As Expected

Everyone has expectations. They might be small, but they are innate and they affect how we interact with others. Clients have expectations, and if you don’t understand what they are or don’t acknowledge the expectations you have of your clients, you’re setting yourself up for conflict.

Steven Bollar, TEDx speaker and author of the book “Stand Tall Leadership,” has researched expectations and how to deal with them throughout his career in education, speaking, and consulting. To help small business owners understand how to address expectations, he breaks them down into three categories:

  • Unvoiced expectations. These expectations can be especially difficult to deal with since they’re hidden from the discourse between you and your client. During initial client consultations, it’s helpful to dive into client expectations as much as possible to bring these unvoiced expectations into the light so they can be addressed.
  • Unreal expectations. These often emerge from a lack of knowledge or from previous unrealistic expectations that color someone’s current thought process. Education is critical in bringing unreal expectations back down to earth.
  • Unmet expectations. These are the most dangerous kind. They arise when someone doesn’t do what they were supposed to do. Sometimes that’s because of a failure in the process. Sometimes it’s because the expectations were unrealistic (see above). When expectations aren’t met, the situation can easily devolve into a crisis.
HAVE A CONVERSATION

In a service industry, expectations go both ways, says Bollar. Clients have expectations of you as their photographer, and you have expectations of them as your clients.

“We think so much about what we can do for our clients, but we also need to think about what we expect from our clients to have a good relationship. People need to express these expectations up front. Clients appreciate that. It puts you on the same page and sets the groundwork for a productive interaction.”

Don’t be so eager to make the sale that you gloss over potential problems. You need to have a conversation about expectations with every new client. Remember: Each new client doesn’t know what questions you’ve already answered. You have to hit the reset button and start each new relationship from scratch. You can jump start this process by taking stock of the things that keep happening with other clients. Use that experience to start a conversation with new clients.

If it’s helpful, start this conversation as a story. Talk about things you’ve experienced in the past or how things can go sideways. Everyone loves a good story, and by telling a story of past experiences, you can put touchy issues into a context that’s more comfortable and relatable. Then explain how you’ve solved those problems in the past. That’s critical. You earn instant credibility by talking about how you’ve solved problems and how your experience can help avoid those problems in the future if everyone is on the same page.

The next part brings your clients on board, and it’s simple: Ask what they think. By asking their opinion, you’re pulling out some of those unvoiced expectations and you’re also holding them accountable for their part in the solution.

The final step is to put everything in writing. It’s a good idea to include a section on joint expectations in your contract. Make it a two-way street. These aren’t demands but rather things you expect to have in a quality relationship as well as things your clients can expect from you.

UNMET EXPECTATIONS

No one likes dealing with a problem that arises because expectations aren’t met. But no matter how uncomfortable it is, you have to talk about it because your professional integrity depends on a resolution.

If you’re still working on the project, discuss where things missed the mark, then offer solutions. If the project is wrapping up, talk about what you learned from the experience and how you’ll make changes moving forward. Own the problem and try to make it right.

“Don’t let a crisis go to waste,” says Bollar. “When a crisis happens, it’s always an opportunity to learn. Share what you’ve learned with your client. Put it in a positive way but share it. Show how you’ve grown through the situation, and tell people that you appreciate working with them. That is a way to mend the relationship and demonstrate that you are an upstanding person.”

It’s important to reflect on expectations and deliverables continually throughout every client relationship and then make adjustments as you proceed. As you’re reflecting and adjusting, Bollar recommends assessing a few key guideposts:

  • Promises. Have you kept your promises, or do you need to make adjustments so you’re doing what you said you’d do?
  • Beliefs. Your core beliefs guide your business, and they should remain consistent even in the face of pressure from unhappy clients. It’s OK to be flexible and make accommodations, but clients need to understand that you’re not willing to trample your own beliefs.
  • Communication. Are you being open and honest with clients? Regular check-ins are important to managing expectations. Tell your clients what’s going on, and bring them into the loop on the good news as well as the bad. If issues are bubbling up, talk about them and brainstorm solutions with your clients. They’ll respect you for speaking out.
  • Fairness. What is a fair decision for your client? What is a fair decision for you? You want to make clients happy, but you don’t want to sell your soul for every job. It’s important to be fair to your clients and yourself.

“If you’ve offered solutions and you’ve asked for suggestions and the situation isn’t improving, then you may need to go different ways.”

Steven Bollar
UNPLEASABLE CLIENTS

Some situations surrounding unmet expectations are simply intractable. Despite all your best efforts, some clients may have their minds set on being angry. In these cases, Bollar recommends assessing the situation and the type of person you’re dealing with. In his estimation, there are a few personality types you may not be able to placate, no matter how hard you try:

  • People who don’t think they need help. Try as you might, you can’t help people who don’t believe they need it.
  • People who know they need help but don’t want it. Sometimes people can’t think straight because they’re emotional. Emotions trump logic every time. If someone is reacting emotionally to their unmet expectations, it’s difficult to break through with reasonable solutions. They simply don’t want your help.
  • People who aren’t willing to do what’s necessary to get it done. This situation emerges when there are unrealistic expectations involved. You come up with a logical solution, but the client is unwilling to do what’s necessary to reach a resolution.

“If you’ve offered solutions and you’ve asked for suggestions and the situation isn’t improving, then you may need to go different ways,” says Bollar. “In these cases, make it right as best you can and offer someone else as a referral who may be a better fit.”

FOLLOW YOUR VISION

Each client is a small piece in the bigger picture of who you are as a photographer and what your business stands for, says Bollar. When you have a clear vision of the image you want for your business, then each client relationship should move you closer to that vision.

“A vision excites your future but frustrates your present,” he says. Take that frustration and turn it into motivation to keep you going. It’s a step-by-step process, and there will be stumbles along the way, but by openly and honestly dealing with expectations you’ll start to take giant leaps toward that ultimate vision you have for yourself and your business. 

Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large.