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How to Handle Expectations That You Can't Always Meet

You know that feeling you get when you’ve just done something great for a client? You’re probably thinking: “This is going to be the beginning of a beautiful relationship! They’ll want to work with me again, and we’ll grow together into an even stronger team.” That might be true, but how will your client feel when they discover that you can only do so much? How will they react when they find out they have to book their projects in advance if they want to continue working with you? What happens when they ask you to go above and beyond and you can’t? Consequences are often left unspoken because it feels like breaking trust. But in truth, there are plenty of good reasons why these things need to be said. Here are some ways to deal with the expectations that you can't always meet.

Make it clear up-front what you’re capable of.

While flexibility is important in any business relationship, it’s particularly crucial when working with clients on an ad hoc basis. Establishing clear boundaries from the start will help both parties feel more secure. A clear communication of your availability, fees, and limitations will give clients a clear idea of what’s on the table. A word of caution: don’t try to squeeze too much into your availability. At the end of the day, this is what clients will be looking at to determine if they can work with you. Be realistic, and give yourself enough wiggle room to do the work you need to do. If you’re constantly crunched for time, you’re going to have a much harder time providing the quality of service your clients deserve.

Be transparent about how you work.

Let your clients in on how you do things. Explain your process, your tools, and your decision-making so that they understand why you do what you do. A client who is aware of how you work is less likely to second-guess you or expect you to do something outside of your normal process. This transparency also helps you avoid blindside requests for changes or alterations. If the client is aware of what you’re doing and why, they probably won’t suddenly ask for a big change that would have you starting over from scratch. It’s also a great way to show off your skills and experience. If you have a long history in your industry, this transparency can be a great way to display and share your knowledge with your new clients.

Be firm about the boundaries of your services.

This is a delicate balance of being transparent while still being firm. Don’t overshare, but be clear about what you will and won’t be doing for clients. For example, “I’m happy to show you how I came to these conclusions, but I can’t predict the future.” Or, “I’m happy to give you honest feedback, but I can’t make promises about what other people will say.” If you have a policy that you’re unable to break, make that clear as well. “I can’t work weekends unless there’s an absolute emergency.”

Check-in with your clients regularly.

This is not only an opportunity to connect with your clients, but it’s also a way to make sure they are happy with your work. You can start with something informal, like sending an email or a short message requesting feedback on how things are going. Be open to suggestions and willing to address any issues that clients may bring up. If you want to get more serious about this, you could implement a check-in survey that you send out to your clients from time to time. This can be as simple or complex as you’d like, but the important thing is to make sure you’re bringing this up.

Show them the benefits of working together.

At the end of the day, the relationship between you and your client is a partnership. Both of you have things you can offer the other, and both of you are getting something out of the relationship. That being said, it’s important for both parties to understand the benefits each one is receiving. If your client is always getting the short end of the stick, they’re going to start expecting that every time.


Having high expectations is a good thing, but you also need to keep in mind that not every expectation can be met. If you’re having trouble meeting the expectations of a client, it could be a sign that the relationship isn’t working out. It’s important to be able to recognize the signs that a client isn’t a good fit, and also to know how to handle those situations when they arise. Having a strategy in place for dealing with difficult clients will help you avoid letting the situation get out of hand.

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