How Do You Manage Client Expectations?


Today I want to talk about the C word. Clients! Mostly, how you manage their expectations, keep ‘em relaxed and what you can do to ensure that they grow up to be happy, healthy, still-paying clients at the end of their contracts. Because yes, it is up to you.

From what I can gather, most SEOs look at clients a bit like stepchildren. Meaning they resent them just a bit more than they let on. (I kid. Okay, not really…) But the thing is, if you’re not in love with your clients, it may be because you’re doing something wrong. It’s because you haven’t yet figured out how to manage their expectations. More often than not, “problem clients” are actually a case of bad leadership from the SEO.

I thought it may be useful to document how we deal with clients at Outspoken Media. We’ve found that, as with most things, setting proper expectations from the beginning will help avoid problems down the line.

First (or Second) Contact

I had never been in charge of the day-to-actions of an SEO company before Outspoken Media. So, for me, it’s been really interesting to see how clients contact us. They’re leaving us messages on Twitter, on Skype, on the Outspoken blog, other blogs, and sometimes even through the Contact Form! :)  And those are all great for establishing communication, but when it comes to talking business, we like to make our first business contact via a phone call. This allows us to ask direct questions and get real information back. It also introduces both parties on a more personal level. We’re not a drive-thru SEO company. There are no PayPal forms or flashing banners on the site. We know our clients have unique problems and we want to help them to succeed, and that means putting in some face time.

It also means working to establish expectations on both sides from the very beginning. We use that first phone call to listen to the client explain what they want, in their terms. Oftentimes, clients are a lot smarter than we SEOs like to give them credit for. Sometimes they know exactly what it is they need but simply don’t have the time or resources to implement it themselves. Other times we have to first explain what the acronym “SEO” stands for. Each client is different and expectations need to managed differently, but they all need to be respected from the beginning.

Putting Expectations On Paper

signed contractFor us, this refers to the initial proposal and the contract that will subsequently follow. We don’t package our SEO services or keep dusty price sheets in a file drawer. That means when a prospective client comes to us, we really do have to hear from them what they want and then work around that. Rhea gets them first and then the team sits down to come up with a strategy we think will kick ass. This approach means we can’t offer a 24 hour turnaround for proposals and sometimes lose out on good clients because of that. We’re still a new company working out the kinks.

Once the initial proposal is agreed on, a contract is worked up. The contract will outline everything that we plan to do for that client. And that’s important. The best way to avoid trouble down the road is to make sure that everyone knows who is responsible for what. For example, if you were hired for social media services, does that mean you’ll also be writing the content or does that fall on the client? Or maybe you’re writing and they’ll be promoting? How many pieces are you responsible for? What exact services will be provided under that lens? When will each deliverable come out? What is the client responsible for doing? What do you need before the work can start?

Whatever the arrangement is, document it. The details have a tendency to get a little “fuzzy” on both sides a few months in. Putting it all down in black and white ensures that everyone knows what is happening and that everyone agrees.

Make sure to note any other requirements, as well. If you’re an SEO agency like Bruce Clay where clients will be required to attend your SEO training course, make sure it states that in the contract. If clients will be required to implement all changes within 2 weeks of receiving them, make sure you bring that up at signing. A strong contract is the basis for any good working relationship. If you fail to lay everything out and choose to “assume” things, then it’s on you if a client goes unhappy. They’re unhappy because you failed to define everything for them and allowed things to be misinterpreted.

Another reason it’s important to create solid contracts is because projects often have a way of outliving the people who work on them. Having it spelled out allows new SEOs and new employees to catch up.

Constant Communication

happy clientSo many SEO agencies get that signed contract back and then immediately stop speaking to their clients.  And then they wonder why the client “freaks out”. The client didn’t freak out. You went AWOL. And they’re paying you not to go AWOL.

In order to create a good relationship with clients, everyone needs face time. They need a regular call so they can be updated on what you’re doing, bring any issues they have, express fears, give ideas, etc. As their service provider, it is your job to make that client feel comfortable and secure in their relationship with you. And the better you are about that, the more relaxed they’ll be and the less you’ll feel “micromanaged”. Most clients don’t want to micromanage you. They want you to do the work. You just have to show them that you are.

That regular call also helps you make sure things are being implemented correctly, that the client is happy, and to help assess the health of a project. If you’re constantly “unavailable” or the client isn’t responding to calls… someone broke something somewhere and it needs to be addressed.

Do What You Promised, Document It

You want happy clients? Give them what you said you would. Don’t be late on deliverables. If you’re late on deliverables, the client will start doubting you.  And that’s when problems start. That’s when the client feels the need to keep checking in, when they want to help hold your hand and when they’re suddenly very interested in hourly updates on the project. That happened because you dropped the ball. Don’t drop it and you help avoid the situation entirely.

Find a way to document everything you do for the client without being overly ridiculous. For example, DO keep track of all emails sent, phone calls, Skype chat sessions, etc. If you or the client agrees to do something, make a note of it. If one of you agreed to something and then didn’t do it, make note of it. However, DON’T keep track of how long it took to print out their document or how many staples it took to put it all together. You laugh; it happens.

The bottom line is that YOU are the hired service provider and therefore it is your job to take control of the situation from the very beginning. It’s your job to put your client at ease and to show them that you’re there taking care of them. If you feel them micromanaging you, it’s because you haven’t done your part to manage their expectations and set them on the right path. The more you control situations, the less frustration you’re going to feel down the road.

Your Comments

  • Robert Enriquez

    change the 743 readers to 744…you just got another one! :)

    btw has anyone told you that you’re crazy? (in a good way)

  • Thomas Schmitz

    Lisa, this is beautifully written and a terrific primer for any new concern, not just SEO. I predict that Outspoken Media has a bright future ahead of it.

  • Lisa Barone

    Robert: Yes, but usually when I’m writing, not when I write some level-headed and sans lots of “ZOMGS!”. Why am I crazy now? What’d I do? :)

    Thomas: Thank you, sir. I hope you’re right. :)

  • Charlene

    Yay Lisa! I am constantly harping on customer service to anyone and everyone I meet. Do what you say you’re going to do, charge what you say you’re going to charge, call when you say you’re going to call…simple but effective service points that go a long way to building trust and confidence with your customer. Well done.

  • Jon Buscall

    Nice points, Lisa. It’s as applicable to freelancers as companies. Communication IS everything.

    One of the problems with email is that without the paralinguistic stuff it’s very easy to misunderstand each other. Add in cross-cultural misunderstandings too and you’ve got trouble. For example, in Germany they get upset if you just start an email with their name: E.g. Lisa, Thanks for…
    Apparently they think you’re shouting if you do that.

    Point is: phone calls, documentation, listening to a client and talking “their” language all makes client relations better.

  • Kathy Hokunson

    Another great piece of writing and SPOT ON!

    Communication is so key. It drives me nuts when I call someone and they don’t get back to me. When they finally do and I express frustration at not hearing sooner from them, they almost always reply “I didn’t have anything to tell you yet”. Well THAT would have been nice to know!

    It is those little lessons that helps me communicate better with my clients.


  • MikeTek

    This is so crucial for budding Internet Marketing agencies.

    I’ve worked for a few small shops who got this wrong. It always created nightmares down the line.

    The counterargument I always faced to outlining the project in the proposal/contract is that the clients will just “walk away and take the recommendations to another (cheaper) agency.”

    That probably does happen from time to time, but what are you going to do about that? If people want to be sneaky, let them sneak. Keeping your proposals/contracts vague to preempt this just infects the rest of your business and client relationships.

  • Rhea Drysdale

    Mike, on the contract specific point, I’ll say that we’ve gotten hit by a lot of that. We aren’t cheap. In fact, we’re pretty darn expensive. We try to listen for the clients that are just price shopping and not spend as much time with them, because we already know we won’t be a good fit. We build long term, defensible brands. Price shoppers invariably want a quick fix. I’m not going to fault someone for finding the best service at the best cost, but the clients that sign with us do so because they KNOW us. They trust us. They believe in what we’re doing, we believe in them and it just works. We communicate a lot. We train their team. We’re often putting ourselves out of a job. The good news, once a client sees the results from our work, they may no longer need those services, but now they’re ready for the next phase of business development and we know their brand. We don’t want to provide a single service, we want to grow their business, it’s like raising a kid. You raise them to eventually leave you. :)


  • Malcolm Out Loud

    Good content Lisa. Bad customer service is the leading reason companies fail. Much of it is due to what I call ‘Complacentitis’, which is one of the 4 Human Ailments that executives suffer from. We must continue to encourage companies to look inside their organizations to challenge their employees to do better.