best practices

Managing Client Expectations: 5 Rules to Follow

23 October 2017

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We've all been there, that dreaded client meeting where you have to share the results of a major campaign and you just hope what you're about to show the client achieves the lofty expectations the account rep promised. I feel your pain, with over 20 years working in and leading digital agencies, I have both given those presentations and been guilty of over-selling myself. (And if you're reading this post, I bet you are too.)

Wouldn't it be better for everyone if we could set expectations aligned for success (not just lower them) from the very start of a project or campaign? That's what I started doing and in this post I am going to share my Top 5 Ways to Set Client Expectations that Build Trust. Now, I'm not saying I've never had to have a difficult conversation with a client, just that by following these lessons and building trust at the beginning of a project/ campaign, I was later able to communicate the shortfall and move past it with my client by my side.

Ready to get started? Here it goes.

Rule #1. Be the 4th grader in the room, always ask questions and never assume you know

Let me give some context; years ago I was in a meeting and an industry term was used. Now this was a term that even if you didn't know what it meant, you could easily assume it's meaning. This is when it happened. Tom B. (a very accomplished Technology Consultant) stopped the conversation. Everyone else in the room just let the term go - figuring they could look it up later. But Tom stopped and told everyone in the room that from now on, we should talk to him like a 4th grader and not assume he had any knowledge of their industry. This made us all laugh, but then it hit me; if we took the time to explain the things we all used to take for granted and assume we understood and encouraged probing questions for clarification at every step, then the chances of peoples biases and personal contexts couldn't derail meaning from one person to another. And by using the 4th grader analogy, everyone was quickly disarmed and saw the questions as genuine vs. challenging. The next time you have a client kick-off meeting, open up with "talk to me like a 4th grader" and see how it goes.

Rule #2. Clearly identify what failure looks like upfront, so you know what to avoid

This strategy came from a best practice on interviewing and hiring, but it works well here. Here's how it goes. At the right point in a kick-off meeting (hopefully after rapport has been developed) ask this question:

"Ok, let's say the campaign (or project) is complete and things didn't go well, in fact it was a total failure.
Why did we fail?"

Listen to your client and your team, engage them with probing questions and really try to get the root causes of failure. Is your client afraid you will spend too much budget on a specific component? Is your team worried about timelines? Use this opportunity to expose the fears, concerns and hot buttons each individual has and use them to build a plan that mitigates them and improves communications around them.

Rule #3. Get agreement on what success looks like (and how to quantify it)

I apologize if this one seems a little too basic but this one even gets the most experienced of us from time to time. Let's take the example of a Search Engine Marketing (SEM) campaign. One would think this is straight forward right? Wrong! As an agency partner working with a client, your world is usually defined by what you control. In the case of an AdWords SEM campaign that would be your keywords, ads, landing pages, etc. - the components that make up your execution. So... is success defined by clicks? by leads? by revenue? What if leads and sales move from online to offline calls? How do you get client sales data for offline call attribution? How do you determine credit for the lead? Are you starting to get my message? Connecting all the dots and getting agreement and data flows before you launch will help (not guarantee) the post campaign meeting go well with your hard work properly getting credit for the lead credit and sale credit you deserve.

Rule #4. Establish a common language

We have all been there, in a meeting and terms like Suspect, Prospect, Lead, Marketing Qualified Lead, Sales Qualified Lead, Opportunity, etc... come up. If you are in a kick off meeting and this starts (and it will) please refer to Rule 1. Unless everyone is speaking the same language you are just gambling and asking for disappointment. Every organization has developed their own definitions for the very word Lead. So DO NOT ASSUME and first explain the standards your team has developed to classify leads and then invite your client to share their standards. Put both side of the standards on a white board and find commonality, conflict and gaps. Then work with your client and team to either adopt one set of definitions (the other) or a new joint definition set. This way all sides will understand how the definitions were developed and there will be buy-in before questions about lead quality come up.

Rule #5. Include Sales at the Beginning!

I'm sure we all have war stories where a great campaign was conceived and executed and then the sales results were underwhelming. And we all know what comes back from the sales team - the leads were bad. Maybe they were, but odds tell us it can't always be the leads - but what can you do? Tell the client their sales team is the problem? Give it a try and tell me how that worked out for you.

We all know that while marketing is not sales, sales success impacts the perception of marketing's effectiveness. So how do you avoid this recurring nightmare? Include sales in the process from the beginning, before the campaign launches. Not just show them creative, but observe the sales process, watch how the sales reps are trained to sell; the questions they ask, etc. Then include them in understanding the strategy behind a campaign. Identify gaps in their processes or sales approach that may need to be filled in order to get the most out of the leads the campaign will provide. For example if you are launching a campaign to attract a completely new customer segment for your client but the sales team has no process for converting that new segment - what do you think will happen? And include the sales teams in communications about the creative going in to the market so they know what their leads are seeing.

By including sales throughout the process they also become invested in the success of the project or campaign.

The next time you have a new client engagement or campaign kickoff, give one of these rules a try - I bet it will help open the communications lines early and be a building block of authenticity a trust so that you can be successful together.

Do you have any rules of your own that could help other? Share your ideas in the comments and let's help improve client relationships everywhere.

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