When I was a senior accountant in business services, one of my managers shared with me some tips which were some of the wisest words I have heard. He talked to me about managing expectations. It made a big difference to how I interacted with clients and colleagues from then on.

I was reminded about the importance of managing client expectations in a coaching session with a client recently. He commented that he’d picked up quite a bit of new work in addition to an already strong pipeline of existing work. He was concerned that he was in danger of expectations not being met.

The why of managing client expectations is pretty obvious to most. If a client’s expectations are not met then that client may be disappointed and at risk of going elsewhere. If they stay they will be less likely to refer others to you and may even discourage others from coming to you, even if they don’t leave. Not good outcomes and yet relatively easily avoided.

To understand the how of managing client expectations let’s break down expectations into three key dimensions:

  1. Scope (including quality)
  2. Time
  3. Price

As an accounting firm coach, consultant and mentor I see firms don’t always grasp these dimensions of expectations so let me explain them further.


What are you doing for the client? Exactly, precisely, specifically. What’s in and what’s out? The last thing you want to experience is getting to the end (or at least what you think is the end) of an assignment for a client only to hear “but I thought you were doing that” or “this is not what I was expecting”. Ouch! Talk about the scope of work in detail with your client and spell it out clearly in your engagement letter. If at any stage you become aware that you may not be able to deliver on that scope, contact the client and talk to them about it. Be proactive not reactive.


On a regular basis I see firms setting themselves up for failure by not proactively managing client expectations about when work will be completed. It seems oh so common to see promises being made by accountants that they know they cannot keep. That’s just dumb! Call it blind optimism if you like. It’s an example sometimes of what I call optimism bias. We forget some of the challenges we may have experienced completing work in the past and although on average it may have taken 2 weeks to complete this task, our brain takes a short cut and just remembers that we did it once in a week, so that is what we tell the client. No! Bad idea.

My client that I referred to earlier is on the front foot with this which is great. He has talked to a number of clients and been able to recalibrate their expectations of when work will be done. Many of your clients don’t actually need the work done by the date you agreed with them and if they understand why there might be a change, my experience is they are perfectly OK with that change. The key here is communicating with clients as early as possible. For example if you have promised delivery in a month from now and you know a week in that you are not going to make it, that is when you talk to the client. Not a few days out from the previously agreed date. It seems simple right? And yet I still regularly hear of where this has not occurred.


This is the last of the three dimensions for an obvious reason. Put simply, it depends on the other two. There are two elements to managing expectations in respect of price

  1. Get an agreed price for an agreed scope and time (shorter time might mean higher price for example)
  2. The minute you see scope creep, stop and have a process to talk to the client and agree on whether they want you to complete the extra work and what the additional fee will be.

I talk a lot about pricing with clients and I’ll write more about this again soon.

At the end of the day I reckon clients want certainty about what is to be done, when it is to be done and what it will cost. Get on the front foot with this and clients will really appreciate it. As soon as you think you are heading off track talk to the client. The longer you wait the harder the conversation is to have.