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guide to project management • Chapter 7

Managing Client Expectations

by Brett Harned
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Here's what you can expect from this chapter: We'll describe how to manage client expectations and give you some tips and tools to help you improve the ways you set expectations with your team and clients.

Now, look back at that first paragraph. We set expectations for this article in one sentence!

The point here is that it doesn't have to be difficult. Setting and managing client expectations can be simple and short. It's all about delivery and how you communicate details. Of course, every project is different, and it's not always that easy. But it is an art you can hone and master. Follow these 5 steps to help successfully manage client expectations:

1. Manage client expectations from the start

The best time to set client expectations is early and often. As the project manager, you're the connection between your internal team and the client. You have to be detailed and persistent when it comes to communicating and relaying goals and parameters at every phase.

From day one on a project, you need to be clear about what should be expected from you, your team, the process, and the clients. Every person and process detail is key to the project's success, so it's better to lay it all out right there. Loopholes all too often set the stage for scope creep to rear its ugly head.

Pre-kickoff meetings

At the beginning of a project, set up two separate meetings—one with your team and one with your clients—to discuss all of the details and processes that will make or break your project. Some things you might want to discuss in a client pre-kickoff meeting include:

To give your kickoff meetings a little kickstart, consider using our sample meeting agenda below. This will help ensure everyone on the team is aware of all the critical information related to the project.

Sample client pre-kickoff meeting agenda:
  1. Introductions: Let the clients know who’s on the team and what they will be responsible for. If possible, include them in the meeting.
  2. Review scope: Review the document at a high level. Make sure clients understand what's included (and excluded) in your scope of work.
  3. Discuss the timeline: Now's the time to make sure everyone's on the same page about the final delivery date. Discuss reviews and approvals. Make potential dependencies clear, and talk about how you'll handle potential delays.
  4. Discuss project requirements: Have project requirements been documented? If so, review them, and make sure you completely understand what’s expected of the project. If not, start the conversation, and talk about how you’ll come to agreement on what’s needed.
  5. Discuss project communications: This is critical. Everyone needs to know what communication tools will be used and how you communicate best (phone calls, emails, Slack, online project hubs, etc.). Determine the avenues and frequency of communication upfront, and make sure everyone agrees.
  6. Next steps: Finally, recap expectations and assignments. Help keep your team and clients on point by reminding them of what's next on their plate. Close out the meeting by calling out action items and next deliverables.

2. Assign internal team and client project roles

Large projects can be complex. Tasks often overlap, depend on other tasks to be completed, or are so large in scope multiple team members are involved. If you don't set expectations on who does what and when they do it, staffing can quickly get confusing.

Be sure to assign specific project roles and task responsibilities, while keeping communication flowing. To make assigning project roles easier, use these pointers:

Talk about process and how you'll work

Every project is unique in some way. Sure, there may be shared approaches or deliverables across projects, but discussing how you'll use them on each project is critical for success. Follow the tips outlined in Chapter 3, and you'll start establishing expectations for process, deliverable reviews, stakeholders, and your timeline—all in one fell swoop.

3. Conduct project status meetings

There's no better way to set and manage expectations than simply checking in with your team and your clients. Whether you work solo or on a team of 20, in an office or remotely, sharing progress is one of the best things you can do to keep communication flowing.

Internal team status meetings

In general, a 15-minute in-person (or video chat) review of the day's tasks is a nice way to catch up with your team. Be flexible with your team in determining what's the best approach to conducting your status call.

Once you start, simply take turns and give everyone a chance to talk about what they're working on that day. A quick check-in will force everyone to organize project priorities before the meeting. That little bit of accountability makes a big difference.

Before you wrap up, ask something like, "Does anyone need help? And does anyone have time to help with other tasks if needed?" A simple question like that can help you build trust and rapport with your team—and, of course, it helps you all stay more efficient with your work.

How you approach project status meetings will depend on the project you're working on, team schedules, and maybe even the intensity of the work.

Client status updates

It's good practice to keep an open, consistent line of communication with your clients. Ensure you’re staying current on all project issues by providing a weekly status report via email or phone call, and check in on alignment with project objectives.

Status reports not only help you and your clients stay on track, they also keep you realistic and honest about your work, process, budgets, and other issues. Making time to sit down and discuss these points will pay off in terms of your client relationship and will help your team see the project to completion. With regular status meetings, you're making sure everyone involved reviews and reaffirms the expectations you established at the start of the project.

A good status report covers:

  1. What was done last week
  2. What is being done this week and next week
  3. Action items
  4. Update on timeline
  5. Update on budget
  6. Potential project risks

Lastly, don’t forget to have a bit of fun with your status meetings. Use the time to catch up with your team and clients on non-work-related topics.

4. Foster good client communications

In project management, it always comes back to being a good communicator and facilitator. If you’ve done your job, a communication plan lets your team know that over-communication is welcomed—your project will feel open. The team will always know what’s happening, will set their own expectations, and will likely meet timeline and budget expectations without question.

If your clients’ expectations are outlined and discussed, they’ll be happy they’ve helped you meet or exceed them and will feel reassured because they most likely know what to expect from the final product.

5. Utilize an expectation management matrix

Sometimes simply discussing expectations is not enough, especially if you’ve got a client who is unfamiliar with your project type or seems disengaged early on. In those cases, you’ll want to double-down on your defense from potential change or scope creep from the beginning of a project with a project management expectations matrix.

This tool will help you to understand your stakeholder’s expectations for your project, and when change comes into play on the project, it will help guide you to make decisions that are in-line with their expectations related to the project’s cost, schedule, and scope. 

This simple tool provides a helpful framework in determining what project variables can be adjusted in the face of change. Create and share this matrix with your stakeholders to determine which of the three project variables (cost, schedule, scope) must be minimized or maximized, which variable should be maintained, and which variable can be adjusted up or down. It sounds complicated, but it’s easy. Below is an expectations management matrix example.

expectations management matrix example Image
Expectations Management Matrix

Here’s a brief example of how it could be used:

  1. Your stakeholder introduces a new feature on your product and says that it must fit in the current project budget.  With that information, you place a check mark in the cost and Min/Max cell.
  2. Your stakeholder says that they’re “sort of” flexible but would really prefer that the schedule stay the same. With that information, you place a check mark in the schedule and constrain cell). 
  3. Because they are adding features that need to be discussed and worked through, they agree that the scope can be negotiated in order to meet the budget and schedule. With that information, you would place a check in the scope and accept cell.  
  4. By doing that analysis in your matrix, you can see that changes to the cost or schedule will impact changes to the scope. 

More than anything the format will help you to prepare for a conversation about the change and its impacts, and will hopefully help you to align with your stakeholders before change introduces confusion.

6. Keep client expectations in check

  1. Create shared to-do lists. As a project manager, you know the value in lists. They help track tasks, milestones, and related deliverables. When your whole team has access to the list, there's never a question about who's doing what and when to expect task completion.
  2. Don't worry about delivering bad news. If you think something might go wrong, talk about it. There's no benefit to keeping worrisome news hidden. Keep a "Risks" section in your status report because the last thing you want to do is surprise a client with news the project is over budget or running late. It's always smart to estimate project risks ahead of time, with tools like gantt chart software.
  3. Ask questions and listen. Don't be scared to dig in and figure out what you may not know or understand. Chances are, asking questions will help you and your team sort out your client's project expectations. You might also hear valuable feedback—which keeps the client happy because they’re being heard! When you get an answer, don't always take it at face value. Think about how it might impact your project—and follow up with more questions if needed.

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