Set the Stage for Success: Tips for Managing Client Expectations

Buddha said something like, expectation is at the root of all suffering. Whether you subscribe to that theory or not, you can likely agree that client or customer expectations can set the stage for a terrible business review. You see, excellent service doesn’t matter if they expected pizza at your Italian restaurant and it wasn’t there.

Since most customer expectations can be managed before they become issues, it’s wise to ensure everyone is focused on the same thing and the same outcomes. Here’s how you can make that happen.

Be Upfront About Policy or Inabilities

If you have a stringent return policy or don’t allow for substitutions, be upfront about that. Don’t hide it in small print. Make sure if someone is purchasing something that cannot be returned it is communicated in writing and orally. Also, ensure that your customer-facing employees understand the policy and why it’s in place. If they don’t, and a customer complains, they may very well jump on the complaint bandwagon and that’s bad for everyone.

This applies to inabilities as well. Several months ago, romaine lettuce was unavailable due to a recall. This severely impacted restaurants that serve Caesar salads. Unfortunately, many customers who knew about the recall didn’t think about that favorite salad. If you’re unable to deliver on something you normally do, don’t wait for someone to ask for it. Tell them ahead of time so you can manage their expectations before it becomes a major disappointment.

Implement a Client Onboarding Process

If you put a program in place that educates your clients on process and escalation procedures, they’ll feel more of a part of your company and will likely know what to expect. Communicating these things keeps your customers from inventing them, which is often far worse.

Provide a Reliable Schedule

Be very specific about when a client or customer can expect delivery but always build in a buffer on your end. It’s better to give them a schedule that’s one-day longer than they think it should take and deliver on time or before than it is to give them a date that sounds great but isn’t possible. Speaking of…

Under Promise and Over Deliver

This is similar to setting a date above. Don’t promise something you’re unsure you can deliver on. Many small businesses take on large projects hoping they can get it done. They plan on building a name for themselves with the new undertaking. But that fails to happen. If you can’t deliver on what was promised, you will make a name for yourself but it won’t be a good one.

Ask How You’re Doing

For the love of business, think twice before sending out one of those over-done, lengthy surveys. Keep your language fun and the survey short. Spend time on your subject line (if you’re sending it via email) so people will open it. Don’t ask every time a customer or client works with you. My vet sends me one on every visit even if I’m just buying dog food. That’s too much. I rarely ever answer anymore.

Better yet, use a fun, interactive survey. For instance, in your waiting room or lobby, use emoji magnets or paper faces to vote on how well they think you’re doing.

A Final Word About Setting Customer Expectations

While setting expectations and communicating limits and process are good things, know that most people are aware of the trend of customization that is affecting all industries. This trend is encouraging people to follow the once popular Burger King motto, “Have it your way.” With this change, you can expect that many of your customers aren’t going to like overly stringent return policies and other stipulations. Find the right mix of expressing policy and procedure with doing right by the customer.

It doesn’t mean you can’t have processes in place. It just means you have to empower your staff to differentiate between when the right time to set customer expectations is from the time to blow those expectations out of the water.

Christina R. Green teaches small businesses, chambers, and associations how to connect through content. Her articles have appeared in the Midwest Society of Association Executives’ Magazine,, AssociationTech, and WritersWeekly. She is a regular blogger at and the Event Manager Blog.  

Christina is an introverted writer on a quest to bring great storytelling to organizations everywhere.

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