Expectation Setting with the Client

Written by lewsauder

October 2, 2020

Expectation Setting

Johnny Carson was the host of The Tonight show for nearly thirty years from 1962 to 1992. He once said that the key to comedy is the following: “Tell them what you’re going to do, do it, and tell them when you’re done.” There is a lot of consulting philosophy in that statement. What he is saying is keep them informed and do not lose the audience.

Expectation setting with the client is exactly that. Keep them informed of what is coming down the road. A strategic executive wants to see as far down the road as possible for proactive decision making. A good consultant provides the eyes and ears to help the executive do that.

Engagement Initiation

The beginning an engagement is the perfect time to for expectation setting. Almost every engagement has a Statement of Work. The SOW should provide the following details:

Scope of the project: This should provide all of the work that you plan to do for the client. It should also provide items that are not in scope to limit the number of false assumptions.

Deliverables: Any document, working session, or work product that is left behind with the client should be listed. It should include the format in which it will be delivered as well as a description of its contents.

Timeline: While some engagements can be open ended, at least a high-level timeline should be provided to give the client some idea of the duration of the work being done.

Staffing: While all of the specific staff members may not be known when the SOW is signed, roles should be provided so that the client knows the number of team members and the experience level that will be assigned to the project.

Costs: Many SOWs for consulting engagements can be open ended and the total cost is difficult to define. As much detail as possible should be provided so that expectations can be set by the client for budgeting purposes.

Once the SOW is signed, the first step is usually the kick-off. Depending on the nature of the engagement the kick-off can be a formal meeting with all of the stakeholders, or an informal meeting of two people.

However the project is kicked off, some form of document should be reviewed going over all of the aspects covered in the SOW. A lot can happen by the time the SOW is signed to the point where the engagement is kicked off. Some things could have change. More likely, ambiguous components of the SOW may have been clarified.

Now that you have a start date, you may have much more certainty on staffing for the project. You also may be able to put more detail into the timeline now that you have a solid start date. Use the kick-off for as much expectation setting as possible at the outset of the engagement.

This is also an excellent time to set expectations regarding weekly status meetings and any other updates such as steering committee meetings.

Status Updates

Once weekly, or periodic status meetings have been established, this is a critical time to set expectations. If you as a consultant are dealing with a busy executive, the status meeting may be the only substantial time you get to communicate with them.

This is the time that consultants should provide critical updates to their expectation setting. All of the components of the SOW and kick-off should be addressed as they change, such as staffing. But any risks and issues that arise should also be called out.

Speaking of risks, things that change are not the only thing that need to be communicated. Consultants should also communicate things that could change as well. If there is any concern that something could go wrong, raise it to the client. Have some contingencies ready to let them know that you can handle it, should it occur.

Some consultants do not like to bring up risks. They want to handle them to avoid worrying the client. The client is less likely to worry. The client will be more assured knowing that you are aware of the situation and that you have contingency plans in place. If the concern comes to fruition and becomes an issue, the client is not surprised and is assured that you were ready for it.

Ad Hoc Communications

Assuming that the client is as busy and the average executive and the status meeting is the only real chance to talk, there are other means for setting expectations.

I have worked in client environments that were large spread out campuses. Even in those conditions, I have had the chance meeting in a hallway or a parking lot where I can walk with them for two minutes to provide an update. Face time with the client is a golden opportunity to give them a quick update. This is a chance to provide any snippet you can that help set the client’s expectations. Update them on the most critical information you have from the last time you talked. You may not think it is that important, but letting the client know the meeting you talked about yesterday generated some questions from their counterpart goes a long way to setting the client’s expectation for a phone call from that person.

It is also important to know the client’s preferred form of communication for brief updates. Most will choose text, email or phone calls. Find out their preference and communicate any urgent updates to them in that format. Using the earlier example, if you have a meeting where some questions come up, sent a note to your client telling them so. Even if it gives them a five-minute warning, it sets the expectation and provides them time to prepare an answer. Any heads-up is a benefit.

Over Communicate

Early in my career, I was hesitant to provide frequent updates to the client in an effort to respect their time. I saw how busy they were and how many interruptions they had to deal with. I prided myself on being low maintenance and did not want to pester the client.

I learned the hard way that they need to be informed early and often. If I avoid bothering them with an issue, they will certainly be broadsided with it by someone else. It only took a couple of “Why wasn’t I informed about this?” sessions with clients to realize that it was my responsibility to keep them in the loop.

I learned that I was not bothering them. It was a matter of providing intel to the client. It is hard for an executive to do their job if they do not have information and know what is coming down the road.


Changes happen. Any competent executive knows that. As a consultant, you will never be able to avoid change. The key to dealing with it is to communicate those changes – or the chance that those changes will occur – to the client as soon as possible.

Information is power. And a consultant’s job is to give the client all the power you can provide.

How have you successfully set client expectations?

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms. 

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com 

Image courtesy of aechan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Lew’s Books at Amazon:

Project Management 101
Consulting 101
The Reluctant Mentor

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