Manage Expectations or They’ll Manage You

by · April 18, 20142 comments

What if I randomly handed you $1,000? Pretty sweet huh!

What if I told you, before I handed you that $1,000, that I was about to hand you a random amount of money anywhere between $1,000 and $100,000,000?

That $1,000 doesn’t feel as sweet anymore.

Now, what if I told you I was going to hand you a random amount of money between $1 and $100 and then surprised you with $1,000 in your hand.

Feels amazing, right?

ExpectationsWitness the power of expectations.

In all three scenarios, the end result is the same. You’re  getting handed a grand, just for being you. Yet, the experience of that handout, and the emotions it leaves you with, vary on the expectations that were set. If you were a victim of scenario 2, you might even be walking away thinking that you completely failed as you ONLY received $1,000.

This is a standard part of human nature. Regardless of the outcome, if it doesn’t match up with our expectations of what the outcome “should be” we’ll either be delighted or disappointed.

Not quite convinced, check out all the 5-star Yelp! reviews that contain some variation of the phrase “It was better than I expected.” Then check out the 2- and 1-star review that contain something like, “I don’t know, it was good, don’t get me wrong, but it didn’t meet my expectations.”

Once you set the expectation. You set the bar. A disappointing meal in your personal life isn’t fun for anyone. Unmet expectations in the business world can be downright devastating.

As the Director of Client Services for SME Digital (You knew we had an agency arm right?), managing expectations is a key part of our business. But don’t think that I’m only talking to agencies here, managing expectations is a skill that is also useful client side. From setting a bar with a CEO or supervisor, talking budget with a vendor or handling project timing with your direct reports, you need to be managing expectations.

So what expectations should you manage?

Expectations around Costs

Nobody likes a surprise bill. Whether it’s an extra charge showing up on your monthly phone bill or an extra “0” tacked on the end of a vendor invoice, we can all agree that a surprise bill is damn-near rage inducing. As an agency, it’s your job to set clear expectations around costs at the onset of any relationship. Present it in writing, and make sure the terms are agreeable to both you and the client, before you start working together.

“But what about changes in scope?” you ask in a frantic voice.

Well, that’s why someone invented change orders. If a client requests a scope change halfway through a project, communicate the impact this will have on the final invoice and set that expectation.

Now what if the change in billing was your agency’s fault? Maybe you underpriced a certain aspect of the project, or the media flight came back more expensive than you had planned. That’s a tricky area. The best offense is of course a good defense. Before presenting any number make sure you’ve done your due diligence. Thinking that a certain number sounds right isn’t an option. This is especially true if you have to partner with another agency or vendor to help execute the work. Assuming that they’ll do the project for a certain amount isn’t going to cut it. Work with that partner; settle on a number that works for both of you, and then (and only then) do you present a proposed budget to your client or stakeholder.

If you do need to go back to the client due to an under-budgeted project, be honest with the client, explain what particular piece was under-billed and work together on a solution. The sooner you can have this conversation, the better.

Manage Expectations around Timing

Repeat after me, “I will never tell a client, or stakeholder, day-of that a project or campaign isn’t going to launch.”

Breaking this news on the day the client is expecting something to launch is an absolute recipe for disaster. It makes your agency look like it doesn’t know what it’s doing, and it makes you look incompetent by not being aware of the launch status. Even worst, it makes the client contact look bad in front of their team (who have expectations of their own on launch timing).

Timing expectations can be tricky, but as with the budget, early warnings go a long way when informing the client of a potential missed deadline. The minute you are 100% sure that a project’s timing could be negatively impacted (maybe a client didn’t review a document quick enough, or maybe a piece of code was trickier for your developer to write than planned) be sure to let that client know.

Besides letting them know that of the delay in the project’s timing, you also want to tell them the cause of the delay, and what the revised timeline looks like. Remember your contact is also managing expectations of their own, whether they’re with a supervisor, the CEO or even the boardroom.

Due diligence plays a huge part in setting the right expectations from the get go. Don’t ever assume that something should take a week or two, get confirmation from the creative team, development team and whoever else is having a hand in the project. Again, you want to set the most realistic expectation from the start.

Set Expectations around Results

You’re not special; don’t just assume that your campaign is going to outperform the world

Too many agencies and professionals feel like they need to promise the moon to sell in an idea or win a new piece of business. What happens next? The agency struggles to produce results that were unrealistic to begin with. I see this client side as well, with a campaign manager setting themselves up for failure with their Director of Marketing because what they are promising is unattainable.

In many ways, this is the worst false expectation you can set. Timing impacts and budget changes are annoying but workable. However, fail at hitting your promised level of result, and you face an uphill battle to prove success. Regardless of the success of a campaign, you still would have to communicate that you didn’t hit the promised goal.

Results are the truest indicator of ROI for an agency. If the client isn’t happy with your results, they’re going to walk. That’s the nature of the beast. If you don’t set the right expectations up front, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Of course you shouldn’t sandbag either. Instead, start the results conversation by asking what the client thinks success looks like with a particular campaign or project.

You can then work from there to establish realistic, collaborative goals. If you’re pitching new business, use average figures, costs and responses in your pitches. You’re not special; don’t just assume that your campaign is going to outperform the world.

Of course there’s always an opportunity for a campaign to surpass its promised results, but you know what, no client ever got upset over beating a goal.

Expectations are powerful. If you aren’t managing them, they will manage you.

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About Jason Spooner

Jason Spooner

Jason Spooner is the Director of Client Services for SME Digital, the digital marketing extension of Social Media Explorer. During his career as a digital strategist, Jason has worked with a variety of large and small companies including: NAPA AUTO PARTS, NASCAR, Kraft, Wal-Mart and Wrangler. His passion: creating powerful digital marketing strategies that drive results. Oh, and he does improv comedy. Follow his antics @jaspooner.

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