How to manage client expectations on every creative project

in Tips / Clients

Successful client management lies at the heart of every healthy, profitable business. If you're a freelancer or small business owner, you'll want to keep clients happy so they keep coming back for more of your skills and expertise.

One important way to ensure smooth running is to manage client expectations before, during and after each and every piece of work.

Because let's face it, there are those dream clients who appreciate your skills and expertise, value your time, provide a clear brief, are grateful for all the hard work you put in and are happy to pay the right price. But then, sadly, there are those clients who don't know what they want, undervalue your work, try to control everything, underestimate the time involved; interrupt at every opportunity and then sometimes refuse to pay.

With so much at stake you'll want to manage client expectations at every juncture. Here are our top tips on how to keep clients happy throughout every project – from costing up to delivering the work...

1. Spot the baddies

A good way to manage client expectations is to recognise and avoid those potential nightmare clients in the first place. Spot the warning signs. If they say anything like: "I want you to create the new Google, but as cheap as possible!" or "It'll only take you a day, won't it?" or "I'm not sure what I want, can you decide for me?" – then that's a pretty good indication that you should run away, hide in a cave for several years and not come out until you're pretty sure the coast is clear.

2. Be honest straight away and offer options

Work is time and money, so if someone comes to you and wants an all-singing, all-dancing e-commerce website for next-to-nothing just be honest with them and explain why they can't afford it. Talk through the work involved and suggest alternative yet cheaper solutions. Most people will appreciate your honesty.

However, tread carefully because those clients who want something they can't afford, yet go with a more affordable option, could potentially demand that they get the same bigger website further down the line. People can be sneaky, so make it absolutely clear that any additional work will be an additional cost.

3. Set realistic goals

You can't manage expectations without establishing what the client actually wants. So immediately set goals before you embark on any new project. This ensures you're on the same page and working towards an agreed outcome.

I once worked with someone who kept saying that they'd "be happy when they got what they wanted" – without providing any tangible idea on what that was. With no milestones or KPIs, the expectations were too vague and the project risked spiralling out of control. It's why I walked away. Be careful if a client doesn't agree to any end goals.

4. Pricing things up: fixed or hourly?

When pricing up a project, you have to consider whether a fixed price or hourly rate would be more suitable. Fixed priced jobs are for those projects which are relatively straightforward and you can confidently guess how long the work will take. But if you come across a project that has too many unknowns and is too vague, it's wise to suggest an hourly rate.

5. Costing up? Play them at their own game

Everyone likes to strike a bargain, which is why most clients will try and haggle you down on price. So when costing up projects, go that little bit higher. Not sure what to charge? Figure out how long you think it will take and then double it – a client will most likely take a third off your estimate, but you'll still have enough room for contingencies.

6. Get everything in writing

Before you go ahead on any project, put together a very thorough proposal, listing all the things the project will and won't involve. Make it absolutely clear what your client will and won't be getting for their money.

For example, if you're building a website but doing nothing else, ensure you put in a clause somewhere that states: "All content to be supplied by the client, the project is for web development work only". Or if you're a graphic designer (and boy! do you guys have it bad sometimes) and you're designing a logo, state: "This cost includes X amount of logo concepts only. If the client does not like anything we suggest, it will be an additional cost to create more concepts".

Even if you feel you're including something too obvious or detailed, put it down in writing. Then email the proposal to the client and get them to reply back saying that they're happy to go ahead. It means if you come across any problems in future, you can refer the client back to the proposal and the email they sent, showing their written consent.

7. Draw up a contract

It's hugely advisable to use contracts with every project. Contracts should include an overview of deliverables, i.e. what you're actually going to provide as a service, as well as a time schedule, cancellation clauses and a breakdown of costs. Contracts don't have to be long-winded, they can be concise and still have the same effect. Not sure if your contract is up to scratch? Hire a solicitor to sort a general template contract for you. It might be expensive but it could just save further expense and hassle in future.

8. Make it clear about what happens if things change

With your initial plan and contract communication, be upfront about what happens if things change. This avoids any drama further down the line. For example, you might want to make it clear that the deadline will be moved back if certain stages of the project are delayed – with approvals taking longer than expected, for instance.

Every project suffers from the odd setback. Just explain this before any work begins and they'll be easier to deal with should delays occur.

9. Build trust by setting expectations about how you work

To really manage expectations successfully, build on the trust you have with your client by providing some background on how you operate. Provide a list of promises that you will honour during the work. For example, explain how you will always respond to any email within X hours – offering reassurance that you'll always be around. Or perhaps you could stipulate how you'll never send a surprise bill – that any additional work will be costed up separately for them to consider.

If you provide the client with a better understanding of how you work and what you promise to do – the trust will increase and their expectations will be better managed.

10. Stay in constant touch

Keep your clients happy by staying in constant contact with them. Don't just email all the time, pick up the phone! It's a much more effective way to communicate. Reassure them that they are the most important person you're working for and that their project is ticking along nicely.

If you really want to reassure, show them progress reports and see them face-to-face whenever possible. If you stay in regular contact, your client will be happy and confident you're doing a great job. There is no such thing as over-communication in business.

11. Listen to your gut

If you have a gut feeling that something on the project isn't right, speak up! Anticipate what the client might also be thinking before they say anything. If you're worried you've not spoken to the client in a while, pick up the phone. Always anticipate when things might not be going to plan, and address them immediately.

12. Under-promise but over-deliver

Want to really impress? Go above and beyond expectations to ensure the client is happy and the project is as successful as possible. Don't just do the bare minimum. Wow the client by delivering more than what they were expecting, and before the allocated deadline. This means they won't hesitate to hire you again and might even recommend you to others.

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