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Key Word in Managing Customer Expectations: “Communication”

Monday, March 24, 2014/Categories: consultant-liability

As a management consultant, you know that customer satisfaction and your business reputation are closely linked. If your consulting engagement misses the mark – or even if your client just perceives it that way – your future business prospects are on the line. That’s why it’s so important to both understand your client’s expectations for the project and to carefully manage them.

When hiring you as a consultant, the last thing your client wants is an unpleasant surprise, such as suddenly learning that the project has gone over budget or has been delayed by an unmanaged risk. It’s true that sometimes, delays and glitches just can’t be avoided. But that doesn’t mean they have to have a negative impact on your client relationship. The secret lies in managing – or even exceeding – the client’s expectations by preparing your client for what could go wrong.

Doing your planning, evaluation and documentation homework gives you a way to make your client aware of any factors that may compromise results. If everything goes smoothly, you’ve exceeded your client’s expectations. And if things don’t go according to plan, your client will be prepared for the bad news.

The Project Management Plan

Before your work even begins, you can start to manage customer expectations with a well-thought-out project management plan (See Mastering the Management Consulting Project Timeline). This document establishes your understanding of the scope of the project; the motivation behind it; and its objectives, goals, success measurements and deliverables.

The more information you can give your client in the project management plan, the less chance you’ll have of misunderstandings later.

In the plan, list any factors that could negatively affect the project’s success or the client’s outcomes. These may be internal influences, such as budget concerns, or external factors beyond your control, such as market trends or supply shortages. Including these potential constraints in your plan helps to manage expectations by preparing the client for possible future delays or glitches.

Your project management plan can also define roles, responsibilities, commitments and communication interfaces among internal and external stakeholders in the project. Setting expectations for scheduling as well as the amount of human and other resources required to get the job done will help to reduce surprises for your client once work gets under way.

A draft project management plan is also a great starting point for discussion with your client to ensure that you both share the same vision for what the engagement should achieve, helping you begin work with a clear mandate for action.

The Risk Management Plan

Another important document to have in place before work begins is a risk management plan. Developing a detailed strategy for identifying, monitoring and resolving risks shows your client that you’re serious about keeping the project on track.

An ongoing, well-documented risk management strategy helps to manage expectations by making your client aware of what could go wrong. At the same time, it positions you as a proactive leader who’s working hard to prevent risks from becoming costly problems for your client.

To help you brainstorm about potential risks related to the project, consider hosting a risk assessment workshop with all project stakeholders. Ask attendees to identify any risks they envision hindering the project’s success, then ask them to prioritize the 10 most dangerous threats.

Once the “Top 10 Risks” list is set, create a risk management plan that includes mitigation, avoidance or prevention strategies to address these critical risk factors. You’ll also want to assign specific team members to work on resolving each critical risk.

Your risk management plan should also include your plans for documenting, measuring, monitoring and reassessing risk over the course of the project, as well as each stakeholder’s risk management roles and responsibilities.

Project Status Reporting

If the key to managing client expectations could be summarized in just one word, that word would be “communication.” Whether the information you have to share with your client is positive or negative, keeping the lines of communication open builds trust and demonstrates your honesty and professionalism.

Find out how often your client would like to receive progress updates, and develop a reporting schedule that meets their needs. For each reporting period, create and discuss a short status report that includes:

  • Progress toward established success metrics, such as milestones reached
  • Critical issues and risks, and how you’re addressing them
  • Any deviations from the plan, their causes, and how they’re being resolved
  • Progress against time and cost estimates

The idea is to manage your customer’s expectations by keeping surprises to a minimum. Regular reporting periods also give your client the opportunity to ask questions and express concerns, so you have a chance to address those concerns before they cause client dissatisfaction.

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