Say What? How to Communicate Your Client Expectations So People Actually Listen

Working with a new client is a lot like going on a blind date. You’re eager to connect, but also a bit nervous to see if you two will mesh well together. It’s certainly exciting if you see yourselves moving forward together, but it’s all too easy to get swept up in the initial warm and fuzzy feelings.

However, if you don’t lay the groundwork for how you want the relationship to progress, you and your client may assume different things and you’ll unknowingly set yourselves up for serious miscommunication issues along the way.

That’s why it’s important to balance communication with your clients, or else the relationship will run the risk of becoming too one-sided. You may have to decide between losing your client and losing your sanity.

To avoid being in that predicament, today’s post is all about how you can communicate your expectations more effectively, so your clients actually pay attention to what you’re saying.

Understand the (True) Project Scope First

In my experience, most clients have a general idea of what they’re looking for, but since they lack the specific knowledge I have, they don’t necessarily know how to easily communicate that vision to me.

That’s why it’s up to you to gather as much information about the scope of the project before you start any work. That’s right — the first step to getting clients to listen to you is actually listening to them first.

Now, I know this might add a bit of pressure on your already overworked shoulders, but hear me out. Clients may ask for one thing, but expect something completely different. If you deliver exactly what they ask for and they’re not entirely in love with your work, you probably didn’t spend enough time scoping out what the client was truly looking to accomplish with the project.

They may have asked for a user-friendly design, thinking that would attract more traffic to their page, when what they really needed was more social media interaction with their site.

Now you’ll not only have a dissatisfied customer on your hands, but you’ll also need to go back to the proverbial drawing board and start all over again. Whether you consider that a waste of time, or a learning experience is up to you.

I used to think that clients looking for website design all seemed similar, but I learned that when it came to the small details, each client had needs that were very different from the others. When you fully understand the project’s scope, you’ll be able to better communicate what needs to be done on your end (and what you’re capable of doing for the client).

Put yourself in your client’s shoes. Think about where their business is right now and where you think it should be heading in the next few months, or even years. This will help you anticipate what your client will need from you (and set you up for future work) while also giving you an idea of what they’re expecting you to accomplish.

Get Everything in Writing

After your initial conversations about the project, get your client to agree to everything you discussed in writing.

Send an email to your client including:

  • Your understanding of the project in your own words
  • Work that needs to be done by you
  • Information that the client needs to supply
  • Expected deadlines for completed work
  • Preferred times/forms of communication (should problems arise)

Remember: where there’s room for interpretation, there’s also space for miscommunication.

While this may seem tedious, these emails will become the outline and budget for your project. You may not get definitive answers on your first email, so keep ironing out the details until there’s zero assumptions of work duties later down the line.

If you deliver work to your client and they say it wasn’t what they were looking for, you can go over these agreed upon specifications again and see where the disconnect occurred.

For example, asking for target launch dates from your clients will help you determine if a project of that size and scope is something you can feasibly pull off. Can you code a website in 24 hours? Absolutely (with enough caffeine). But can you agree to that deadline if you have to fix your client’s former programmer’s shoddy work, and then write brand new code? Probably not.

Don’t forget to mention your office hours; you don’t want your client to feel entitled to calling you at all hours of the night to discuss their next great idea. Only reply to phone calls/emails during your designated work time or your client won’t respect those boundaries and you’ll always be on the clock.

Work Around Bad Ideas with Grace

If your client gives you an idea you know won’t be successful, don’t completely bash it. Your client is likely doing the best they can with their limited resources or knowledge, but by pointing out the flaws in their plan, you’re poking holes in their earnest efforts.

Be nice and justify your criticisms by keeping your client’s interests in mind.

Jenika from Psychology for Photographers (and other Creative Professionals) says, “If the first thing out of your mouth is agreement, it disarms people. They exhale a bit and lower their weapons of retaliation.”

However, Jenika warns that you can’t use the word “but” after your agreement and before your statement. That one small “but” completely negates the agreement and puts you right back into offensive mode.

Offer up perspective and expertise that sways your client to your understanding. Consider this example:

“Creating additional ad space would bring in more revenue, and that’s definitely our goal. Our audience tends to respond better to products mentioned in our content so we may want to try that first to save some money.”

Stay in the Loop Together

Touch base with your client every now and again during the project, instead of just when something’s due.

After you get all the details in writing, work out a calendar with important deadlines and milestones for the project. If you agreed to finish one part of their website on Wednesday, send them a quick email on Monday to let them know how you’re progressing.

The same works when you have to deliver bad news, such as a delay in your work that may push back your deadline. Don’t just wait until the night before to let your client know what happened — keep them in the loop ahead of time so they know what’s going on without having to ask.

Clients understand hiccups, but they don’t tolerate a lack of communication.

So put aside the pride if the situation was a mistake you made, and just admit the issue and move on. Mitigate the bad news by at least explaining how you plan to fix the issue. Give your client a new deadline so they know when to expect the work they’re waiting for. Reassure them that you’re still on track despite the bottleneck of work.

Checking in frequently keeps clients from sending you tons of emails asking for updates.

Keep It Simple, Stupid

Josh Braun, author of “The Art of Communication: How to Explain Complex Ideas in Simply Delightful Ways,” says that sometimes we get so close to our subject matter that we start to suffer from the “curse of knowledge.”

Yeah, I know that the back-end of my client’s website looks like a hot mess, but that’s why I was hired to fix it. I could bog my client down with information about how I have to debug all the code their previous programmer got lazy with. But will they pay attention to it, or even care?


Instead of information overload, keep your client on a ‘need to know’ basis. Ask yourself what your client needs to know and then explain it to them as if they were five years old. We’re talking basic and easily understandable here. That way they don’t shrug off your emails simply because they can’t understand them.

Just because you’re working freelance, doesn’t mean you’re working for free. Every time you have to send an email asking for clarification, or schedule a Skype call to discuss another half-baked issue, it costs you time. And if you’re working per project and not per hour, it’s certainly costing you money.

State your expectations early on, set deadlines, and keep your client in the loop to ensure balanced communication and successful projects together.

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