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  • Stefanie Lindeman

No Surprises: Setting and Managing Consulting Client Expectations

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

Sometimes surprises are great! You get done with a project ahead of schedule. Your client gets an opportunity to do something they have always dreamed of. Those are some of the good surprises. But then there are the other kind. One that most consultants will experience at least once is when you suddenly discover that you and your client are not on the same page about what you will do or accomplish during an engagement. Maybe you have an entirely different understanding of how often you are going to be onsite, or your client assumed that your team members had much more time to devote to the project than you assumed when you did the budget, or neither one of you agrees about how much effort it will take you to complete your deliverables.

Expectations can make or break a project! Therefore, an essential consulting skill is setting and managing client expectations. If you do it well, it will contribute to the success of the project and to both your and your client’s sanity. While you can’t guard against every unexpected turn of events, you cangreatly reduce the likelihood of awkward, inconvenient, and unsalvageable surprises in your client relationships. The secret is to start setting expectations with your client from your very first communication and to consistently manage those expectations throughout the entire engagement.

Before the Contract: Establish Boundaries and Agree on Responsibilities

Your contract is an important tool for setting and then managing client expectations. But whether you realize it or not, you’re establishing standards for how you and your client will work together long before you even start drafting a proposal or contract. Two areas you’ll want to pay particular attention to from the start are clarity around communication and shared accountability.

From your very first conversations with your prospective client, you are setting the parameters for how you will communicate with them throughout your relationship. For example, if they email you at 9:00 pm on a Saturday and you respond at 9:05 pm, you set the expectation that you will always be available, no matter what time they contact you. If you don’t want to work like that, then don’t do it in the beginning, no matter how easy it is at that moment to shoot back a response and no matter how hungry you are for the work. If you really feel the need to write the email at that very moment so you can get it off your plate (as I often do), set it up in your email to go out automatically at a certain time Monday morning. That way you don’t have to worry about remembering to do it, and you’ll strike a good balance between demonstrating your responsiveness and setting reasonable standards for how accessible you’ll be.

Before you create a proposal or contract, you also want to talk with your client about how you will work together. For example, how will they support your successful completion of the engagement? Generally, organizations hire consultants because their own capacity to complete the task at hand is limited in terms of bandwidth, expertise, or both. But most successful engagements do not mean that a client can fully pass the work off to you and vanish. Therefore, it’s important that you make it clear from the start of your relationship that you and your client are partners in this engagement. Be clear with your client about what you need them to do to ensure that you are able to give them the best possible work product. In the work I do as a grant development consultant, the most important thing for me to determine is how the client will transmit to me the information I need to draft a grant application. Make sure you and your client agree on how you will get the materials and guidance you need to succeed in your engagement and that you know who your ongoing point of contact will be.

By the same token, you have to be very clear about what you will and will not do as part of your engagement. It will not serve either you or your client to be anything but open during this stage of the relationship. Long before I was a consultant, I was a client. The consultants with whom I felt most comfortable working—and to whom I was inclined to give repeat business—were the people who were upfront with me about what their capabilities were and what they were expecting me to contribute. I didn’t want to work with someone who would promise me the moon and the stars and then not be able to deliver it.

Discuss all the nuts and bolts of the engagement before you sign the contract, and make sure you agree on the details. For example, will meetings be held in person or remotely? How long will they last? Who will develop the meeting agendas? That way you never have to face that awkward moment when you realize your client has been planning for you to fly somewhere for a full-day retreat while you’ve been expecting to spend an hour on a Skype call with them.

Since often the scope of work is worked out over multiple exchanges, I like to document each conversation by summarizing everything we agreed upon in an email and then send it to the client afterward. When you document the conversations, it accomplishes two things. First, you have everything you need to draft an accurate scope of work for your contract. And second, you make it easier to get a client relationship back on track when it begins to stray from the contract.

In the Contract, Spell Out What You Can But Assume There Are Some Things You Can’t Know

If you’ve been communicating openly and honestly with your client from the start, then the contract should bring no surprises. Everything in your scope of work as well as the terms of payment should be something you already discussed and documented.

Your clients have a lot on their plate so do not assume that the client has read every word of a contract before they sign it. If there is anything you need to call out in particular so that they aren’t surprised later, do so in an email.

Even with your best efforts, there are some things you simply won’t anticipate. Consulting engagements, particularly those with multiple deliverables and/or over long periods of time, rarely proceed in total alignment with the original scope of work. Unless the engagement is extremely limited and clear cut, build some flexible time into your scope and budget that can be used to address tasks that arise unexpectedly.

Also build into your contract a process for regularly checking in on progress toward the deliverables and determining whether the existing scope of work is still appropriate. This will give you a built-in opportunity to come to a mutual agreement with the client about whether and how you will adjust the scope of work, timeline, and/or the budget to accommodate additional or different tasks for the engagement.

Manage the Relationship: Remember That We’re All Just Human

There are some things you just can’t accomplish through a contract, no matter how detailed and well-crafted it is. The ongoing management of your relationship with your client is one of those things. Yes, making sure that your contract provides for regular check-ins with your client, that it describes both your and your client’s responsibilities in detail, and that it allows for some flexibility in the scope will help to support a positive and productive relationship between you and your client. But at the end of the day, you and your client are both still a couple of human beings working together toward a goal. The most important thing for you to remember is that everyone is different and what works with one client might not work as well with the next.

Chances are, your point of contact has a lot of other things on their plate. Working with a consultant is just one more task they have to contend with, so show them that you are there to make their life easier, not more complicated. If you’ve worked several years in your field as in-house staff and you are now transitioning to a consulting career, this can require some adjustment. You might feel that you’ve worked with a lot of different personalities and learned how to manage up, down, and sideways. But as a consultant, you no longer have the same leverage you did working in-house. You can’t pop by someone’s office, catch them as you’re both leaving the staff meeting, or bring something up casually as you’re standing at the coffee machine. In some ways, consultants have to be like social workers. We need to read people’s words and their silences, put ourselves in their place, and realize when we are causing them stress and when we’ve hit on something that eases their minds and makes them less likely to send our calls straight to voicemail.

When All is Said and Done…

Your relationship with the client doesn’t end once you hand off your final deliverable. Before you send that final invoice, make sure you let your client know what a good job theydid. That’s right. You started this out by establishing a partnership with them, and the work is just as much theirs as it is yours (even if you did most of it).

You can also take this opportunity to let them know what you’ve learned about them and how you might be able to provide them with additional assistance in the future. If they need help in an area that’s not within your expertise, but you know someone great who could do an amazing job for them, connect them with that person! Let them know you’ve got their back. It’s good for your relationship with that client, and it’s good for your reputation. Not only is that client going to be more likely to return to you when they have work that isin your wheelhouse, they’re also more likely to refer others to you, which essentially means they are helping you build your business.

Setting and managing client expectations is the foundation of a successful relationship between consultant and client. It is just as important as the quality of your work when it comes to turning a new client into a repeat client. The secret, in fact, is not that much of a secret at all. Be forthright and honest. Clarify the details. Show empathy. Cultivate honest, human interactions. Do this and you’ll avoid the wrong kind of surprises. Instead you’ll foster trusting, lasting relationships that will build a foundation for a successful consulting business.

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