Want to be successful? Learn to manage expectations.

When I was working a “regular” day job and review time would come around, the main thing I looked for was that last page of the review where there were 3 check boxes:

  1. Does not meet expectations
  2. Meets expectations
  3. Exceeds expectations

My main concern as my manager evaluated my performance was that they felt I was exceeding expectations. As I moved into the freelance world, my main concern is still that I am in the business of exceeding expectations. How do I do that? Many times it’s all in how those expectations are managed.

1. Managing expectations is about perception. I attended a seminar several years ago where the speaker told a story that illustrated this point perfectly:

There was a small town in which there were two candy stores: Smith Candy and Jones Candy. A mother asked her son which he would like to visit for a treat. Her son replied immediately that he wanted to go to Mr. Jones’ Candy Store. Why? He believed he got more candy for his money from Mr. Jones. The truth was that Mr. Smith’s and Mr. Jones’ prices were exactly the same, but Mr. Smith’s practice was to put a large pile of candy on the scale and then remove it piece by piece until he reached the correct weight, while Mr. Jones put a few pieces on the scale and kept adding and adding until the correct weight was reached. The little boy’s perception was that he was getting more, even though the end result was the same.

Two designers can produce the exact same work in the same amount of time, but the one who tells their clients they will get the work done in 10 days and finishes three days earlier will have happier clients than the one who tells the client they will get the work done in 5 and finishes two days late. The difference is not in the length of time it takes to do the job, but the client’s perception.

2. Expectations should be set up front. I try to always give clients a clear list of what they will receive from me and when I will have the work completed. Often, clients don’t know what to expect or have unrealistic expectations. Knowing what their expectations are is key to managing them. Since I am the one who sets their expectations- it’s my fault if they’re disappointed.

3. Expectations should be realistic. Keeping track of how long it takes to do projects helps me to better estimate future jobs. I have to guard against overselling, especially when it’s a client I really want to work with.

4. Communicate early and often. I keep my clients updated regularly during projects that have a longer time frame. Even if the message is “I’m still on schedule to finish by the end of the month.” If I foresee that a problem is going to cause a missed deadline, I let them know as soon as possible. If a client asks for something extra that was not in the original plan, I respond with a revised completion date. When an update to a website is requested, I send an e-mail as soon as it’s completed to let them know.

5. Throw in a freebie. I like to add an extra bonus if possible, often it’s something that takes very little time. You can even plan this up front. In your list of services you’re going to provide, leave out one thing you might normally do for clients, then throw that in for “free” as a bonus.

Managing expectations well is an important skill no matter what business you’re in. Are you in the business of being a husband? Tell your wife you’re going to do that chore by Friday and then do it on Tuesday. Are you in the business of selling a product on the internet? Tell your customers as soon as possible if there’s going to be a delay in their shipment, and then throw in a freebie unexpectedly. Are you in the business of being a typical employee in a typical company anywhere in the world? Make sure you know exactly what your manager expects of you, and then find ways to go beyond their expectations and make sure they know all about it.

The majority of people and businesses simply meet expectations, and some don’t even manage to do that. With a little attention towards managing and exceeding expectations it’s easy to stand out in the crowd.

Published on: June 25, 2007 | Category: How to