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Managing Client Expectations: A Guide For Agencies

Managing Client Expectations: A Guide For Agencies

Liston Witherill
Liston Witherill
8 min read

A friend recently broke up with her boyfriend. It was a short lived romance. You know the kind. It starts with a rush of excitement, followed by the first sign of irreparable differences. You have a creeping suspicion that maybe it won’t work out – or maybe you just know it.

Eventually, something happens, and seemingly overnight the whole thing implodes like a black hole and sucks up your emotional availability until further notice.

I’ve thought for many years that the source of most conflict is a break in expectations. One person expects one thing, the other expects something else, then both of them are disappointed when it doesn’t happen. Yes, complete opposition is possible but it’s incredibly unlikely.

Chances are there are expectations that haven’t been met, and the conflict remains unaddressed and unresolved. Leaving this situation to fester, or resolve itself, is not a solution. In fact, it’s the road to a dysfunctional relationship.

While client relationships don’t have the emotional weight of a romance, they still come with loads of financial, career, and mental health implications.

Managing client relationships, then, can mean the difference between a deeply satisfied, referral-happy, profitable lifelong client; and one who is, well, the opposite of all of those things.

In this article, I’ll cover:

What it Means to Manage Expectations Well

The problem with managing expectations in your client relationships is that clients don’t necessarily know what their expectations are. You have some control over that.

But the thing you can really control is knowing what you expect of yourself and of your client, being clear about them, and drawing a firm boundary.

Now back to the issue at hand. I think about expectations as falling on a spectrum between known and unknown. That much is obvious. If you asked a 2-year-old why she was crying, you might be surprised to receive an articulate, rational answer to the question. Despite having a fully developed pre-frontal cortex, many adults have the same limitations in certain situations. This isn’t a judgment, simply an observation of human behavior.

That’s why I think about expectations on a spectrum:

The spectrum is all about clarity, and has three opposing forces:

  1. Spoken versus unspoken expectations: what’s been explicitly talked about and agreed to, versus hidden expectations that haven’t been verbalized
  2. Active versus dormant expectations: sometimes situations trigger new expectations that were previously unforeseen; whatever expectations are formed as a result were already there, they were just dormant at the time
  3. Known versus unknown: sometimes people just plain don’t know what they expect, and will need help in understanding

These three opposing views of expectations begin to lay the groundwork of how to better manage your client. Before we go there, let’s talk about why it’s so important in the first place.

Why It’s So Important to Manage Expectations

If you’re interested in reading this article, then you’ve certainly experienced the difficulties that unmet expectations can create. Perhaps a client was disappointed despite your best efforts. Perhaps a project was more difficult than it needed to be – or even a disaster.

Either way, you’re in the client service business, and life is a whole lot better when there’s a healthy working relationship built on mutual respect.

Setting and meeting expectations builds trust and understanding. Underpinning my view of expectations is the broader requirement of trust. Build it, keep it, and strengthen it. It’s a key ingredient all through your business.

Your sales process is more efficient when expectations are clear. It’s easier to navigate the totality of your process, you’ll reach an agreement a whole last faster, and you may not need a negotiation strategy because there may be no need to negotiate. If you don’t have a sales process now, check out my SDS Method to see how important communication is throughout.

Projects will be more profitable. There are a lot of factors that influence project profitability. A big one is the ease of working with a client, and the clarity of communication throughout. Another important factor is how the project was priced upfront. If you set and stood firm on your value-based pricing, then you’re more likely to keep projects profitable.

Projects move faster. The less revisions, changes, and misunderstandings, the faster your projects move. Some of this can be controlled through scope, pricing, and packaging, all of which are important tools in setting client expectations.

Time and effort become less important than results. This is dependent on your business and pricing models, but I prefer to sell results as opposed to inputs or outputs. Some clients may have the opposite expectation, which may require proactive correction on your part. A value-based selling process can help your client focus on results, and so can the expectations you set along the journey from marketing, to sales, and through delivery.

Where Expectations Come From

Understand that you’re not the sole source of how clients form their expectations. Clients will have existing expectations, and new ones once they enter a conversation with you.

Existing expectations come from market norms, previous experience, personal preferences, and company culture. Like it or not, clients will hold you to the same standards they have of other firms in your category. A stronger positioning strategy can do a lot of heavy lifting to escape this unfair comparison. For instance, a prospective client may expect you to deliver your work or bill a certain way based on their understanding of the market. Show them why you do things differently.

Then there’s the issue of personality types and company cultures. Does your client work in an environment where they’re expected to respond to emails in one hour? If so, they might extend the same courtesy to you. Tell them you won’t comply, and why.

Your firm sets expectations in the way you market, sell, and deliver your services. I’m not a fan of TV personality Dr. Phil, but I do wholeheartedly agree with this statement:

You teach people how to treat you.

What you allow, what you don’t allow, and the behaviors you reinforce will make up the collective set of expectations you have control over. Keep in mind that the expectations you set will have a huge influence on your business development strategy because the likelihood of referrals is impacted by your ability to deliver value.

Here’s the big idea: focus on what you can control, and let go of what you can’t.

For what it’s worth, this is a life lesson we’ll all be practicing for the remainder of our lives, me included.

Types of Expectations You Can Set

You have no control over the expectations your clients bring to you and your firm. But you have plenty of control in how you modulate those expectations, and set new ones.

Here’s a partial list to get you going:

  • Results you can provide, and the range of results that are likely
  • Communication styles, including how you’ll communicate, how often, typical response times, points of contact, and your preferred channels
  • Management styles and processes to run your engagements
  • Decision-making requirements for who will be involved, deadlines, and styles (i.e. unilateral, consensus-driven, etc.)
  • Start and end dates for the project, timing of deliverables, and project duration
  • Access your client will have to your firm, and to whom
  • Payment and requirements, all of which should be in writing and delivered to your client in the form of a contract that they’ll sign

Of course there are many more expectations you can set and manage, but this is a good place to start.

How to Set Boundaries Early and Often

Now for the tough love portion of the article. You only have control over yourself and your firm. And the ultimate way to exercise control is to draw and stick to permanent and unchanging boundaries in your client relationships. Let me get this first part out of the way…

Bad clients should be avoided at all costs. One of the easiest ways to avoid shitty clients is to have an abundance of opportunity, so that any client who can’t get with the program is shown the door, ideally early in the sales process.

This is where pattern matching, experience, and moxie all play a role.

Pattern matching is about your ability to identify good and bad clients, and turn your 3- and 4-star clients into 5-star clients. You can identify difficult people and projects based on subtle cues and obvious red flags during the sales process, call out what you see, and dismiss anyone who’s non-compliant by choice or predisposition.

Experience allows you to collect all of the unspoken, dormant, and unknown expectations clients may have, and address them directly. I’ve provided many different ideas here to get you started, but your specific situation will have its own demands.

Moxie is a little less transferrable, outside of having an abundance of opportunity. People scoring high in Agreeableness on the Big Five Personality Test will generally have a harder time setting and sticking to boundaries. I’m not one – I score in the 40th percentile in Agreeableness, making me “critical and aggressive.” As Lady Gaga says, I was born this way. My wife can confirm this assessment. You can see my personality test scores here.

Whatever your innate disposition, it’s certain that you need at least a little swagger to set and stick to boundaries. For instance, I won’t respond to client messages on the weekend under any circumstance. If it’s that much of an emergency, it’s a reflection of their poor planning, not the necessity of my involvement. I work on important and non-urgent priorities – I’m not in the emergency response business. If you have similar boundaries, say what they are and have the chutzpah to stick to them.

The time to set and manage expectations is always – now, later, and repeatedly. Cascade your expectation-setting and management from your biggest to smallest issues, and get the deal breakers out of the way right up front.

Use CAR to set expectations: Clarify, Agree, and Reinforce. Andrew Sykes of Habits at Work proposed a model of expectations based on the Five W’s: who, what, where, when, why, and how. I recommend the same thing, but the CAR model goes a step further, requiring you to get agreement, then consistently reinforce it.

  1. Clarify: tell your client your full expectations, or help to clarify theirs
  2. Agree: get verbal agreement from your client to trigger the consistency principle (people tend to remain consistent with their prior actions, statements, and commitments)
  3. Reinforce: strengthen and support boundaries through positive reinforcement; give them praise when they honor a boundary, and remain committed to your boundaries when one is broken


Improving the quality of how you and your agency manage client expectations can have a huge impact on your entire business.

It starts with a commitment to yourself and to your clients, then taking the time to follow through on the expectations you have.

In order to better set expectations with clients, do this next:

  • Make a list of the spoken and unspoken expectations that your clients are likely to have
  • Make a list of the spoken and unspoken expectations that you have
  • Have a process for when you’ll introduce which expectations (marketing, sales, delivery and client management)
  • Apply the CAR Model the next time you set expectations with your clients

And as with everything I write, I’m secretly attempting to make you a better communicator in all aspects of your life, not just in business. It just so happens that better communication will also make you more money.

Do this next: when you’re talking to a family member, your spouse, your children, or whomever else, try the CAR Model. When you do, write me and tell me how it goes.