How To Set Client Expectations

Build trust by explaining your project completely – including your fees and billing schedule, By Gail Doby, ASID

Nothing upsets a client more than the unexpected. Once you have discussed their project and agreed on the terms, they have an idea how things are going to go. When the unexpected arises, they begin to get suspicious that perhaps you are not holding up your end of the bargain or are trying to change the rules of the game. That erodes trust, and that’s bad for business.

Often, these unhappy situations occur because expectations haven't been set correctly. Particularly with clients who have never worked with a designer before. Never assume that someone understands how you work or how you bill. Walk them through step-by-step, and be honest about the possibility that schedules or costs might shift if something unforeseen occurs, or the client requests changes or additions – even minor ones.

“The client may feel blindsided by the hourly bills as they come up.”

Even though you and the client have agreed on a budget, the early stages of a project usually see a lot of design hours and purchases. It may be stated in your agreement, but give the client a separate document with a schedule of billings and an estimation of how much of the budget may be required at each stage of the project. Visuals, such a calendar and pie chart, may be helpful for some clients.

Another common complaint is about budgeting. This often is the most difficult part of defining an agreement. Many clients are reluctant to talk about their budget, for a variety of reasons. If a client says, “It depends,” that doesn’t mean they have an unlimited budget. It usually means they have no idea what things cost and are hoping you will tell them so they can make a decision about how and where they want to spend their money.

“At the very least, get an approximate range of what the client is willing to spend at a minimum and at a maximum.”

Propose various cost scenarios when you present your ideas for the design. Again, be clear with the client as to what changes might affect the budget further down the line. Always consult with the client before altering the budget in any way and document what is agreed upon.

Similar to budgets, fees can be another area of contention. Here two main factors come into play. Clients don’t know what a fair fee is, and they may be comparing your rates with those of non-designers who provide similar services. Designers, on the other hand, are uncertain about how to set their fees, and may overestimate their value to the client or in the market. To allay client concerns, do your homework and be prepared to explain – not defend – your fee structure. Let clients know why you are worth what you are charging, and how they will benefit. Also, give them a list of any additional costs not covered by fees or purchases, such as expenses and storage.

Free Seminars

For a more in-depth look at how to set client expectations, visit us at Fall Market, 10am Monday, October 15, in Seminar Room T-1014 of Suites at Market Square. We’re also offering two additional free seminars to help you grow your business. On Saturday, October 13, 9am at Universal Furniture, Simple & Profitable Residential Fee Estimating will show you how to talk about money confidently. Sunday afternoon, we’ll be at The Point at 2pm to talk about how you can break through the roadblocks that are holding your business back. We look forward to seeing you in High Point!