Episode 37 – Setting Expectations

I want to get really real for a second. It might even sound a bit harsh, but I promise it is coming from a place of love and wanting you to be happier and see your business grow. If you are running a business and your clients are driving you crazy it is PROBABLY your fault.

Yes, I am laying the blame for your client induced misery squarely on your shoulders. Sorry.

One of THE most important things you can do for the health of your business is setting expectations with your clients. Making your products or services and processes SUPER clear, and letting them know exactly what to expect from start to finish, and identifying exactly who your ideal client is. When we fail to do this, we end up with problem clients.

There are always a ton of posts in entrepreneurship or photography Facebook groups where business owners are complaining about their clients. It’s a safe place to do so, and it’s also a great place to get advice from other entrepreneurs in your space to give you advice on how to resolve any issues that arise. (Be careful with that though, I have seen some amazing advice given, but I have also seen equally terrible advice) This safe space allows for people to be really honest about what is going on in their business and for people to commiserate on the problems that keep coming up.

Unfortunately there are a lot of problems that just KEEP coming up, over and over and 9 times out of 10 the problem isn’t actually with the client, but with a lack of expectations being set from the beginning of the transaction.

I mentioned in a recent episode that I used to have tons of clients that would try to take over the entire session – trying to change lighting or poses, moving props. It was really, really frustrating for me, but, as much as I hated to admit it – it wasn’t their fault, it was mine. I needed to be more confident, assertive and do a way better job of presenting myself as the authority and the expert.

Now that isn’t to say that there aren’t one off, crazy client issues that come up – because I see a lot of those too. There are some people that are just impossible to please. Generally there are red flags, and I will cover that in a second, but sometimes it comes out of nowhere. These aren’t the types of problems I am referencing though.

I am talking about the problems that come up repeatedly.  Like clients messaging you at all hours of the day and night, expecting a reply, or clients texting or reaching out on your personal Facebook instead of emailing, clients harassing their photographer to know when their portraits will be ready, or even people asking for discounts all the time. If you are having the same issue over and over with multiple clients then there is probably something in either the way you present yourself and your business, or in your communication process that is causing the issue. In other words – it’s not them, it’s you. And that sucks to hear because no one likes to be critiqued, but once we can recognize where the problem lies it is SO much easier to fix it.

The easiest way to prevent issues is to be so incredible clear and intentional in setting our client’s expectations for working with us. They need to know, and therefor need to be told (either directly, or through implication) how to communicate, how long it will take for us to respond, how the service or product is delivered and what the experience is like, what the timelines look like and more.

In most cases the entire process actually starts before you ever have contact with a potential client. They generally either find you online or through a referral before you even know they exist. The see your website, or they hear about a friend’s experience and this is where the expectations start to be set. This means that you need to be super consistent, and make sure that you are very intentional with your online presence.

If their friend says that they got a deal, then this new client will want one too. If their friend says that you response time is really quick – day or night – then this new client will expect lightning fast responses too. This creates a great argument for consistency and sticking to your own policies. They are there for a reason – so stick to it.

When someone looks at your website they are going to start to form opinions. Make sure that your website looks professional and portrays you as an expert. Start building their trust and respect right out of the gate. It is fairly easy to create your own website with an online template and a program like Showit, but if you are overwhelmed by that idea then it is WELL worth investing in a site from a trusted web designer who can give you a polished and professional look. People are less likely to walk on someone that they respect.

Let clients know exactly how to get in touch with you. Provide answers for frequently asked questions (and then be prepared to answer them for all of those people who didn’t read it), and make sure that your location and hours of operation are easily seen.

Make sure to include informative articles or blog posts on your site that will guide your clients through the process as well. Remember that you are the expert and things that seem obvious to you might not be obvious to them. Try to be patient in education your clients and view that as a part of your job. They have no idea what to expect from this process, or they might have a completely WRONG idea. Guide them through and set their expectations so that the transaction is as smooth as possible. Each business is going to be different but as an example I would post articles that guide the parents through things like “what to bring to your newborn session” or “how to prepare your little one so they are nice and sleepy for their newborn session”. To me it feels obvious that baby should show up in clothes that zip up for easy removal because I know that I want them sleeping and that 9/10 babies fall asleep in the car seat but that isn’t likely to even be on the parent’s radar. Try to think of the little things in your business that make the process smoother – but might not be immediately obvious to people who have never done this before. It will make your life easier as well as creating more trust and respect with the client and helping them to enjoy the experience more.

When the client does reach out to find out about working with you, or making a purchase you need to keep in mind that the way you respond to them sets the tone for the rest of the transaction. If the email comes in at 10:59 at night and you respond 20 minutes later then that client is going to anticipate that you will answer quickly, regardless of office hours. If they text you and you text back then they will expect that texting you is an appropriate method of contact. Neither of those things is necessarily bad, but if it isn’t a habit that you want to start then you will want to make sure you set the tone right from the first contact.

Instead of responding a night, you can wait until the next morning when work hours have started and respond then. Yes – we always want to be prompt in our communication with our clients, but if we don’t respect our own office hours then why would they? If you find yourself thinking that you do want them to respect office hours BUT sometimes it’s just way more convenient to return emails from your phone while relaxing on the couch at night then just write them out and schedule them to send the next morning. You might still get emails in the off hours, but it will cut down on the number of people who start harassing you with multiple emails or email and then call and then text because they were expecting an immediate reply. You can even add a line of text to the bottom of all of your emails that reminds clients or potential clients what your office hours are, when you return emails and how long they should expect to wait before receiving a response.

When it comes to texting or even contact through social media, there are more and more people these days that find it easier. For some business owners this isn’t a big deal – it’s just another form of contact. For others it feels too informal or unprofessional, OR having people contact you in 6 different ways just becomes too hard to keep track of.

If you prefer only to be contacted by email you can set that expectation by responding and letting the person know that for the best experience and customer service they should email you, and that you don’t regularly monitor your text, or social media for business messages. Be polite, be warm and friendly but let them know what the expectation in for communicating with you. You can also turn off messaging for some apps like Facebook so that clients aren’t encouraged to send messages.

You can even create a little note in your phone that can be quickly copied and pasted so that you aren’t constantly having to type out a message for people who are using a method of contact that you don’t like. I’m all about quick and easy fixes!

The next step in the process of setting your clients expectations is to have a rock solid contract. This contract is going to tell them EXACTLY what will happen, step by step. Its going to cover price, dates and times, what is included, what is not included, what happens in the event that you are sick or can’t perform the service or provide the product, and how long it will take to receive the finished result. You want to cover every single detail so that they know with 100% clarity how this is all going to go down.

This contact protects both of you, and ensures that everyone is on the same page. When I first started doing contracts I was really uncomfortable with it. It felt SO formal, awkward and as if I somehow was saying that I didn’t trust my client. After using contracts for years I now see them as document that protects both of us AND actually increases my client’s comfort level. People like predictability. They want to know what to expect and what is expected of them.

When you are creating your contract or policies, really any time you are setting expectations you want to be completely sure that you are under promising and over delivering. If you tell them it is going to take you 2 weeks to get their finished images back to them then you had better be damn sure that you can do that. Better yet, give them their images within a week. THIS is how you create not just happy but ecstatic clients. You also want to make sure that those promises can be fulfilled with little effort. Don’t promise unless you are 100% sure you can deliver, even if life happens to throw you a curve ball that week.

People are generally pretty understanding, but as a business owner you do NOT want to expect that of them. Stuff happens, LIFE happens, but try to make sure you have set up your systems so that even if it hits the fan you can still deliver. That way when things do go sideways you don’t have the added stress of a looming deadline and an angry client. Adding an angry client to the mix adds stress in ways I don’t even like to think about. Leave yourself enough padding.
One other little thing that I have learned from years of working with people, and years of listening to other people’s struggles in online groups is that you can’t, absolutely can’t, trust your client to read or remember. Yes. They are going to sign the contract. Yes, technically that means that as long as you are sticking to what was outlined, you are in the right. BUT even if you are in the right it isn’t going to help you to create a happy and raving client if they weren’t clear on the expectations and are now disappointed.

The best way to avoid this is to make sure that you are setting expectations in writing AND verbally. Reiterate the process at each step. Remind them of what is needed from them to ensure a smooth transactions and of what they can expect from you. This gives a chance for any misunderstandings to come to light ASAP so that you can address them before they go from misunderstanding to massive problem.

The final point that I want to make when it comes to setting expectations and creating raving, happy clients is to know your limits. Don’t promise something that you can’t deliver on, and watch out for red flags. No matter how clear your boundaries are and how well communicated there are going to be people out there that are not a good fit for you as clients. For your sake and theirs, you need to be watching for red flags AND be confident in sending them elsewhere if it isn’t a good fit.

If they are asking for services or options that you don’t provide. They want the sun, the moon and the stars BUT they also don’t want to “pay and arm and a leg” and don’t value what you offer.  If they are trying to walk on you, or don’t seem to trust you as a professional. If they are rude or disrespectful. If they want a style or design that is completely and totally different than what you have displayed… these are all red flags. When there are red flags it is often smarter to walk away, or to let them know that it isn’t a good fit than to take them on as a client and hope for the best.

In cases where it’s a style or timeline issue, you can even provide amazing service but kindly explaining that it isn’t a fit but that you know of some people who might be able to help them – and then referring them to someone who is a better match.

Ideally you will catch the red flags before the contract is signed and deposits payed – but when that isn’t the case you might sometimes have to offer an out and explain that you want to make sure that they are happy and working with you might not be the best option for them. Give them an out and be willing to let them out of the contract.

It can be awkward to turn down working with someone, and it is even more awkward to have to fire a client, but that moment of discomfort is likely going to be far less than if you try to push through on something you know you can’t deliver and then have to deal with that person’s disappointment, frustration, anger, and bad reviews on the other end of the transaction. Know your limits and stick to them. Respect yourself, and others will follow.

As a side note – this entire process can work well in personal relationships as too. Settling clear expectations and boundaries just helps other people to know how to treat you, and if you find that other people are making the same mistakes over and over, or are hurting you in the same way, it might be something you can address by setting clearer boundaries in your own life. I think sometimes we forget how much control we actually have over our own happiness and outcome.

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