How to manage client expectations successfully

More often than not, poorly managed expectations are to blame for why you’re feeling stressed out, aren’t getting as much repeat business and referrals as you could be and aren’t making the profit margins you need as a freelancer or small business owner. In this article, I’ll explain how good expectation management is key to your success and how to set realistic expectations and I’ll provide six suggestions for managing them throughout the duration of your contract.

Expectation management – making realistic, achievable promises and delivering on them!

Expectation management is the creation and maintenance of a clear understanding of what the client expects from the provider (you) and what you expect from your client. It’s something that has to be managed and communicated all the way through the project so that both parties remain on the same page.

The result of good expectation management is a smoothly run project and a happy client. It also means that you are less likely to be overworked and more likely to make a profit and get repeat business and new referrals.

How to manage expectations and win at business

1. Understand the clients goals and vision

Clients aren’t always great at communicating what they need, so how do you meet their expectations when it’s not clear what they are? When you meet with your prospective clients, ask questions and then ask some more questions. Information gathering is a key element of being able to quote accurately, but it also helps you really understand the client’s goals and vision so you can deliver exactly what they want.

If the information you tend to need from your clients is standard across the kinds of projects you do, consider adding these questions to your website inquiry form so that you get the information you need from the get-go. This will help you decide if a client is right for you before spending unnecessary time meeting with them.

2. Plan the project and integrate it into your existing schedule

Consider any project or commitment carefully. Draw up clear plans and budgets and time them out intelligently. Make sure that you add some contingency time and budget to build in breathing room in case things don’t go exactly to plan. They never do!

Before you go back to the client take a look at how the schedule for this project works alongside your other commitments, both personal and professional. The project might take three weeks of effort but if you have overlapping projects or time away from work then the true timescale might be more like five or six weeks. Be realistic about what you can expect from yourself and try not to create or falsely anticipate a sense of urgency.

People who don’t know how to accurately plan for work often under-price or assume fewer hours than is realistic.
This is a skill worth investing in if you don’t currently have it.

3. Negotiate until you both agree on costs and timescales that are manageable

Once you’ve done the pre-planning, go back to the client and let them know what you can realistically achieve within the budget you’ve proposed. In your quote be clear about your understanding of what the client is looking for, and what you are agreeing to do. Make sure that you clearly explain any caveats. Often people lose any profit margin they had by not limiting the number of adjustments a client can have.

If they want more outcomes or additional elements at this stage or during the project, explain that they would come with additional time and costs. Similarly, if the client asks for a shorter timescale, be clear that this will result in a higher cost, if it’s even achievable. Always give yourself time to go back to your planning phase and reflect on the adjustments to the project before providing a revised quote.

4. Make a commitment and see it through

Once the client has accepted your quote, you’ve made a commitment to them and to yourself to see the project through as agreed. Whatever you agree to, see it through.

I find it useful to block out the project in my calendar so that I know that this time is accounted for. Any new work or meetings have to fit around it. This might seem a little regimented, but it’s only possible to do the planning phase of a new project when existing work is in your calendar and you can see what commitments you already have.

Of course, life happens, so if there’s a really good reason that you can’t follow through, communicate that as early as possible so that the client or customer can make alternative plans or where possible, propose an alternative solution to help the client.

5. Report back the client at least once a week

Now that you’ve got the gig, keep up the good work. Whether you meet weekly or compose a regular update email, keep the information coming before you’re asked for it. Radio silence always instils fear, whereas good regular communication builds trust.

Do your projects follow the same process every time? You might find it saves time to create some quick email templates that you can fire out easily as updates.

6. Deliver on your promises

Before you hand over the finished product or piece of work reflect back on the client’s requirements, goals and vision. Have you achieved what you set out to create? Taking a beat to reflect on the initial expectations of the project will help you to make any final adjustments before submitting your work.

Tips and reminders

  • Be confident that your skills and your time are valuable – When you aren’t confident you over-promise because you feel like you have to give the client everything and the kitchen sink to convince them to give you their business. This is a rookie mistake and it always ends badly. When you over promise you either can’t deliver, or you kill yourself to deliver and, in turn, do not make profit.
  • Don’t shy away from communication – If you find client management or being managed yourself uncomfortable lean into communication, rather than avoiding it. The truth is that avoidance only makes matters worse. Clear communication builds trust and over time you will earn autonomy and a better working relationship.
  • Plan for the unexpected – Anytime you give the client a quote for time or money build in a bit of breathing room for those things you can’t accurately predict. This is doubly true if you outsource part of the work as there is more room for error. If you end up delivering early and underbudget, up’ll be exeeding expectations.
  • Don’t hesitate to deliver bad news – When things wobble, communicate quickly about delays or additional costs. This allows expectations to be adjusted before they become a problem or an unpleasant surprise.


Everything we’ve suggested here is easy to correct, avoid or implement to improve your business relationships and reputation. And if done well, they will improve your reputation and increase both your business and profit margin. At the end of the day, good expectation management and client communication is just smarter business so it’s worth investing in now.


Scrabble letters photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Planning photo by ConvertKit on Unsplash

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