proactive thinking. But, for conversations where big decisions are on the line, it’s vital to draft an agenda for participants ahead of time. In these discussions, every minute is a vital resource. Your ultimate goal is to maximize the time together while keeping participants laser-focused on a collective aim.

Creating an agenda feels like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many meetings start with no clear purpose! You end up spending half the meeting trying to justify the meeting’s value.

When possible, I create a one-to-two page pre-read discussion agenda that’s sent to all participants a day in advance. This document includes a list of participants and their roles, the goal of the conversation (i.e., why are we here and why is this important), prioritized topics to cover with individuals assigned to each area, and, finally, logistic details including call info, time, room numbers, etc. You can decide what details are overkill and unnecessary for your audience. Here’s an example:

Business Discussion
Date Friday 6/7/19 9–10a CST
Company 1 ­– Person 1, Title; Person 2, Title
Company 2 ­– Person 1, Title; Person 2, Title
Spend an hour+ with digital leadership to introduce our capabilities and establish ourselves early as strategic partners. Goal is for everyone to walk away with confidence that this partnership will benefit all parties.
Topics to Cover:
Recap — Person 1
Framework — Person 2
Case Study(TBD) — Person 1
Additional Considerations — Person 3
Next Steps — Person 1
Q&A — All
Web conference information:
Phone number: XXX-XXX-XXXX
Conference room: 78 Uptown

It doesn’t matter what form this pre-read agenda takes. It could be an email. It could be detailed in a meeting invite. It could be contained in a Slack message. All you’re trying to do is get the basics out so that you save time in the discussion, organize tactical information, and begin building trust among the larger team.

When you spell things out, you help reduce fear and focus the conversation on important topics.

2. Conversation Set-Up

Although you’ve sent a pre-read agenda, let’s be real: most people probably won’t read it. But that’s okay because it gives you a script for setting up the call.

Before diving into the meat of a conversation, take five minutes to review this agenda document so that everyone starts with the same basic understanding. Be sure to hit the key points and don’t read word-for-word; you want to respect the people that referenced the pre-read and came prepared.

  1. Start by introducing the main players. Note what each person brings to the conversation (e.g., Mr. X has been involved with Y group for 10 years and has a deep understanding of the business).
  2. Share pertinent context. This will help save time re-explaining important information mid-conversation (e.g., decisions made from previous convos).
  3. Clearly detail the purpose of the meeting. Provide a quick description of time breakout for key items in the convo.
  4. Note what success looks like. Do this when the meeting ends and define immediate next steps.

If you aren’t leading the meeting or are confused on purpose and attendees, politely halt the conversation early on and ask for a bit of clarification. You might start by quickly and succinctly summarizing your understanding of the meeting’s purpose and introducing yourself and your team.

Hopefully, others will follow suit with introductions and the meeting leader will confirm or correct your meeting purpose summary. Be careful not to divert good discussion just to follow process. If the meeting beings with participants diving right in and key topics are being discussed, let it be.

It’s amazing how quickly the conversation progresses with a quick synopsis and a clear delineation of participation.

To reiterate my previous point, when you spell things out, you help reduce any team members’ fears and get to the key discussion points earlier.

3. Quick Confirmations Through Documentation

Following the discussion — and once you’ve gathered intelligence, stakeholder input, project constraints, and any other baseline input for starting an initiative— it’s important to still manage expectations on what comes next.

Before building out a detailed contract or action plan, draft a high-level scope document that outlines the key known details at this early stage (budget, timing, stakeholders, business goals, etc.).

You should include the known unknowns uncovered along the way. These known unknowns are any factors that aren’t fully defined at this early stage but could be crucial to success. These known unknowns might include unclear funding source(s), forthcoming business results pertinent to the initiative, or lack of intel on a customer segment. As you dig into the project, it’s important to note where information isn’t fully formed to set realistic and fair expectations.

This scope documentation will provide the client with a jumping-off point and will allow you to vet early assumptions and gauge interest in possible solutions. No one is held to any details at this point; this high-level scope documentation is just to ensure you bring everyone along towards a more formal plan.

Usually, this lives as a two- to three-page document commonly referred to as a project brief. Since it’s a short doc, it limits the time commitment for the client and key stakeholders to read. More importantly, it acts as an early checkpoint to ensure that you are tracking aims, aspirations, constraints, and expectations appropriately before launching into formal agreements.

Alternatively, if the meeting is a stepping stone to the next conversation, you may want to just draft up key points discussed in the meeting with defined next steps, i.e., a conference report. Although this can be tedious, drafting a one-page conference report logs in-progress discussion points ahead of firm commitments or decisions. Plus, this can be a helpful tool for logging progress to share with senior leadership. Once again, don’t spend an exorbitant amount of time formatting or structuring this communication; it’s meant to be a snapshot of progress thus far.

Whether you create a draft scope doc, conference report or an informal summary of a conversation, make sure that you keep the communication tight and focused on information pertinent to moving to the next step in a project or discussion.

Your goal is to create transparency among all discussion participants while articulating just enough information to proceed to a more formal next step (project kickoff, persona discovery, etc.)

4. Side Conversations

In her book, Guide to Organisation Design: Creating High-Performing and Adaptable Enterprises (Economist Books), Naomi Stanford describes the importance of informal leaders during big change initiatives.

Informal leaders are found at all tiers of an organization’s structure. They “muster support not only by their approach (such as strategic alliance building) but also by their use of referent power (the belief that people have in them after seeing them in action).” Informal leaders “influence without authority.”

At this point in an engagement, you’ve engaged with the strategic gatekeepers who have the power to utilize budget, drive organizational change, and make process improvements, which are all elements of formal authority. But to reduce risk and build organizational clout, you must also identify those influencers with informal authority who have sway over elements that indirectly affect your efforts (legal and compliance review, creative strategy gatekeepers, etc.)

Use the artifacts created previously (agendas, scope documents, conference reports) to guide your conversations with influential but indirectly involved stakeholders. It’s a great way to remind yourself of the key decisions and commitments made and also adds some validity to your updates.

Where appropriate, pull these informal leaders aside as often as necessary to give them any political or project context that may benefit their own aims. Keep them informed of what the team is doing, why they are doing it, and why it’s valuable to them.

Although their involvement may be limited, their early buy-in may reduce future roadblocks. You are taking the time to keep them informed and respecting their role within the organization. Knowledge is power.

Summing Up

These are just a few ways to help set early expectations and bring people along towards a collective goal. Your efforts should reduce ambiguity, minimize fear, and instill trust. Regardless of the tactics you use to set expectations, do them consistently so that partners anticipate key checkpoints.

Better Marketing

Advice & case studies

Jordan Bainer

Written by

Seasoned digital product and marketing professional. Comedy improviser. Writer. Husband. Father. “I intend to live forever, or die trying” — Groucho Marx

Better Marketing

Advice & case studies

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