The most important thing you’ll do before starting a project

You’ve finally sold the project that took you forever to sell. Now, it’s time to get your hands dirty.

As you begin to work on the project, your client calls and emails you more often than you expected.

At first, you reply to their emails promptly and answer all of their calls. You give your client the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s because they’re excited to work with you. It’s natural.

As time goes by, your client begins to ask you for things that were never discussed as part of the project. Since you consider yourself a nice person and an excellent freelancer, you go the extra mile for your client. After all, it’s what great freelancers do, right?

Your client forgets to send a payment on time. No biggie. You’ll just send an email and remind them. They must have forgotten. It happens to all of us at some point.

This is the first project with this client. You do everything possible to make sure you’re in good standing, get a referral, and hope for more projects from them.

Stop right there.

The truth about you and your client

Let me be a good friend and tell you this: You’re in denial. Your client is needy, inconsiderate, and unprofessional.

And it’s all your fault. You’ve made them that way—at least with you, that is.

It’s only a matter of time before you borderline hate the project. You might even start to resent your client.

Seems harsh, huh? But it’s the truth.

You’ve done a horrible job at setting expectations.

It’s time to set expectations

Setting expectations is the most important thing you’ll do before starting a project.

It sets the tone for the type of working relationship you’ll have with a client, not only for the duration of the project, but for the rest of your professional relationship with them.

You’ve seen and experienced how expectations are set many times in your life.

Expectations were set in your family, when you went to school, or had a job. If you live in the US, the IRS sets expectations on us all. Try not paying your taxes, and you’ll see what I mean.

(Empathy Note: If you grew up in a dysfunctional family or no family at all, then disregard my family comment.)

You’ve set expectations before too. You’ve set them with your significant other, friends, kids, and most importantly, yourself.

So, why have you failed to set expectations with your clients?

I’ll tell you why.

You fail to set expectations with your clients because of fear. Click To Tweet

Fear of losing the project. Fear of losing your client. Fear of no referrals. Fear of not being liked.

Whatever the fear is, it’s affecting your confidence to set expectations.

But even more than that, the fear is infecting your work. It’s spoiling projects. It’s ruining the awesome friendships and working relationships you could have with every one of your clients.

Don’t let that happen any longer. Eliminate your fear.

Setting clear expectations allow client relationships to flourish. Setting expectations also allow you to do your best work (more on that later).

So, how should you set expectations for your projects?

Defining and choosing the right expectations

First, you’ll need to define your expectations.

This isn’t a hard task at all, but it may take more time than you think. You’ve already spent lots of time thinking about expectations for you and your clients, you just haven’t noticed.

When you define your expectations, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What do you really dislike dealing with (maybe even hate) in a project?
  2. Before starting your business, what did you daydream about? What did you imagine working on a project as an introverted freelancer looked like?
  3. How and when do you do your best work? What’s your energy and workflow like?

Want to see crappy work? Find someone who hates their work.

Want to see great work? Find someone who enjoys their work.

Define expectations in a way that help you create an ideal working experience for you and avoid situations you dislike.

This is why you decided to freelance in the first place! To be free and work on your terms. Defining the right expectations will make all of that possible for you.

For example, I don’t like interrupting my workflow. I do my best work when I’m alone (physically and virtually). One of the reasons I started my business was to be able to create my own working environment.

Knowing these things about myself has helped me define a couple of expectations for all my clients and projects. Here are two of which have helped me do some of my best work:

  • All emails will be replied to within 24 hours during an active project. I’ll only reply to emails and phone calls immediately during the launching phase of a project. Otherwise, I have a full 24 hours to reply.
  • My work is done 100% remotely unless my clients pay me extra (I’m expensive too) along with my travel expenses (and meals!).

These two expectations alone have helped me create my ideal working environment and experience. There are many more I can list but won’t get into for the sake of your time.

When you define your expectations, don’t be shy about them. It’s your business. It’s your work. It’s your life.

Some of my clients have never worked with someone like me. None of them have complained about the expectations I set. If anything, they’re surprised at how smoothly projects go and in some cases, even adopt some of the expectations within their company or other resources.

Trust that your work will justify and defend the expectations you’ve set with your clients.

How to set expectations with a client

So, you’ve defined your expectations. How do you go about setting expectations with a new client?

You should do these two things to ensure your expectations have been set:

1. Review all expectations verbally before doing business with your client.

It’s best to discuss and review expectations with your client before they hire you. This gives them a chance to digest them, ask questions, and really decide if they’re willing to work with someone like you.

But never lead with expectations when selling. If you do, you’ll scare prospects away before they even got to know you!

Instead, discuss expectations when prospects have already been sold on the idea of becoming your client. At that point, expectations are much easier to digest and picture—especially if they’ve never worked with your kind of expectations before.

2. Have your expectations listed in writing and signed by your client.

When your clients sign a document listing expectations, it creates accountability. That signature goes a long ways if there are any misunderstandings.

Personally, I have my clients sign a Professional Services Agreement (PSA) before we begin to do any business with each other. This document outlines all types of things related to my working relationship with them. Most expectations in this agreement has to do with legalities, which protects me.

I like to think of this document as a list of rules we’ve agreed to play by as long as we’re in a professional relationship with each other.

My clients sign this Professional Services Agreement only once.

The rest of my expectations are outlined in every project’s Statement of Work (some call it a proposal). The Statement of Work is also a place in which you’ll include any of the client’s expectations—especially things like deliverables and timelines.

Before a client pays me any money, it’s extremely important we both understand my expectations and how they allow me to deliver my best work. I want them to understand exactly what they’re paying for.

Setting expectations with existing clients

How should you go about setting expectations with existing clients?

I admit, expectations can be difficult to set if you’ve never done so with an existing client.

If you abruptly change expectations with your existing clients, they may feel rejected, deceived, and even regretful about hiring you. This usually only happens with active projects, though.

I recommend you finish your current projects and set expectations on any new projects with existing clients.

Be transparent. Explain why you made the expectations part of your business. Most importantly, help them understand that the expectations benefit them as much as they benefit you.

Your existing clients always have the option of breaking up with you, professionally that is.

And that’s okay. Don’t fear the breakup.

Fear is the reason why your working relationship went sour in the first place.

Don’t allow fear to bully you into staying in business with clients who won’t allow you to do your best work.

It’s like being in a relationship that prevents you from being the best version of yourself. Don’t stay in it. You’ll end up regretting it.

If a client chooses to break up with you, you both will be better off without each other. You and your client are no longer compatible (maybe you two never were) and no one will be happy at the end of any project.

Pay attention and start setting expectations

Well, there you have it. Can you see why setting expectations is important?

Setting expectations creates the space you need to do your best work. Expectations allow you to foster great relationships with clients. Expectations ensures you’re doing business with the right people.

Drop kick fear in its face. Take the time to define and set clear expectations with clients. Everyone wins.

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