Setting expectations for clients

In a perfect world a client hands you a brief, is happy with your work and the project ends on a good note. Unfortunately client relationships don’t always run this smoothly. In fact I’ve seen many freelancers experience several headaches along the way when working with clients. Their clients are either late in providing feedback or send over the wrong files.

When things like this happen it’s easy to get angry and frustrated at the client. But is it really their fault if we didn’t communicate the expectations?

As a freelancer you’ve probably worked with clients many times before – you’re not new to this. You’re well seasoned in things like restrictions around revisions and asking the right questions.

While we’re pretty familiar with the process, it’s easy to forget that the client may not be. You could be the first freelancer they’ve ever worked with. They may not even know what ‘three revision rounds’ means and if they do, they might have a different expectation on what kind of feedback is useful to you. 

To create the smoothest possible client/freelancer relationship it’s up to the freelancer to set the expectations.

Our responsibility isn’t only to set the expectations but also to educate clients on our process. Every freelancer works differently and how we work should be communicated so we can provide clients with a good experience. Though even if we do communicate, there’s a chance something might be misinterpreted.

When in doubt – over communicate. Ensure that the important information is highlighted (literally if you want to!) and that the action points for the client are clear and have deadlines attached to them. 

The importance of setting expectations
Setting expectations early helps to ensure you and your client are a good fit for each other. There’s nothing worse than finding out half way through a project that maybe you just weren’t meant to be.

Work together in defining the goals of the project and uncovering what their expectations are of you. If they expect something of you that you can’t provide, move on.

Walking your client through your process may seem like stating the obvious, but it’s immensely useful for your client. A clear and concisely delivered process will be much easier for them to follow compared to a detailed and overwhelming document. 

I now ensure that I set the following expectations when working with a new client:

1. How to best work with me – How are your clients going to communicate with you? Slack? Skype? Email? Phone? You’ll thank yourself for setting this expectation early on. Too many times have I had clients trying to contact me via multiple tools and devices. Being up front with the best mode of communication means you don’t have to be signed in and checking a bajillion things all the time.

Often I need assets from my clients such as brand files or guidelines. Setting up a shared Dropbox space makes it easy for them to share their files with me and vice versa. Establishing this as the centralised ‘place’ for file sharing sets the expectation that all files will live in one, accessible place. 

2. What your process is – If you find yourself explaining your process to clients often, save yourself time by creating a reusable resource. Send it to them early on and walk them through it, giving them the opportunity to ask questions and refer to it later on in the project if needed.

3. The terms and conditions – This may sound like boring business talk (which it usually is) however is still important. Establishing things like how payment works and what happens should things go sour is much better to have locked down before you start working.

Highlight any areas where you rely on the client to not cause delays in the project. Make sure they’re aware of their role and responsibility within the project by being clear about any implications if they cause delay. 

4. Deadlines – Deadlines are a key expectation to set. While establishing a deadline for the due date of the project is key, so is attaching deadlines to small tasks as well. Why? Well, when we don’t know something, we assume. Those assumptions then influence our thoughts and behaviour. As harsh as it is to hear, you’re likely not your clients top priority. When you request something from them it’s unlikely they’ll be in a hurry to do it, which may set you back.

Introducing deadlines and terms around those deadlines (eg. pushing out the project deadline for each day the client is late in providing feedback) will avoid the client assuming they can take as long as they like.

It’s our responsibility to omit any wrongly assumed expectations of the client.

5. Your own boundaries – This expectation is one to set for yourself. As a freelancer it’s easy to overwork or take calls at all hours of the night. Setting yourself working and contactable hours and communicating those with your client will avoid you becoming overworked and bending over backwards. 


Expectations help set goals and screen clients
When both parties are aware of what’s expected of themselves and when, the success rate of a project is exponentially higher. Projects are always more enjoyable when both of you are working towards a common goal.

Make it your mission to uncover those goals and screen the client early on. 

If you find out early on that you and the client just aren’t meant to be – that’s okay. Not every client will be a match made in heaven. Politely decline the project – provided you haven’t signed a contract yet – and channel your focus on the next one.