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Are You Setting the Wrong Client Expectations?

Are You Setting the Wrong Client Expectations?

Think about your favorite restaurant. Imagine yourself going through the entire dining-out experience: walking in the door, getting a table, placing your order, receiving your food, and finally eating it. Since this is your favorite restaurant we’re talking about, you probably know exactly what to expect. You may even know what you would order and precisely how long your food would take and how much your final bill would be.

Now imagine that you go to the same restaurant, but you’re told that it will be a two-hour wait for a table. Not wanting to wait, you decide to try a new place down the street. It looks busy, but you’re assured the wait won’t be long. After about fifteen minutes, you pull someone aside for an update.

“Oh don’t worry. You’re next on the list,” you’re told with a smile.

Twenty more minutes go by before an employee is even willing to make eye contact with you, and even then, it’s only to reassure you that it won’t be much longer. They can sense your impatience, and more importantly, your disappointment.

“How much longer?” you ask.

“I promise we’ll be with you soon. You’re…”

Next on the list. Yes, you’ve already been told that. They are so hesitant to give you an exact timeframe because they know they’re slammed, and they’re afraid of telling you something you don’t want to hear. If they had told you right when you walked in that the wait for a table was 45 minutes, you might have left and gone somewhere else!

What Went Wrong

With the first restaurant, the one that told you there would be a two-hour wait, you did leave. You knew that on that particular night, you weren’t willing to wait for two hours, even though it would have been for your favorite dish at your favorite restaurant.

But, you absolutely will go back on a different night. They may have lost your business that night, but they did nothing to lose you as a customer.

That second restaurant? All they did was frustrate you. You became impatient and aggravated, and you felt like you were being lied to, all before you even sat down to try their food.

What Truly Impresses Clients

I realize not all of you out there are in the restaurant business. I’m certainly not—I help clients create and publish books—but this principle applies to all client and customer interactions, no matter what your business is.

In my industry, for example, it is common for clients to ask me how long a book will take to write. If I isolate that question and think about their book alone, I know that I can have it written in under a week, depending on its length. It can be tempting to tell the client that, because it sounds impressive.

“It takes some people years to write a book, and you can do it in a week? Wow!”

The problem is that it’s never that simple. First of all, that client is not my only client. Second of all, there are all sorts of behind-the-scenes administrative tasks that are an important part of book creation that have nothing to do with the actual writing.

Finally, at what point is a book done? When it’s written? After the several rounds of editing that are required? After it has a cover? After it’s available for sale? Each of those things can add weeks onto the project, even if the initial writing is done quickly.

If I tell someone their book will be written in a week, while that might wow them in the moment, it will only disappoint them in the end.

A much better strategy is to be realistic about expectations, and then give yourself a buffer zone to allow for unexpected issues. You’ve probably heard the saying, “under-promise and over-deliver.” If I give a client a three-month timeframe for a book, and it’s completely done, edited, and polished in two, then the client is thrilled and we can all celebrate together. If something comes up that delays the project, I can enjoy a little bit of relief, knowing that I have a few extra weeks built in to my deadline for that very reason.

Creating Lifelong Loyalty

A few weeks ago, I had to get some basic maintenance done on my car. I took it to the mechanic, and when I got there, they informed me that I was a day early for my appointment. They astonished me by moving a few things around and being willing to look at my car anyway since I’d made the trip.

The mechanic then pulled me aside and said, “I have to tell you honestly, though, we may not be able to really do much with it until tomorrow morning. Will that be okay?”

It was more than okay. I appreciated that they didn’t tell me to leave and come back, and I appreciated that they didn’t promise to get it done within hours when they knew they wouldn’t be able to. I’ll continue to bring my car there, simply based on that experience.

Think about your clients and what they need from you. As a society, we are not known for our patience, but the vast majority of people would rather be set up with realistic expectations than be disappointed by expectations that aren’t met.

If your services take time and/or come with a high price tag, let the customer know up front, and allow them the dignity and respect of making their own choice. In the worst-case scenario, they may go somewhere else for their immediate need.

More importantly, however, is that they will appreciate your candor and integrity, and you just may have won yourself a future customer for life.


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by Jessica Dawson // Editor-in-Chief of Founder Nonfiction, a boutique publishing house of non-fiction, making published authors of entrepreneurs, business people, and professionals.

Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.