26 Agencies on the Winning Approach for Managing Client Expectations

Agencies Aug 21, 2018 15 minutes read

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    Expectations are set early and they’re extremely hard to change.

    While this may be true throughout all walks of life, it’s especially true (and potentially costly) for anyone in the service business, and in this case, marketing agencies.

    Managing client expectations is simply part of the gig.

    As we found in our research with dozens of marketing agencies, no matter how well expectations may be set early on, issues surrounding them are basically inevitable.


    That’s not hyperbole. We include ‘Never’ as an option to the question of “how often do client expectations become an issue that needs to be addressed?” and not one agency chose it. Not. One.

    So if issues surrounding client expectations are inevitable, what can we do?

    Client expectations start early, as in before the sale. The content they consume on your website, your case studies, the interaction with your team, the sales process–all of these things create impressions that evolve into expectations for working with your agency.

    However, the sales process is where expectations are (hopefully) clearly and directly laid out. When we asked agencies whether or not they do a good job at setting expectations during this stage, almost 85% said yes.

    But as we noted earlier, there doesn’t seem to be a correlation between setting expectations well and not having issues related to them:

    Client expectations still become an issue for almost 78% of agencies.

    Which points back to our original conclusion: it’s inevitable.

    So if managing client expectations is an inevitable challenge for all agencies, we figured there must be some great feedback out there for actually doing it well. Tales from the trenches.

    In addition to the quantitative responses above, we also asked agency professionals for their tips and advice for setting and managing client expectations. Here’s what we learned…

    Unrealistic Timeline Expectations

    One answer stood out immediately as the most common (and one of most vexing) client expectation issue: timelines.

    This was especially common among marketers who offered SEO services.

    “By far, our greatest challenge revolves around unrealistic client expectations when it comes to SEO ranking timeframes for competitive keywords,” said Brian Winum, digital marketing director at MAXPlaces Marketing.

    David Freund, partner at Junto, agreed: “Agencies know that SEO efforts take time to come to fruition. Getting clients to understand that expectation can be a challenge at times.”

    Of course, it’s not only that clients don’t know that marketing efforts take time. “As an SEO provider, many clients claim to understand that SEO will ‘take a while,'” said Daniel Lofaso, president of Digital Elevator. “[B]ut when a while passes, they never seem to remember that aspect of the conversation.”

    And sometimes things don’t go as planned. “Some projects take longer than originally anticipated to produce something that meets our quality standards,” says Andrew Maffettone of Seller’s Choice.

    Agencies of all types might run into this issue. But it seems especially prevalent among those focused on inbound marketing.

    How to Manage Timeline Expectations

    So how do agencies deal with client expectations around timelines?

    Much of it comes down to frequent communication. MAXPlaces reminds clients of the long-term value of SEO in every phone call and email. Seller’s Choice has weekly meetings with clients to make sure they know how things are going.

    “We’ll mention it in our kick-off meeting. We’ll write it in an email that updates them on the project timeline, and we’ll mention it again on our monthly call,” says Alysha Schultz, account manager at Intuitive Digital.

    “It feels like a lot at first,” Schultz adds. “[B]ut we find bringing this up multiple times is the only [thing that] . . . prevents them from getting upset when the phone isn’t ringing off the hook after only 30 days of running paid ads.”

    Inbound Emotion founder Jordi Navarrete shares case studies with potential clients. That way they can see how things typically progress.

    Digital Elevator has an entire “expectations document” that guides conversations about timelines, so every employee knows how to address this issue. They also make sure to ask specifically about expectations so they can address mismatches up front.

    Freund and SmartBug Media marketing strategist Jennifer Ann Lux both emphasized the importance of addressing this issue as early in the sales process as possible. SmartBug makes sure that customers are given an execution plan with specific dates so they know what to expect and when.

    Akvile DeFazio takes it a step further: “We’ve put education in the forefront of our client relationships so that we limit surprises and misconstrued expectations.” AKvertise manages customer expectations throughout every step of the customer relationship.

    Sometimes it comes down to managing your priorities, too. When clients have unrealistic timeline expectations, “we’ve had to reevaluate our time-management and focus on the deliverables we know will give our clients their best ROI first,” says Campaign Creators junior marketing technologist Elika Dizechi.

    Not Understanding Expected Results

    When you contract with a client, you have an idea of what deliverables are realistic. You can increase traffic by a certain percentage, or generate a specific number of leads, in a specified time.

    But what if the client expects more from your services?

    That’s a problem.

    “My biggest challenge is keeping clients focused on an agreed-upon objective for delivering leads and meeting revenue targets,” says Patrick Dodge, founder of Creative Side Marketing. “In my experience, clients often shift their priorities mid-stream, and start focusing on vanity metrics that add little value to our campaign.”

    UNINCORPORATED account manager Robert Johns shared similar frustrations: “The biggest challenge is helping clients understand the results they can realistically expect to see from the strategies/tactics they choose to deploy

    Aligning Expectations with Results

    Clients always want to see big results. But they don’t always contract agencies for an entire marketing overhaul. They might hire out a few blog posts or a website redesign. And they may not realize that their expectations aren’t realistic for what they’ve contracted.

    “[I]f a client expects to see a sharp increase in top-line revenue from a few blog posts, they will be very disappointed,” says Johns. “However, they can realistically expect to see an increase in web traffic and possibly a few new leads.”

    Johns’ advice to avoid this mismatch is simple: don’t oversell your services, and set realistic goals. Make sure your client understands those goals, too.

    Creative Side Marketing adds regular communication to that idea. By monitoring objectives agreed upon at the beginning of the contract, Dodge keeps clients focused on what’s important.

    “They will always have new priorities they want you to address,” Dodge says. But if those priorities affect Creative Side’s revenue targets, it’s time for a meeting about expectations.

    Square 2 Marketing founder Mike Lieberman goes a step further and helps clients understand their current revenue cycle. Only after the customer sees where they are now does he start working on where they can reasonably be after a period of time.

    “We do a good job helping clients understand their current revenue cycle,” said Lieberman. “What the early buyer journey stages look like, what the conversion rates are down into the buyer journey, and what the new customer and revenue output look like when we arrive on the scene. We then design the end stage revenue cycle with all the metrics associated with each stage of the buyer journey. This gives us the goal line. We then agree on the timing associated with driving to the goal line. The bigger the investment the shorter the timeline.”

    Keeping Clients Updated

    Sometimes the difficulty starts before you’ve reported your results. Several of our respondents noted that client expectations about updates during the contract don’t always align with what you plan on doing.

    “If they haven’t heard from you, or they don’t know the status, they automatically assume they’ve been forgotten,” says EntreLeverage‘s April Sullivan, “even though we may be hard at work on it.”

    Fiona Adler, founder of Actioned, points out that the deliverables of the project can add to this difficulty. “Demonstrating that you’re actually working on the client’s project is often problematic—especially when there is some time lapse between deliverables.”

    No matter what you’re working on, clients want to know how it’s going.

    PRO TIP: Create a custom dashboard in marketing reporting software that displays the metrics and KPIs that are relevant to your client’s business goals. For example, you might include metrics such as website traffic, social media engagement, or leads generated. You can then choose to share the dashboard via email, a public URL, or by embedding it on a website or intranet.

    Upfront and Frequent Communication

    So how do you keep them updated without the process taking over your time?

    Sullivan makes sure to communicate the expected timeline at the beginning of the project and send updates before the client has to ask for them. “We never want a client to email us and ask ‘what’s the status on this?’,” she says. “[W]e want to anticipate the question and answer it well in advance.”

    Actioned goes a different route, and lets clients get the answer without getting in touch. “We use a tool with clients which allows them to actually see the work we have planned and accomplished each day.” If the client still wants an update, they have more information that they can use in that conversation.

    Doubting Your Tactics

    You’re an expert in your field. You know what works and what doesn’t. That’s why your client came to you in the first place.

    But they might have some ideas about how you should do things, too. And that can be problematic.

    SEO consultant Francesco Baldini finds this especially prevalent in SEO. Some clients rely on old tactics that are less effective and potentially harmful, he says. And they may push you to adopt tactics that they’ve read about online or that they remember from a few years back.

    In a field that changes as quickly as SEO, this is bound to come up often.

    But it can apply elsewhere, too.

    Kimberly Scholten, marketing coordinator at Odd Dog Media, finds that client requests are often at odds with best practices and industry-specific data. Odd Dog uses this data to drive their campaigns, but clients might request a campaign or tactic that they saw work elsewhere.

    Beyond specific tactics, clients may have requests that you know either aren’t good ideas or are unrealistic.

    “[J]ust last week a prospect approached us asking if we can get them to #1″ on six specific keywords,” says Return on Now founder Tommy Landry. It’s not always easy to tell clients that SEO is rarely so straightforward or that they may not have a chance at ranking for a specific search.

    Using Your Expertise to Set Realistic Expectations

    So how do you make sure your clients understand what’s reasonable?

    “When you meet your client or provide your onboarding questionnaire,” says Baldini, “your focus should be having a clear idea of their goals, as well as communicating them with your knowledge of the work.”

    Make sure that they know you’re an expert and you know what’s reasonable to expect. Setting these expectations early on can save you a lot of hassle later.

    And if you can’t come to an agreement, says Landry, you may have to walk away. “One bad client can eat up the bandwidth and emotional energy of 10 good clients,” and it’s not worth working with those people.

    Amount of Client Accountability

    Agencies and freelancers know that clients need to put in work to make the relationship a success. Not all clients know that. That mismatch can result in headaches.

    Meticulosity CMO Tanya Wigmore says it perfectly: “One of our biggest challenges is to manage the client expectations around their involvement in the campaign.”

    And she’s careful to note that it applies to everyone. “This goes for the client who AWOLs when you need a critical approval to the client who can recite your direct line by heart.”

    It’s important to remember that you should consider this for every client, and not only the difficult ones.

    Says Tara Gearhart of t Media Consulting, “There is nothing worse than thinking you are on the same page, only to find out that you and the client are envisioning two different results.”

    Get Clear Up Front

    As with many of the issues we’ve discussed, the suggested solutions center around getting clear with the client as soon as possible.

    Meticulosity “clearly outline[s] our expectations for what we need from them and what the process is if we don’t hear back,” says Wigmore. From the very beginning of the relationship, communication expectations are documented and made clear.

    Gearhart takes it to the next level and recommends “overly communicating responsibilities for all parties involved.” Combining that with checkpoints throughout the project puts clients at ease.

    If clients know when to expect updates and feedback, everyone is synced up.

    Identifying Expectations

    Thus far, we’ve talked about expectations that are relatively straightforward. You know what they are, and you can take steps to deal with them. But that’s not always the case.

    “One of the biggest challenges is discovering the hidden needs/requirements of the clients,” says Girish Bendigiri, co-founder of Augentia. They can seem clear in the beginning, but after the work starts, you may find that there are requirements that even the client didn’t know about.

    And that “can create delays, scope creep, and delivery anxieties.”

    Ryne Higgins, senior manager of ecommerce at Peacock Alley, tries to anticipate the needs of customers early in the process. That, he says, creates trust.

    Remember that client expectations aren’t always clear at the outset of the project. They may have requirements they didn’t know about or thought that you already knew.

    How to Identify Client Expectations

    Marc Herschberger, director of operations at Revenue River, emphasizes aligning your expectations before issues arise. Many agencies try to align or realign expectations early in the campaign, he says, but that’s not early enough.

    “[I]t should really be done during the sales process,” he says, “with some sort of involvement, sign-off, or at the very least shared notes between the agency’s sales and execution teams.”

    That way you can spot any potential problems and deal with them—or let the client know that you’re not a good match.

    Augentia uses templates and checklists specific to client scenarios during the sales process. These documents help them discover the needs of the client, even if the client isn’t yet aware of them. That makes the entire relationship easier.

    “You have to understand the emotional as well as the logical reasons behind [clients’] business with you,” says Higgins. “When you get to know them on a personal level, you’ll start to understand their real expectations.”

    Solving Expectation Problems With Communication

    Almost every marketer that we surveyed highlighted the importance of communication in managing client expectations.

    While that’s no surprises, that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

    “The biggest challenge is clear communication,” says David Denning, head of business development at Jumpstart Go. “We solve this challenge by clearly addressing all aspects of the project in multiple mediums (email, phone calls, etc.).”

    Pristine PR founder Kristine Snively sees communication as one of the central parts of success:

    “Whether communicating the positive or the negative, you cannot go wrong with proactive communication.” Which is why Pristine has monthly meetings with clients to discuss insights obtained from their client tracking dashboards, realign expectations, get updates, and gauge results.

    Managing client expectations is a complicated process. It involves many different people both at the agency and the client. But in the end, it’s all about communicating effectively.


    Which client expectations do you struggle with? What communication practices have you found to be most helpful? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Article by
    Dann Albright

    Dann is a freelance writer who helps B2B companies reach their audiences more effectively. With an emphasis on organic traffic and conversion, he takes big ideas and turns them into highly practical content that keeps readers hooked.

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