Project Management

Manage expectations with IT consulting clients

Most veteran IT consultants have war stories about failed expectations. Chip Camden offers pointers on how you can appropriately manage expectations with your clients.

 The IT consulting path can be a bumpy one. The very things that make it interesting, such as the variety of clients and projects, can also result in sudden surprises. I like some surprises, like "Happy Birthday!" or "You've won a million dollars!" but I'm not as fond of surprises like "That isn't what we wanted" or "We haven't paid you."

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, unpleasant surprises result from failing to manage expectations. Either the consultant was blissfully unaware of something the client expected of them, or the consultant expected something from the client but failed to make that clear. Here are pointers on appropriately managing expectations with your client.

Communicate. The number one cause for failed expectations is never expressing them. Don't assume that just because a given practice is customary in the industry, your client will automatically follow it. Plainly state your rules of engagement -- payment terms, scheduling expectations, requirements gathering, feedback, etc. Conversely, your client may be incorrectly assuming that you understand what they expect from you, so make sure that you know their expectations by regularly asking appropriate questions. Solicit a constant feedback loop. Prioritize. In business, some expectations are crucial, while others are "nice to have." Make sure that you and your client understand which are which. Of course you'll try to provide everything they want, but if push comes to shove, you might have to drop something or at least delay it. When you have an agreement with your client about that contingency, nobody gets shocked by the outcome. Document. You just had a great phone conversation with your client -- you nailed down all the key plans for the project, and you're certain that you and the client are on the same page. Before you jump into development, though, write it all down. Send an email detailing all the points you agreed on. Likewise, any terms that you expect from your client need to be in writing. Verbal agreements may be legally binding, but proving that the agreement ever existed is another matter. Follow up. Just because you communicated and documented the expectations on both sides, never assume that it's a done deal. Revisit expectations on a regular basis and make revisions where necessary. Verify that expectations are being met on both sides. If not, immediately work with your client to get back on track. Even the smallest disappointment needs to be acknowledged and dealt with -- otherwise it can grow into a bigger problem. Give and take. Nobody is perfect. We all overcommit sometimes. Unforeseen circumstances occasionally prevent fulfillment of our obligations. So after identifying a failure to meet expectations, you should make a new plan with more realistic goals, or stick to the same plan after acknowledging an unavoidable exception. Just don't let failure become the norm. Insist on respect. When someone fails to meet our expectations, a large part of our disappointment comes from the perception that they didn't care about what was important to us. If you've ever had a client pay late without ever saying a word, you can relate to that feeling of disappointment. Furthermore, when one party tries to lower expectations, it can feel like a slap in the face, depending on how it's presented. In order to effectively manage expectations, you must start and end with respect. Start by identifying what's really important to your client and to you, and then work together to see how much of that you can achieve together. When addressing a failure, it helps to start by reiterating why the expectation was important to you -- that will often suggest a remedy.

Share your war stories about failed expectations and what you did about them.

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About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

10 comments
PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Really good article, Chip. As a project management consultant, I live managing expectations. Couple of points, however. As you got to the bottom (Give And Take, and Insist On Respect) you seemed to focus on the client missing on the expectation. But expectations are a two way street. You, as a consultant, have expectations of the client (in total and in part). But the client also has expectations (both of you and the work you are doing). Unfortunately s**t happens. On both sides. Respect (and Give & take) must go both ways in order to form a solid basis of an agreement. And without respect on both sides, you can't create empathy and the understanding which is necessary for resolution and forgiveness. Other than that, excellent and spot on! Glen Ford, PMP http://www.TrainingNOW.ca http://www.LearningCreators.com/blog/

DesD
DesD

Point 3 - Document. Couldn't agree more. I moved from a British law country (NZ) to a Roman-Dutch law country (RSA) In the former, intention is paramount; in the latter, "if it's not in writing, it never existed" Or as the Romans used to say "Caveat emptor" (Beware, buyer) and "Ignorantia iuris haud excusat" (Ignorance of the (written)law isn't a real defence) I inherited a partly done job, then was held to ransom by a client who insisted that this, that and the other had been promised by my predecessor. Of course, he was leveraging my ignorance of the fact he had no evidence to prove his assertions. But I learnt fast.....

sukanta.bhatt
sukanta.bhatt

Thanks Chip for the pointers for managing expectations. Put nicely. I have faced many of these issues being sort of an internal consultant. Though no rocket science, it makes a lot of difference when one is aware of the blind spots and acts on them.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I was a day late delivering this article to my editor, the excellent (and patient) Mary Weilage. But at least I sent her a message yesterday so it wouldn't come as a surprise.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I meant the last two sections to apply in both directions. Perhaps I wasn't clear on that.

robin
robin

As always, Chip, another balanced and informative article. You did mention but not emphasize sufficiently in my experience the importance of first understanding what the client actually does expect. I'm glad you didn't fall into the common trap wherey too often "managing expectations" is interpreted as merely saying "No," which frequently is a kneejerk reaction, often occasioned by not understanding adequately what the client does want. Kneejerks by definition seldom are appropriate. Truly managing expectations includes satisfying them too. By the way, there's a related issue that occurs when you work as part of a larger organization and the person making promises to the client is different from the person who has to fulfill the promises. That's so big it's a topic for an article of its own, or two (dozen) additional articles.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Thanks! Yes, a lot of what I said falls into the category of "should be obvious" but often isn't put into practice.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

unfortunately, not everyone has heard your opinion previously. (Nope, you weren't clear on it. But you're forgiven. ;-) )

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

It's about agreeing on what's really important and making sure that happens. Thanks for the additional idea!

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

I'd say it's really more about agreeing what's important, why it's important and how important it is ... and then communicating what's really happening. After all, you can't make sure things happen. The best you can do is work towards it happening.