Managing Client Expectations – A Must for Professionals

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Managing client expectations is a critical risk management skill necessary to ensure a healthy professional relationship. Every communication provides an opportunity to revisit and redefine expectations.  A professional who sets and fails to deliver upon lofty expectations is in an uncomfortable and potentially litigious situation.  There are several tools available to the professional to help curb expectations and limit the damage when (inevitably) the result doesn’t go as planned.

Various studies, most of which arise in the medical malpractice context, prove how important it is for the professional to maintain expectations. According to one oft-cited study, medical professionals who focus on educating the client on what to expect are less likely to be sued for malpractice. According to another source, the medical professional was “truly negligent” in only 1 percent of the malpractice cases studied meaning – according to the author of the study – that lawsuits “are not about bad outcomes,” rather, they are “about expectations.” 

Some experts suggest that a key to maintaining client expectations is to set certain limits. The professional must be completely honest with the client about what is achievable, reasonable and possible and that which is not.  These boundaries are necessary.  When addressing specific issues, a good rule of thumb is to provide frequent updates regardless of whether the professional is sharing good or bad news so as to build client trust. 

In a related vein, the professional must follow the motto of “under promise and over perform.”  The client is likely to respect you more for achieving the unlikely than attaining the expected.  The reverse is also true: the professional may be setting herself up for disaster by promising a certain result.  

Another tip is to document expectations wherever possible. Follow-up telephone conversations with e-mails and restate the fundamental points or strategy.  Better to be repetitive and clear than on a different page from the client.  It is only once the professional understands and is comfortable with the client’s expectations that she can shoot for achieving the desired result.

The bottom line is that clients are more likely to be comfortable with their professional when mutual expectations are in line.  Problems will arise and mistakes will happen, that is inevitable, but the professional who consistently reassess the client’s expectations is in a better position to avoid a lawsuit.  Since perfection is impossible, professionals should make it a priority to manage expectations.