Clients don’t always know what goes into the work they’re hiring you to do. While every business wants to provide top-notch service, some clients simply have unrealistic expectations. Whether it’s an impracticable deadline or a project that logistically cannot happen, you must be prepared to communicate limitations to a client who wants more than you can provide.
To help, we asked a panel of Forbes Business Council members to share their best tips on how to deal with these situations. Follow their tips to get aligned with your clients for an optimal outcome.
1. Understand What’s Driving Them
Client expectations are driven by one of three things: past experience, pressures they are facing and inexperience. Document the scope of work and focus on seeking clarity on the outcome. After that, discussions on timelines and cost become a little easier. Make sure you document your assumptions very clearly and then invite your client to challenge them. That dialog will get you on the same page! – Ketan Jahagirdar, ROI Blueprints LLC
2. Operate With Transparency, Candor And Clarity
Many clients of mine have unrealistic expectations as it relates to growth or exit goals for their business. I prefer to always be transparent and offer my candid advice on how I would approach a situation given their personal or professional objectives. Providing clients with clarity of options to pursue is an important role as a trusted advisor. – David Crean, Objective Capital Partners, LLC
3. Troubleshoot Before Working Together
It is vital to set expectations before you start working together. Have a comprehensive understanding of what their goals are and make sure that you have expressed which of their expectations are realistic. Clients value transparency and your business will thrive if you work with clients who you can exceed their expectations and refer others to a different firm that can better suit their needs. – Alessandra Conti, Matchmakers In The City
4. Share Real-World Examples Of What Really Works
When a client has unrealistic expectations, it’s essential to be transparent and authentic. Never fall into the trap over-promising and then under-delivering. But don’t just tell them their goals can’t be met—show them by sharing real-world examples from previous projects. These case histories should provide concrete evidence to support your recommendations and get them on the same page. – Jason Richmond, Ideal Outcomes Inc.
5. Spell It Out And Write It Up
It is your job to focus on how the client understands you, not the other way around. Don’t make any assumptions about what the client understands from a phone call. We always conduct kick-off calls for our RFP and bid responses. However, we then always follow up with an email stating exactly what we discussed so that we can manage expectations for deliverables and due dates. – Maurice Harary, The Bid Lab
6. Consider Whether It’s Essential To Keep Their Business
As with any business interaction, the goal is to create mutually beneficial, long-term collaborations with your clients so that running your business is enjoyable and profitable. Unenjoyable clients can ruin your business. Consider the stage of growth: Do you need this client’s money to function? Or can you afford to lose them and would that benefit your team? – Dandan Zhu, DG Recruit
7. Don’t Be A Pleaser
Part of our business is aesthetics: Making people look younger and beautiful—a field with inherent sometimes realistic and sometimes unrealistic expectations. It does neither the patient nor the provider any good to agree that someone will look different than the limits of what can be accomplished. It is far better to say no to a client and lose the business than acquiesce. – Brian Rudman, Formula Wellness Center
8. Consider The Market Conditions And Deliverability
When client expectations do not align with market conditions or a company’s ability to deliver, it can be due to fear-based negotiating and lack of confidence by a deal maker to establish upfront contracts around expectations. Clearly articulated capabilities, market conditions, measurement milestones and alternatives for strategies that do not yield results are keys to bridging expectations. – Amy Hall, Caton Commercial Real Estate Group
9. Have A Pre-Sale Conference
For a small business, it is very easy to become a victim of scope creep just to make your client happy. This in turn may not even make your client happy and also can hurt your business. Have detailed pre-sale conferences with your client, introduce the scope of the project and do’s and don’ts during your meetings, and solidify your terms in a written contract. – Syed Gilani, Safr Technologies Inc.
10. Don’t Take Things At Face Value
Empathy, curiosity and confidence are essential when dealing with clients who have unrealistic expectations. When something pops up, stop everything and get curious. Seek to understand where the “new” expectation comes from and why it’s important. Odds are your client is reacting to something and, by getting to the root of things, you can help develop a more effective and realistic solution. – Robyn Bolton, Mile Zero LLC
11. Seek First To Build Trust
I believe the most important factor for any service company is to build trust. For a client with unrealistic expectations, this becomes even more important. Be truthful and accurate. Keep your promises. Be responsive. Share your experience. Be proactive and ahead of their needs. Finally, listen carefully. – Shannon Prager, Leadit Marketing
12. Know When To Say No
The key is to educate clients in terms of what is realistic and what is not as early as possible. To try and please every customer with their unrealistic expectations would drain the company and result in providing sub-optimal service causing every client to be unhappy! Make sure they understand why not all their demands can be met and why they need to be a partner to you rather than just a client. – Cyrus Hadavi, Adexa, Inc.
13. Prioritize The Project Tasks
The client talks about the tasks and goals that are part of the project. Assuming that each piece is possible, I replay the list to the client and set time requirements for each one. Then we look at the list in the context of our timeframe and prioritize. If something is beyond our joint talents and skills, we problem solve what might be done instead, then again prioritize how and what to do. – Sharon Lynn Livingston, The Livingston Center for Professional Coaching
14. Use Learning Principles To Support Success
As a company of educators, we bring learning principles into our daily consulting practice. By co-constructing key outcomes and objectives for each project with our clients, we can better set realistic goals. By providing clear objectives, we give measurable terms of what we will do to support their goals. The prospective outcomes identify what a client can do as a result of our partnership. – Rayna Yaker, RYE Consulting
15. Set Ground Rules From The Beginning
I also have learned to sniff out people who will have unrealistic expectations from the initial interaction with them and not work with them. And when we do, I have found that it is best to set expectations from the beginning, including clear goals and metrics. Then you have a clear way to evaluate success. – Jennifer Acree, JSA Strategies
16. Find Out Where The Communication Glitch Occurred
“Unreasonable” client demands usually indicate a communication glitch—either we haven’t understood something about the client’s situation, or they don’t know how we deliver products and services. Either way, ask a lot of probing questions and find out exactly why the client is being “unreasonable.” It’s an opportunity to clear the air and exchange information—not to blame one another. – Sriram Padmanabhan, Cymorg Inc.