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Managing client expectations: My experience of coming unstuck

It’s a total cliche, but the three most important things you need to remember when managing client expectations are communication, communication and communication.
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Making assumptions can risk ruining the trust you have built up with a customer over months or even years. We all do it – we think we’ve heard something or we misremember a conversation. We zone in on one particular sentence in an email and gloss over the rest.

But it’s also crucial to ensure everyone is on the same page, especially the C-suite. My brother, Adam, and I once had a high-end interactive animation project with high expectations not just from the client but for ourselves.

We delivered on time, to budget and were feeling very happy with ourselves. Yet it turned out that there’d been a discrepancy between key stakeholders. We’d produced an interface which, dare I say, fit the brief and had turned out very well. It took three months to put together from initial contact with the client to delivering the finished product.

Yet to our horror, when it was presented to the CEO he didn’t like it. We were told: “It looks like a cartoon, he wants a movie.” Communication works both ways and this was information that would have been of use three months earlier. The project never saw the light of day.

Now you can imagine this came as quite a shock. We pored over previous correspondence – at no stage had we misheard or misread the brief. We had provided style guides and routes, and shown exactly how the project was going to look before we built it – with each stage being signed off and approved.

This is a highly unusual response. In more than a decade running blueprint.tv, we have always tried to ensure that all stakeholders are involved at pivotal points in any production, particularly when it comes to content creation (as opposed to the strategy or marketing). Pre-production, narrative, designs and routes all need to be shared and approved, especially when there’s a sizeable budget at stake. Getting it wrong can prove costly and be frustrating. It also reminds me of this pretty hilarious article on “a client’s feedback to god on the creation of earth”.

I raise the issue because it’s not enough to just keep your point of contact on the client side informed. It’s important to ensure they’re also communicating with her/his managers. Everyone should be clear about the strategy, the plan, the goals, and the next steps at all times. Sometimes people will not have the confidence or time to share with the people they report to. That’s when things can go awry. We also learnt an important lesson. We should have gone further to ensure communication was taking place along all parts of the chain with every stakeholder.

Managing client expectations when budgets are smaller is also critical. Creative content projects come in all shapes, sizes and costs. The lower the fee, the more you have to cut corners and be creative within the limits of what you have to spend.

The businesses which cannot afford it can often be the most difficult to handle as they typically expect the most for the least amount of money. That’s when, irrespective of budget, setting clear goals, providing a detailed plan and sticking to it throughout the creative process is fundamental to managing expectations.

It is always good to exceed them but if you win a project with somebody who cannot afford it, particularly off the back of your greatest work, you will nearly always come unstuck. At all stages, the client needs to be given a fair representation of what the final product is going to be – if they don’t like it, it is better to walk away at the beginning.

Finally, this also applies to managing your own expectations (the trickiest of all!). For the past three months we’ve been working on rebranding and repurposing the blueprint.tv website. It’s been a challenging project and the client (all of us internally) have been highly self-critical.

For many companies, one of the most difficult things to do is deciding how to describe and present themselves – and this is particularly hard for agencies that do it for a living. This time we’ve delivered slightly over budget and well, I confess not on time (although client work always take priority – and that is a good problem to have), but I’m pleased to say the team is pleased with the result.

This article is part of a wider campaign called Founders Diaries, a section of Real Business that brings together 20 inspiring business builders to share their stories. Bringing together companies from a wide variety of sectors and geographies, each columnist produces a diary entry each month. Visit the Founders Diaries section to find out more.

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About Author

Mungo Park

Mungo Park is a co-founder of blueprint.tv – a content marketing agency, specialising in digital strategy and video production, graphics and animation. He established the company with his brother Adam in 2006 and now has offices in London, Toronto, Houston and Cape Town, working with some of the world’s biggest brands in finance, tech and third sector.

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