A Guide to Managing Client Expectations: Unrealistic to Realistic

Demanding clients are nothing new in law, so how can you live up to their expectations while maintaining your sanity? As far as some clients are concerned, the single most important thing on your mind for the next six months, is their file. They expect their work to be completed immediately, if not yesterday. Here are some tips to managing client expectations that are unattainable in the short term, or unsustainable in the long term.

Are their expectations realistic?

Even the most outstanding service will never be enough if your client’s expectations are unrealistic. This realisation is an important place to start. The client is the one who unknowingly holds expectations that are unrealistic, impractical and sometimes impossible. However, you are responsible for tactfully recalibrating those expectations to a level that can be met.

Ask questions

Getting a clear picture of your client’s preconceived ideas and expectations is vital. You don’t want to wait until you have failed to meet an expectation to try to overturn it. Instead, ask your client upfront:

  • What action do they want you to take?
  • What is their budget?
  • What are their main concerns?
  • What are their deadlines?

This will give you a good starting place to understand their needs and set them straight on any unrealistic expectations.

The beginning of a matter is also a good time to establish the preferred method of communication, response times for email enquiries, your availability to take phone calls and how often you will issue progressive invoices.

Be transparent and over-explain

Relaxed people are easier to negotiate with, so it’s important to cultivate your client’s trust and peace of mind. For most clients, becoming embroiled in a legal dispute is like being led onto a battlefield blindfolded. This often means consistently elevated stress levels and a defensive demeanour, which requires disarming.

Remove their blindfold and step them through the legal process. A major source of anxiety is simply the unknown. Provide genuine reassurance and take the time to make sure they thoroughly understand the legal issues and what is involved.

Gently reshape expectations where necessary

Now that the clay is soft, you want to start removing the sharp corners. This is your opportunity to handcraft your client’s expectations as to probable outcomes and time frames. If necessary, identify risks in the client’s intended course of action and highlight the advantages of taking an alternative course. This may include providing frank and candid advice as to the legal realities of their situation and whether or not the anticipated outcomes can be achieved.

Remember that successful client management requires continual work. Be proactive with communication and diarise a brief update every four to six weeks. Continue to adjust expectations where necessary and set deliverable goals that you can then achieve.

Put in the work early and reap the benefits of returning clients.

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