When working with a new client, targets and end goals can often be less precise than we’d like. Sure, there are concrete measures involved such as budgets, deadlines, and various other requirements; but there are also more amorphous, intangible concepts floating around that shape client expectations. At the end of the day, project performance will be evaluated on whether or not the end result matches up with what the client was expecting.
Managing expectations is a crucial part of project management and should be an active endeavor for each person on the project team (unless your team is not interested in customer retention). Try the following three steps to improve your team's chances of delivering successful outcomes and building a long list of satisfied customers:
Begin by asking your client to describe their vision for a successful project. Have them go into great detail about their desired end result, specific outcomes that they would consider a success, and the metrics they would like to use to determine whether or not the strategy worked. What would they be proud to tell their boss once the project is complete? Listen to what they have to say, and push beyond broad statements like "the project is completed under budget" to vivid descriptions of the end state (key to avoiding zombie projects). Don’t assume or guess at their desired end result, even if it seem obvious; you shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions in an effort to better understand their needs.
2. Summarize, and offer your own thoughts.
Respect the client's needs, while offering an outside perspective that can help them refine their vision and consider alternate paths. Begin the conversation by summarizing and acknowledging their expressed desired end state, and then outline the approach you recommend to arrive at their end goal. Include supporting details as necessary, for example if your team has solved a similar problem for a different client. Continue the conversation until all parties have a common understanding and agreement on the ultimate goal of the project and the steps planned to get there
3. Don't wait to discuss risks and obstacles.
During the course of any consulting project, roadblocks and challenges will present themselves. Don’t wait until it's too late to discuss risks with the client; let them know what's going on immediately. Present them with a set of researched solutions and adjusted outcomes to choose from, so they understand that your team is maintaining as much control over the situation as possible and are actively pursuing measures that mitigate any additional risk and continue to advance the project towards completion.
The graph above illustrates that how client expectations can be actively managed through the ongoing discussion of value. Because results are not always visible or well-explained, it is not uncommon for perceived value to fall below the actual (or delivered) value. The better a project team is able to manage the expected value using the strategies outlined above, the closer you can get to closing the gap between expectations, perceived values, and delivered values.