6 ways to get really good at managing expectations

If you’re someone who is good at managing expectations – those of your client, your team, your boss, maybe even your family – you’re going to be better off in any situation because you’ve made everyone else part of the situation better off as well.

An amusing perspective only possible from Dilbert. Credit: Dilbert.com

What ‘managing expectations’ really means

What managing expectations really means is making sure there are NO SURPRISES.  Outside of birthday parties, wedding proposals and maybe winning the lottery, surprises not usually good things. And remember, for those examples of good surprises we just mentioned, they were only surprises to the people who didn’t know about them So the point of managing expectations is to reduce the number of surprises. People don’t like uncertainty.

It’s important to keep expectations in check.

As much as humans like to be interested in different things, we all work with some sort of life/work routines. It’s been proven that routines help us focus on what’s important by reducing the number of decisions we need to make each day just to survive when each day is different form the next.

That they all happen to start with ‘C’ is pure coincidence. Here are 6 ways you can work on your ability to manage expectations and get better results in whatever situation you might find yourself in.

1. Be cautious

You’ve probably head people say ‘don’t over promise’. This doesn’t just apply to project deliverables but every aspect of a project or relationship. If following a presentation your client asks you, ‘so can setup another meeting in a couple days from now to review those changes?’, DON’T OVER PROMISE by agreeing. You should agree of course, that meeting will definitely happen but a couple of days from now might not work best for your team (who are the ones who need to do the changes in question). The best answer when a Client is trying to get a commitment from you on the spot is

“Sure, let me check with the team and I will get back to you by (______).”

No can fault you for wanting to confirm with your team first so you’re sure.  After all they’d rather know that they won’t have to rearrange their schedule either. The most important thing here is to make sure you get back to them by when you promised them.

2. Be consistent

The easier you make it for people to know what to expect from you, the easier you’re job will be to manage expectations . If you always send out notes and action items following meetings, the people who receive them will come to expect it. They may not necessarily acknowledge the effort because, ‘thanks for sending me more action items Tara!’, said no one ever.

When you do something consistently, it helps to provide some stability to whoever, Client, team etc., that you’re working with. It also communicates (without you having to say anything) that you’re serious about this project and that they should be too.

Now if you send notes and action items after some meetings and not others, this isn’t good. If there’s nothing worth noting at the conclusion of a meeting, it pretty much means it was a complete waste of time and that you should work on managing expectations for what you want to get out of meetings in the future.

3. Read the contract

If you don’t know what the contract says then you’re kind of ‘up the river without a paddle’, or rather ‘heading down to whitewater with no life preserver’. Maybe it’s called a ‘Scope of Work’ or maybe ‘The Brief’, whatever document it is that outlines what you’re doing for who, for how much and by when is the contract I’m talking about. Read it once and then read it again, slowly if you have to, don’t skim it. Skimming leads to ‘oh i totally missed that before’, a.k.a. budget and schedule over-runs aka. mad client.

No matter how much you don’t want to do it, make yourself read the contract. You might start to like it! Photo credit: Fran Cartoons

Know exactly what you’re on the hook for and if the contract is unclear in any way, which i’m quite sure it will be, schedule a quick meeting with whoever wrote it so you’re both on the same page as to what it means, what you’re doing and most importantly, what the client is expecting.

4. Over communicate

Everything is always going great until it isn’t.  That once friendly client contact now wants to know where you are all the time, and would quickly take a spot sitting on your shoulder if she could. Remember that as soon as you give a client, or anyone for that matter, a reason to doubt you or worry, it’s a very difficult thing to undo.

It’s a good thing to keep in mind that your client usually has a full-time job to do in addition to being your point-person. It’s not their job to manage you and you shouldn’t need them to. So over-communicating doesn’t mean share every possible detail, it means emphasizing the the most the information that is most relevant to obtaining an outcome that is beneficial for everyone involved.

Let’s use an example for this one. Say you’re setting up that meeting your client was asking about earlier to go over those revisions. Since this would be the 2nd meeting you might follow a process where after a certain number of revisions, you require a client’s approval or sign-off to proceed to the next stage of the project. If we assume that this is a meeting where you will be looking for approval, you’ll want to make sure you’re client is well prepared to give you what you need.

To over-communicate in this example is to make sure both your team and the Client are clear about what the objective of the meeting is in advance. This would mean speaking to your main Client point of contact to make sure that they know what the meeting  objective is that anyone from their side who should be involved in making an approval attend the meeting. Over-communicating means actually stating these steps and then following them up with an email. An old colleague of mine Nicole taught me this saying:

“If you ASSUME you make and ASS out of U and ME”

Remember, NO SURPRISES. Never assume that what you’re thinking about is what other people must be thinking about too. Everyone has their own priorities they need to get through everyday, respect this and help them by over-communicating what you need up front and in point-form.
5. Be candid

Yes honesty is always the best policy but within reason. Anything information that would cause a client or your team to worry for no reason is usually something you can keep to yourself.

For example, say the Jr Visual Designer working on the project is going on vacation in 2 weeks and another designer will take over any work until they return. It’s likely that the Junior designer is not client facing so that they’re going to be away would be of no consequence to the client. The most important part of this scenario is that the work that needs to happen while they’re out is being covered by someone else, and you already have a plan for that.

Let’s look at another example. Say that if you’re two weeks away from launching a new e-commerce website for a client in a week but something is going wrong with the products database but your engineering team is not exactly sure what it is just yet but they’re working on it. The client has announced the launch date to the press and has sold a lot of advertising that will be nonrefundable so close to the air date. Assuming that your engineering team agree this is a problem that has the potential to impact the site’s launch date, being candid with your client about the true situation is the best plan so they can do whatever they have to on their side to help mitigate the risk.  And remember to over-communicate how the problem was identified and now what you’re doing to fix it to reduce worry as much as possible.

6. Be Clear

Perhaps it’s obvious but I’m including it for good measure as it’s something that I work on everyday to try improve. The easier you make it for the other person to understand what they need to do, the higher the chance of them doing it.

So what this really means is be clear about the call to action. Do you need a response? If so, what type of response do you need? For example, if you need an approval for something say you need approval and by when. If you need the person you’re emailing to follow-up on something to get information back to you, state that clearly. Just remember that most people are focused on doing their job, they don’t have time to figure out stuff for your job. Helping them helps you – before you hit ‘send’, read it out loud to yourself. If you start to feel silly reading it, change it before you send it.

No one has the time to figure out what you’re trying to say, let alone what you actually want, simplify! Photo credit: Dilbert.com

And here’s a bonus!

7. Exercise Clairvoyance (the bonus ‘C’!)

No one expects you to see the future but if you’re doing all the above you should be able to imagine what possible scenarios you might encounter down the line. A big part of managing expectations is being able to foresee potential issues and try to prevent and/or mitigate them early on.

If you can apply these to every situation you’re in you’ll be doing a great job managing expectations and people will be lining up to work with you. Here they are one more time:

  1. Be cautious
  2. Be consistent
  3. Read the contract
  4. Over communicate
  5. Be candid
  6. Exercise clairvoyance (if you can)






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