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Setting and maintaining expectations to keep clients happy (& retained for years!)

Sep 19, 2022

Expectations not being met is the number one reason clients leave an agency. 

Learning how to properly set expectations with your clients will not only eliminate unwanted stress from your job, but will ensure that your clients remain happy and retained for years! 

For employees at every level, it’s helpful to think about expectations as the rules of engagement for the partnership between your agency and your client. Unfortunately, When we avoid the conversation around setting expectations or set unrealistic expectations, everyone ends up disappointed.  

Chances are that your client has hired you because they are not experts in your field and are looking to you to guide them. Sharing what they can expect when working with your agency is an important part of your job. For example, if you don’t clearly communicate that they might not see earned press mentions come to fruition for three or four months, you cannot assume that a client knows this is the case.

Before we dive into when and how to set expectations, there are a few key things to remember. 

First, when it comes to expectations, we cannot set them and forget them. We have to continue setting expectations and communicating them as campaigns and projects evolve. Once you’re finished reading this post, you’ll realize that they don’t have to be scary conversations that we dread having with our clients. If done correctly, they can be a regular part of communication and strategic planning. 

Next, when setting expectations, it’s important to remember that you are the expert and your client is likely not. While we don’t recommend shooting down every idea your client has, it’s important to be honest and give your expert guidance. 

Lastly, results, timelines, cost, scope of work, and the level of control that we have (or don’t have) are common places where we see expectations misaligned. When we haven’t set expectations ahead of time and clients come to us unhappy, it’s common that agencies say whatever they can to bring the client back to a happy place instead of having the hard conversation around why an expectation may be unrealistic. Setting them clearly from the beginning will be your key to success.  

As we mentioned, these conversations don’t have to be difficult or stressful. Following this simple framework will help you navigate expectations with ease.  

  • Understand your scope of work. Be clear on what you have been hired to do for your client.  
  • Understand what you can and cannot accomplish within this scope. Have a clear understanding of what activities fall within your established budget and which do not. Thinking about this ahead of time will help you navigate questions from clients down the line. 
  • Understand your client’s goals. At the end of the day, a happy client is going to be able to report back to their team that you helped them meet their internal goals. Understanding what those goals are will help you ensure that your campaigns map back to the results your client needs. 
  • Be direct. Leaving room for interpretation will only lead to confusion and misaligned expectations. Be confident and clear in what you are communicating. 
  • Reinforce and remind regularly. Expectations only work if we stick to them. If you set an expectation with a client that reporting will happen weekly, yet receive daily emails for reporting updates, kindly remind them that your team is hard at work and will share an update and results in your weekly report. 
  • Expect that they will forget. We’re all busy and we’re all human. Keep track of the expectations you have set with a client and stay consistent in reminding them when needed.  

As client-agency partnerships progress, there are a few key times when it’s critical to set and reset expectations. 

Client onboarding is the first opportunity to set expectations.

This is where you will set the tone for a long-term successful partnership. There’s a lot to think about here, so take the time to prepare and ensure you’re covering all of your bases. 

  • Create a roadmap for your partnership by ensuring that everyone is aligned on the phases of your work. This may include strategic planning, execution, reporting, etc 
  • Set expected timelines for each phase of work. For example, you may decide to spend a month on strategic planning, and then begin execution. 
  • Communicate when the client should expect to receive deliverables and what those deliverables will include.
  • Outline what communication will look like. This is the time to clarify who will be the client’s day-to-day contact, how often you’ll be sharing updates and the frequency of phone calls and meetings.
  • Agree on the frequency of reporting. This is the time to define how often the client can expect to hear from you, whether you’ll be sending weekly email updates, or sharing updates as you have them. 
  • Request the assets you’ll need to succeed. For example, if you need assets such as hi-res photographs, brand books, or sales sheets, this is the time to request those.  

Strategic planning is the next time that it’s important to realign expectations. 

  • Determine what you are hoping to achieve. This can be done at both a high level and when it comes to more granular goals. 
  • Understand the client’s big picture goals and understand whether or not the client’s stakeholders are also aligned on these goals internally. 
  • Agree on metrics that will be used for tracking and measuring the success of your campaigns. 
  • Timeline expectations are important to reset here as well, outlining milestone dates and deadlines.
  • Reinforce expectations around results, ensuring that you are aligned on when results can be expected and how they will be measured.  

Team communication is an important part of expectation setting that often gets overlooked.

If you don’t let your client know how often they can expect to hear from you and your team, it can create a scenario in which you constantly receive emails, phone calls and text messages from clients wanting updates. For retainer clients, get a recurring meeting on the calendar from the beginning to avoid this. Outlining what kinds of communication they will receive and when can also be helpful. For example, PR agency teams can tell clients that they your team will share media inquiries as they come through and a more indepth status report will be communicated bi-weekly. 

 

After putting this level of structure into place, client expectations should be aligned. However, it’s important to remember that expectations will always become misaligned at some point. If you sense this, we recommend having a proactive conversation as quickly as possible to course correct.

Lastly, it’s important to reset expectations when you are asked to do something out of scope. Time, quality, or cost must be adjusted to make space for new work, or it becomes a slippery slope where one extra task turns into hours of additional work that are not within budget. 

 

If you’d like to learn more from the Advocation team on best practices for PR & marketing agency teams, follow us on social media–Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube.