I understand how hard managing expectations is. I’m a consultant and I hate letting my clients down. I want to think I can do it all so I tend to promise big.

Like everyone, sometimes I inadvertently fail to deliver on those promises. But I’ve developed my own methods for setting realistic targets and hitting them and with my professional maturity I’ve gained tools to help keep the pace.

For the purpose of this article though, I will be playing the part of the client. I’ve been there in dozens of relationships, and I live there now. I hire all manner of providers, consultants, and vendors. I’m going to speak to consultants in particular, given that this is written for EcommerceConsulting.com, but if you provide software, products, services, or sell anything at all, please know that I’m talking to you, on behalf of all of your customers and clients.

No Surprises

“No surprises” may be the most important mantra you can promise me. You establish and maintain trust by accurately setting my expectations, and then meeting them. This is more critical than “going above and beyond.”

In fact, doing what is expected, on time, and well, can blow my mind. Sadly, the bar is low. Providers fail to simply deliver as promised so often, it can seem miraculous when it happens! The “above and beyond” might just become another version of “not what I expected.” Also, if the basics are not immaculately executed, those over-the-top extras can feel insulting – why do all of that when the simplest request was not fulfilled? The bonus stuff itself is a surprise. See? You’ve already broken rule number one.

It only takes one slip for trust to falter, and earning it back is a much longer, more difficult prospect than even earning it in the first place. Early in a relationship, it’s easier to take a leap. Customers –  or at least those who haven’t been too badly burned in the past – are usually willing to expect the best. There is a “benefit of the doubt” early on. It’s critical not to squander that opportunity.

The Courtship Period (Sales Cycle)

Even before I have committed to working with you, you have the opportunity to disappoint me – or to delight me. As you’ll see in the examples below, so many of the promises you make are pre-contract. This is the time to promise, right? You want to sell it.

Just remember – not only does this early work pave the way for the working relationship later, but if it goes badly, it might prematurely end our relationship. Poor expectation management during the sales cycle is a quick way to ensure a prospect never becomes a client.

I was recently negotiating a contract renewal with my provider. I got a great discount initially, and the renewal is a considerable increase. We discussed it and she asked where I wanted to be. She promised to see what she could do, and to get back to me “early to mid next week.” I heard from her the following Wednesday with an offer. It was great progress, but we weren’t there yet on the price. When I pushed back, she was clear: there is likely more she can do on the price, with a reduction in functionality, but she won’t be able to hit my mark.

This was a pivotal moment. Remember she’d asked where I wanted to be. I didn’t play games. It was still a significantly increased amount, but it was a change I knew I could get approved. She remembered it, took my feedback, was willing to try again – but also made it clear that she would not be able to get me to the number I’d hoped to hit. That was everything. I know when I’ll hear from her again, and I know the number will be between my goal and her last offer. I’m not expecting a miracle. She managed my expectations expertly.

Managing Expectations While Making Promises

There are endless small ways to create an expectation. I’ve seen so many providers make casual promises, let them slip, and wonder why their customers are so frustrated. They forget that their vague approximation sounded like a drop-dead date to the customer and when it didn’t happen, the trust was lost.

It’s so easy to say things like this. You want to offer what customers want to hear. You have the best of intentions. No one means to under-deliver.

I’ll get that proposal back to you on Tuesday. You absolutely will receive the proposal from me on Tuesday, during reasonable business hours.
Let me see where we are early next week. You will hear from me by Tuesday at the latest, with a clear update. It won’t be Wednesday, and it really should be Monday.
We can get you competitive pricing on that. I will provide a better price than that other quote, and not just a token, minimal reduction.
It should ship by the 15th. It WILL ship by the 15th and if for some reason it just can’t, you will hear from me well in advance of the 15th, with an explanation and an updated ship date, very close to this one, which we will absolutely meet.

Disappointment Destroys Trust

Sometimes things happen. These are the realities of business. No software runs without bugs. No supply chain meets every deadline. No consultant has all the answers as soon as they had hoped to provide them.

Literally every provider has a broken product or promise at some time or another. However, how it’s handled means everything. I will feel very differently about the issue, and the partner, depending on how you handle it – or more specifically, how you handle ME.

So of course, it’s best not to disappoint at all. Here’s how…

Manage those expectations

Maybe these statements are hopeful and should have been qualified… “I can’t guarantee it, but I will do all I can to compete with that quote you received.”

Maybe they were made with the best of intentions and required a follow up… “I promised you’d hear from me by today but I’m afraid I haven’t been able to pull that together yet. We’re close, but are just confirming those details around delivery. I will absolutely have it in your hand by the end of business Wednesday.”

The keys here are clarity, effective communication, and follow through.

Here are the rules for managing expectations:

  1. Be very clear about what you’re promising. It sounds obvious, but vagueness leads to misunderstandings. It leaves room for guessing, and it’s unlikely my assumption is in line with your intention.
  2. Before you promise it, be sure it’s something you can deliver. – Seriously, be absolutely certain. If you’re not sure, don’t promise it.
  3. It’s okay to explain that you’ll make an effort without promising an outcome but tread carefully. You can say you’ll “try” but it’s just like making plans with my father in law. We say we’re trying to see if we can find a time in the spring to fly down. He starts cleaning out the guest room because we’re coming in the spring! So choose wisely here – if you have to make some assurance, fold in all the caveats, make it clear there is no guarantee, and most importantly, adjust those expectations as soon as you have more information.
  4. Once you have set the expectation, do everything you can to deliver on it.
  5. If things start to slip, communicate immediately, even if there’s still a chance you can get it done on time. You know that you’re waiting to get approval from the bigwig and you’re so close to having it ready! But I just know I’m waiting, and you’re making me wait. Let me know what’s going on by way of an update, well before anything is due, if there’s even a chance we’ll miss the mark. Keep it brief, but clear.
  6. If you can’t make it happen, communicate clearly about it, as soon as possible BEFORE the expected delivery. Act as though you’ve let me down. You have. Explain yourself, apologize, and make sure to follow through perfectly on the next five promises to earn back that trust.

Professional Victim Blaming

Did this sound remedial? Fair enough – it was. But I can’t tell you how often I see my colleagues disappointed by their providers. We just keep having the same conversation over and over… wondering if our expectations are really so out of line. Why does it take so much to just receive what we were promised?

A while back, I asked a friend who owns a well-connected consultancy firm about it. I wanted to better understand why it seemed like nearly every single partner, provider, vendor and consultant required incessant follow up and nudging to stay responsive and to deliver as promised.

He said most of the time, clients fail to adequately manage their providers. That floored me – shouldn’t it be the provider’s job to manage the relationship? I’ve thought about this conversation a lot. He claimed that providers need constant management to keep them on track, remind them about your priorities, and float your request to the top of their list. In other words – be the squeaky wheel if you want the grease.

I have to admit, my experience has unfortunately proven him correct. I am consistently disappointed and find that it requires planned babysitting and delicate harassment to get the service I need. I object to this apparently widely accepted requirement.

As a consultant myself, I am embarrassed that this is the culture we have all created and perpetuated.

Raising the Bar

Consultants and providers: WE CAN DO BETTER. It’s not even that hard!

“You’ll hear from me by the end of the day Tuesday.”  When my Rockstar provider says this to me, it means they will set a reminder in Salesforce or Outlook or Google to remind them to do the thing I need, and another MIDDAY on Tuesday to remind them to follow up with me. I’ll have the info I need, and it won’t come at 5:39pm.

Let’s be realistic about what we can do, prepare our clients to expect exactly that, and then deliver it. We can change this culture of overselling and disappointment, together. I’m in! Join me!




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