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How to Establish Boundaries & Temper Client Expectations

by | Aug 17, 2021 | 0 comments

Why are establishing boundaries and tempering expectations necessary?

 It doesn’t matter the industry or the role. Unrealistic expectations and boundary testing are inevitable. If your job is to deal with people. You’re going to run into someone that is going to try to test the limits. And that’s okay.
 
It is the business owner’s responsibility to set the boundaries and expectations. Ensure a successful project. When you don’t it leaves room for things to go sideways and projects to go awry.
 
The goal isn’t to win the business but to deliver on a successful project. Part of that requires client management.
 
Whether the issue starts small and or the ask out of scope is menial. It can be a slippery slope and decrease the profit and or turnaround time of the project. That’s not even speaking to customer feedback, word of mouth, and reviews as a reason to stay on top of it. Being personable and attentive can be great customer service. It can also lead to misconceptions about availability. Blur the line between business and personal. It is a fine line. One that you have to draw with a permanent marker.
 

Establishing boundaries with clients

 I’ve spent a few decades in the “people-pleasing” business. Whether as a Salesperson that continued to manage the accounts. An Account Manager, Technical Account Manager, Solutions Architect, Program Manager, or Director.
 
The rules apply across the board. Whenever possible, establish the boundaries early on. It is a lot harder to address later and can lead to a bad customer experience. For the times that I haven’t, it comes up later on as something that requires addressing on some level.
 
You can establish boundaries by setting expectations. Do this through a set of best practices. Walking clients through these best practices of what a successful project requires. Here are the steps that I take to ensure a successful project.
 
The key to remember is they hired you as the expert. Humble as you may want to be ownness is on your to be the authority and expert. When you are clear on the process, availability, and document what’s included. It leaves less room for interpretation.
 

Setting the expectations for the project and the client

 One of the best ways to temper client expectations is to have a clear and concise process. When you’re winging it so will they. Winging it leads to missing due dates and the project completion date.
 
When you have a process in place you can walk a client through it and cover questions that they may have. It doesn’t stop you from having to say we discussed this with some clients. What it does is sets a precedent. Which matters short-term, long-term, and post-project.
 
Document your process. Set the boundaries that can churn out successful projects with consistent results. Get the client to sign off on it before moving forward.  Silly and overboard as it seems. There are solid reasons for putting this practice into place.
 
Your point of contact could change and it leaves you beholden to whoever takes over. By establishing precedent and having a clear process. It makes for a smoother transition. Cuts down on someone changing directions. Due to their different style than their predecessor.
 

How to get things back on track when clients cross boundaries & expectations escalate

 Things happen and sometimes you end up in a situation despite your best efforts to avoid it. The longer you’re in business the more you settle into that reality. Transitioning from “What if?” to “What now?”
 
If or when you find yourself in a situation that has gone off the rails. It can be overwhelming and leave you wondering if you can rein it in. The short answer is “Yes you can!” Let’s take a look at how.
 
Let’s say that you didn’t get to set the boundaries and expectations upfront. Now you’re in a situation and you’re looking for ways to gain control. The first thing to remember is why you’re they’re paying you. It’s for your expertise.
 
While there’s legitimacy to the saying “The customer is always right”. I’m seasoned enough to know how often they can be wrong. Head into all projects and transactions with that understanding. You’ll be able to breathe a bit easier when a situation arises.
 
This is a point where you want to hit the pause button on the project. Thinking you can hurry up and get the project done and yes them to death is not a solution. At least not a good or safe one when thinking about reputation management.
 
Hit the pause button. Listen to and acknowledge their concerns. More than not complaints come from clients feeling like their concerns are not heard. They’re not taken seriously. Leading to the squeaky wheel gets the oil…
 
Set up a call walkthrough with them. Repeat it back to them so that they know they’ve you were listening. One of my favorite sayings in client management is when someone asks if you heard them and the response is “yes!” The follow-up is “but were you listening?”
 
Don’t be the person that is waiting on their turn to talk. Your demeanor will either add fuel to the fire or suck the oxygen out of it. Bringing down the contention and moving it back to a conversation that can get results. Your goal has to be to listen, acknowledge, and then re-cap.
 
Once you do that. You’re in a position to add in your feedback and expertise. Speak to best practices and adjustments that can be made. If it wasn’t already in the contract. You have an option while things are on pause to make the update. Put it in writing and clear the air.
 

How to handle a situation that is already too far gone

 Another inevitability is the realization that some clients, projects, and situations. Aren’t a good fit. The money could be great. Perhaps you needed to add to your portfolio. It could have been a referral so they got around your safeguards.
 
When you find yourself in this situation. It is best, to be honest, and mindful of everyone’s time. The longer it lingers the more room for it to escalate. Which is bad for business. You can check your online reputation but not word of mouth. Get out ahead of it…
 
I had a client that refused to read the email updates or stick to any kind of schedule. His mindset was I’m paying you so you’re an employee. I have a real appreciation and understanding that I don’t know what someone had to do to earn the money. So, it is not my place to discount it and have my own expectations for its value.
 
A small lower-priced project to me could be a significant one to the client. This is why it is important to have safeguards in place and to take the time to get a feel for their working style. When you have a clearer understanding of what that cost means to them and their reasoning behind it. When you understand what’s motivating them and the cost of what happens if things don’t go as planned. It’s a lot easier to stay out ahead of the situation.
 
Once you’re there. Proactive is stepping into your authority. Re-active is allowing the client to dictate terms. Make sure, you have language in your contract that allows for exiting a situation. Without taking too much of a hit.
 
Allowing getting paid as a driving force for thinking you can salvage a bad situation is a mistake. Not all money is good money. The same way a client can fire you. You have to consider the cost of continuing and in some cases fire the client.
 
When you get to this point. The goal should shift to exiting gracefully and leaving them better than you found them. For the ex-client that refused to read emails or stick to the schedule. I created an exit package. It included all the work done up to that point. Also, the steps required to complete the project as-is.
 
This left him with the option of continuing with someone else and having them pick up where they left off. Or starting from scratch with someone else. Either way, he had all the information necessary. He could complete the project and answer questions. Either that or pass along the documentation.
 
The extra effort was to ensure the reputation management aspect of the project. Any negative feedback would get a response. One with a breakdown of the steps taken to remedy the situation. The things that were done after the point of no return.
 
The benefits of this are displaying a top level of customer service. Customer support despite the situation. Something those prospective clients can review and come to their own conclusions. Which, tends to be that you did your level best. There are some people that you can’t please with traditional methods.
 

Conclusion

 It is vital to a project and customer relationship to set boundaries. Establish a set of expectations. If you don’t, they will and it may not be helpful for you.
 
If or when you have a situation that doesn’t go well. Pause set a call and acknowledge their concerns. Repeat them back and look for common ground. Your demeanor will either escalate or calm the situation. Don’t panic maintain your poise and keep it professional.
 
When you find yourself in a situation that cannot be remedied. Let the last memories be of you exiting gracefully. Leave them better off than you found them and better for the situation. Regardless of the results. It is a learning opportunity.
 
Learn from the experience. Add what you need to in your contracts and proposals to cover yourself. Add safeguards into your process to avoid going through the situation again. Document the red flags and add safeguards and outs. This can be a referral. Passing along links to platforms with freelancers and or consultants. Pointing them in the direction of another partnership. One that they can look to for the completion of their project.
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About Sean Atkinson
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