When it comes to managing expectations, working remotely, especially in an online environment, often generates a kind of manufactured urgency. We’ve been trained – like Pavlov’s dogs – to jump when pinged by client notifications or emails. Probably even the microwave beeping. Messages arrive with haste, and we tend to respond in kind – sometimes at our own expense in the real, functioning world.
This isn’t to say that promptness or discretion or accountability, or any of the other hallmarks of good service, aren’t meaningful. Of course, they are. But sometimes this urgency sends mixed messages about expectation – especially if you haven’t established clear project boundaries with your client from the start.
A client may have expectations about a quick project turnaround and multiple rounds of revisions, and likewise, you may have similar expectations about accurate feedback or prompt payment for services rendered. It’s not that these expectations are unrealistic or unfair, it’s just that online they are a step removed from the real world, and if not communicated at the outset, can cause unnecessary hassles, and even bad feelings. And really, my brothers and sisters, can we all not just get along? Right, where was I …
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A Failure to Communicate
I’m going to make myself sound too old, but if you’ve seen that classic film, Cool Hand Luke (because Paul Newman), you’ll remember the famous line by the prison warden. “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” This was said when Luke was recaptured after his prison escape.
Okay, not the best metaphor. No one’s in prison here or being subjugated to hard labor or trying to buck the penal system. But aside from ALL that proper context, the quote has a kind of magic to it. Good initial communication is the lifeline to managing expectations.
Here’s an example:
Awhile back, a client sent me a request: Lysa, dear, can you make the tables on pages 9 and 10 modifiable so I can implement my own changes? I keep having formatting issues.
When I got the message, I immediately responded. I’m quite sure if someone had been watching, they would have thought I’d been stung by a bee. Request – jolt – answer. Absolutely. I’ll have it ready for you right away.
I made a note to start the changes with full intentions of doing them, but by mid-day, my life had exploded all around me and everything derailed. It was a shit-show. Even after staying up most of the night to tie off loose ends, I still wound up unable to complete my task list. Life happened and I would just have to catch up tomorrow. Something I told myself repeatedly as I crawled up the stairs and barely managed to get myself into bed.
The next morning, the first email I saw was from my client from the day before. It bore the subject line: It’s about your promises …
I felt like I had been kicked in the gut. He was right. I promised and I did not deliver.
In truth, this says more about my personality than anything else. I am – for better or worse – a people pleaser. You want this done? No problem, I’ll drop everything and do it for you. Not the most healthy approach, is it? And completely void of boundaries. My client had not asked for the work to be done same-day. I placed that pressure on myself and then couldn’t do it. The guilt was self-induced.
Being Reactive vs Proactive
As a service provider, I carry this fear that if I don’t jump to do something straight away, a client will find someone else to do it. In the online world, it only takes a few keystrokes to hire or fire someone and the field of people offering similar services can appear endless. But I forget that intuitive clients will not be as knee-jerk as I am if they want to see their projects through. They value investment and work ethic … and communication.
Good communication is the perfect antidote. I have to establish clear boundaries that are helpful for both my client and myself. End dates, weekly or bi-weekly check-in phone calls (with specific times, like 15 min), regular correspondences about progress, feedback, and times for revisional work and changes. All this provides structure. It allows my clients to see their projects through different developmental stages, and manage their expectations about what’s needed from them, and when. In turn, this diminishes my false-alarm anxieties.
I guess I would call this being proactive instead of reactive. I proactively set the structure in place at the start and mitigate the number of unexpected queries I have to respond to down the road.
Dealing With Scope Creep
As a side note, this also ties in very well with something called “scope creep”. What if that client’s request for modifiable pages had been weeks after the project closed or one of many in a steady stream of ongoing, unending extra requests that were eating up my own resources? It’s the online equivalent to nickel and diming. A little request here, a free consult there, some bonus work added outside of what’s been agreed upon. It goes on and on, and can quickly spiral out of control. Before you know it, you’re providing your premium services when a client has paid for less. Believe me, clients love to get more for less (we all do, it’s the American way). But if you establish those boundaries at the start – this is what you get, this is what you’ve signed up for – then you can nip the slow trickle of lost time in the bud.
We know remote work has its inherent pressures, and we know keeping clients happy is a big part of growing a successful business. But within that often complicated relationship, you need to empower yourself to set the necessary boundaries in place and lessen the likelihood of surprises on both sides. This starts with communication.
Now, off you go. Get it done.