Learn how to close the expectation gap to build more trusting and successful client relationships.
Happy and satisfied customers are what keep a professional services agency going. They can lead to follow-up work and referral business. If your client relationship is good and something goes wrong, things will probably be okay. If the relationship is bad, it’s likely that you won’t see the client again, even if you eventually bring in the project on time and on budget. For a small business, this could be crippling.
Needless to say, managing your client relationships is crucial, and one of the most important responsibilities of a project manager in a professional services business.
The first step to a healthy client relationship is to set realistic expectations about what your agency and project team can and cannot do. Our blog post on managing client expectations has some great tips on how to get started.
It doesn’t stop there though. Once a project is underway, you have to continue to build trust and manage your client’s expectations. The goal is to make the gap between what and when the client thinks you will be delivering and what and when you are actually delivering as low as possible.
This sounds like an obvious one, but it’s really important that you check-in with your client regularly and communicate openly and directly.
While email updates and reports are important, and help communicate status regularly, try to use face-to-face communication (either in person or via video chat) wherever you can, especially when you have to deliver difficult news. Face-to-face communication is more personal and it allows you to pick-up your client’s body language and other non-verbal cues. Follow up your conversation with a quick summary email, documenting key decisions and to-do’s.
I’m a big advocate of lean and agile practices. One of the key Agile principles is to deliver working software frequently, and to use it as a the measure of progress.
I also found that clients often don’t know what they want until they see it.
Showing your progress early and often will help you verify that you are on the right track and align your client’s expectations with what your team can do.
“In psychological research, scholars find that individuals are more elated with unexpected gains than expected gains and more deflated by unexpected losses than expected losses.” (source)
If you see even the slightest indication that your project is not going as planned, be proactive and let your client know. It may be difficult to deliver the bad news, but remember an expected loss is better than an unexpected one — so make sure to prepare your client as early as you can.
Part of management and aligning your clients expectations with what’s achievable is pushing back and saying no. And that’s okay, as long as you are polite and positive and offer a reasonable explanation and/or a solution.
Client relationship management and building trust comes down to experience and soft skills, especially communication skills. You need to be personable, able to listen to your client's needs and help them find a solution that solves their problems. Inevitably, there will be bumps on the road. Recognizing that fact, and making an effort to openly and constantly communicate with your client will help you build a great client relationship.
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