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Roundtable Discussion: Setting Client Expectations

Updated: Mar 11, 2019

We had a lively session discussing this topic; everyone has had different experiences but we all agreed on one thing…it’s important! Here are some of the insights and suggestions that came up from the group plus a few pearls of wisdom from the internet.

Get Clear on Your Value, Boundaries and Goals

In reality, setting client expectations starts before you even are introduced to a potential client. You need to be clear on what value you bring, what services you can successfully provide, how you like to communicate and what your goals are. It can be helpful to find a mentor on this; ask a more-experienced professional what they’ve learned, it will remind you that you can be successful while sticking to your values.

Define for yourself what kind of client you want; write it down, post it somewhere and review regularly

Define your boundaries:

  • Payment expectations: Minimum project price? Late-payment fees? Initial consulting fees?

  • When/how you’ll communicate; Do you take late-night texts? Do you commit to responding to emails within a certain time?

Identify your deal-breakers

  • Slow payment? Brusque communication? Late-night texts? Wishy-washy? We can all deal with different idiosyncrasies, be sure you understand what you can deal with and can’t.

Practice setting boundaries in small increments on unrelated things, practice makes perfect!

Remember that what you say no to defines your business as much as what you say yes to.

If you’ve successfully fired a terrible client, print and frame the email so you can remind yourself you survived.

Remember to honor yourself and honor your client, this makes it easier to set boundaries.

Check out the book Essentialism, it can help you understand the value of taking on less.

Starting Off Strong

Your first meeting or two will set the tone and are critical.

Talk about your process on your website, not in excruciating detail, but enough to let potential clients know you do have one, and that you are committed to it.

Consider having a detailed process document you can hand a prospective customer once you meet, this will help set expectations and clarify anything you might miss during the discussion.

Talk about process and expectation-setting in terms of the client’s benefit:

  • “Staying up-to-date on the schedule will help you plan around important deadlines”

  • “Making these decisions at one time will save money by minimizing the number of trips the electrician has to make.”

Discuss budget up front, no exceptions! That doesn’t mean every element has to be nailed down, but you need at least a range or there will be trouble. Here are a few articles that may help.

Realize some people do need some context when setting budget.

  • While it’s important to be clear on the budget to get started, some people really have no idea what a reasonable cost is and can feel pressured or embarrassed by throwing out a number right away.

  • Giving clients some broad strokes can help the process along and increase trust. For example, you could say “A bathroom remodel can range from $X with builder-grade fixtures, new flooring and lighting, to $X for moving walls, designer fixtures and natural-stone floors and counters. Where do you feel like you fall in that spectrum?”

Make sure you’re clear on the decision makers and stakeholders, sometimes there may be a “hidden” decision maker or influencer.

  • Who makes the final decision for design? For budget? For timeline? Recognize that these could be different people and make sure you’re clear on who the “client” is for each element.

  • Consider requiring all interested parties attend at least one meeting prior to signing contract.

Ask your clients to verbalize their top two priorities; Timeline (fast), Aesthetic (good), Cost (cheap). Help them understand the tradeoffs.

Don’t get dazzled by big dollar jobs if they’re asking you to cheat your process and boundaries. These rarely turn out well – ask your mentor!

Make it clear when the clock starts. Do you do free consultations? Revisions of “free” estimates?

Make your proposal time-bound; 30 days, 60 days, whatever’s appropriate, just not “forever”.

Recognize red flags:

  • They act like they’re doing you a favor

  • The parties don’t agree on priorities

  • They’re disrespectful right up front – this doesn’t get better

  • They seem to want a friend as much as a professional

  • They have unrealistic time/budget expectations and can’t be talked down

Reiterate all important agreements both in conversation and in writing; people absorb information differently.

Be clear about how their decisions affect the price and process and give examples:

  • “If the tile isn’t ordered by this date the installer will be on another job, which will push the cabinets, which will push the countertops. Missing this one deadline could affect the timeline by a few months.”

Treat friends and old clients like new clients; don’t skimp on the process or compromise your boundaries.

Be OK with turning a prospective client down if they’re not a good fit for any reason, you are doing everyone a favor. This can be stated very positively – “I don’t know if I can do the best job for you.”

Communicating Along the way

A gant chart is a great way to help clients visualize the project and the impact of their decisions:

  • It doesn’t have to be a fancy program, showing dependencies visually is the important thing


  • That said, many project-management programs will produce one for you

Summarize progress at milestones so clients understand the work that has already been done.

Deal with any hiccups immediately, be honest and unemotional.

Stand up for your suppliers – they’ll make things go smoothly next time if you don’t throw them under the bus. But, if there’s a supplier problem, make sure you circle back at the end of the project and discuss how to learn from the experience.

Be proactive; ask how your clients are feeling about the project along the way.

So how about you? Any experiences or suggestions you’d like to share?

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