401-423-2400 Kristin@Zhivago.com

Managing expectations: Maturity at work

Think of any situation where you have purchased something, and, at the end of the purchase experience, things got nasty. Assumptions you had made at the beginning of the process turned out to be incorrect. Promises that the vendor made were broken, and the vendor was very reluctant to make it up to you. The enthusiasm you and the vendor had at the beginning of the process was gone, and in its place were raw nerves, legitimate concerns, and a lot of haggling over “what we must do, now that we know what we didn’t know before.”

This is, unfortunately, a very common state of affairs in any complex sale. It’s also completely unnecessary. Most, if not all, of the typical end-of-sale-process disappointments can be eliminated altogether, if expectations are set properly up front, and reinforced as the purchasing process proceeds.

But, there’s a catch. It takes a healthy amount of maturity to make it work. You have to plan ahead. You have to face facts, and convey them realistically and honestly. You have to realize that the client would rather know the bad news at the beginning of the process. They’ll be just as concerned about the difficulties at the beginning as they will at the end, but at least they will appreciate your honesty when you tell them the bad news at the beginning. If you wait until the end, they will wonder what else you’ve been hiding. They will stop trusting you, and the situation will only deteriorate from there.

Let’s look at an example. Let’s say you’re selling something that involves a lot of customization. You know, from past experience, that after you deliver the product (or the project is considered “finished”), the customer will find things that they hadn’t thought of, that neither of you had noticed, or that they want to change. Instead of just ignoring this reality, and suffering the negative consequences, you should manage the client’s expectations.

Managing your client’s expectations is one of the most important aspects in any commercial relationship, and yet it is almost universally ignored in sales training – and sales management.

If you were selling this type of complex product or project, early in the relationship you’d say, “It’s been our experience that after we deliver the product, our customers may find things that escaped our notice, or things they want to change. It’s just the reality in this type of complex situation. So we always build a ‘post delivery fine-tuning” module into the estimate to cover this period. Usually about 5% of the total cost covers whatever we discover together during this period. If we don’t need it all, we won’t bill you for it. But by holding it in reserve, it will be available just in case.”

Handling it this way is much, much better than trying to get an additional 5% after the client believes he is done paying for your services. It’s better than running out of money to pay your workers at the end. It’s better than you – and your workers – getting hurried and sloppy at the end because the money is running out. Psychologically, if everyone is prepared for this “end of project fine-tuning” period, their performance and interest won’t peak too soon.

When you manage expectations properly, you are setting up a situation where the client, your vendors, and your workers will behave in a way that works for everyone. Mature management is really “behavior management.” It is the anticipation of how things could go wrong and how to head those problems off at the pass. Here are some basic guidelines to successfully managing expectations.

1) The truth is your friend. Every time you run from the truth, the resulting negative consequences come after you, like a mangy junkyard dog, snarling at you and never leaving you alone. The truth is more like a golden retriever. Sure, goldens need food and care, and sometimes they can be a pain, but they more than return the favor. The payback is enormous. Similarly, truth has momentum. Workers and clients alike will tell others that you can be trusted. Being trusted is one of those “go/no-go” factors in any sale. If someone says, “He’s a good guy – very honest,” you will continue to pursue a working relationship. If someone says, “He’s smart, but he can’t be trusted,” you will take your business elsewhere. It’s that simple.

2) Confess early and often. If something is going wrong, immediately tell the client. Sure, you can take a few minutes to think about the best solution to the problem, so you’re properly prepared when you call, but call – right away. The longer you wait, the less the client will think you can be trusted. Sure, the client will be upset. But nowhere near as upset if he finds out later on. And, rest assured – he WILL find out. Your own employees or vendors – or a competitor – will make sure of it. Your number of friends and allies shrinks as you run from the truth.

3) Make a list of all the things you need a client to know ahead of time. How does this always work? How long does it take, how much does it cost? What kind of help will you need from the client? Who else may have to get involved? What’s really important and what is less important? What must be done first? Will things get difficult at some point, and what’s the best way to deal with it? What have others done, and what can be learned from what they’ve done? What have you learned about this process, that the client should know? What will you do if there is a problem?

4) Put it in writing. A simple email spelling out the contents of the list, or summarizing a phone conversation about it, is more than sufficient in most cases. Yes, there is usually a contract of some sort with these types of complex products and projects, but contracts are mostly to protect both parties from the consequences of things really going off the rails. The purpose of managing client expectations is to keep things on the rails, running on time.

In the most successful relationships, nothing ever gets too far out of hand. Even the little things are brought up in a courteous manner, and discussed. An agreement is reached about how to handle that situation in the future. There is no arguing and no hurt feelings. The problem is addressed and solved, and everyone goes back to what they should be doing.

When you manage client expectations, you are anticipating what could happen, and also explaining what should happen. You are helping the client understand “what’s going to happen after I buy.” You are in charge, and you are mature. You don’t let things get out of hand. You tell the truth. You face reality head-on.

Imagine what it would be like if all businesspeople behaved this way. There wouldn’t be any more horror stories about “my disastrous remodeling job” – just a happy customer referring others to the vendor who was mature enough to successfully manage expectations.


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