The What, Why, and How of Proper Expectation Setting

by | Business

Failing to utilize proper expectation setting has long been the bane of small business owners.

I remember a few years ago when I was working full time for a large electronics retailer. One of the things they made sure we did was to push their rendition of “Protection Plans,” since that’s where the margin comes into play.

In order to do that in a way that made sense, we had to set the proper expectations with the customer. Most people are very apprehensive to purchase things like this (and for good reason–but that’s another story), so you have to balance the fine line between “Yes, this is an awesome product!” and, “Yeah, but, if it breaks, you’re in a mess.”

More often than not, there would be a disconnect between sales, the customer, and customer service. The problem, almost always, could be traced back to a lack of expectation setting on the part of the salesperson.

What Does Proper Expectation Setting Look Like?


Good Question.

Obviously, I don’t know your business, so this is likely going to look much different depending on the type of business you’re in.

In the spirit of transparency, I will give you just a few of the expectations I try to set with my own customers to give you a better idea:

  1. Website delivery is typically around 90 days, depending on the complexity of the project.
  2. My website security and maintenance agreements do not include development work.
  3. My hourly rate is $65 per hour for web design work that goes beyond the scope of the time allotted within their Managed Website plan.

That is a very small list, but I think you understand the concept.

What we are trying to do is give the customer boundaries. Boundaries, by the way, are a good thing!

They keep fish alive by not permitting them life outside of the water. They keep children innocent by not demanding of them what you would demand of an adult.

In the same way, boundaries will help your customer to know that you mean business and that you have your act together.

Boundaries command the respect that every small business owner desires.


Learning to Say “No!”


An as aside, we must look at the importance of learning how to say “No!” to your customers.

Now, I have heard this advice over and over again, but it is never talked about in its proper context.

Saying “no” can either be awesome or devasting to your business, depending on the context. Context, in this case, is your customer’s expectations!

Let me give you a somewhat facetious example, that sadly, happens more often than I would like to admit:

Johnny sells Client a website for a flat fee. Scope creep sets in, and Client starts making demands of Johnny for work that goes beyond the scope of what he usually does for clients. There was no contract, clearly defining scope and expectations. When Johnny says “No!” to Client’s request, he simply sounds unwilling to comply with the honest request of the client, who was none the wiser.

It is likely that Johnny, in our example, would be paid for the additional work. However, the client may never come back, and they certainly won’t be recommending or referring anyone.

They may love their website, but clients will NOT reuse or recommend services where a certain level of trust has been broken.

If Johnny had a contract in place with the proper language and took the time up front to educate the client about what a usual project looks like, and give some examples of what might be “out of the ordinary,” the “no” would have been a much easier pill to swallow.

“No” works well and can be one of the greatest tools in your business (especially as it grows), but use it sparingly with clients, and DEFINITELY use it wisely.

The Why of Proper Expectation Setting


Sometimes, I have a tendency to be kind of an analytical person. But I believe that in everything you do, there has got to be an emotional “why” connected to it!

I have a few reasons for this, but it can be summed up in one word: perseverance.

I simply mean that anything your heart is not in will eventually fall by the wayside.

The Bible says it like this, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” – Luke 12:34

We see this in America every day. Diets that last for two weeks. MLM businesses that fade away after a month.

Americans have a LOT of opportunities and a VERY limited attention span.

If something doesn’t provide short-term satisfaction and has a chance of surviving, your heart HAS to be in it.

In the same way, you need to have a “why” in place to set proper expectations or (1) you won’t do it and/or (2) they won’t be what is best for your customer and ultimately for your business.

So practically speaking, it could look a few different ways.

The financial goals of your business would a factor. Understand, here, that proper expectation setting is very much a two-way street.

Yes, we are setting proper expectations with your client, but they are really being set for your business!

The “why” for your business might be to protect your time, and therefore, your pocketbook.

The “why” could be your family. Perhaps you set the expectation (as I do) that I work a full-time job, so my business hours are limited to “x.”

My customers don’t expect me to answer the phone during normal business hours because that is when I am working my day job!

Do you see what we are doing here? We are trying to find what this looks like from a 30,000-foot view. We can’t just arbitrarily pick expectations–we must have a clear reason behind why we are setting them.

Once you know your “why”, it becomes easy and clear on how to proceed with the most practical step of all.

The How of Proper Expectation Setting


So to summarize: You know what proper expectation setting looks like, and we also know why you should have a “why” for doing it.

Now the natural question is, “How on earth do I do it?”

There is no magic formula here. I use a combination of different things, but I will attempt to provide some helpful tips and clear direction.


A Contract


A Contract is an excellent way to set the proper expectations. This is likely the first formal written communication that will exist between you and your customer, so it has to be good.

I do suggest having an attorney draw this up with you. Each industry is different, and there is likely an attorney who has done some work in your niche if you look hard enough.

Don’t skip this step.

Arguably, a contract gives you the most leverage when conflict arises in your business.

An attorney will be able to help you with this, but make sure you have a clause in there protecting you from having to perform any and all work outside of the project’s scope.

You should list obvious specifics where possible, but there must be some ambiguity there to make sure you have yourself covered.


Email Communications


“Get in in writing” is some of the best advice I have ever received.

Email is not great when it comes to actual contractual level disagreements, but it does provide a nice, searchable “paper trail” for reference.

As a first step, I almost always go ahead and lay out my expectations in some of the first email communications with my clients.

Tip: You don’t have to send an “Expectations” email. Please don’t do this. A list of expectations is expected in a contract, not in an email communication. If you do this, you might come across as controlling, which you typically don’t want (unless that’s your thing).

Rather, you should, as a part of natural conversation, weave in some of the expectations that you set in your business. Funny enough, as you discuss a project or agreement with a client, many of these things will come up naturally in a conversation!

You just have to be intentional about making your expectations known.

This has worked well for me over the years, and by the time I begin a project with a client, they typically are clear on what they should expect from me.


Case Studies


I saved the most unconventional “expectation setting tool” for last.

Properly worded case studies can do wonders for managing your clients’ expectations.

Note: I am not taking my own advice on this yet, but hey, one thing at a time 🙂

Rather than having a generic testimonials section or portfolio, consider putting together detailed case studies from the type of clients you usually help.

Include as many relevant details as possible, but if you work closely with your client to put together this case study (which a happy client will be HAPPY to help with), make sure you work in some language about your expectations.

This does something wonderful for your client psychologically. Essentially, it tells them “Hey, this customer had some reservations due to “x” expectation this guy set, but it turned out great AND they are thrilled with their project!”

Do you see how this can help your potential customer overcome objections raised by expectations they may not be so sure of?

I contend that over the next few years, detailed case studies will become one of the primary ways that solid expectations are set “before the sale.”

[bctt tweet=”Boundaries command the respect that every small business owner desires.” username=”northmacsvc”]


When done right, proper expectations can literally drive your business forward. They will help to guide the conversation toward a successful project, and they definitely help with job satisfaction.

Question: How has proper expectation setting helped your business? Have you come up with any creative ways to set boundaries with your customers? Comment below!



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