When working with a new client or on a new project, it can be easy to assume that everything is clear and that everyone is on the same page in regard to expectations. However, when it becomes apparent that your client's expectations do not align with your own, both the project and your relationship with your client can be put in jeopardy. Below are a few tips for successfully managing client expectations, both proactively and reactively.
One of the best ways to ensure that your clients maintain realistic and appropriate expectations is to make sure that they both completely understand the terms of the project and feel that those terms are appropriate and fair. To reach this point, sit down with your clients early on in the process to have a conversation to discuss the project and expectations so that you can reach terms that work for both of you. This collaboration will help, first, ensure that your clients have the opportunity to express their needs so that you can make sure they are met, second, clearly communicate your abilities and restrictions so that you don't oversell yourself, and, lastly, ensure that all parties fully understand the expectations.
With mutually agreed-upon expectations hammered out, make sure to get everything in writing, with as much detail as possible. All aspects of the expectations of both the client and you as the consultant should be clearly defined in the project scope in your contract. Include deliverables, details about each component and part, timelines, points of contact, etc. In addition to giving you another chance to discuss expectations with your client as you go over your contract together in preparation for signing, this aspect of the contract will also serve as a reference if needed in the future to clear up any misconceptions or confusion.
Throughout the entire process of the project, focusing on constant, thorough, and open communication should be key. By making communication a frequent focus, any pain points or frustrations you or your client are feeling regarding project expectations can be discussed quickly and effectively, before they snowball. If your client feels that you aren't meeting expectations, this can quickly become a point of contention that jeopardizes your relationship. First and foremost, make sure that you are meeting your deadlines and expectations, and document progress and completed milestones to demonstrate this to your client. If you are unable to meet a client's expectation that was not clearly defined earlier in the process, be sure to communicate your reasoning; simply saying "no" without an explanation is generally far less effective than helping your client understand your position.
As an independent consultant, going above and beyond for your clients can be the difference in your ability to leave a positive impression and build a reputation for quality, leading to repeat work as well as client referrals. However, there is a difference between going the extra mile and allowing your clients' expectations to cross into the territory of scope creep or unrealistic demands. While making the occasional concession can pay off in the long-term, particularly your most valuable clients, don't allow yourself to get pushed around; if you feel your client's expectations are going off track, schedule time for extended communication and revisit the agreed-upon terms in your contract.