Managing Client Expectations

Client expectations are not always met, creating disappointment for both the client and executive. It can be avoided however through clear definition and alignment of client expectations with executive goals

A company brings in an independent executive because they want to accomplish certain goals. When you work with a CEO or company owner, you are often helping them accomplish a long-term vision, their hopes, or even life-long dreams. They are bringing you in because they need an expert to fill a gap which is often seen as the missing puzzle piece. It is wonderful to get into grand discussions of their vision and how you can contribute, but remember to bring it back down to earth when the need calls for it.

Although you may have the specific role you will play and how you can contribute clear in your own mind, the client may be hearing, “this person will make it happen.” A lot of factors play into accomplishing overarching goals. Be clear on what your contribution will be, what they need to do, and what outcomes can be expected in the short- and long-term. This is one of the biggest gaps we see when speaking to clients about past experiences with outside resources like independent executives. Expectations from clients far exceeded either the capabilities of the executive or the basic reality of the situation. Remember, according to the survey we did, one of your top business development sources will be referrals from past clients, so you can’t afford to have even one unhappy client.

A lot of work and energy goes into getting a job done. So, it can be quite disappointing when the client isn’t satisfied with your results. There could be a number of reasons for why a client is disappointed, but ultimately, it’s because expectations were not matched.

How do executives manage client expectations, especially knowing that everything they recommend will not be accepted or implemented? What are some of the common pitfalls to avoid and recommendations that are essential to keep the ball rolling in the right direction?

Mismatched client expectations usually occur in one of the following areas: expectations and goals are not clearly defined and documented, something is overstated or overpromised, misalignment occurs, or there is a lack of visibility during the engagement.

Defining Expectations

Managing client expectations begins with defining them at the very beginning. It’s the executive’s job to make sure that he or she is on the same page as the client, and that expectations are consistent with those of the CEO, business owner, or whomever they are being held accountable to. A Statement of Work can keep executives focused on what needs to be done and offer initial clarity to the client.

When a client complains that an executive—whether full-time, interim, or consultant—hasn’t completed the job, that means that he or she didn’t accomplish what the client expected. The executive may not have transformed the organization, but as long as the goals stated and agreed upon in the Statement of Work were achieved, the client should be happy.

Success starts with the Statement of Work. When the client and the executive are both clear and expectations are spelled out in writing, that is a good start. You know what the situation is at the outset and have a list of goals, deliverables, and a basic outline of how it will all be accomplished.

One of the biggest complaints we hear about management consultants is, “They didn’t do the job they were hired for,” or, put another way, “They didn’t accomplish what I expected them to.” Basically, they didn’t meet the client’s expectations. It falls on the executive to make sure they are clear at the start of the engagement and to stay on the same page throughout the engagement, despite continually changing business conditions.

This can be challenging, because most often, you are not brought into a company that doesn’t have issues. Something is broken, some type of transition is happening, or the company is trying to reach some new level of achievement. Sometimes there are specific goals they have in mind, such as sales targets; other times, they are having a difficult time articulating what is going on, let alone where they want to go.


In many cases, the independent executive is seen as a superhero who can come in and fix everything. In the client’s view, just by hiring the executive, “my problem is going to be solved.” Obviously, this is not necessarily the situation. It is deceptively easy for executives to put themselves into this position and start agreeing to and promising that they will get problems fixed. Simply using the phrase, “Don’t worry, I can help,” can easily be perceived by a client desperate to turn things around as, “I will fix everything; I’ve got it.” But too many variables can affect the outcome, including derailing or destructive decisions by the CEO or business owner.

Get the full story and as much information as you can up front. Beware of agreeing to too much until you feel you have all of the relevant information, which may require a basic assessment first. Be cautious about making commitments and promises until you have all of the facts. As much as you would like to help and get the business, over-promising is not worth the negative impact it can have on your brand.


We noted earlier that it’s important to be clear about the situation at the start of the engagement. Because business conditions can change so rapidly, it is important to document where they were at the outset and the reason the independent executive came in at that time.

Managing expectations requires focusing on the original issue for which you were brought in. Many times, executives get caught up in routine activities like attending too many meetings or outside activities (not listed in the Statement of Work) which can sidetrack them from the original purpose for which they were hired. This can also make them lose outside perspective, which is an asset to an independent.

Companies often don’t realize how valuable an interim executive can be until they start the engagement. As time goes on and they realize this, the scope of work will typically start to expand. Keep any scope-creep documented and don’t lose sight of the original goals. Do regular check-ins with the client to review the SOW as well as added items, the status of each, and make sure both parties are aligned or whether something needs to be adjusted. Situations change. Make sure you are monitoring those changes; better to address them during the engagement than to get caught in the turmoil of the aftermath.

Lack of Visibility

Non-measurable results are not only difficult to achieve but also difficult to prove any progress toward. Clients are always more satisfied with results when an executive can give them numbers. Rarely when we talk about results do we hear clients say, “I was ecstatic; he changed the morale in our company.” Instead, they use numbers. “She increased my profitability by X; my revenue improved by Y; my employee retention increased by Z.” Although they may recognize a difference in employee morale, that is not what sticks with them. It is not why they make recommendations. Keep track of accomplishments with numbers.

Most CEOs will provide access to this information because they also want visibility and, in most cases, don’t currently have it. When possible, tie the numbers back to the original SOW or in your regular reporting. Though you may have discussed it during meetings, discussions are easily forgotten. Words and numbers are more easily remembered when they are written down.

Keep expectations tangible and aligned. The results you deliver might be good, but if they are not what the client wanted, that can cause serious friction in the engagement. Despite how much you may know an objective needs to be addressed, if it isn’t a priority for the client, it can derail your engagement. If you’re not delivering results that match the stated original goal, there’s going to be a disconnect and some unhappiness there. Unfortunately, a bad experience is remembered longer and more intensely than a good experience.

Manage expectations and you can walk away knowing you did everything you could each time.

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