The worst kind of expectations

Does your client know how to work with you? Great companies go to great lengths to set the right expectations with their customers. Take Chipotle. The chain of hugely successful Mexican restaurants ensures customers know exactly what is expected of them as they approach the counter. Instead of leaving hungry burrito-seekers floundering in a sea of possibilities, the menu board clearly outlines the process and and how to engage it. Chose from these first, add these next, and end with these. It’s not a free-for-all. Chipotle knows that explicit guidance allows their process to work and produce the best result. That means a customer won’t expect a soda before ordering food or request a heaping chips-and-salsa-filled burrito.

Do you take the same level of care in setting expectations about your process with clients?

It’s on you

This is one of those make-or-break parts of your project. While it can take many forms, a project that goes sideways can almost always be traced back to unmet expectations. If you’ve ever facepalmed over a client decision, check expectations. If a project ever made you want to drop this bag and take up a career in woodworking, retrace your steps and see if the client had explicit directions to act otherwise. In other words, no matter how silly or obvious it seemed to you, the client expected something different and responded accordingly.

Our job is to educate prospects from the outset about how we operate.
— Alan Weiss

Who is responsible to set those expectations? You. Only you. I’ve sat in enough meetings – discovery, presentation, check-in, whatever – to know that many teams don’t realize many of the expectations they set, how frequently, and their seriousness. Clients keep a running document of expectations in their minds, whether you decide to document them or not. And those you chose not to take seriously or neglect to set at all will kill your projects. 

Expectations only work if you set them

There are dozens of opportunities to set expectations with a client. Every email, proposal, call, and meeting has an impact on the client’s perception about your expectations of them and what they should expect from you. But when those opportunities pass, expectations are set by omission. That's the funny thing about expectations: When not set explicitly, the client will set them for us. These are the worst kind of expectations as they leave countless opportunities to disappoint clients.

For instance, if you don't establish a firm date to deliver a comp to the client, then it’s fair for the client to expect it to be done whenever *he or she believes* is reasonable. And that’s usually earlier than your idea of reasonable. I think it’s safe to assume you’ve said, “I’ll get that revision to you next week,” a few times. When next week? Unless you have read the clients mind to the day, your response has a good chance of being later than the client had expected. 

The earlier, the better

What if you walked into Chipotle and found, instead of a menu flow, only a long list of items. No process outline, no steps. Now each customer, overwhelmed, has to be constantly corrected and directed as they try to navigate the options. By then it’s too late to lay down the rules – the experience is already ruined. In the same way, you only have a limited time to set the right expectations. Set early, set often.

Key areas where expectations are set:

  • Website
  • Pre-bid discovery process
  • Proposal
  • Contract
  • Kickoff meeting

Once past those phases, your job is to reinforce the expectations you have already set. I’ll say it plainly again: once the project starts, it is painfully difficult to try to set new expectations.

As you implement project management into you your process, you’ll notice that your job gets easier the better you set and reinforce expectations. And we all like easier.