Why clients fail to manage expectations

You’ve probably read articles and attended seminars on how to manage the expectations of your corporate clients. You know enough to keep them happy by having honest, up-front conversations about what to expect from you.

After all, it’s what you would do if you were in their shoes.

Or would you?

I’ve conducted hundreds of feedback interviews with individuals, teams and decision makers responsible for managing external counsel. I have yet to encounter a client who doesn’t qualify dissatisfaction with a statement to the effect of “I suppose I should have asked about that.” or “I should have said something earlier” or “I didn’t want to come across as mean, but….”

From my observations, most clients know when they need to discuss something that isn’t going right or that will eventually cause a problem. They just don’t know how to say it.

Here are some of the reasons why:

  1. They’re intimidated
  2. They’re hiding information that is vital, but perhaps embarrassing
  3. They’re dealing with political factors that they would rather not explain to you
  4. It will take a lot of effort to provide you with the information needed to deliver the service, and they’re not that dedicated to doing so
  5. They don’t trust you
  6. They genuinely cannot equate your fees with the value of your service

And here is what both of you can do about it:

The more involved the client is in the project (i.e. the more choices that they need to make or information they need to provide), the more guidance they’ll need about how to express expectations throughout the process.

1.    Acknowledge

Really. Sure, you’ve been retained for your brilliant skills. If the client is a large institution, your contact may not even have had a choice in hiring you. But you can’t get the job done without her.

What clients can do: I once interviewed a client contact at a national company who was convinced the project that her boss hired an accounting firm to do could have been done better in-house. She later admitted that she resented that her own skills had been overlooked when the work was assigned externally.

Client contacts can brief their colleagues about why you’ve been hired, your track record and how your involvement will help their organization strategically. This is usually done through established communication protocols within their organization or private meetings.

What you can do:  Recognize what’s going on and apply experience. Brief your team about client sensitivities throughout the project. Ask what success will mean in technical terms, strategic terms and in your relationship. That’s where loyalty is built.

2.    Involve

The more complex a matter, the more involved your client will need to be.[1]

What clients can do: organize as much as possible before hiring external expertise, not after. Get buy-in from those who could delay or derail the project. Conduct a risk assessment. Review the budget. Anticipate what will be required of them. Review post-mortems of similar past projects and anticipate where tension may occur.

What you can do: provide project deadlines, check for understanding, illustrate how clients can be of maximum help in fulfilling their role, and the rewards of doing so (lower fees, faster completion). You may need to do this on your own time, but it will lead to client satisfaction and quality outcomes. Which is what gets your bills paid on time, without argument.

 3.    Talk

 Clients who believe they have done their part to effectively work with external professionals are more satisfied with project outcomes.[2]

What clients can do: Give feedback without delay.  As the administrator of a large law firm recently told me, ‘I’ve worked with many professionals on strategic projects. I’ve learned to give feedback early and often. If I see a potential problem, or a situation is starting to smolder, I’d rather deal with it sensitively but directly. There is no sense in adding more tinder to the pile and then watching it take flame and burn the good parts of the relationship along with the bad. At that point, it’s too late and the relationship is damaged beyond repair.”

What you can do:  Have you noticed that a client is stressed out, passive-aggressive or delaying? Gently broach the subject. If you can’t do it, ask your administrator or a colleague to place a service check-up call. Most clients would rather walk away than complain. Make it as safe as possible for someone to bring up their concerns. It shows that you care.

4. Balance

“We’ve decided that we can do this ourselves. We’d like to move [legal, marketing, accounting] services in-house. Thanks for your help, though.”

What client’s can do: Explain how the decision fits into your business strategy. You might have chosen to do this to increase control over dispute resolution processes or financial management decisions. If you are doing this as a result of dissatisfaction with your external counsel, tell them instead of avoiding the confrontation. You’ll both be better off for it in the long run.

What you can do: Recognize this as an opportunity. Part of the client’s role in managing expectations is to recognize their internal capacity for dealing with the very issues they’ve hired you to help with.

You could provide customize or specialized services  in the future– perhaps even at higher rates. What if they’re acquired? Or involved in bet-the-company litigation? Many senior lawyers have told me that their past clients often come back after years with new problems to solve. Clients remember the value you provide. They know what to expect from your business relationship, which creates efficiencies. And, by now, you have earned their trust.

Some final advice…

Work done for large clients is on behalf of their organizations, not an individual or a group of individuals. Be aware of power and decision making structures as you develop tangential relationships within their organization. You’ll build a reputation as a strategic partner with a valuable long-term perspective, not as an expert engaged in a narrow slice of their operations.

I recently heard a story of a general counsel who became friends with the litigator helping her company negotiate a tense, bet-the-company battle.  During several dinners, the litigator made unflattering comments about how difficult some of his other clients were. The general counsel quietly thought, “I wonder what he says about me?”. She felt uncomfortable bringing up a communication issue she had with him. When she had an opportunity to recommend him to a colleague, she didn’t. Even though she liked him on a personal level.

As you develop relationships with individual client contacts, you’ll learn more about their role within their organization. They can provide valuable intelligence that helps you win more business and work efficiently. They might also divulge political rivalries. Stay out of it. It’s tempting to commiserate –  especially if you’ve become friends – but your reputation will be better served by rising above the situation instead of becoming embroiled in it.


[1][1] Zeithaml, Bittner and Gremler, Services Marketing, 6th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill), pp. 355, 2011

[2] Ibid, pp. 354