I have worked on both large and small marketing and branding strategy projects. As one would expect, the larger ones, by nature of their size, require lots of time and energy. Not always. Here’s some lessons I’ve learned about managing projects, clients and expectations.

I am not sure if this is an anomaly, or something that others have experienced, but on more than one occasion, I’ve had small clients who were paying smaller fees but who were more demanding than the larger clients. I found that if I broke down my fee for the project by the hours spent on the assignment, I was making much less hourly than on the larger project. I also felt beaten up, overworked and under appreciated by some of my smaller clients. They were getting a lot more out of me than they paid for.

So, how do you manage your time and your clients’ expectations? I always aim to provide outstanding service, but on a few occasions, I’ve felt like I’ve given my services away. Has this ever happened to you?

Here’s the scenario that caused me to develop some guidelines for future clients. I should have seen it coming. The beginning of the relationship started with me crossing the 50 yard line. The client balked at the price of the project. I said I couldn’t do it for less and they said, “well, if you find that you can, give us a call.” It had been a slow month and the project pipeline was less than full, so I reapproached the potential client and discounted my price. But, I offered the same services. I felt like I was on call 24/7 and each communication from the client included phrases such as, “can we also do X,Y and Z.” Email by email the project scope was becoming gargantuan. I was harboring resentment against said client and wanted to, on several occasions, let them know that they were getting high quality work at a bargain basement price. Thankfully, I was able to contain my composure and project a cheerful attitude toward the client through the duration of the assignment. My trusted canine office companion dutifully listened to my colorful venting.

The client was delighted, but I decided that I did not want to experience that again.  So, I sat down and put pen to paper to create some rules.

Have an initial meeting to discuss their needs to that you can create a document that will outline the scope of the project. Have your client be candid about their budget so that you can work with them to best allocate their funds. Perhaps you can do things in phases to work with the timing of their cash flow. This is a wonderful way to provide value and to become a trusted partner. You are working in their best interest and not ripping them off.

Allow the client to review the document and make any changes before you start so that you can price the project properly. Make sure everyone is on the same page before said document is signed, even if you have to discuss it five times. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

As part of the planning, establish who will be responsible for what and make sure that this is crystal clear.

Establish a routine for communication. Promise to return calls in a timely fashion, for example, within 24 hours. Also, establish the best way to contact you (phone, email, etc.). Do not disappear; radio silence will kill a relationship.

Have the client agree to send organized communication daily whether it is one voicemail with a list of questions or one email as opposed to a constant stream of one-off questions. Try to avoid having them track you down via every available communication portal (IM, text, facebook, linkedin, email, Skype, fax, carrier pigeon). Establish one main line of communication and one back up.

Unfortunately, extra items cannot just be “tacked on” to the original proposal. I have been on the other side of a signed agreement SOW and was annoyed by “change orders,” but I can see why they are necessary. This goes back to points 1 and 2, careful advanced planning will, hopefully, avoid this.

Create a timeline with reasonable, achievable deadlines and establish how you will review progress with your clients. In person meeting, conference call, Gotomeeting. Deliver everything on time and keep excellent records. Get good feedback at each checkpoint and make sure that expectations of each party are being met.  Organization is your friend. Create a separate inbox in your email for correspondence with the client, document phone calls, send follow up email with notes from phone calls to confirm what was discussed.

Hey, stuff happens. If you screw up, or there is a delay, inform the client IMMEDIATELY. Don’t cover it up. The truth will out. Hopefully, you will be able to find a solution and prevent it and your client will understand. Try to encourage your client to be upfront if they experience any delays or setbacks on their end, too. And, when stuff happens, don’t make it personal. Even if your client is being a bird brain and you are tempted to pull a Steven Slater, remember this “focus on the problem, not the person.” If you solve the problem, you will likely improve your client’s mood and be able to get back on track.

As the project is coming to a close, create a final checklist to make sure that all deliverables are on track. Try to find something to exceed the expectations: an earlier than promised completion date, a roadmap for phase II, an extra mock up in addition to what was promised, a winning lottery ticket.

Follow up after the project and make sure that the client was (at a minimum) satisfied. Dig for constructive criticism. If there is something you can fix that will leave the client happy and perhaps put you first in line for future projects, do it.

I learned that communicating expectations before any work got started and learning how to communicate the value I would be contributing, as opposed to what dollar amount the client would be handing over, vastly improved the experience for all parties involved in future assignments.

Other resources that can help
Creating your own consulting practice Ta-Do list

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